23 Mar 2022

Momento Mori

The first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning depends upon which way I’ve rolled during the night. If I wake up laying on my right side, I open my eyes to see my partner; if I’ve rolled left, the first thing I see is this:

This little tableau features a small metal Buddha, serving as both a hook for a rosewood mala, and a prop to keep a postcard upright. It’s the postcard I want to talk about: I picked it up at Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy in 2015; it shows his triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995). Here’s a better look at the artwork:

Much of the commentary around this piece focusses on the (seven figure) value of the urn in question, but for my purposes it could just as easily have been an entirely unremarkable, mass-produced ceramic vase. I use this postcard as a daily reminder of impermanence. Looking at it, I imagine that the first image of the triptych represents my waking moments, with the day ahead. The day itself will be the second image: suspended in air, but in motion. The third image is inevitable: it’s the night that will arrive to close the day out. I find it useful to be reminded that each day passes like this, and that we experience time in one direction only. Once night arrives, you can no more return to the day than the urn can spring into the air, un-shattered.

And it’s not just days, of course — this is also the manner in which our lives pass. I’m publishing this today as it happens to be the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that event itself remains the most powerful example in my life that everything is impermanent. This idea is also at the center of the Buddha’s teaching, which is how I know he doesn’t mind propping up the postcard. I understand that the very idea of momento mori can provoke a reflexive flinch – the mind does not want to ponder its own extinguishing — but I find value in having this metaphor at hand as a reminder. Whatever the day holds, it is unique and it is transient, and it is worth being present for. (I feel the same way if I wake facing the other direction.)