Love of Life? or Fear of Death?
I realize that a large part of my interest in longevity science derives from fear of death. To the extent that chronic fear is controlling me and perturbing my life experience, the dissolution of the fear of death is a worthy goal, quite independent of longevity.
Longevity and Intention
A few years ago, I brought immortality into my meditation practice. Toward the end of my morning meditation, I set my intention on immortality, as a kind of affirmation or mental suggestion, broadcast internally through my brain and body, and externally to Anyone Out There Who Is Listening. This practice shed a new light on my lifelong fear of death, and changed the way I think about life extension.
(It’s rarely acknowledged in our community that psycho-social factors are as strong as influence on longevity as anything that epidemiology has looked at [ref, ref, ref]. People who are connected and engaged and purposeful enjoy a longevity dividend as large as non-smokers have over smokers. Psychological benefits of meditation are robust, though this is soft data. Intriguingly, meditation has been linked to telomerase activity, and it is my sense that this is the tip of the iceberg for meditation benefits.)
Even if we find a scientific cure for aging in my lifetime, even if I get the full benefit and return to the body of a 26-year-old, this is a far cry from immortality. Compared to a 90-year-old, the body of a 26-year-old is hardy and resilient; but on the scale of geologic or evolutionary time, no human body stands a chance. The mortality rate for young men dips to a low of 1/1000 per year, which translates to an average life span of 1,000 years if aging is completely cured*. Improvements in safety standards, better control of violence against self and violence against others may extend our lives to a few thousand years. I’m all for it. I dearly want to know what’s coming down the pike in the next millennium.
The accelerated rush from the Enlightenment, through the Industrial Revolution, the population explosion and the Information Age, leading to some kind of Singularity – this has been the deep story in which we are embedded during the only lifetime we have known. One way or another, that story has to be resolved in the next 1,000 years, which makes this a stunningly awesome** time to be alive.
But none of us get to find out whether humankind has as long a run on this planet as the dinosaurs did. Sooner or later, we will face death.
An insight arising from my meditation practice is that my passion for longevity is driven by fear of the Abyss. A femtosecond later comes the realization that, in this context, pursuit of longevity is a diversion from fear, not addressing the Abyss itself. In what ways is my life constrained and diminished by subconscious fear? Do I want to carry around a fear of the Eternal Void for the next thousand years?
Introspection tells me that fear suffuses my subconscious process, that the fabric of my experience from moment to moment is affected by fear in ways I can hardly be aware of, and that avoidance of fear contributes to every great and small choice that I make, also below the level of consciousness.
As a young boy, I used to experience primal terror whenever I thought of an eternity of nothingness. I told no one about this, but learned to avoid it any way I could because I hated the feeling. I would solve a math problem that my Dad gave me to take to bed, to help me deal with the Dark that reminded me of the Void. Later I learned to fantasize aout love. There was a girl in my kindergarten class named Michelle. This was forty years before I ever heard of Marianne Williamson (“The opposite of love is fear.”).
Anxiety. Depression. Cortisol. Tension. Chronic stress. These are all names for sublimated fear of death that comes out to taint my experience of life in so many ways.
Terror is a mushroom that grows from the pit of the belly to fill the chest. The apprehensive thoughts are often secondary to the fear. Fear invents its own reasons. We think that the thing we fear is the cause of the fear. But so often the thing we fear is rationalized in the mind after the emotional fact. My hypothesis is that a source of my chronic fear is anticipation of the Great Void, unresolved since childhood.
Fear is intensely unpleasant, and we go to great lengths, conscious and unconscious, to avoid fear. This is not about making sound choices for safety. Most often, what we we are avoiding is the sensation of fear, not the thing feared. Think “distraction”.
I find that intense exercise provides temporary relief from the sensation of fear, and perhaps a glimpse into what life might feel like in the absence of fear.
Reality and the Void
For those of us who reject religious mythology in favor of Science, there is a presumption that we will experience nothing after we are dead. This “eternity of nothingness’ is what Western Brights believe, as Christians believe in Heaven and Hindus believe in reincarnation. Consciousness is what happens when a critical mass of computation comes together, sufficient for self-reference. Thus “The mind is what the brain does.”
This belief is an article of faith, not science but Scientism.
Scientific results suggestive that the experience of awareness is wider than the physical brain
But just as there is obvious evidence linking our consciousness to neural activity in our brains, there is also scientifically credible evidence that consciousness is not wholly within the brain.
- Animal navigation – homing pigeons, salmon, Monarch butterflies, dog and cat stories – how do they do it?
Stories of near death experiences have been collected by some Western doctors, but they are apparently much more common in cultures that support beliefs about an afterlife.
Michael Newton collects stories from his psychotherapy practice of people who remember past lives.
Caterpillars’ bodies, including nerves and ganglia, are dissolved in the crysalis and regrown in the butterfly[ref]. And yet, caterpillars can be trained in a memory task, and the butterflies they become retain the memory [ref].
Perhaps consciousness is primary. Consciousness is sewn through matter. Life is consciousness playng with matter, making a physical home for itself. Some aspects of consciousness are shared, delocalized, communal.
Perhaps. But these things feel to me like a grasping for loopholes, and not a deep cure for fear. They function as a diversion, the way I used math problems and love as a small child.
I don’t have a deep cure for fear, but I am aware of times in my life when fear seems to be in remission, and I relish them. Sometimes they are associated with meditation, sometimes with long days spent away from civilization, sometimes while fasting I can just sit and feel perfectly content with All Just As It Is, and sometimes there is lucidity and freedom from fear comes to me as a gift, I know not whence.
The bottom line
I am adding “freedom from fear” to my mantras for morning meditation. Also – what was that thing that they say is the opposite of fear?
* Of course, without aging, this is a different kind of “life span” – it is an average over a much wider set of probabilities. There’s a much higher probability that I’ll die in the first 500 years; but at the other end, there’s a 1 in 4 chance I’d live to 2,000 years and a 1 in 1/1024 chance I’d live to 10,000 years. (For comparison, in the presence of aging the probability of living to twice the life expectancy is zero, and the probability of living to ten times the life expectancy is zero.)
** Some uses of the word “awesome” are actually appropriate.
This post originally appeared on Josh’s blog here: http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com/2013/12/26/love-of-life-or-fear-of-death/