On: Gratitude… and Death (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two part post.  If you haven’t read the first part you can do that here.

In Part I, we explored how the process of looking a little more deeply into the world and ‘unpacking’ those things we habitually take for granted can enhance and upgrade our experience of life, wholesale.

At the end of that post I wrote that there was something else you could do; something that would exponentially compound this sense of joy, this new vision, this greater depth.  Something that would trammel it all into your regular day to day, and render it’s habitual application both automatic, and effortless.

Would you like to know what that ‘something’ is?…

PartII

It is: to understand, consider deeply, and keep in mind the fact that: you are going to die.

Just stay with that for a moment.

OK.

You could be forgiven if your first thought was that this statement seems: negative, maudlin or downright depressing.  As a culture we have not historically had the best relationship with the concept of death.  In truth, our knee-jerk reaction has typically been: to resist at every turn the stark reality of our innate fragility.  To take the knowledge of our inevitable demise and push it as far away from us as we can.  Essentially, to avoid it at all costs.

So we keep it behind closed hospital curtains.  We keep it locked away in rooms of sterile chrome.  Or we bury it as deeply as we can, both in the unconscious depths of our psyches, or in the muffling darkness of the earth; quarantined and forever imprisoned in countless hermetically sealed caskets.

Why do we do this?

Well, whilst there are countless books in both the spiritual and psychological ouvres, filled and being filled with ever more complex and confounding theories; each, any, and every answer to this question is merely a branch connected to a tree which rises and is held upright by a single ever-hungry root.

And that root is Fear.

Put as simply as possible: the thought of death engenders fear to a greater or lesser degree in nearly 100% of the human population.  Said differently: fear is the natural reaction of the human mind to the idea of death.

So, given that it’s a natural reaction, why shouldn’t we stick with it as our response?  Why shouldn’t we resist the thought of death with as much willpower as we can muster, whilst simultaneously seeking out ways to either: temporarily escape, or ignore it as best we can?  What’s wrong with simply doing our best to put it out of our minds?

Glad you asked, because Here’s The Thing:

The further we push the idea of death away from us the more space we leave for ennui to creep into our lives.  The more time we spend wishing things were different, the greyer our existence becomes.  And the more we seek to escape and ignore this most fundamental of truths, the more we allow the growing and necrotic cancer spawned of boredom and complacency to take root in the heart of our everyday lives. 

And here’s the rub.

Whilst potentially terrifying, and: stomach-churningly, skull-leeringly, nausea-inducingly random, the knowledge of our death can also be… helpful.

Actually, even more than helpful.  Because the truth is: unless you can consciously own the fact that something is transient and finite, you can never gain the full measure of it’s beauty or worth.  The tree exploding with cherry blossom, a first kiss, or a last kiss, would not be even halfway as beautiful were they not: rare, unique, and fleeting.

Life is transient by it’s nature, the only constant is change, and our time runs ever-short.  You, me, and everybody we know will one day die.  We are each of us sleepwalking thru the richest meat of our lives; past jewels unmined, wonders unseen, and opportunities ever-lost to the black and silent fingers of time.

Wake up.  It is much later than you think.

I wish you well.

– J


My name is James Radcliffe and I am a 100% audience supported independent artist.  If you like what I do (and can afford it) then please consider buying some of my music.  Each purchase really makes a big difference to me and 10% of every sale goes to a charity which: houses, feeds, clothes, and educates orphaned children in Nepal.

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74 Replies to “On: Gratitude… and Death (Part 2)”

  1. Hi James

    A lot in what you write, and a few assumptions in there that seem to me to be major limitations on the classes of possibility that may occur.

    I completely agree that our experience of existence is only a very tiny fraction of the possibilities present. As you are aware I have written extensively on that elsewhere.

    We align very much on those aspects.

    Where we part significantly is in relation to death.
    Certainly there are aspects of alignment.
    Watching an oncologist write “palliative care only” on my file notes was not in my life plan. Accepting that had a profound aspect. Accepting that it was only his opinion, his best guess, allowed me to look for alternatives, and to recently celebrate 5 years clear of tumours, by application of intention to diet and being more generally.

    And I agree with hrobertson2013, that it does seem possible (however improbable) to live for the rest of eternity.
    In this sense, death is not certain.
    From the cellular perspective, all life alive today on this planet seems to be part of a continuum of cellular life some 4 billion years old. Certainly, the vast majority of cells ever to have existed have perished, and all those alive today have not. All cells alive today are, in a very real sense, some 4 billion years old.

    I expect indefinite life extension to be a real possibility for these large collections of cells we call human beings in the very near future, and I have been confident since 1974 that such was a logical possibility (though still not a certainty).

    I have had more than my share of experiences that took me very close to death.
    I appreciate life, and the diversity it offers, the richness it has.
    A cup of coffee, a pencil, any of the tools we take as common involve many actions by many people and machines. Those are indeed profound contemplations, and can deliver profound appreciation for existence.

    And there is another line of enquiry entirely – the nature of value.
    It seems that all of our values, genetic and culturally inspired, are some function of survival over deep time.
    Evolution in this sense is an amazing concept, infinitely deep, infinitely recursive, infinitely fractal and cosslinking in extremely subtle ways.

    __ So in this sense, all of our emotions, all of our default sets of genetic and cultural values seem clearly to be some function of survival over deep time, and as such, not necessarily relevant to our exponentially changing present. __

    Please go back and read that 3 times, and pause and contemplate it anew for at least 10 seconds each time.

    I have spent many hours traversing the fractal arms of the implications of that realisation.

    A world devoid of historical precedent!

    Having just done a course for decision makers in our legal system, I am profoundly aware of just how antithetical to culture such an idea is.

    So for me – I am left with two chosen values, individual life, and individual liberty – applied universally; both of which come in contexts of social and ecological responsibility, and of course in the wider context of the physicality of our cosmological reality (whatever that actually may be).

    Enjoyed reading most of what you wrote.
    We seem to align on much.

    And for me, death has assumed all the characteristics of a disease – something real, something present, and something to be cured if at all possible.

    Like

    1. First, thanks a lot for taking the time to read my work, it is very much appreciated.
      And, thankyou for this very in-depth, seemingly stream-of-consciousness reply. We do seem to align on much.
      Have a great day you, be well,
      – J

      Like

      1. Hi James,,

        In one sense, all words are stream of consciousness, the nature of the stream can say something about the territory through which it flows.

        In another sense, what I wrote was intended as a logical and coherent response to what you wrote, and all the comments existing at that time, and is to be read in that context.

        In that context, it is attempting to point at a third level set of strategic abstractions of our current situation and a path to a future with the highest levels of benefit I have found likely in the 40+ years I have spent considering such things in detail.
        In a sense, I am not worried about specifics, as they are too complex to have any real certainty over. What most interests me is the context of contexts (most specifically sets of values) one uses when making strategic choices – at all temporal scales.

        Does that make anything clearer, or murkier?

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Perhaps I just need to live with Murkier, and perhaps not.

            Consider that in my world, what I wrote is a simple expression of something that is profoundly not simple.

            I opened with “A lot in what you write, and a few assumptions in there that seem to me to be major limitations on the classes of possibility that may occur.
            I completely agree that our experience of existence is only a very tiny fraction of the possibilities present. As you are aware I have written extensively on that elsewhere.
            We align very much on those aspects.”

            I know you have read some of my writings – so I left it simply as that.

            I am clear that our experience of being is not of reality, but of a slightly predictive,and highly simplified, software model of reality, that our subconscious brains assemble for us, based upon the experience of our past, the habit and distinctions we have learned, and on the various levels of filters present in the genetic and cultural systems that are present at that subconscious level.

            I have written extensively on such things, and your site removed the links from my original post – which did severely interfere with the structure I had created. As you don’t allow links, then all I can say is search my site for :
            “consciousness-venn-diagram” gives a graphic representation of this view;
            “can-we-honour-all-religions” looks at illusion in the notion of truth;
            “intelligence-and-robotics” is one look at how complex we are.

            The ideas present are all important to the deeper level of abstraction I am pointing to, and for the sake of brevity, I inserted links, rather than typing anew – but it was removed.

            I continued with “Where we part significantly is in relation to death”.
            What I wrote there stands, and it stands in a deep context of evolution.

            Evolution is both simple and complex.
            A profoundly simple idea – differential survival of variants in different environments.
            A profoundly complex reality of recursive exploration of new domains.
            Evolution is recursive – it folds back on itself, creating new levels as it does so.
            Evolution starts with differential survival of variants.
            One way of viewing evolution is in terms of strategies. How does that specific set of strategies work in practice in the specific sets of environments present.
            Evolution always works through the specific individuals present (at chemical, cellular, organism and higher level groupings) and at every level those individuals (atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, etc) can come and go and be part of higher level associations.
            Evolution works on all levels present, simultaneously.
            Time is an important dimension to evolution. strategies exist across different time scales at different levels of association – this can be profoundly important when considering the impact of very rare but highly selective events.

            So it is true, that in one sense, evolution is about survival, and competition is often a big part of survival.

            And there is a whole “other side” to evolution that is about cooperation, and that hasn’t had much press.

            It is accurate to characterise all major advances in the complexity of evolved systems as the emergence of new levels of cooperation.
            And raw cooperation is always vulnerable to cheating.
            To be stable, cooperation requires attendant strategies to prevent cheats from dominating.

            When one looks at evolution, one can see many levels of such strategic systems.
            Chemical – atoms leading to molecules; RNAs replicating with the aid of other groups of RNAs; Even larger groups of RNAs allowing the production of proteins; RNAs and proteins working together to develop sugars and lipids; leading to cells.
            And on and on it goes.
            By the time you get to us, there are about 12 levels of such chemical/physical strategic systems present – with vast arrays of subtle and not so subtle stabilising strategies present to prevent cheating (including the amazing complexity that is our immune system, and our emotional systems).

            When you get to people with complex brains, then the process recurs at new levels in the sorts of associations of behavioural strategies we see in levels of cultures.
            So in the average human adult, there are at least 20 levels of such strategic cooperative systems present, every one of which has its sets of attendant strategies that work, in practice, to some degree, in the contexts present in the deep time of our genetic and cultural past.

            I tried to say that simply in the sentences “And there is another line of enquiry entirely – the nature of value.
            It seems that all of our values, genetic and culturally inspired, are some function of survival over deep time.
            Evolution in this sense is an amazing concept, infinitely deep, infinitely recursive, infinitely fractal and cross-linking in extremely subtle ways.”

            I am clear that all of our feelings, our desires, our default sets of motivators – genetic and cultural, are selected and tuned by differential survival over deep time, and are deeply interlinked with both cooperative and competitive contexts of our past.

            The key insight, that is so difficult to get, is that our exponentially changing present can create conditions where none of that selection from our past is relevant.

            __None__

            We face conditions of such novelty, such complexity, such chaos, that none of the systems of our deep past can possibly prepare us.

            Logic tells us that it is unpredictable.
            Logic tells us that in a very real sense, the most appropriate response to some classes and contexts of complexity is the purely random.

            But how random can we be?
            How much is our ability to create the random constrained?
            How much does our living in a model constrain our ability to perceive the truly novel?
            If we relax the boundaries on our models, how much of what occurs has any reality to it?
            How much time must one spend in such conditions of degraded confidence before one’s intuitions start to reliably adapt?

            These are not trivial or simple questions.
            One needs to get to a place where one is willing and able to ask such questions.
            That cannot be a comfortable journey – I know of no way to make it so.

            Like

          2. Guys like Tony Robbins and groups like Landmark Education teach something real, about authenticity, about feelings.

            I am not in any way suggesting that we deny out feelings, or deny our authenticity.

            I am suggesting, in the tradition Buddhism that our fundamental nature has a profoundly cooperative aspect.

            I am suggesting that it is possible to be true that that profoundly cooperative aspect that is fundamentally in service of ones own needs, and the need of all others in society; and that amongst those needs are the needs for both life and liberty, and all the tools and resources reasonably required to sustain those things.

            No hard boundaries.
            No fixed rules even theoretically possible.
            Truly complex systems, with boundaries that can be flexible in any dimension.

            What I am explicitly saying is that our default sets of feelings, the one supplied by genetics and culture, can often be dangerous in our exponentially changing present.

            It takes real work to create such awareness.
            It takes persistence to generate new habits.

            It is a fundamentally uncertain approach to existence, and as such is directly opposed by our early (cultural and childhood) desire for simplicity, for ideas like right and wrong, true and false.

            What can one see of a rainbow viewed in black and white?

            Like

  2. Hey there,
    Saw the title of this post and could not resist the article. I think you are a great person for thinking. Not too many people do that these days. I think you are a wonderful mind and a good writer, once again not as many these days. After reading, I think you make a great point; appreciating and understanding how special our lives are and how the little things matter and the things we take for granted. Your first part was all great points. I in no way disagree with your second point, I just ask that you maybe consider another point: love. Why, instead of death, can love not be the thing that helps us to define and appreciate our lives. You are right, the only constant in this world is change. With change comes the universe and sporadic chaos and unpredictability. The universe is expanding, worlds blooming and dying. We hurtle through space on a rock that by all odds should not have supported life as we know it. In our day to day lives it is a wonder that we are not killed by a random; act, a car, a ladder, or the sun exploding. All things die, everything from single celled organisms to entire planets. Why do we not see love as the thing that makes us so human? People dismiss love. People have morphed and distorted its image. Love is a force so strong, so unwavering, so pure that it can define why we exist as a species. We love each other, and then we bring others into this world out of love. We promote life in the name of love. This is what makes that cup of coffee special. Do not discount the workers in the field; they cultivate, grow, and harvest the beans to provide for their family out of love. The planes and cars that bring you the beans are built to be safe by people who love their families, and the love of the human race, they do not want to see people die, they want to preserve life. That cup of coffee is great in all the ways you spoke of; however does not that cup of coffee really mean something if it is made out of love by another person for you? Whether that person is a parent, sibling, friend, or lover. That is what makes us special and makes us important. Love, it is what helps us to realize that every action is influenced and marked by love, and that deep down without love we are lost. Let me know your thoughts.
    Chris

    Like

    1. Hey there Chris,
      First, thankyou very much for: reading the post AND for taking the time to reply in such an in depth and well-thought-out fashion. I will do my best to respond in kind.
      I, in no way dismiss love. In fact, I would go as far to say that this is really the root of gratitude. For is not gratitude simply ‘loving what is?’ Semantics are not really our friend here, but for me it all exists on a kind of spectrum. And gratitude and love are very close on that spectrum.
      As to the question of why I chose focus on death in the article, it is mainly because I think it is the single most important blind spot that we all share. It is one of the points of greatest leverage when it comes to affecting real change. I am not sure if anyone can truly acknowledge their own mortality unless directly confronted by it, but I do believe that the conscious effort to do so is an important activity in our lives.
      Hope that has clarified my viewpoint for you. In case there is any question at all in your mind, I thoroughly agree with you. ;-)
      Thanks for stopping by, have a great day,
      – J

      Like

  3. Thankyou very much for this.
    It is obvious that you are not new to the subject, and have considered it deeply. I really appreciate your insight, and the fact that you have taken the time to share it with me.
    Glad to meet you, and keep up the good work. ;-)
    Have a great weekend,
    – J

    Like

  4. It is: to understand, consider deeply, and keep in mind the fact that: you are going to die.

    Beautiful your writing is riddled with great insight and an enchanting delivery I am officially a fan

    Like

  5. The only constant in life is change you said……..you nailed it. And about death, that´s also another constant in life, relationships come and go, jobs come and go, but death is for sure coming and not going anywhere. I made peace with it long time ago, since I´ve been quite close to it too many times, and making peace with it actually makes me a much more happier camper.

    Great post´s I´ve read today here.

    Like

    1. Thanks a lot for this. Really glad you got something from it.
      Making your peace with death is a huge deal. Well done Sir. Well done indeed.
      Hope your day is going well,
      Good to hear from you again,
      – J

      Like

  6. Hi James, thanks so much for liking my post The Meadow. I’m glad you liked it because it brought me to your lovely essay on Gratitude and Death. My son and I were just having a conversation this morning about the Ebola case here in Dallas and everyone’s fear and how it’s all anyone is talking about and that it is really just one more thing to hide behind, to keep from really seeing what’s important around them. I also listened to your music and plan to listen in some more when I have a bit of time. I like to support up and coming artists and so was wondering if your site allows purchases from the U.S.?

    Like

    1. Hey there,
      First, you are fully welcome. Keep up the good work!
      I completely agree with you, in that it is just one more thing to hide behind, a distraction from what is really important. You must have a very special relationship with your son if you can have those type of conversations with him. That’s pretty cool.
      The site fully allows purchases from the U.S. It will do all the conversion for you.
      Let me know what you think of the music, and thanks again for stopping by.
      Hope you have a great day,
      – J

      Like

      1. Great, I’ll stop by your site again on payday! I grew up with parents who believed children should be seen and not heard and were quite hands off in emotional/intellectual conversation of any kind. When I had my two boys it was very important to me to do that differently. We talked about everything as they grew up, things I wanted to talk about, things they wanted to talk about, and even more importantly things none of us wanted to talk about, but found a way anyway even when it was very difficult. That has continued into their adulthood. I think if something is important to you then you should work hard to make it a priority, no matter the difficulties because it will always pay dividends, even if only for yourself. Anyway, thanks again and I look forward to checking out more of your music. My younger son is an up and coming actor with a very strong musical bent and the arts of any kind is something we really enjoy. I’ll share your music with him as well.

        Like

        1. That’s really great, ;-)
          Thankyou very much, it means a lot to me.
          It’s really cool that you’ve taken something negative and turned it around in your own life. Truthful, open conversation is SO important, and I completely agree with you that it is vital to be honest with the ones you love, even (and especially) about the difficult things. I respect your approach massively and applaud you for it.
          Thanks again for stopping by, have a great weekend,
          – J

          Like

  7. I am not planning on dieing James. I’m going to break age barriers and live forever feeling young like some………beautiful demigod…..or mermaid….ha ha…..(It could happen!) I could also write this into a song. :)

    Like

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