Published in Psychology Today on 29th September 2016.
Are you looking forward to reading an article about death? Probably not. Simply reading it-that-must-not-be-named can arrest us in our place. With torturous futility, we fill our heads with whatever is in mind’s reach to ignore one of the surest of facts: To paraphrase Descartes, “I think, therefore I’ll die”.
The certainty that our mortality will eventually be realized binds us not only in solidarity, but in fear. This fear has spawned the creation of hundreds of religions, over thousands of years, for the predominant purpose of foretelling a divine after-party in heaven. For many, the afterlife has offered the quintessential form of closing the eyes and blocking the ears—but for people like myself who do not subscribe to the stories, what are we to do?
After extricating oneself from the grip of religious faith, initial feelings of liberation can be quickly polluted by the newfound admittance that this can’t go on forever. Like many others, I sought solace in science. The grandeur, wonder and the quest for understanding—all perfectly captured by the likes of Carl Sagan—provided a lens to distort the inconvenient feature of our flesh.
The first of these distortions is the concept of luck. Richard Dawkins once wrote, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.” Poetically referring to the nanoscopic odds of our existence, the apparent miracle of the objective giving rise to the subjective, or the vastness of the cosmos all represent the same attempt to conjure optimism.
“Isn’t it amazing we are alive?!” Yes, it is. Alas, however improbable my existence, I am already alive to ask the question, and an end to my conscious existence seems certain. This is the scary part.
Another common manoeuvre is anchoring ourselves to ideas, objects and phenomena that will outlive our own individual lives; passing on our genes to our children, or the idea that our bodies will decompose and give rise to other life, thus being part of a continuing cycle of existence. However, these answers only represent more intellectual cul-de-sacs.
Firstly, we know in the next five billion years our sun will swell and perish, extinguishing any possibility of life on Earth (of course, if humans have not already done the extinguishing). Even if we escape to our stellar neighbors, the universe itself will eventually succumb to a “heat death”; a time in the very distant future when all matter and radiation will have decayed and dissipated, leaving the cosmos eternal in darkness. The common saying “nothing lasts forever” is correct in more ways than one; No thing lasts forever, and nothing will, one day, last forever.
How can we conquer this bleak fact of impermanence—not only of our lives, but the universe in which we find ourselves? Cut through the sense of a permanent self. Train your attention enough to notice its true nature.
The feeling that we are each a discrete head-dwelling entity—an inner cohesive being with a past that stretches back through time and will continue into the future—is not what it seems. There is simply no essential or fundamental core to the self.
Are you the same person you were as a child? The atoms that make up your body are different, and with it your thought processes, personality, memories and knowledge present at any moment. Not only can our brains be altered throughout our lives by trauma, disease, drugs and aging, every momentary experience changes our nervous system at some level. However permanent, however small or large, neuroplastic mechanisms are relentlessly altering the wiring of your neurons.
What is it to say that you are a single pervading self when the brain that constructs that self consists of many different working parts, each of which are in relentless flux?
Recognizing this can help us re-conceptualize death. “I” am dying as each moment fades, just as all the “I”s have done in the past. The seven-year-old Steve does not exist anymore, but neither does the Steve who wrote the last sentence. Although this may sound heart-rending, “I” am also being born with every new moment that comes to light. The comfort found is although the stream of “I”s that connect one moment to the next will end, for any single “I” this is inconsequential. Each one is fully constrained to the present moment, and their existence ends in the present. I have been dying all my life. This fact hasn’t bothered me thus far, and nor should it in the future.
Existential angst is born of mourning something that will never exist. When I grieve the death of another, I am experiencing a loss in the present; the absence of joy I once gained from having a relationship with that person. Arguably, the closest relationships I can possibly have are internal; those with past “I”s and envisioned future “I”s. Fear of death is, in a sense, grieving the loss of future “I”s. Notice that this is a loss we are wholly creating: We manufacture a future self in our minds, have a relationship with that future self, and then suffer its imagined demise.
Unfortunately, acknowledging this intellectually will only get one so far. The self still feels pervasive – a jockey riding on an ever slowing horse. It’s almost unshakeable. Almost.
Whilst not the tonic of immortality, mindfulness meditation can be the antidote we are looking for. Although mindfulness has generally been viewed as dental floss for the brain—the extra effort some take to improve stress levels and concentration—it can achieve so much more.
By truly being present, one can catch a glimpse—first hand—of our impermanence. And it’s the first hand aspect that is important, because it is in these fleeting moments that an alien and abstract concept becomes tangible. We are afraid of the transient nature of life but, as Robert Colacurcio has said, “What was perceived as the problem is the solution from the point of view of self cognizant awareness. The inherent connection between impermanence and suffering becomes the key to freedom from attachment to self nature.”
Our flow of sensations and thoughts are so fleeting and insubstantial it’s difficult to appreciate without experiencing it. Joseph Goldstein points out that as mindfulness and concentration get stronger, “The perception of change becomes so rapid that in the very moment of noticing an object, it’s already disappearing“. The experience of self is not immune to this realization.
By seeing the permanent self is an illusion, we can start to free ourselves from the unfounded attachment to fictitious future “I”s. In doing so, we can find that death, as we tend to view it, is a mirage on the horizon. Though I am not completely inoculated from worries of my transience, at moments of reflection I can remind myself of one thing: There is only the present moment. Death still exists, it just isn’t what it seems.