The past is a memory. It’s a thought arising in the present. The future is merely anticipated, it is another thought arising now. What we truly have is this moment.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Can we know that life is meaningful without a belief in a higher power? Without faith in a material afterlife? Can thinking of death without religion be deeply spiritual? Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris thinks so.
During a talk about Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris explains how death can teach us how to value life. If we do not fear reflecting on death, we can live a good life—and eventually a good death:
Harris posits that perhaps it is our very belief in an eternal life that denies us the opportunity to seize the life we already have. Then, without that safety net, we have no choice but to take our lives more seriously. To make better use of our time, to appreciate everything this time around because this time around may be the only time around.
In 23 BC, Roman poet Horace wrote, "carpe diem;" translated, it means "seize the day." We are aware of this, we have been aware of this for quite some time, before the dominant religions of today. What happened? How did we lose sight of what is inevitable? That life is precious? Being present and mindful is nothing new, so why do we see it as a new rising thought? Why is common sense so radical?
The past, literally, is a fictionalized narrative our brain pieces and edits together. You can't measure or quantify the past because it is already over. The future is abstract predictions and guesses; it does not yet exist and unlike the past, has never existed. What is tangible is now. Yet it is ubiquitous and pervasive to live in the before and after. (A life of Instagram before and after pictures.)
Much of the non-Western world only speak in present tense. We in the West think this is strange, yet it is strange to speak any other way, because only now exists. Anything other than present tense is figurative or imaginative. This is fine, but how often do we fret over something figurative or imaginative, believing it to be real? That it's happening now?
Can we know life is meaningful and worth living independent of anything other than life itself? Yes. We know life is important because life teaches us so. We know life is important because it is rare, death teaches us so. Life is scarce because we know it will run out, and rather than fleeing from this truth, we should use it to live a good life and to die a good death.
Then, what is a good death? We can never appreciate our own death. It's not for us. It is for those around us, to inspire them, to live now, and to live to the fullest.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion - Sam Harris
- The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Pierre Hadot (Author), Michael Chase (Translator)
- The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life - Michael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh
- The Complete Odes and Epodes - Horace (Author), David West (Translator)