Volume 9, Issue 1: Spring 2013
Make Today Count: Motorcycling as Memento Mori
James B. Gould
Motorcycle riding is inherently dangerous. Motorcycles have a higher fatality rate than automobiles; per vehicle mile traveled, a motorcyclist’s risk of a fatal crash is 35 times greater than a car driver’s (NHTSA, “Traffic”). Because motorcycles provide little protection, approximately 80 percent of crashes result in injury or death; the figure for cars is about 20 percent (NHTSA, “Safety”). Risk can be reduced by personal protective equipment (such as helmets), motorcycle safety equipment (like headlights), training (in emergency steering and braking techniques) and riding in a reflective, self-disciplined way. Despite such measures, however, danger is an inherent part of motorcycling.
I ride for pleasure; I love the sense of being at one with the bike as I lean into a curve and roll back the throttle, and the physical feeling of wind and sun, bumps and bugs. For fun I have ridden enduro dirt bikes, crotch rockets and cruisers. And I ride for practical reasons: my old motorcycle—a full-dressed 1981 Honda GL 500 Silver Wing—has low maintenance costs and gets good gas mileage. But, being a philosopher, I also ride as a spiritual practice (where the term “spiritual” is a psychological, not a religious, term1). This may strike some people as paradoxical: how can something so apparently irresponsible, daresay reckless, be an exercise in spirituality?
Here is one way. Riding, my friend Keith says, is good Zen practice. Motorcycling teaches mindfulness—the focusing of attention on immediate experience and awareness of the mental and emotional processes going on inside in the present moment (Bishop 232). Most people are not conscious of how they are thinking and feeling from minute to minute; we become immersed in our psychological states rather than aware of them. Take a man who frequently becomes angry and puts people down. He does not deliberate and decide to be irritable, but acts mindlessly, from unconscious habit rather than consciously formed intentions. He cannot respond thoughtfully to his feelings if they are a blur and he does not know what they are. When mindfulness becomes a habit, then his ingrained reactions will have less power to carry him along without his realizing it, and he can choose whether to let them control him or to act differently. Deliberately following our breath as it moves in and out of our bodies is one practice that develops present-moment mindfulness. So does the complete concentration required in motorcycling. As Bernard Rollin says, riding involves “the need to be totally aware, to avoid the semi-zombie state of a car driver” (72), to not let your mind wander but to stay fully focused on present experience. David Jones agrees: “motorcycles bring their riders into the moment” (183). Where “mindless activities on a motorcycle mean death,” riding requires and develops disciplined mental focus, the ability “to be attentive and aware” of what you are doing and of everything around you (Jones 185). Mindfulness training is one way that riding is spiritual practice.2
Motorcycling is also a memento mori—“remember you will die”—spiritual exercise. In this article, I first discuss how beliefs determine behavior and how spiritual practices shape beliefs. Next, drawing on the history of Western philosophy, I examine how attitudes to death influence how we live our lives. I conclude by identifying specific ways in which motorcycle riding, where death is a present and concrete threat, is a memento mori practice that can enable us to live wisely and well.
How Beliefs Determine Behavior
Beliefs embody information about the world, and it is a general truth that we act on the basis of our beliefs.3 If I assume that motorcycle helmets reduce injuries and deaths, I wear one; if I think they make no difference, I do not. This fundamental insight—that beliefs are action-guiding—applies not just to specific ideas like “helmets save lives,” but to the complex web of assumptions that determines how we understand reality. Medical decisions, for example, are shaped by subtle—and often invisible—beliefs. A friend recently told me that in his wife’s circle she is the only one who has not had breast enhancement. Apparently, these women think that their personal worth hinges on their beauty, that they will be happier and more loved if they are sexually attractive. Or take anger again. Consistently hostile people have certain beliefs—about themselves (low self-esteem), about others (they are evil and threatening) and about violence (you have to stand up for yourself)—which cause them to misinterpret innocent behavior, become angry and react with aggression.4
Beliefs are at the center of life, forming the purposes, priorities and principles by which life decisions are evaluated and directed—and actions follow naturally from beliefs. Some of our beliefs are accurate. The ancient philosophers taught that wisdom—having our facts straight and seeing the world aright—helps us act in ways which promote flourishing. Other beliefs, however, are inaccurate. Ignorance—mistaken assumptions and distorted judgment—produces poor choices that prevent flourishing. Social science research, for example, indicates that sexual activity ruins fledgling relationships. Women who give a man sex, hoping that a short-term relationship will turn into a stable, long-term relationship are almost always disappointed, unlike those who delay sex until there is commitment and emotional connection.5 Because we act on the basis of our beliefs we should want our beliefs to match the way the world is. If my beliefs are true, then my actions will be more successful, while if they are false, then I will encounter obstacles and not achieve my goals.
How Spiritual Practices Shape Beliefs
Just as our physical diet causes physical health or disease so our mental diet causes mental health or disease. Since dysfunctional living can result from false beliefs, living well requires replacing illusion with truth, ignorance with wisdom. Faulty thoughts, however, may not occur at the cognitive level of logical knowledge but at the affective level of experiential knowledge. Robin Dillon distinguishes two types of understanding (239).6 Intellectual understanding involves having true, justified beliefs. But rational knowledge may not engage our lives or be psychologically and behaviorally effective. Experiential understanding involves experiencing something directly and feeling the truth of what is known. Many times these implicit, felt beliefs—not conscious, logical ones—control how we interpret the world and, in turn, the choices we make. I may have accurate theoretical, objective knowledge about the fact of death (people die), for example, but not existential, subjective conviction that it applies to me (I will die). Our lives and actions are often impaired by ignorance and denial, and so the philosophical schools of antiquity developed what Michel Foucault calls a “therapeutics of the soul” which aimed to treat the errors that “arise from a false opinion” (56).
While we cannot directly create new beliefs by logic or willpower, we can adjust them indirectly through spiritual practice, just as a person whose body is out of shape becomes fit by physical exercise. Pierre Hadot describes spiritual formation as work done by a person on him- or herself in order to turn into a particular type of person. The means of spiritual formation are spiritual practices. A spiritual exercise, Hadot says, is “a procedure or determinate act, intended to influence oneself, carried out with the express goal of achieving a determinate moral effect” (127). “Spiritual exercises are exercises because they are practical, require effort and training, and are lived; they are spiritual because they involve the entire spirit, one’s whole way of being” (21). Foucault, too, describes spiritual formation as ethical work done on the self by the self. Its goal is to produce a result deep inside by changing our beliefs and desires; its tools are “techniques of the self,” activities of mind or body which are done deliberately and regularly (Foucault 39-67).
Meditation—dwelling on something, holding it in consciousness—is the foundational spiritual discipline recognized by all wisdom traditions. The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” have at least two different meanings.7 Introspective mindfulness is concentration on oneself, on what we are thinking and feeling moment by moment. Introspective meditation clears and calms the restless mind by letting go and disengaging from discursive thought. The goal is present-moment awareness of the self. Insight mindfulness, by contrast, is concentration on truth, on fundamental convictions about reality and morality. Insight meditation is idea-centered; it engages the mind by stimulating thought, it fills the mind by keeping important beliefs and values at the forefront of consciousness so that we internalize them. In the ancient philosophical schools and monastic Christianity the spiritual practices were primarily cognitive – as Hadot puts it, “thought seeking to modify itself” (81). Mindfulness, in this sense, is similar to reflection, contemplation and pondering—mental actions in which a person directs their thoughts to a particular content, which is carefully considered by thinking slowly, deeply and thoroughly. Insight mindfulness utilizes various thought exercises—memorization, meditation, self-examination and imagination—to achieve its goal: awareness of particular truths.
By immersing ourselves in disciplines of insight mindfulness, we gradually reframe reality, correct faulty beliefs and transform behavior.8 The effect of spiritual practice, Hadot says, is to create “a concrete attitude and determinative life-style, which engages the whole of existence. The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self. . . . It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness . . . to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world” (83). Practices of attention and reflection bring our minds into closer alignment with fundamental truths and guiding principles—and by changing our thinking, change our living.
How Attitudes to Death Influence Way of Life
Thinking about death is not, as sometimes thought, abnormal or unhealthy. The great reality of life is death, and in the West there is a long tradition, both philosophical and religious, of meditation on death as central to the proper living of life.9
Greek and Roman philosophers took seriously Plato’s claim that “those who practice philosophy . . . are in training for dying” (14). Epicurus declares that “we are only born once . . . and it is necessary that we shall be no more, for all eternity; and yet you, who are not master of tomorrow, keep putting off your joy” (qtd. in Hadot 224). We must seize today and live as if it were our last. Seneca says that “he will live badly who does not know how to die well” (92). If “your own frailty never occurs to you” you will “squander [time] as though you had a full and overflowing supply” (5). It is “stupid to forget our mortality” (5) for in doing so we lose sight of “how precious time is. . . . The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately” (13). Marcus Aurelius urges us to remember that“it is possible to depart from life at this moment. Have this thought in mind whenever you act, speak or think” (14). The vastness of time indicates that much of what we build our lives around will, in the end, amount to nothing; “all things fade . . . , soon to be lost in total forgetting” (32), and this extinction of all achievements challenges our pride and false values. We can only be happy right now: “live not as if you had ten thousand years before you” (28) but instead, “practice to live only the present which you are now living” (123). If we live rightly, then our “day of death does not overtake an unfinished life” (22) and leave us with regret.10
Hebrew wisdom literature also reminds us that because life is short, we must make today count. We “are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered” (Ps 90:5). “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Ps 103:15-16). In the words of the Preacher: “death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Eccl 7:2). Or, as the psalm writer prays: “teach us to number our days aright, that we gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). Awareness of death teaches us how to live.
Philosophical reflection on death was Christianized in the monastic spirituality of the patristic and medieval church. Because of the nearness of death and divine judgment, we must give attention to the state of our souls. Anthony the Great urges us to “live as though you were dying every day, paying heed to yourselves” (qtd. in Hadot 131) by purifying thoughts and actions. “If we live as if we were going to die each day, we will not commit sin” (qtd. in Hadot 133). Dorotheus of Gaza also connected self-examination and awareness of death. “Let us pay heed to ourselves . . . and be vigilant while we still have time . . . . Who will give us back the present time if we waste it?” (qtd. in Hadot 138). Remembrance of death is a means of spiritual and moral development, helping us put first things first.
In the late Middle Ages the ars moriendi (“art of dying”) tradition arose. Manuals on preparation for death provided memento mori exercises to be practiced daily as a reminder to live righteously, so as to be always prepared for death, ready to gain heaven and avoid hell. Thomas a Kempis advises: “in the morning, doubt whether you will live till night; at night, do not think yourself certain to live till morning. Be always ready, and live in such manner that death may not find you unprepared . . . . The hour of death will shortly come, and therefore take care how you conduct yourself” (63-65). Erasmus of Rotterdam encourages us to “live watchfully, as if we were to die any moment, and . . . adhere to the practice of virtue, as if we were destined to live forever” (qtd. in Aries 302).11 Jeremy Taylor recommends daily self-examination through contemplating death so that we live a wise life of Christian virtue. Holy living is practice for holy dying: “you know you must [die]. Only be ready for it by the preparation of a good life.” In Christian faith meditation on death and the last judgment motivates repentance and amendment of life.
In the Age of Reason intellectuals continued to affirm that learning how to die and learning how to live go together. Michel de Montaigne encourages us to “have nothing on our minds as often as death” (17). Since “it is uncertain where death awaits us . . . , we must always be booted and ready to go” (19-20). Awareness of death makes us spend our limited time wisely. “The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it” (23). We must live like we are dying and make today count.12
Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich depicts a self-centered man who, while dying, discovers that the values on which he constructed his life—social approval, wealth, work and pleasure—are “not the real thing” (128). He is agonized by the “awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters” (127), that he would get no second chance to put right the shortcomings of a wasted life. Ivan lived for the wrong things, not stopping to examine his values, because he never thought about his death. To him death was an intellectual, not a personal, truth: “it simply was not possible that he should have to die” (94). Ivan’s demise is a reminder to friends and family, but they too refuse to think about death—and they too live hollow, conventional lives. Ivan’s servant boy “Gerasim was the only one who . . . saw no need to conceal [death] . . . . He came right out and said, ‘We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you?” (104). Because Gerasim knows death is inevitable for everyone, including himself, he values love, compassion and human relationships. Ivan’s story stands as a warning: if we deny death we will waste our lives, but if we remember that we will die, we will understand fundamental values and the purpose of life—what matters most.
Søren Kierkegaard argues that we feel anxious about death since we “cannot live heedless of [our] fate, nor can [we] take sure control over that fate” (40). Many people respond to this dread by living in “shut-up-ness” (110), closing themselves off from the truth of their own mortality and choosing a dull but secure life of social conformity rather than personal individuality. They intellectualize death as an objective truth that will eventually happen to everyone rather than personalizing it as a subjective truth—a present threat of immense significance. Acknowledging our finitude opens up new possibilities for life. “He who is educated by dread is educated by possibility . . . . When such a person . . . knows . . . that annihilation dwell[s] next door to every man, and has learned the profitable lesson that [death] may the next instant become a fact, he will then interpret reality differently” (140). Awareness of and anxiety about death can help us take full advantage of our lives by stimulating new ways of living which are passionate and personal.
Martin Heidegger identifies temporality—existence in time—as the basic fact of human life. Our being (life) is framed by non-being (death), and the possibility of not existing permeates the whole of our existence. “Death is . . . an event which [one] lives through from birth onwards. . . . Death is a constituent of our being. . . . Man is, in his essence, a being for death” (284). We are not just individuals who will die at some unknown time in the future; instead, we live every moment with the chance of death. Sudden, complete and permanent non-existence is my possibility here and now. Anxiety is the awareness that life is tenuous and uncertain, that we are radically contingent beings. Feeling insecure, we “cover up dying.” “Fleeing in the face of death,” we drift into an inauthentic life: “fallenness” (living below the level of existence to which we can rise) and “everydayness” (living by social expectations that keep us from reaching our full potential) (298-99). We can choose, however, to “live in the light of death” (297). The realization that we are finite reveals all the possibilities for life, the series of choices we must make between the present time and death. In “resoluteness towards death” we take charge of our lives: “only as anticipating [death] does resoluteness become . . . potentiality-for-being” (354). Awareness that we can die at any moment gives life existential urgency; we must make today count since there may be no tomorrow. Procrastination will leave us with unfulfilled dreams and unused potential. Only by taking my own death seriously is authentic existence possible.
The Western intellectual tradition, from antiquity to the present, urges us to think about our deaths—not as some type of morbid curiosity, but as a tool for effective living. The quality of a person’s life depends, in part, on their attitude toward their own death.
Memento Mori Spiritual Practices
In addition to intellectual reflection on death, spiritual exercises for contemplating mortality have been practiced in the West.13 The Latin phrase memento mori originated in ancient Rome when, during a general’s victory parade, his slave would accompany him, whispering the words as a warning against excessive pride at his achievements: in your hour of fame, remember that all the glorious figures of the past are dead and forgotten. The later phrase ubi sunt (“where are they now?”) recalls those long dead to remind us of our own transience and impermanence. For the Stoics memento mori had a moralizing purpose: do not take worldly success or failure too seriously, since they will not mean much when you are dead. For the Epicureans, however, memento mori had a hedonizing purpose: because life is short, enjoy its pleasures while they last. Horace coined the phrase carpe diem quam minimum credula postero (“seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future”). Because life is short and tomorrow unknown, we should make today count. Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda was an exhortation to action: “now is the time to drink, now the time to dance footloose upon the earth.” Mindfulness of mortality makes us realize the importance of the present moment.
In the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment memento mori practices were an important aspect of religious piety. Death was at the center of Christian consciousness, dogma and ritual—divine judgment, heaven, purgatory, hell—and memento mori had a spiritualizing purpose. The theme of vanitas emphasized that earthly pleasures and luxuries are empty and fleeting while the soul lasts forever. Reminders of mortality were embedded in culture. The skull, symbolizing death, was common in paintings of youthful and beautiful figures as a warning that the happiness of life can be swept away at any moment and is nothing in comparison to death and eternity. Adriaen van Utrecht’s Vanitas Still Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, for example, locates death in the midst of luxurious and beautiful objects.14 In the eighteenth century the phrases memento mori and hora fugit (“the hour flees”) were often engraved on tombstones, along with images of hourglasses, skulls, bones and winged death’s heads, as reminders that time is running out. The danse macabre depicted death musically as a skeleton carrying people away, a fate no one can refuse and from which wealth and status cannot protect. Plainsong chants (such as the Catalan ad mortem festinamus—“life is short, and shortly it will end; . . . to death we are hastening, let us refrain from sinning”) and choral requiems (by composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) celebrated the dead and reminded the living of their mortality. Literary meditations on death (such as Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy describing hell, purgatory and paradise, or Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial) and ars moriendi handbooks (such as Erasmus’ Preparation to Death, Robert Bellarmine’s The Art of Dying Well or Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying) urged people to live a moral and righteous life in preparation for death and judgment day.
Motorcycling as Memento Mori
The content of memento mori exercises reminds us that we will die and must make today count, while the process of memento mori uses spiritual practices of repetitive contemplation, slow formational reading and reflective journaling. Motorcycle riding, too, is a vivid reminder of the transitoriness and fragility of life.15
Motorcycling, Mindlessness and Mindfulness
Before turning to how motorcycling is memento mori practice, let us consider the unique mental space into which riding puts a person. First, it combines elements of both mindlessness and mindfulness as the rider is fully absorbed, in two different ways, in the moment. On the one hand, riding empties the mind by creating the egolessness of a flow experience. 16 Because riding demands full concentration, all distinctions between subject and object disappear in a state where consciousness of self as separate from action is erased and attention is focused totally outside oneself on the experience of riding. As awareness merges with action, the activities of riding—leaning, steering, braking—are performed skillfully and harmoniously, without conscious thought or effort as each step flows naturally to the next.17 On the other hand, riding fills the mind. It heightens attention to one’s surroundings (road, traffic and weather) and to oneself (what we are sensing and what we are doing). Motorcycling causes both mindlessness and mindfulness.
Second, motorcycle riding promotes both introspective and insight mindfulness. On the one hand, riding creates introspective awareness through concentration on oneself, on what we are thinking and feeling moment by moment. It disengages and clears the mind; we let go of particular thoughts by disciplined mental focus on the activity of riding. On the other hand, motorcycling promotes insight awareness: concentration on fundamental truths of reality and morality. It engages the mind in thought on a specific topic, and ideas expand as new insights are generated. Riding creates both present-moment awareness and thought-centered awareness.
Motorcycling, I suggest, promotes a particular type of insight mindfulness: personal death awareness. But how does riding do this? How does it help us acquire true beliefs about death and life? After giving examples of how riding promotes death awareness, I explain the mechanics of what is happening mentally.
Motorcycling as Memento Mori: Examples
The first time I dropped the bike was three months after buying it. My dad had taught me, at age 15, to ride his aging BSA, but now I was 21 and fancied myself a hotshot on my new Suzuki. Screaming into a Y intersection, leaning hard left, I realized I had a choice: the ditch or the pavement. I chose the ditch. I was unhurt and the bike hardly scratched, but the experience freaked me out. I realized that I could die at any time, especially by riding carelessly. There have been other brushes with death since—when a pickup lost a 4 X 8 sheet of plywood in front of me and when a semi dropped rolls of sod down the center of my lane. Beyond these moments of panic, however, all aspects of riding can be memento mori experiences.
Maintaining the bike is memento mori practice, reminding me that a mechanical failure can cause death. Regularly checking pressure and tread wear, looking for cuts or embedded stones, reminds me that an unsafe tire could kill me. Examining front and rear suspension—making sure spring preloads, air shocks and dampers are at recommended settings for the motorcycle’s weight, and replacing fork oil when necessary—remind me that worn components could kill me. Inspecting brake pads and fluid, steering head movement and final drive mechanism—all remind me that an unsafe machine could kill me. Aiming the headlight, checking taillight, brake light, turn signals and horn remind me that not being visible or able to communicate my intentions to other drivers could kill me. The safety checks and regular maintenance I perform on the motorcycle arise from and heighten my awareness of the possibility of dying.
Wearing protective gear is memento mori practice, reminding me that motorcycling is dangerous and can cause death. Every few years I buy new riding equipment. When I contact Internet merchants or visit stores, I am aware of death. My brother-in-law and I recently shopped for helmets. Not satisfied with minimal DOT safety standards, I wanted the additional quality of a SNELL-rated full-face helmet. Talking with Bruce and getting information from sales staff was a recognition that riding involves risk of head injury—and death. Some time earlier Bruce and I had bought armored, reflective jackets. Wearing a highly-visible, neon orange jacket so that I can be more easily seen acknowledges danger of death: at an intersection a car driver could not see me, turn left in front of me and cause my death. Using clothing that covers arms and legs completely and eye protection against wind, dust, insects and pebbles (which can distract me and cause a crash when I am not paying full attention to the road) reminds me that riding could kill me. Having appropriate rain and cold-weather clothing that keeps me dry and warm (since I cannot control the motorcycle well if I am numb) acknowledges the possibility of crashing and dying, of the risk of death inherent in riding.
Reviewing and enhancing my knowledge about riding is memento mori practice, reminding me that motorcycling can be deadly. Each year at the beginning of riding season I reread the motorcycle safety booklet issued by my state DOT. It reminds me that speed kills, that intersections with left turn lanes for oncoming traffic are dangerous, that I must avoid other drivers’ blind spots and maintain safe distance. Taking advance riding classes, swapping stories and tips with my nephew Derek, and talking with my nephew Graham and friend Joe—both certified motorcycle safety instructors—increases my awareness of how to recognize and navigate dangerous situations and avoid death.
Riding itself is the best memento mori practice, reminding me at each moment that death is possible. Taking care to be visible by choosing lane position so I am easily seen by other drivers. Maintaining an adequate space cushion around the motorcycle, allowing proper distance when following or being followed so that I have time to react and room to maneuver. Maintaining situational awareness— aggressively scanning the road ahead, consciously identifying potential traffic and road surface hazards. Planning an escape route and being ready to execute emergency stops and swerves. Avoiding the blind spot of a car in the next lane. Braking properly while turning or riding a curve or on a slippery surface. Approaching turns and curves with caution so I do not run wide, leave the road and hit a fixed object. Entering intersections, where the greatest potential for collision exists, carefully—and watching for cars entering my right-of-way. Properly loading the bike, especially if I am carrying cargo or a passenger because unsafe loading affects handling. Never mixing alcohol and riding, since even one drink impairs perception and motor skills and is a major contributor to fatal crashes. Taking breaks if fatigued. Keeping distance and riding in staggered formation when in a group. Being vigilant and taking precautions when I ride— remaining alert to what is going on around me, looking for trouble and being ready to act—acknowledges the risk of death that shadows the bike.
The awareness of death stimulated by motorcycle riding is both implicit and explicit. Implicit awareness of death is phenomenologically mysterious, and I have little to say about it. It may be that death awareness, as some existential philosophers and depth psychologists suggest, is a fundamental fact of the unconscious mind (which contains thoughts and feelings that we are not directly aware of). The knowledge that I could die today while riding may be an experiential understanding that, though present in the deepest level of the psyche, does not engage the rational intellect consciously, but reveals itself as restlessness or anxiety. All the preparatory and safety steps I take may give testimony to this underlying awareness.
Explicit awareness takes the form of conscious reflection, as I repeatedly place my attention on thoughts of death. The content usually has two elements: thinking concretely and imaginatively about my death, and forming specific resolutions and action plans for my living. Sometimes I turn the idea of my death over in my mind in an unstructured way. I repeat the phrases memento mori (“remember you will die”) or carpe diem (“seize the day”; make today count) over and over as a mantra, either silently or aloud, letting thought flow naturally to thought.18 I can do this while working on the bike, preparing to ride and riding. With each repetition, ideas and images arise spontaneously in my mind. I do not attempt to guide my thoughts, but simply let them unfold. Sometimes after riding I think about death throughout the day, having the refrain of memento mori or carpe diem running through my head like a commercial jingle I keep humming. By deliberately rehearsing these maxims, I remind myself of my death and how I want to live so that these fundamental facts are not forgotten but kept at the forefront of my mind where they can influence decisions I make.
Other times I intentionally direct my thoughts to death in a structured way. I may take a one-minute meditation as I strap on my helmet or inspect the tires, or do a longer reflection while working on the bike—but never while riding, since that requires enough attention to surroundings and actions that abstract, rational thought is both difficult and dangerous. I sometimes ponder specific questions as a script to guide my thought: if I crashed on this ride, what would I want family and friends to say at my funeral about my character, relationships and achievements? What would they actually say—and is it the same as what I would want said? If not, what changes should I make in my life, and how will I bring them about?19 I can linger on one or more of these questions in self-examination: what I have done and am I doing with my life? What I am proud or ashamed of? What principles do I hold that are not evident from the way I live my life? I may take stock by asking: what are my deepest values? Am I living in harmony with them? I might imagine that I will crash and die in six months, and make a mental list of three things I would want to do during my remaining time. These thought exercises reaffirm what matters most to me, helping me to keep these principles in mind and to live congruently with them. Sometimes I use active sensory imagination (which unites reason and emotion) rather than abstract contemplation.20 I may visualize by putting specific, detailed images in my mind. As if watching a movie, I see myself crash and mortuary personnel remove my remains. I picture my body in a casket at the funeral. I listen to family and friends—my wife Jenna, my daughter Sarah, my sister Beth, my teaching partner Ted—talking about me. By giving conscious attention to these sensory images I internalize and personalize the truth of death, and these imaginings put me back in touch with what matters most to me.
Memento mori thought exercises will not change long-standing mental habits over night, but given time and consistent effort at cultivating death awareness, regular rehearsal will—little by little—shape our thinking and, through that, our living. We should not, of course, always think about death when riding. Sometimes I just want to experience the ride, and it is not the time to think about death. Still, many aspects of motorcycling offer opportunities for memento mori. Sometimes as I suit up and start the motorcycle I am reminded—perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously—that this is the ride during which I could die. When my wife’s ex-husband crashed his Hog last year and was seriously injured, I was reminded of my mortality. Participating in the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists pledge run—an annual charity ride to raise awareness of riders killed by impaired car drivers and to raise funds to help their families financially—I experience memento mori. When I open the newspaper and see a story on a fatal crash in my town, I know someday it could be me. Riding is thus a form of wisdom training that helps me to keep my fundamental values firmly in mind, at the center of my thought, so that I appreciate each moment and make life decisions by those principles.
He lay on the shoulder of the Interstate, not moving. The accident had happened shortly before we came by, traffic narrowed to one lane. A car had blown a tire and swerved, hitting his Road King. He had been thrown, landing on the pavement. Emergency personnel had not arrived yet, but some civilians had stopped to help. One was doing chest compressions. His riding partner’s Gold Wing, damaged but upright, stood nearby.
The purpose of memento mori is best expressed in one of Lucian’s dialogues where Charon, ferryman of the dead, remarks: “If only humans could get it straight from the beginning: that they’re going to die; that, after a brief stay in life, they have to depart . . . , then they’d live more wisely and die with fewer regrets” (qtd. in Hadot 246). Or, in the words of the evening meditation chanted at Zen Mountain Monastery: “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life” (qtd. in Dhammapada 48). Contemplating death is a powerful force for personal growth because to do so is to question how we ought to live and points us to the meaning of the good and worthwhile life as the fundamental human question. What should my life count for? What am I doing with my life? As we become conscious that time is short, it becomes a limited resource, one we must make wise and full use of so we do not waste or ruin our lives with misplaced priorities. Awareness of death helps us to lead examined lives. It forces us to think about what really matters and gives urgency to our choices: life is brief, today could be our last, so the time to live is now. “When death comes,” poet Mary Oliver says,
I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real . . . .
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
The Burial Rite in the Book of Common Prayer asserts that “in the midst of life we are in death” (484). Jones says that, when motorcycling, “life [is] always held out over death” (186). This is why riding is memento mori spiritual practice. Riding makes death a present, existential threat, not an impersonal, distant event. It counters forgetfulness of death and creates an experiential understanding that death is possible today, that tomorrow is not promised to me, a constant awareness that life is finite and always in danger of ending unexpectedly. As Rollin puts it: “on a motorcycle . . . we come face to face on a regular basis with . . . the prospect of death . . . . This . . . serves as a call to authenticity in one’s life choices and decisions [and], like hot sauce, enhances the experience of ordinary life” (75). Motorcycling gives life meaning; as we live towards death, we make today count.
1 The interior core of our lives, the innermost set of beliefs and motivations, is the spirit. In this sense, the word “spirit” and its cognates are psychological rather than religious terms.
2 Pirsig contrasts romantic approaches such as Zen, which emphasize being in the moment, from classical approaches, which focus on rational analysis.
3 A belief is an attitude of assent toward a particular statement. Put formally, when person S believes proposition p, S has a stand or opinion regarding p, that is, S holds p to be true. Beliefs can be true or false, justified or unjustified, certain or uncertain, occurrent or dispositional. I use the term “belief” (and its cognates) in the broadest sense as equivalent to the words “assumption,” “conviction” or “thought.”
4 See Beck.
5 See Regnerus and Uecker, and Gould, “Confused Non-Virgins.”
6 A person could, for example, hold correct intellectual beliefs about their worth but not feel self-respect. Because emotional engagement partially constitutes understanding, intellectual knowledge by itself is sometimes defective understanding.
7 These are my own stipulated definitions. I do not intend them to reflect common usage, if there is one, or to indicate a difference between Eastern and Western mindfulness or meditation. See Monaghan and Diereck.
8 For more on spiritual practice see Gould, “Becoming Good” and “Cultivating Character.”
9 This review focuses exclusively on Western thought, ignoring the prominent place that death has in Eastern culture and religion. It draws on Aries, Barry, Duclow, and Paxton.
10 Epictetus writes: “let death . . . appear before your eyes every day, . . . and you will never have anything contemptible in your thoughts or crave anything excessively” (330). Contemplating death clarifies our values and promotes virtuous behavior.
11 John Calvin claims that “even in the best of health we should have death always before our eyes,” so that “we will not expect to remain on this earth forever” (qtd in Aries 298). Robert Bellarmine warns against devoting too little time to eternal salvation, rebuking those who “think only of living, and although death is near, it is the furthest thing from their minds” (qtd. in Aries 299). John Donne confesses that “this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: thou must die” (102) and so instructs us to live righteously.
12 Blaise Pascal observes that “since they are unable to cure death . . . , men imagine that they can find happiness by not thinking about such
things” (127-28). Denial has two results. First, we miss happiness in this life:
“we never live in the present. We anticipate the future . . . and never give a
thought to the only [time] that belongs to us” (74, 106). Second, we are not
prepared for the world to come: people live “without giving so much as a
thought to the final end of life . . . , as though
they could wipe out eternity simply by putting it out of their minds,
think[ing] only of the happiness of the moment” (63-64, 41). Living in light of
death is necessary to find meaning now and bliss in eternity. In “The
Sceptic,” David Hume claims that “when
we reflect on the shortness and uncertainty of life,” we learn to value the
present moment. “During the famous plague of Athens, when death seemed present
to everyone, . . . gaiety prevailed among the
13 This section draws on Duclow, Evan, and the Richard Harris Collection Morbid Curiosity art exhibition, Chicago Cultural Center, January-July 2012.
14 Barthel Bruyn the Elder’s Portrait of a Man/A Skull in a Niche recreates the gathering of bones of the dead in European churches. Frans Hals’ Youth with a Skull and Philippe de Champaigne’s Vanitas also portray life, death and time.
15 Outlaw biker culture—with its heavy drinking, sexual license and loud music like Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”—expresses defiance of conventional social values. Images of death, such as skulls and skeletons displayed on black leather jackets and tricked-out bikes, are used to assert aggression, danger, freedom and rebellion against authority, not, as in the memento mori tradition, as reminders of personal mortality and the importance of mindful living. See Pratt.
16 See Csikszentmihalyi.
17 See Priest and Jones.
18 The ancient philosophical schools taught a small number of fundamental rules of life which were formulated in short sayings that, because they were put in a few words, were simple, clear and easily memorized—and so readily accessible to the mind. These principles summed up, sometimes in striking form, the essential truths about how one was to live. See Hadot 267-268.
19 See, for example, Covey, Part 2, Habit 2, “Begin with the End in Mind.”
20 The ancient philosophical schools encouraged exercises of imagination as one “places before the mind’s eye” a sensory image that stimulates reflection. Marcus Aurelius would imagine eternity, seeing his life from the vantage point of cosmic history. See Hadot 182, 245.
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