06 May 2011

The Abyss of Death

In this post I want to look at a theme that I explored in my recent talk at the London Buddhist Centre (available on Free Buddhist Audio). Thomas Metzinger points out that evolution has imbued all life with a powerful urge to continuity. We humans experience this on a number of levels - we will do almost anything to ensure our personal continuity; and most of us will also try to ensure our genetic continuity by procreating. We share this fundamental drive with all life - animals, plants, and even viruses. Indeed a virus does little else except reproduce itself with no sense of purpose, but relentless efficiency. The 'urge' for continuity underlies all of our other basic needs - shelter, food, water, air. I did not see the film 127 Hours, but I know the story - a man is trapped by a boulder while climbing and after several days cuts his own arm off in order to get free. It's a true story. Likewise people survive through all kinds of adversity and oppression - concentration camps, ship wrecks, wars, and slavery. The survival instinct is extremely powerful.

But at the same time evolution has given us consciousness. Emerging (probably) out of our need to regulate our internal milieu and optimise our response to the environment we animals began to model our own internal states using our complex brains. At some point our awareness of ourselves became part of the picture - we became aware of ourselves as being aware. The advantages of this are manifold. We can better grasp social interactions because we can understand what another is feeling through emulating emotions; we can learn what others do by imitating them; and we can imagine various possibilities of action and weigh the consequences. The benefits of having an ego are huge, and in particular it allows us to be moral beings. If any other animals have this ability it is only very rudimentary.

But Metzinger also notes that with the evolution of this amazing new ability comes another kind of knowledge. The knowledge that we will grow old, become ill, and die. Death is a certainty. When we see a corpse we know that something we value is missing. We can hold decay at bay with preservatives such as formaldehyde or honey, but the corpse is only preserved and does not continue except as inert matter. Life leaves us, consciousness leaves us. Seeing a corpse can be a profoundly, existentially disturbing experience, but it is also entirely natural and inevitable for all living things to die.

This certain knowledge of the inevitability of death creates a conflict with our most basic and powerful drive which is for continuity. It is the proverbial irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Not continuing is an option few of us can really take seriously as an option because deep down inside our most singular and powerful drive is to keep going. We Buddhists have memorialised this conflict in the story of the four sights - in various different tellings the youthful Siddhartha sees old age, sickness and death, (as if) for the first time, and he is engulfed by the dilemma. In those days men and women left their home life and social ties to seek an answer - they were called śramaṇas 'toilers'. The Buddha to be joined first one and then another band of wanderers seeking the way to the deathless. Our story says that he eventually abandoned all previous methods and found the way on his own, and that this 'way' is what we pass on from one generation to the next. The details are specific to Buddhism, but the theme is universal.

Most human cultures have stories about post-mortem continuity, be it a return to earth (usually via some intermediate state) or arrival in some version of a perfect world. Although genuine nihilism does crop up from time to time, I think we are mostly naive eternalists. Almost all of these stories require consciousness to be distinct from matter, to be able to exist without a body - that is to say a mind/body duality. In Buddhism we even find it said that consciousness causes a body to come into being. Those who curate these stories -- priests -- often become powerful and rich, but at the very least they are usually respected and influential. However, even in the presence of powerful priests, ordinary folk will often maintain their own local traditions of continuity through local spirits and ghosts and the like. The interesting spin in India is that repeated rebirth came to be seen as a burden to be put down in favour of something more satisfying which the spiritual masters called variously brahman, vimokṣa or nirvaṇa.

Whatever we make of these stories - whether we take them literally or dismiss them, or find some compromise - we all face this tension between the continuity imperative and the certainty of our own death. The great magnitude of the tension is reflected in the grip we take on these stories - some people will kill or be killed before giving up their particular story. Many people are just not equipped to deal with the idea of death as a discontinuity, and most are not willing to see it that way. There often a hint of moral condemnation from religious people against those who declare that no continuity is possible. During his US Presidency George Bush apparently opined that an atheist could not be a citizen or a patriot for instance.

The fact of death is an abyss, a hole that can't be filled. It is not something we can fix on it's own level. But we can bring light to the situation. We can care, i.e. care about and care for other living beings. We can be kind and generous. We can be selfless. Although consciousness brings the abyss of knowledge of personal death, it brings the blessing of selfless acts of kindness. Ironically we find fulfilment in selflessness.
Related Posts with Thumbnails