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death & impermanence

The following is a quotation of an audio clip by American philosopher Sam Harris:

“Many of us do most of what we do in spite of the fact that we will eventually die. In this sense, life is a distraction from the reality of death. We live, as Ernest Becker wrote, ‘in a state of death denial.’

After all, we are in a strange situation.

We’re all going to die just as surely as if we’d already fallen from a cliff. We just do our best to ignore the resulting feeling of weightlessness, and the roar of the wind in our ears. In the meantime, whatever ordinary happiness we achieve seems somehow diminished, when we consider the fact that our lives in this world will come to an end.

But there is a way of turning this logic around. We can begin to do things not in spite of death, but because of it. More and more, we can lean into the truth of impermanence. And rather than make us morbid, it can make us appreciate just how beautiful life is.

You’re alive. What do you get to do today? You can go for a walk. You can make pancakes for someone you love. You can read a good book. When you do these things in spite of death, everything can seem ultimately pointless. But when you truly embrace impermanence, the point is always ‘now.’ You get to make full contact with the reality of life now. What other point, or purpose, could you hope for?”

Have you ever had an “intrusive thought”? For some of you, this may be a new term, but I know from the blog feedback that other readers know this term well. An example: you’re driving across a bridge in your car, and an unwanted thought pops into your head: What if I just…drive off the bridge?

Abruptly you think: WTF. Why did I just think that? Most people just shake it off and keep driving.

But for others, we examine these thoughts, perhaps too much. Some ideate on death: what would it mean? Who would care? In the biz, they call these thoughts “suicidal ideations,” and they run rampant in the minds of people experiencing depression, anxiety, and psychosis. I call it “sitting on the edge of death.” Death becomes a coaxing bad influence, and its greetings start to become all too familiar. At my worst, sitting with death felt comforting, a feeling of calm relief from the pain in my core and the pit in my stomach.

When you sit with death for long enough, you start to realize some things about yourself and life in general. As corny as it may sound, Tim McGraw has a song about this phenomenon called “Live Like You Were Dying.” In the song, the subject receives a bad diagnosis and recognizes that his life will end soon, causing him to start living in the “now” and feeling true happiness. I went skydiving, I went rocky mountain climbing…someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

There’s a reason why the song is McGraw’s number one hit. It illustrates the “impermanence” factor that Harris describes in the opening quote. It gets at the very thing that defines the best human experience as we know it: operating with the distinct awareness that we will die, and in turn, truly living. Whereas others may trudge on, pretending that life won’t ever end, avoiding the inevitable.

Ever since I was a kid, I thought I would die young. In fact, my personal “time horizon” didn’t extend past 40 years of age. I was living hard and fast, because I felt that impermanence—perhaps a little too much. But lately, after deep therapy work, meditation, writing, medicine, and lifestyle changes, I’ve felt my time horizon extend just a little bit.

You see, I have a new dream. I want to be on my death bed in old age, dying of natural causes, thinking to myself: I made it. I didn’t succumb to such ideations. I lived life well, and I lived it for me. That’s been the quest, really: figuring out how to love myself enough to want to live for myself, and not because I owe anyone else my life, love, or time.

If I’ve learned anything from my meditations so far, it’s that the key to happiness is acknowledging that not every moment will be happy. It’s recognizing that sorrow and anger will come, but like a bad thought, we let them pass. In this, we practice non-attachment to any emotion, happy or sad.

This impermanence of life, impermanence of emotions—this is what the philosophers tell me. And to be honest, I buy it, except for one feeling. One feeling has remained constant my whole life: not feeling loved enough by the people who were “supposed to” love me. I fucking crave love, man, so much that I even try to manufacture it on the internet by sharing pieces like this.

Let me throw a wrench in it now—a curve ball into impermanence theory. It’s called longevity research, and it’s now a formal part of Jack’s job. This past month, Dr. David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School published a paper describing a 13-year-long study that was heard around the world: he was able to reverse the biological age of mice by restoring various cellular processes. Says Sinclair: “This is the first study showing that we can have precise control of the biological age of a complex animal; that we can drive it forwards and backwards at will.” Basically, this study opened the door for Western medicine to reverse the biological age of humans.

Over the last year, I have resisted this topic on philosophical and emotional grounds. My thoughts included the following: We’re supposed to die, it’s part of the human experience, and how can I even think about this shit when I’m just trying to make it to tomorrow?

But seriously—what if we don’t have to die? Or at least, what if we can extend our lifespans by another 50 years?

That’s the question at the forefront of modern biochemical science, and consequently, our dinner table conversations. I’ll be wrestling with its philosophical consequences as the studies unfold over my lifetime. Do I even want to live longer? Why is the answer an obvious “YES” for some people? Is it because their lives are already great, and they want to continue their pleasant experience of living? Will I take some of the pills in the stashes of NMN (longevity drug) in our medicine cabinet? Can I make my life so beautiful that I blissfully hope it never ends?

For now, I’ll keep meditating, and continue to take things one day at a time.


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