The Human Condition

Last week, I had the honor and privilege of co-hosting the monthly #1Tribe Tweetchat with Ann Wendel of Prana Physical Therapy. #1Tribe is a gathering of folks on Twitter to chat together on various topics at the intersection of ancestral health and community. If you haven’t yet, join us sometime! I met Ann and her husband Dave at AHS12, and I’m looking forward to running into both of them again soon. It looks like they’re going to be at Paleo FX13 in March, so if you go, be sure and say “hi.”

Loss, grief, and traditions/rituals surrounding those human emotions were the topics of our chat. I thought it was a great opportunity to explore a universal among humans, something that ties us all together, something that, if we relax for a second and think about it, has been experienced by everyone on earth ever.

At one point in the chat, I asked:

A few folks expressed interest in hearing those thoughts, so here they are. I will do my best to make sense, but feel free to ask questions in the comments. And please know that I am by no means an expert in this stuff either. In fact, I am in dire need of a refresher course myself.

I’ve been studying Eastern religions and philosophies for almost 15 years now, so my perspective is grounded firmly there. I’ve tangled Buddhism and Paleo before here, if you’re interested. I do not consider myself a follower of Buddhism per se. I enjoy the philosophy and the intentions, but I’m much more interested in the practical applications of it, an engaged interaction with the world rather than a sit-on-a-mountaintop-away-from-the-world style.

My general thinking on an afterlife is similar to the Buddha’s: whatever happens after our death is of less concern than the time we are wasting discussing it. In a horribly irresponsible nutshell, the Buddha realized that our identification with our egos, with the limited view of life we see and operate within on a daily basis, is the main problem. One of his teachings was that, yes, there is death, but no one who dies. In one of my favorite textbooks, Awakening, Patrick S. Bresnan likens this to a wave of wind through a field. It comes to an end, but nothing has been destroyed, nothing has “died.”

But this is still difficult to accept: “What a horrible thought—that I, this infinitely wonderful being, this personal center of the universe, could eventually just stop existing.” (Bresnan) Don’t make me get all FDR on you, but just as with many things in life, it is our fear of death that is far worse than the actual event. And because no one has been able to let us know what things are like on the other side, it is the supreme fear that we all carry. It haunts us all everyday, even when we think it isn’t. All the illusions of our lives—the daily grind, the dilemmas, the commute, the love affairs, the ice cream—are there to distract us from the truth. Someday, we’re all going to—oh hey! Look at the cute doggie!

When I spend time contemplating this, it’s interesting. I think, “Wow, someday, I won’t wake up and brush my teeth. I won’t open my eyes. There will be a day when I just don’t open my eyes. I won’t have to decide what to wear or what to have for breakfast. The decisions, the strife, the joy, the experiences, the sum of my life, all of it will just. Not. Happen.” Or matter. Some vestige of my memory will live on in those who knew me, but give it a good generation or two, and honestly folks…let’s just say we delude ourselves with our self-importance on a daily basis. That’s why people like Bill Clinton make me guffaw when they talk about things like “their legacy.” Bill was widely reported to be worried about his legacy, curating it actively via things like the Clinton Library. But give it another two generations and no one will care, give it another couple hundred years (or sooner, depending on how quickly this nation of ours disintegrates), and no one will remember at all. If you think I’m lying, then fine, give it five thousand years. The time matters not. The only time that matters is the time you’re spending reading this right now. (I’m so sorry.)

Maybe the dinosaurs had their own concerns and dramas, but they are lost to us now. And besides, we only have another ±5 billion years before the sun dies. Which is all to say that any concerns, past or future, that remove us from now are unnecessary. They may be fun to discuss and they may even be important to our lives, but ultimately all those concerns die the same death with us.

Which isn’t to say that our dramas are unimportant now. Of course we feel things like loss deeply. As modern people living modern lives and unless we renounce it all to become a hermit on a mountaintop, we have events and people and things to do, love, and lose. In order to function on a daily basis, we must attach ourselves to outcomes at work, in relationships, even at play. We are humans on earth, after all, with all the tears, laughter, pain, and happiness that come with it.

Which is where evolution comes in. All that human messiness is what we evolved with and it might be part of our success as a species. Weird, right? We’re social creatures, we survive because we can cooperate and we can learn from each other. And when that concerned loss and death, we built rituals around it to help the group get through it and those rituals bonded us closer together. They still do. This is our human heritage, our inheritance, our birthright. We are entitled to full, human lives. The reasons for this life or why we’re here—though fun to debate and ponder—are unimportant, it’s enough that we are here, and for such a precious short time.

In another sense, DNA is the currency of all this. If we could see every coupling going back in time for millions of years that resulted in you sitting there reading this, at some point humans would start to look different, then very different, and then like something else entirely until we had to grab our microscopes. This is mind-blowing. You have millions of years of ancestors on earth. This information continues to evolve. If we could peek ahead a million years (assuming humans are still around), humans will look different again, though by how much is impossible to know. Our limited human understanding of time almost can’t permit this line of thinking (partly because the ego can only conceive of itself within its own context). The DNA I passed down to my daughter is another stepping stone on that path. While it doesn’t look like much now, if we were to zoom out into a geologic timeframe, it absolutely matters in the big scheme of things. Don’t believe me? Go stand next to a chimpanzee. Every bit counts, and therein lies an immortality of sorts (well, until the sun blows up anyway).

How’s that for an afterlife? Hmm…reminds me a bit of the Buddha’s description of his understanding of reincarnation. Having come from Hinduism, he accepted reincarnation, but did not believe that an individual ego was transplanted whole into another living being. In other words, one will not come back with any knowledge of former self/selves. Rather, it’s almost like he understood that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. He described the process more like a row of candles. You light one candle and light the one next to it and that one lights the one next to it, and so on. It is not the same flame that started it all, and yet somehow it is. And so it is with human lineage via DNA. Poor Bill Clinton is so sadly mistaken about that library. His greatest legacy is his daughter Chelsea.

So the dinosaurs came and went and the sun is going to burn out someday. Now what do we do? What’s the lesson here? All we have is right now. This life. It’s all up to you. Forget those show ponies in Washington, when it comes to your life and your outlook, it’s all up to you. And we live in an unprecedented time of comfort and choice, so let’s all do our best to enjoy this time, shall we?

Great, but let me burst another bubble. You didn’t think I was going to get all warm and fuzzy, did you? Suckers.

No adults required.

So there are those who say we should be present everyday. Especially when you have kids, suddenly parents whose kids are grown sigh at you and instruct you to soak it up all you can, to lay down your life for them in any way you can because before you know it, they’ll be gone. I want to clobber those people. I can’t possibly be more present and available to my daughter than I am now without melting into a pile of brainless goo. In fact, if we look to human history to guide us, that level of attention and constant appreciation has never existed and may not be humanly possible. I’ll just go on the record here and say IT IS NOT POSSIBLE. And besides, it’s my right to grow old and feel like I wasn’t present enough for my daughter! What the hell else am I going to annoy young parents with, if not infernal advice about being present?!

The human brain is capable of amazing things, but being happy every goddamn day and present to everything is impossible. Oprah and her minions would have you believe that with a little effort, it can all be yours, this perfect elysian universe where everyone says the perfect thing, validates all your feelings, and—oh look! That $1,500 purse you never knew you wanted is taped under your studio audience seat! Why do I hear the Buddha laughing again?

We cannot escape the bad by constantly chasing the good. Talking about nothing but rainbows and unicorns will not make awful things in this life go away. It may actually intensify them. Think about it. We spend an inordinate amount of our time chasing comfort and pleasure in small and large ways: air conditioning, fast food, psychotherapy, sex, house decorating, shoe shopping, anti-depressants, ice cream (again!), drugs, socializing, etc. Which isn’t to say that we can’t strive for improvement or aim for awareness or change or even pleasure, just that we need to know who’s in charge, you or the sex topped with ice cream, methamphetamines, and chocolate sauce (that’s Paleo, right?)?

Dark and lonely trudge, or peaceful and quiet stroll?

So what’s the solution? If you haven’t figured this out, though I suspect you have, bad things are going to happen. Take a deep breath. They are going to happen whether you try to avoid them or not. So doesn’t it make sense to stop wasting time and energy on avoiding it? It is absolutely terrifying to realize that we are indeed alone in this life. But the flip side of that is some empowering news: it’s all up to you!

What if (and this is a HUGE what-if) you could face it when you see it coming and say, “YES.” You can hear it, smell it, feel it coming and you turn and stare that ugly monster in the face and say, “YES.” The only way out of our self-imposed, ridiculous cycles of suffering is to say “YES” to all of it, the good and the bad. Resistance is futile. Because here’s the catch: if you’re constantly anticipating the bad, worrying about it, planning for it, then you cannot be fully present for the good. And if you chase the good to escape the bad, you either fail or you create more bad. So just stop already, take a deep breath, and say “Yes.” Do not be in love with either the good or the bad, be in love with what is. Not what should, would, or could be. What is. This life. Embrace it all. Right now. This word. Each letter. Now close your eyes—that breath.

If you’re feeling brave and you want to take this to the next level, here are two fun meditations-in-action for you.

Extra Credit #1: The next time you find yourself being confronted or in an argument, try to intercept your defense response with a deep breath. Instead of retorting, say to yourself, “Yes.” Listen. Even if someone is being completely irrational and crazy, you might just hear the underlying frustration there, something we all feel sometimes.

It sounds simple, but I dare you to come back and tell me how easy this was in practice.

Extra Credit #2: You can try this anywhere, even on your floor at home. If you do yoga (secret: all of yoga is preparation for death), try this during Savasana (corpse pose) at the end. For a dose of reality, take it outdoors to your yard or a park. You sure you’re ready for this? We’re going to take that yoga pose a little more literally.

Lie down on your back with arms at your sides. Get real quiet and still. Work on making your breath slow, deep, and even. This may take several minutes. Now close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Probably traffic somewhere, maybe birds or people talking. Wind, dogs barking, the air conditioning switching on. Whatever it is, hear it and let it pass, like clouds in a sky. Feel your body sink into the ground, more and more with each breath, as if you’re melting into the ground. Find areas of tension (jaw, eyes, tongue, and hands are common places) and relax them.

Imagine you are now an empty vessel. This is your body’s final resting place. It doesn’t matter how you got here or what happened, because you are at peace now. Imagine listening to the world and its concerns fly by you. You don’t have to engage with it or have an opinion about it. If you find a sound annoying you, try switching the perspective to one of amusement, “Huh. When I was alive, that sound would’ve bothered me.” Bonus points for allowing an insect to crawl on you without swatting it away immediately.

Chances are, you won’t be able to maintain attention on this for long, maybe 5-10 minutes tops. When you find yourself distracted too much or thinking of a grocery list, you’re done.


10 Responses to “The Human Condition”

  1. Thank you for your insightful post. I especially appreciated this:

    …if you’re constantly anticipating the bad, worrying about it, planning for it, then you cannot be fully present for the good. And if you chase the good to escape the bad, you either fail or you create more bad. So just stop already, take a deep breath, and say “Yes.” Do not be in love with either the good or the bad, be in love with what is. Not what should, would, or could be. What is. This life. Embrace it all. Right now. This word. Each letter. Now close your eyes—that breath.

    It’s hard to break the cycles of worrying or chasing the good; I’ve been doing a little of both lately. Your post seemed timely for me and I appreciate the renewed perspective. Cheers.

    • Wow, thank you so much, lovely comment.

      I apologize if I made any of this sound easy, it’s most certainly not. It requires plenty of practice and reinforcement. But sometimes the initial awareness of something can be all the weight you need to pull you in the right direction. :)

      Best of luck to you!

  2. What a great lesson about acceptance. I predict I will fail at the extra credit before I succeed.

  3. I’m glad you decided to write this up! Really appreciate you taking the time to share it.

    This very closely mimics my thoughts and feelings on the matter, though I don’t have the extensive education in eastern philosophies that you do. And I hadn’t realized that these philosophies were similar to the way I think about these sort of things. Very interesting.

    People seem to find it odd that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m going to die, at such a young age (a missing comma there might be scary). I’ve had this discussion with many of my friends, and they seem to think that my point of view and my not believing in “heaven” is depressing. They always ask me “if there’s nothing after, then what’s the point in doing it? What are we doing this for if not to get to something better?” (funny thing is, I enjoy life a lot more than they seem to)

    The way I look at it is it’s pretty freaking incredible and lucky that we even exist right now. I don’t want to take it for granted and waste it while hoping something “better” will happen. I want to take advantage of my present and live a fulfulling (to me) life, through experiences not things (I don’t want to be the richest man in the graveyard).

    That’s one of the reasons I appreciate being healthy so much: it increases the happy:sad ratio of my life. I want to live well, before I die. Which is why I don’t get the whole giving up your life (a sure thing) adhering to something that may get you into a place after life is over.

    Your position on bad things happening also resonates with me. If there’s nothing I could have done to prevent the bad thing, I let it go (usually finding humour in it). If there’s nothing I can do to fix the bad thing or make it un-happen, I let it go. I like the phrase “no use crying over spilled milk” for a couple reasons. 1) it’s so miniscule and unimportant that it doesn’t matter; 2) you can’t put the milk back into the container so move on.

    I wasn’t always like this, though. But meditating and learning to appreciate “living in the moment” has helped a great deal. I tried wrote a blog post on how immersing oneself in nature almost forces living in the moment aka mindfulness — an experience I’m sure you’re quite familiar with.

    Once again, I really like your perspective; and I will definitely give those homework assignments a go.


    • Thank you for such a thoughtful response, James!

      I think a lot of this stuff is quite intuitive for those who pause to notice. It doesn’t surprise me that this might resonate with you, reminds me of people who eat eat meat, veg, and fruit and then one day say, “Paleo? That’s how I’ve been eating for years!”

      You might appreciate digging into Taoism, which chronicles the lonely hermit-sage. For example: “So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind; Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily; Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness; Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.” (from the Tao Te Ching, Feng and English translation) Buddhism, too, has a rich history of that, “Be a lantern unto yourself.”

      Are you an introvert too, James? Your interactions with your friends leads me to think it’s a possibility. :)

      And yes, writing about anything metaphysical is quite the challenge, no? It tends to be more charged in the experience. Words fail experience every time, a sad realization for a writer. But I suppose I might die trying.

    • re death:

      I’m not scared of the year 1989 (a time when I didn’t exist) and so I don’t fear what happens to me after I die (a time when I simply no longer exist). Sure, I don’t want to die. I love life. But there’s no point worrying about something that can’t be controlled, and so I’ve moved on.

      • That’s a great way to think of it! It reminds me of what I’ve heard about a Japanese belief that babies and old people are just two sides of the same circle, one is emerging and one is returning.

        But…um…you didn’t exist in 1989?! I am so old… ;)

  4. Thank you for this post. I’ve long had a fear of death- I remember being 5 and telling my mom that I was afraid of it! I honestly don’t know why… surely part of it is because I’m afraid of the unknown, but also because I’m afraid it will hurt or be really uncomfortable. Most of the time I just tell myself not to think about it, but every so often I do and get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Reading this post made me feel a bit better about my fear, I’ll have to save it to refer back to!

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