Monday, June 8, 2015

Journal of a Soul 75

Of Living and Dying

"Live in the Now" - that's the lesson of Meditating on Death

“None of us gets out of life alive” is a quotation that remains in my mind.  I even remember the occasion of my first hearing it way back in the early 1990s.  I was listening to a radio programme by the Irish journalist Colm Keane on the subject of “Death Row” in some penitentiary in one of the southern states of the USA.  Our intrepid journalist interviewed a convicted murderer, who was placed behind a protective glass screen.  I remember that this man showed absolutely no remorse for the murders he had committed and saw life as being just a sort of game which one played; a game where it did not matter if one broke the rules as long as one got away with it.  In fact, the prison guards called him, “the animal.”  I remember the hair standing upright on my neck as I listened to this cold, unfeeling, rational, and obviously very intelligent man, express his thoughts and feelings on the crimes he had committed and on life in general. However, he expressed in eight short words the very heart of the human predicament – our temporality or our transitoriness on this minuscule planet that is a mere dot in the infinity of space. This state of affairs, when it hits home in the thinking and feeling and self-conscious human being, is exactly what we mean by the adjectives “existential” or “existentialist.” In short, our mortality lies at the heart of what essentially existentialism boils down to.

Freud used to say that the real repression in humankind was that of the base sexual desires that were deeply rooted in the dark pit of the unconscious.  However, Jung and others since have pointed out most wisely that the ultimate or real repression is that of death.  In one sense, this repression is a survival mechanism.  After all, the denial of death allows for egocentric humankind to push forward against all opposition – coming from either others or nature – to amass property, wealth and acquisitions of all kinds.  One might say, in quite a convincing sense, that all culture is created in the face of death – a sort of myth of significance and permanency in the teeth of the very impermanence and transitoriness of life itself.

Daffodil, Easter 2014

Here is where a philosophy of life comes in on the one hand and where the spiritual and religious traditions on the other have had some insightful things to say.  Admittedly religions in their more structural, authoritarian, hierarchical and indeed forbidding senses have been all too doctrinaire in their tenets and often murdered many who opposed them throughout the course of history.  However, here I am referring to a more devotional and spiritual model or aspect of such religions.  It is arguable that when religions lose vital contact with what the philosopher Eric Voegelin, called their “engendering experience” (or spiritual source or originating vision) they become monolithic, heartless and forbidding structures capable of dehumanising others.

The novelist, literary critic and professor of philosophy Umberto Eco opined that we read literature to learn how to die.  That notion is perhaps a bit one-sided.  I prefer to say that we read literature in order to learn how to live and die.  Living and dying are, in fact, the two sides of the one coin and are somehow paradoxically inextricably linked.  To be a living being is to be a dying being.  Essentially, death and dying are consequences of The Second Law of Thermodynamics or of the results of what’s called entropy.  A thorough understanding of this concept is beyond me as I have little background in Physics, but I can grasp some of its intentions and implications.  To my mind, Walter E. Requadt explains entropy very well for the ordinary person in the street in his wonderfully thought-provoking and stimulating blog called “The Happy Iconoclast” by invoking “Murphy’s Law”:

Unless we constantly insert new energy into a house by maintaining it, painting it, repairing it, the structure will eventually but inevitably be levelled to the ground. Its molecules will move from a lower level of randomization, from structure, to a higher level of randomization, towards unstructured debris.
Entropy is the reason why paint peels, why hot coffee turns cold. Furthermore, entropy is the reason why investments have a pre-ordained inclination to go sour -- unless we enhance success by inserting into the investment system additional energy in the form of strategy, work, calculated risk or other forms of energy. Entropy ensures that sugar, which becomes more randomized when it is dissolved in water, will not reconstitute itself in the crystalline form -- unless we apply heat energy from outside the system and evaporate the water.
Wherever we look, whatever we do, we must be acutely aware of the immutable laws of thermodynamics, especially the easily overlooked Second Law: Entropy. This fundamental law of physics ranks with other fundamental manifestations of the universe such as gravity, time and electromagnetism.
Anything that can go wrong not only will go wrong, it must go wrong, as decreed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. (See here: The Happy Iconoclast)

To say that we humans die is to say that we like the entire flora and fauna of the earth are subject to the inevitability of the various laws of the universe, and most essentially to the law of entropy.

Along similar lines, Stephen Hawking told his biographers (Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Michael White, 1992), who had once been Ph.D. students under his direction, that he had never succumbed to anger at life when he was stricken down with motor-neurone disease because essentially life was just chance anyway, and that it all boiled down to the randomness of nature – that is, to the chances involved or the probability of one’s parents meeting and then in the combinations of genes allocated by nature to your particular embryo.  These were, to say the least, random.

Professor Stephen Hawking

While Hawking likes to style himself an atheist, this stance is quite akin to that of a Buddhist spirituality (which some say is not religious anyway) that states that all suffering is caused by our attachment to things animate and inanimate.  All meditation practices and wisdom learnt therefrom and from study, and indeed from life in general, all help us to break free from such suffering by learning detachment. In other words, this is the implication of what is known as the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that can be stated in simple terms as:

1.  Suffering exists: dukkha. (Life is unfair essentially, with much chance involved – Hawking’s position)
2.  Suffering arises from attachment to desires. (Wishing that things were different – that I shouldn’t get Motor Neurone disease and so on). It is called either samudaya or tanha in the various traditions and is the vain desire to have and control things. 
3.  Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. (When I cease to be attached to unfulfillable desires or even fulfilled ones). The end to suffering is called nirodha. It is achieving Nirvana, which is the final liberation from suffering. The mind experiences complete freedom, liberation and non-attachment. It lets go of any desire or craving. It is an attaining of dispassion.
4.  Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

It is important to note that in the Eastern religions, to meditate on dying and death is no mere negative action.  Nor is it a particularly morose one.  Only at first sight does it appear to be such.  Once one has meditated on either dying or death one comes from one’s sitting with a renewed commitment to living life more fully, and more especially living it more fully in the now.  To realise that truly life is fleeting and that we all end up either “six feet under” or being cremated is to deeply realise that the only answer is to live life more fully, more intensely by being aware of the sheer importance of living fully in the now.  After all, now is all we have.  In a sense, neither the past nor the future exists because the first has ceased to be and the second has not yet come.  In a deeper sense, all that exists is the present moment or the now.  In fact, conscious life is just that – an awareness of the abiding present or the passing now. (Or, as I look at these previous words anew, why not write "the abiding presence of the passing now"?

Picture of a Poppy I took April 2014

 Meditating on dying and death should never bring us down into the pits of despair because its real message is to deeply value and live in the enduring present.  Obviously, I don’t mean by this combination of words that everything stays the same or that nothing changes.  What I mean is that we only can really live in the now of time as it moves – that’s what I mean by the enduring present.

We read in the Tao Te Ching:

If you realise that all things change,
There is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren’t afraid of dying,
There is nothing you can’t achieve.

Trying to control the future
Is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
Chances are that you’ll cut your hand.

(Tao Te Ching, verse 74, Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell)

In summary, then, we have two choices and the choice recommended by all spiritualities worth their salt is to choose life not death everyday of our lives by practicing living in the now.

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