According to a 2017 article on pewresearch.com by Michael Lipka and Claire Gecewicz, a quarter of Americans consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.” Many people are finding fulfillment in older and reimagined philosophies. I noticed a trend in books pertaining to Stoic philosophy, lifestyle, and meditations, as well as business practices. The OG Stoics: Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus were polytheists and what we nowadays refer to as pagans. However, they would certainly consider themselves to be spiritual and religious.
Death was a different experience in their lifetime. Death loomed large over every person no matter their age or status. A superficial injury or cough could be the beginning of The End. If you were a slave or poor, your often tenuous life depended on your access to clean water, food, and shelter, not to mention lack of medical care or abuse or dangerous work. Childbirth was a phenomenal risk for the mother and infant. But if you were wealthy or a person of position, Caesar might exile you; or worse, insist upon your suicide.
The principle of Memento Mori is one of the first principles of Stoicism. This short, simple phrase translates roughly to “Remember, you too shall die.” In a culture that believed Gods and Goddesses visited them in person and they themselves, may come to know or be known as a Demi-god, great accomplishments were life-altering. As the crowd applauded and cheered their new hero when presented to the Republic, a person would be placed to stand behind them to whisper into their ear that even in that grand, momentous moment they are still subject to the same fate as all humans.
Many people have become “Foodies” but before that term evolved one who was devoted to the sensual pleasures of life, particularly food and drink was known as an Epicurean. This title was derived from the philosopher Epicurus, often cited by the stoic philosopher Seneca, whose teachings revolved around enjoying every moment and every experience. From running fingertips over tree bark to indulging in a Death-by-Chocolate desert, an epicurean is present and fully aware of any experience. I wholeheartedly recommend the occasional fast to intensify the cascade of sensory stimulation before partaking in almost anything. In addition, ponder the experience as if it is your last (although hopefully not), this will make you aware, of not only what you are doing but also of the vividness of every physical, intellectual, empathic, and spiritual sense you have.
Do Not Fear Death
While envisioning death through the eyes of Epictetus, imbibe a lovely, long moment and consider this quote, “I cannot escape death, but at least I can escape the fear of it.” The OG Stoics invited Death’s presence into every moment of their life. They sat with it at every meal. Death visited their homes as they watched their loved ones, of all ages, waste away or die suddenly. Death was not hidden from children, nor was the aged removed to facilities filled with deathbeds. At times death was a reward rather than punishment.
Explore Your Fears – An Exercise in Death
Sit quietly and imagine how you will feel lying on your back, knowing you are minutes away from your soul leaving your body. Let your imagination run wild. There is no wrong way to imagine dying. In fact, I encourage you to do this exercise multiple times with different experiences. What do you see, hear, taste and smell? Where are you? Who is with you? Who is not there? Are you in pain? Do you have regrets? What do you imagine happens when you die? Do you find you are having an out-of-body experience? Do you experience the decay of a body in a casket? Do you see passed family? Do you see only darkness? What is your emotional state after dying? Play with these aspects, this work is necessary to help address any fears and to help you decide what type of death you want to have if you are given the power to control it in any way.
Pay Attention to the Details
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” This beautiful quote by Seneca addresses the Stoic principle of living each day to its fullest. “Finishing touches” involve making sure you address the little things in life that are often left unattended. Tell your family what they mean to you. Be grateful and be loud about it. Don’t put things off until someone else agrees or there is a better time. If you take, be sure to give. Make your apologies as soon as you realize you owe one. Do something satisfying every day. Do something kind every day. Take a moment to be silent. Do something to give back to the Earth that breaths you, even if it’s just watering the grass or putting out breadcrumbs for the birds.
Choose a Good Death
Lastly, Gaius Musonius Rufus advises, “Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.” This speaks to the right to die and Death with Dignity. End-of-life advocacy starts within. You are responsible for not only preplanning for your vigil and funeral, but the real work is preparing yourself mentally, emotionally, and SPIRITUALLY for the most life-altering experience ever. Death is unavoidable and required.
If you find these principles to be of interest, other Stoics to research are Marcus Aurelius, Zeno of Citium, and as Socrates stated in Plato’s Phaedo, “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”