The residue of life is short. Live as on a mountain. Meditations, Book X.
What did Marcus Aurelius mean by this Zen-like statement? What was the mountain’s perspective? Perhaps it was to take a panoramic view of life and not sweat the small stuff. Perhaps it meant not to worry ourselves about what others are thinking. Alluding to Plato’s mountain shepherd in The Republic- Marcus suggests that our task is to take care of those entrusted to us- our life’s responsibilities. The mountain top’s perspective asks us to reconsider what is important and what may be trivial.
Marcus focused on the transience of life and took the long view. When viewed from the perspective of eternity all receded and seemed small, as if viewed from the mountain peak. The mountain itself, however, was solid. Reminds me of my Zen teacher’s guided meditation: “The mountain it sits…when it rains..the mountain sits…when there is a storm, the mountain it sits…When the sun shines, the mountain it sits. Be the mountain…”
Man’s life has but a tiny span, tiny as the corner of earth on which he lives, short as fame’s longest tenure, handed along the line of short-lived mortals, who do not even know themselves, far less the dead of long ago. Meditations, book lll.
Marcus Aurelius, like other Stoics before him believed that it was important to keep death in the forefront of our thoughts. All actions and their significance could be weighed against death, taking into account the inevitability of death- the great equalizer. Far from making one morose, meditating on death helped the living appreciate life deeply, and gain perspective. Such mental rehearsals and visualizations, shrunk the importance of daily issues and were part of the Stoics toolbox of methods to prepare for life and death, taking nothing for granted.
Death meditation was certainly an antidote to obsessing about the problems of everyday life. My grandfather, who had parted the world before I was born, wrote about this practice in his diaries. Curiously, he came to give me advice through his writings, at an age younger than my own. I learned that as a young man away from his family during the Second World War, my grandfather when melancholy would visit the cemetery. In his diaries, he recorded how the visit would always provide a cure for homesickness. No issue was greater than death itself…all could be borne.