Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Death

"Someone looking at death without its associated images will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature...and death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit." (1)
Death is as much a part of our lives as our individual births.  Death as an act of nature is undoubtedly to the good, and that is why all living things will experience it.  The world is constantly renewed and refreshed through the system of replacing the old with the new.  The materials that made up our bodies are eventually broken down to assist in building up that which comes after us.

If we ackowledge that our good acts are those that are in accordance with our individual character and nature as a whole, then it is impossible to view death as something "bad."  It serves the same nature that we aspire to, so it can only be considered both necessary and to the good.
"Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take of things.  Thus, death is nothing terrible...the terror consists in our notion of death, and that is terrible." (2)
Death as a concept cannot be objectively feared.  What is that we really fear?

Do we fear pain then?

It is true that pain could be part of our dying, but the act of death itself is separate from that of the pain.  There is no reason to believe that the state of being dead is any different than the state we experienced (or didn't) before we were born, which is to say, none.  Men can brace themselves against pain, act with honor in its presence, and acknowledge its potential.  And in the unfortunate circumstances that extreme pain is a prequel to our dying, the death itself is a release from pain, and not a continuation of it.

Perhaps we fear that we have not yet done our duty then.  We have not yet begun or completed our work.

We do not own the past, and the future is never assured.  Nothing more than the present instant can be considered "ours," and therefore is the only thing that can be taken away from us.  Whether we live twenty years or a hundred, it is still only the present that can be taken, and so both individuals can only lose the same amount of life.  Relatively speaking, the oldest living human is still nothing more than a minor blink of time, less than a blip on the screen, that all of us, the youngest and the oldest live in rounded form for the same amount of time.  Our passing through nature is neither noticed nor remembered.
"In a short while I am dead and all things are gone. What more do I want, if this present work is that of an intelligent and social being?" (1)

If we can only "own" the current second, then begin your work now.  If you act in accordance with your nature now, and in the next now, and in the next, then you have done your duty, regardless of whether an outsider would have considered it "complete" at any one of those stages. 

This article should not be considered "negative" or "pessimistic."  It is not morbid to think on death as a natural and necessary act, and to resolve to die as well as possible, whenever our inevitable time comes. 
"The person without previous resolution to inevitable death makes certain that his death will be in bad form.  But if one is resolved to death beforehand, in what way can he be despicable?  One should be especially diligent in this concern." (3)
By thinking and resolving how we should die, we can also teach ourselves to live.  Followers of both the Stoic philosophy in Greece and the Samurai in Japan would meditate on both their own death and the death of their loved ones.  They would enter a deep level of mindfulness and then visualize the worst pain and suffering on themselves.  They would endeavor to think so deeply on this that they could "feel" the wounds.  This taught them to value the time that they did have.  It taught them to value their family, their neighbors and their society.  People who experience a near-death experience may come out with a greater understanding and appreciation for what they nearly lost, and that was the goal of the Stoics and the Samurai.

If this conditioning takes hold, we can train ourselves to do our duty even if death is the result.

(1) Marcus Aurelius - "Meditations"
(2) Epictetus - "The Discourses"
(3) Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai - "Yamamoto Tsunetomo"

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Pain (Quotation)

"...and, twenty-five years later, I still remembered how to negotiate the long, horrible process of physical collapse.  It starts with pain of course, but the pain is what I thought of as the edge of a deep, dark valley.  At the bottom of the valley is true incapacitation, but it might take hours to get down there, working your way through strata of misery and dissociation until your muscles simply stop obeying and your mind can't even be trusted to give commands that make sense.  The most valuable thing that I [learned] was that when you start hurting you're not even close to the bottom of the valley, and that if you don't panic at the first agonies there's much, much more of yourself to give."

- Sebastian Junger