Two Epiphanies

Yay! Death! part 2

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not static. You are always changing, continuously dying because continuously changing. Your current self is impermanent -- a temporary way-station between your past selves and your future selves. Thus, the only way to "live" (well, exist) forever would be to be frozen and never thawed.

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not separate. You are not a closed-off, self-contained isolation chamber. This simple point is a profound one. You are not just a vast set of complex interactions going on inside your skin, but are also the vast set of complex interactions between those going on inside your skin and those going on outside the skin – starting with sensory input and extending to everything that interacts with the things from which you’re getting sensory input – that is, the whole universe. The self -- the whole self -- is the world. Thus, the self will be around as long the world is.

The impermanent point means that "you" cannot be immortal. The not separate point means that you are.

I recognize the urges and desires that drive many of these transhumanists. Some of them feel keenly the limitations of their brains, and they want to be integrated with machines that will transcend those limitations. Myself, I used to want a really long life just because I was curious what the future would bring. What new art and music, what breakthroughs, what political experiments lay in the future? I was very curious about this, and I wanted to live a long time just so I could see as much of it as possible.

That was up until 2003. In August of 2003, I went to the first meditation retreat I’d been to that was longer than a weekend. It was five days. The moment I so well remember didn’t happen at the retreat, but after it ended. The retreat was in Tucson. I had gotten there by taking a bus from El Paso. But on the way back I had gotten a ride from one of the other retreatants whose route home went through El Paso. So I’m riding in the passenger seat of his pick-up truck, rolling along I-10. Near the boundary between the Sonoran desert and the Chihuahuan desert, I was gazing up at some mountains in the distance when it happened.

I was suddenly powerfully aware that I will be there. I will be there. What this meant was that I will be present for all of those futures that I was so curious about. I am other people. It’s not just these 100 billion neurons that interact to form a self, but these 100 billion neurons are also interacting with the 100 billion neurons inside other skins, and with the many beings everywhere. What is me is the whole thing. So if anyone is around to see the future, that’s me.

In that moment, reincarnation was cast not as something that happens when one body dies, and one self inside one skin transfers to one other skin. We are all constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else – and it in us. Everything is constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else. And always has been.

Beings of all past times, Viking warriors, ancient Athenians and Chinese, on back through Neanderthals and dinosaurs were at that moment seeing those mountains through these eyes, and I will present through future beings for all future events. Why would I care whether or not one of those future beings happened to have my idiosyncratic personality quirks, harbor memories that currently reside only among these 100 billion neurons, or answer to my name? I will be there.

That epiphanic moment shifted me. Since that day, now more than 14 years ago, I have not felt that restless desire for longevity of this body. That’s just been gone from me. So it was with a small jolt that I read about these transhumanists and saw the form of an old familiar yearning still burning in them.

I’m happy to enjoy this body while it works out for it to be here, and happy to shoulder responsibility for it contributing what it can, and when the time comes to let it go, as Mary Oliver said, let it go – and continue on as the whole universe that constitutes me and all beings.

About two and a half years after that moment, I had a second. It was my forty-seventh birthday in 2006. I was reflecting, as one does on birthdays, on the years past and those that might be to come for this body – all of life, in the form of this body, presenting itself to itself.

What suddenly flooded over me this time was a profound gratitude for mortality. Forty-seven years gone by – maybe, given that death could come at any moment, all the years this body would get, and very likely more than half of the years this body would get. And then it would be gone. And that felt like such a relief.

It was the flip side of the earlier epiphany. On the one hand, I will be there. On the other hand, I don’t have to be there in a way that includes this form. I am not responsible for eternity, not responsible for being and doing any more than what one short lifetime can do -- and this illusion of mine, that I am a separate identity, the illusion to which ego clings, which I am able to occasionally drop only to pick up again shortly after, is gratefully NOT something we will be stuck with for terribly much longer.

It was liberating in a way that complimented the liberation of the earlier moment. While the first freed me from obsessive concern to preserve the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes, the second freed me to go ahead and enjoy the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes. They’ll only be around a short while, so love them while they’re here.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
See also
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 3: Quintessence of Glorious Dust

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