The ultimate salvation, according to Alan Watts, is to let go of ourselves and our resistance to death.
We are unable to stop changing. It’s impossible. We can’t hang onto ourselves. Yet we try with all our might to hang onto ourselves as we think we were and as we believe we are. We might build our lives on a drive to resist our change, which raises the awareness of our own mortality.
What if it’s actually our drive to resist death that is causing us so much resistance to life itself?
Memento mori is a call to be mindful of death. An idea encouraged in different ways by a variety of religions and philosophy. It is not telling us to obsess or worry about death, but rather to be free within its presence.
To be mindful of death is to let go of its threat. And it allows us to be mindful of the deep meaning of life.
I’ve been asked many times if my job as an undertaker gets me down. Working in and around death all the time must take its toll. “Urgh, that’s depressing”, comes the response from some people when I tell them what I do.
Yes, it is certainly unusual and a bit of a weird place to find myself. And I find it hard to see people distraught in grief, and struggling within their loss. Unable to bring back what has gone from them. But no, it’s not depressing. It’s very rare that I have a day when I look around me and say ‘everything is meaningless so what’s the point? It doesn’t matter what we do, we all wind up dead’.
Holding onto Disempowerment
Many of us might worry that dwelling on the reality of our death will take us into a place of in-action and disempowerment. My experience of reality is quite the opposite. In fact some of the most disempowered people I know are those who will not entertain the truth that they are going to die.
Whether or not we are mindful of death, death still comes to us all. But memento mori helps us find meaning in life before we take our final breath. And it allows us to let go of the stories, beliefs, and ideas that we use to resist our own sense of mortality. The stories, beliefs, and ideas that actually bring death and stagnation to everyday life.
When we’re not mindful of death, we become disempowered, and deny ourselves the possibility of real change. When we’re not mindful of death, we deny the potential futures that we can bring to life if we let go of the stagnant waste in which we are treading water. Death comes before life, just like the Spring requires Fall.
Let Go of the Life Raft
In order to grow, become, and develop throughout our lives, we need to be mindful (and embracing) of death. It’s what makes life possible. Otherwise we ourselves stagnate. We do the same things over and over. Stuck in ruts, and clinging onto old ways, old ideas, and old beliefs, like life-rafts on a dead pond.
We spend life bobbing around a body of stagnant water, clinging to these things that are eroding in our hands. Not realising, that if we just let go, the water is shallow and the bed is firm. We can stand up and we can walk onwards. Out. Up. Beyond.
What happens at the end of a life spend trying to cling on to our life raft? When we dedicate ourselves to deny, conceal, and suppress the fact that death is inevitable? We still die. Perhaps just with more regrets, less freedom, and the realisation that all those immortality projects to which we’ve dedicated ourselves. They didn’t achieve the desired outcome.
If You Want a Better Grip, You’ve Got to Let Go
It was 2008. I was sat at my desk, distracted and discouraged. Another day, overwhelmed by the work I needed to do in order to finish my degree. I’d start one thing and feel punched in the face by all the other things that weren’t getting done. The mountain of work got bigger and my ability to tackle it was diminishing by the second.
A vision came to mind. I was holding for dear life a vertical rock face. I was scared of falling, but the harder I tried to cling on, the sweatier I became. The sweatier my hands, the worse my grip and I was just about to slip, when. the words, ‘if you want to get a better grip, you’ve got to let go first’, clearly entered my mind.
This idea went straight to the heart of what I needed to hear in that moment. To realise that the worst thing we can do if we want to find a better sense of control, perspective, focus, or clarity, is to cling tighter. The more tightly you hold, the more you sweat, the worse your grip, and the harder the fall.
“You can’t hang onto yourself and you don’t have to try not hanging onto yourself…THAT is salvation!” – Alan Watts
I let go of what I was clinging to: the regret and frustration that I hadn’t done things differently. From there I found a flow, rhythm, and enjoyment as I finished my degree.
Over to You
Where are you clinging onto life-rafts and rock faces right now? What is stopping you from letting go? What would letting go make possible for you future? (In other words, what do you need to allow to die?) Leave your response in the comments below.
Join me for a free virtual retreat this August, where we’re exploring a whole range of different things to which we often cling too tight. If we want to build a better future, and piece together a life we can actually live (rather than tolerate or survive), we’ve got to become good at letting go. Find out more here