Monday, April 4, 2016

The sense of one's own death


Drawing by Lee van Laer, 2016
Created in Procreate, with iPad pro and apple pencil

March 9

Over the last month, I've read  When Breath Becomes Air, a book written by a neurosurgeon who died of terminal lung cancer; and I am now reading Marion Coutts' The Iceberg, another meditation on mortality. I can recommend the first book because the author, Paul Kalanithi, comes to some significant (if not, for students of the Gurdjieff method, surprising) realizations about the nature of relationship and humanity, essential ones. The book also manages to clear an emotional bar and give us a worthy picture of how we struggle with ourselves and our mortality.

Marion Coutt's book is an altogether different cup of tea. (Should you buy this book and read it? Absolutely.) The writing is extraordinary and, quite frankly, at the level of genius; that being said, I ought to point out that it is, I think (I have not finished it yet) a very intellectually-centered book. The level of intellect at work here is, however, so well above average — perhaps it's even well above average genius — that it's a marvel to behold. Every page seems to unveil intimate observations that will be, for centuries, the envy of other authors who wish to help us see what we are.

In any event, enough of the accolades, which the book has received from many reviewers far more important than myself. I'm just going to pass on a particular quote from page 28.

Everything living bears the fact of its own dissolution. This is a given. But for us it has become tangible. The universe as experienced is not universal. The universe as experienced is personal. It turns its face towards the individual. It presents an individual form. This individual form is ours. All that adheres will be lost.

 The author has encapsulated an esoteric truth in the first three sentences. The organic sensation of being is, in its own way, all about understanding the fact of our own dissolution. If we come into relationship with a higher energy, and we absorb it into the marrow of our bones — the valances of our electrons, the molecular crystals of our DNA — we come into relationship with our own death. Now, our death is, as Coutts points out, a given; but it is this tangible experience of it, this physical experience, that matters. We should know at all times that we will die. The organic sensation of being brings us into a loving and intelligent relationship with that. We need to establish this relationship, because we cannot treat death as an enemy. To do so is, indeed, to "die like a dog," the one hope Gurdjieff offered us if we followed his method. So we need to find a positive and intelligent, and obedient, way to live in parallel with the fact of our own death.

I think her second point, that the universe as experienced as personal, brings us back to many of the points I have made about the nature of personhood and the fact that the universe is personal and God is personal. The act of depersonalization of religious impulse, which has unfortunately encoded itself as a dogma in some practices — notably some flavors of Buddhism, but it's also present in other degrees in other practices — is a dehumanizing action, and there is a correlation between humanity and the personal. The expression of humanity is, irrevocably, personal — and no amount of attempting to philosophize or rationalize one's way out of that fact can ever remove the personal from the expression of humanity.

In confronting our death, we enter a deeply personal piece of territory. Perhaps it is the most deep and the most personal. Certainly, at my age — 60 years — mortality presents a clearer and more definite picture, and demands a place of privilege in the art of contemplation. This is one of the gifts of age: we grow in depth.


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.


  1. Indeed. And the comment on some flavours of Buddhism is timely. After all, individual souls don't really exist for Buddhism or most mysticisms....

  2. From a friend:
    'Well, I hope your lungs work
    very well. If you make a deep
    breathing out and blow one
    liter of breathed air, there go
    some +200 molecules that made
    the body of Napoleon, some
    six that belonged to Julius Caesar,
    some three that formed the flesh
    of Jesus of Nazaret (as he is
    said to have lived around half
    the number of years that Caesar
    had lived a little before), assuming
    a similar metabolism and bodily
    mass for all three; and every
    month or so of making such
    exhalations you breathe out
    a molecule that formed part of
    the body of a really big dinosaur.
    Once every quite longer while,
    you exhale some molecule that
    formed part of two of the
    mentioned bodies, and once or
    twice in your life you may
    expect to exhale a molecule
    that formed part of all the four.
    When you drink a glass of
    water, some atoms there have
    been formed around 13 500
    millions of years ago (hydrogen),
    while the oxygen in the water was
    formed only between 10 000
    and 5000 million years ago,
    chiefly close to the later date.
    But those atoms and molecules,
    like whole bodies, are complex
    structures. They remain available
    to interact for some time while their
    components are, rather, quite more
    fleeting. These components are
    eclosions from basic physical
    fields, most of them appearing
    ephemerally and disappearing
    but keeping their composite
    (say, atomic nucleus or atom, or
    the bigger structures) in existence.
    Your existentiality interacts with
    your brain (and the latter with
    the former) through this level
    of components. However, these
    form in no way the same set
    for longer than about a 10^-25
    of a second (that is, 0. 000000
    000000 000000 000000 1 of
    a second) because you, like us
    all, are moving at not much less
    than two million kilometer per hour
    (more than 400 km per second)
    astronomically dragged - so that
    you don’t remain for more than
    the mentioned small time in the
    same place of the physical fields
    from where your ultimate
    bodily components eclose.

    All this boils down to say that
    bodies aren’t more than fastly
    transforming clouds or parcels of
    time-transforming nature and our
    existentialities are constitutively
    circumstanced to interact with
    a particular one of them rather
    than with any other parcel,...'


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