A Glimpse of Death from the Vantage Point of Life
Strange as it may seem to many, the sole aim of this collection of photographs interspersed with eleven poems by Mario Hernandez, and prefaced by this essay, is to render an unabashed tribute to death. This praise may seem esoteric to many, but certainly not to those who feel, as we do, that the prevalent opposition of life and death is a misperception of fact with terrible consequences for how we live and how we die. Different cultural forms seem to share the function of protecting the individual psychological from direct contact with certain essential aspects of our rather mysterious presence within the immensity of life most, and a salient part of this protective function implies a certain disregard or distortion of the natural, democratic, and quotidian fact of death. This obfuscation of death by different means is part of their common attempt to provide cohesion to their particular adherents through a common source of psychological security and the promise of some form and method of progressive self-fulfillment. The problem with this is, however, that in making the pursuit of exclusive security and happiness the central end of people’s life, is an absurdity with the proclivity of justifying the most conflictive, unjust, and even murderous means. It is awareness of the fact and consequences of this absurdity that justifies and motivates a fresh look at the phenomenon of death. There is nothing impractical or morbid in this enterprise, even though it cannot be properly carried-out without sidestepping the barriers and limitations of tradition. It is precisely because Mario and I love life in its entirety and live it intensely, that we are naturally inclined to invest every faculty of our evidently living and dying being, in shedding some light on death.
Neither one of us is an expert on anything, which is not a bad thing when it comes to dealing with this matter of death, because knowledge —useful as it may be in other domains— may not be the right way to apprehend the nature, depth, and significance of something that is clearly beyond the reach of the intellect. For millennia now human thought has attempted to decipher the nature and meaning of consciousness held between life and death, and the contradictory nature of the multiple ideologies and methodologies that have emerged from this attempt, should by now be sufficient proof of the failure of this attempt. To be sure, awareness of the limitations of knowledge does not imply an obscurantist and wholesale rejection of all forms and instances of it, and therefore ought not to be taken as a delusional or naïve embrace of fantasy. Serious skepticism is not generally the hallmark of uninformed fools.
When it comes to the fresh investigation, not only of death, but of any fundamental human issue, this seemingly esoteric questioning of pre-established knowledge and tradition is warranted by a single observation available to anyone who cares to directly (independently) investigate the nature of thought. By their very nature, knowledge and thought isolate, divide, compare, measure, recombine, and generally map whatever they touch. Functionally speaking, there is nothing necessarily wrong with these capacities and propensities, after all, our species owes its survival and the benign aspects of its development to them. A huge problem resides, however, in that this character of thought and knowledge is also the source and sustenance of an interior mental presence —the presence of the one who knows and thinks— that exists in a state of alienation from the totality and is generally unwilling to see and question, much less reverse, this alienation.
Thought came into being through the progressive accumulation of fragmentary knowledge, and it grew and consolidated, in part, by breaking up into different tribal forms and more general and specialized realms of learning and planning. The societies, institutions, ideologies, and learning sectors and disciplines that constitute human reality at every point in time, represent differentiated segments of human thought that draw their somewhat peculiar knowledge from a common pool of experience and an equally common preferential focus on the knowable and whatever serves best their particular interests. Our common experience is obviously limited, and the particular focus of our sectarian outlooks and interests, no matter how sophisticated and well funded, self-limiting. These last exist, are what they are, and do what they do, by disregarding or outright ignoring whatever lies beyond them.
The self, as we know the self, is inconceivable outside one or more of these particular forms/sectors of thought. It comes into being by identifying with what it has experienced and been taught to know and think about, and by virtue of this same identification, by splitting-off, not only from the natural world and the “others” it comes to perceive as external to itself, but also from thought itself perceived as an equally exterior mental system. Thus, the creation of the “me” naturally brings about the concomitant creation of “not me,” a realm perceived as a mere collection of external persons, objects, events, and relationships that may be known or not to the relatively independent self.
The general tendency of thought to divide and representationally conquer preferential aspects of a common reality, is further internalized in the self-isolated psyche splitting itself between a knowing and doing center that presumes to know and control a psychic field peripheral to itself just as it presumes to know and control certain aspects of the external, material, world. From this intra-psychic division emerges the curious sense we have of there being two separate entities or parts to every one of us, me and my-self. Me, the active knowledge and command center, and myself a collection of relatively passive objects possessed and to some extent administered by me within the mental space and time that thought provides. For example, I love, or hate, myself; that is, what is loved or hated is my past —the memory of my previous experience; my present —my experience and my learning, my feeling and my thought, my friends, family, nation, religion, etc.; my future —the possible fruit of my imagination, will, and desire.
Even though it was already suggested at the beginning, it bears repeating that the codification, accumulation, and projection of experience and knowledge, that can work very well in some areas of human life —eminently in science, technology, and in the communication and logistic skills necessary for basic social organization— does not not in others that are far from trivial. Serious errors intrinsic to the divisive character of thought and further perceptual and behavioral errors resulting from its action in the world, seriously disturb the mental health of the organism and its ability to relate to others and life itself. And at the center of all this stands an entity whose particular identity and on-going accumulation, habitual comparative judgment, and self-serving projection, demand a relative isolation from the infinitely complex interpenetration of mental, social, and natural realities. In time, these chronic and systemic errors have ossified and stratified, leading to a permanent state of mental contradiction and confusion that dulls the senses and sickens the brain. It is this state of mental contradiction and confusion that is reluctant to question itself, and thus readily sustains the increasingly dangerous division of human society along the fault lines of what each separate group and individual happens to know, feel, think, and desire.
Enormous conflict and suffering have already resulted from this phenomenon of collective mental alienation and social fragmentation bent on the use and exploitation of others, endless war, countless forms of deception, ecological depredation, and every other form of stupidity chronically affecting the species as a whole. What is worse is that our chronic inability or unwillingness to properly perceive and overcome this situation remains at a critical point in history in which the intense current of our contradictory thoughts and uncaring behavior seems poised to destroy the species as a whole. This, through a lethal combination of variables, central among them, nuclear proliferation at the service of warring ideologies and exclusive interests and the effects of our ongoing disruption of the climate and ecology of the planet.
There is then one essential challenge confronting us, and it is the urgent necessity of a fundamental change in ourselves, a change that deserves a better term —perhaps mutation is better— because it must have the power end the continuous state of blind conflictive division that is in different ways destroying us personally and collectively. The peculiar nature of this challenge demands that it be approached without preconception and, hence, that not in service of any personal or sectarian agenda. Naturally, this demand makes the challenge more readily apparent to those individuals who, for some reason or other, are more critical of themselves and more intellectually and emotionally independent from all possible ideological orthodoxies and institutional sanctuaries. Being less beholden to their original or subsequently acquired sources of personal identity and social status, these individuals are far more willing than others to set aside their knowledge and experience, along with that of experts and authorities, past, present, and future. This emptying out of the biographical and tribal contents of consciousness implies psychological death, because it is these contents that determine, not just the character but the very existence of the separate self and an atomized humanity, both out of harmony with life itself.
It is this death that this book is especially intent in somehow reflecting and honoring.
The question of what is death cannot be properly posed without simultaneously demanding to uncover what is life and who is it that lives and dies. What anyone presumes to know about life and death determines what is thought about the self, and vise-versa. Therefore, it is licit to further our investigation by asking a question that pulls all these terms together. Who is the self who in order to know what he says he knows and be who he says he is, must live a separate life and die an equally exclusive death?
Death is generally assumed to be an event punctuating the end of the earthly life cycle of a human organism. An end that, depending on the cultural knowledge (the tradition) to which one subscribes either marks the end of the person (the psychological entity inhabiting that physical organism) or its passage to another, final or sequential, form of life after death.
For an increasing number of people, none of the traditional explanations of the nature of life, death, and self are satisfactory. One of the most basic reasons for this dissatisfaction is that all the many available theoretical explanations assume to represent the truth and solve the problem without actually touching the actualities to which they refer. Thus, the crumbling of one’s attachment to traditional representational descriptions and explanation begins with the growing realization that life and death are not in themselves product of thought, as is the human presence that derives much its sense of separate existence and personal death from the forms of thought that shape its mind. The terms and the theories we invent to explain life and death deserve to be closely inspected and then judiciously set aside in so far as they have come to substitute their actual and unfathomable unity in a realm that is necessarily beyond the limited reach of knowledge and thought. The type of thinking that splinters humanity, also fuels the projection of the splinters onto the multiple and mutually exclusive futures it is capable of imagining. And it is this self-projective and ever conflictive division that makes life and death difficult, if not unbearable painful for billions of human beings, and is now threatening the enduring, precious, hold of life on this planet. The intelligence and love present in life itself demands that we find whatever may bridge this division, at whatever cost to whatever we may each think we are, personally and culturally.
To seriously question segmented and contradictory human tradition by closely examining its source, nature, hidden functions, and consequences, may seem intolerably threatening, even mad, to most. However, those who are willing to face the personal and social consequences of radical dissent, do so because they feel their skepticism rests on a very solid base. Let us further review this base. The persistence of seemingly unnecessary conflict and sorrow and the alarming present state of the world certainly warrants a penetrating examination of the general the system of thought that has generated both. In turn, this examination demands the setting aside of all forms of pre-established secular and religious knowledge, that constitute this system. (This, with the reasonable exception of personal and cultural preferences and abhorrences in harmless matters of taste and, of course, the specialized and thus necessarily multiple forms of practical knowledge necessary to support the physical organism and the basic operation of basic social systems.) In his passive stance, the skeptical individual is merely confirming that we really do not know what life, death, and the self are in themselves, much less in indivisible relation with one another, and therefore negating divided positive opinion. In passively seeing the nature of self-centered and sectarian thought and how destructive is its operation, radical skepticism comes to a point in which it is no longer a part of the same mental system. Thought remains as an functional attribute of the organism, but no longer claiming separate existence and a proprietary hold on matters of life and death.
The central fact justifying what at first hand may seem like senseless iconoclasm, is that in our habitual rush to seek and maintain certainty (psychological security) in the limited and limiting forms of knowledge with which we each identify, we keep repeating the basic error of confusing symbolic descriptions and explanations with the unthinkable actual flow of existence and non-existence. Multiple descriptions, explanations, and methodologies yield and sustain the generally opposed personal and cultural realities that splinter and torment our otherwise common humanity, but they bear little direct connection, if any, with whatever the truth of the whole and our astonishing presence in it, may actually be.
At first view, the collection of photographs of fallen leaves housed in this book can seem a tad lame and only tangentially related to the issues raised in this essay, and in a different form in Mario Hernandez’ poems, but this first view may be somewhat deceptive. Despite its urban sprawl and incipient industrial mining, the region where we live is still rich in relatively pristine lakes, woods, and creeks. Over the last twenty-four years I have spent a significant amount of time in these beautiful places, accumulating in the last ten or so a significant body of formal photographic work that deals, not so much with the landscape at large, as with the ground right under my nose and immediately in front of me. Contrary to the physical and mental space constructed and occupied by humans where actual death is mostly hidden away, death is conspicuous in these natural places and at every time of the year, though especially during Fall and Winter.
Fears ought to be confronted, and so in my excursions into the wild I have formally photographed multiple expressions of death, almost as many as I do of life. Some of these are quite dramatic. One comes to mind in which a young doe appears freshly dead in a field with a hunter’s arrow sunk deep in her breast. In another, made quite recently, on the narrow chiaroscuro of a narrow creek bed, lays a decomposing, graying, carcass of some mid-size carnivore paradoxically alive with the mesmerizing transition of flesh to fluid and the slow motion of hundreds of milk-white maggots laboring through the devastation. These images pack a visual and didactic wallop. They are harsh, but also beautiful and strangely alluring, and they sure drive home the news that we too are physical organisms that share the same risk of disease and accident and the exact same certainty of aging and death that befalls all other organisms. However, the collection in this book carries none of this type of images. The first reason for their exclusion is that I assume that any reasonable and inquisitive person is already well aware that the life cycle of the human body —their own— ends in death and decomposition by either putrefaction or fire. I also omit the more graphic images of dead animals, because from the very beginning I was preponderantly inclined to capture the more gentle images of fallen and decomposing leaves. They abundance and their more apparent relationship to the entirety of their ecological context, made them better suited to my contemplation of subtler aspects of life and death. In their gradual process of disappearance, I could readily see that of large numbers of human beings fading away and then finally dying. And by contrast with their sweet surrender, I could examine the enormous and damaging fear with which we, human beings, generally regard the termination of personal time (the irremediable death of the self), and this ending.
In a different but related way, Mario’s poems facilitate a look into the living matter of personal life and death that is in many ways more incisive and direct than that of traditional clinical, religious, or philosophical explanations.
Throughout the year, a small numbers of leaves fall into the streams and on their banks, as well as on the adjacent forests, fields, and towns. In Autumn, this death acquires massive proportions as the prolific outburst of green life brought forth by Spring and Summer experiences a dramatic transmutation in color, and then withers and falls in a relatively brief period of time. The many facets of the life-death cycle of the entire ecological system are plain to see in this death. And anyone one with some depth of vision can further see in and through this otherwise common phenomenon, first, the transmutations of all earthly systems within their broader planetary and galactic context, and this greater context deeply ensconced itself in the unthinkable flow of the totality of existence, manifest and potential.
The central point being that, awareness of the infinitely complex interpenetration of everything and no-thing, makes self-centered thought fade away. The conditioned urge to protect oneself by covering up the mystery of life and death with clearly insufficient and inadequate descriptions and explanations is disarmed by the presence of fairly evident but impenetrable fact. This perception of the actuality of an all-encompassing living and dying reality has no mental precedence, no representation, and is at every instant available without discrimination. Therefore, it can never be appropriated by anyone, or get old and worn out.
Sometimes, crouched over the tripod in the middle of a little creek, with water up to the knees and eyes locked through the viewfinder on a little jewel-like leaf perhaps pinned by a rock to the streambed, the mind is overcome with a strange and quiet sense of joy. This joy does not know or want the certainty and security granted by pre-established mental forms past, present, or future. The silent, perceptive mind is free from the hectic, limited, and cruel reality created by the propensity of human thought to divide, explain, and exploit everything on which it happens to alight.
The operative word in this admittedly inept description of a direct, non-dual encounter with life and death as a whole, is overcome. The self fades away in the astounding yet completely natural perception of a living and dying totality that being ever new lends no credence or space to a separate existence founded on accumulated knowledge. While this perception does indeed occur (and has no aristocratic exclusions), it does so in a way that does not lend itself to anticipation, conceptualization, or recording for sub-sequent retrieval and utilization. More succinctly, insight is not mediated by thought, and so does not lend itself to strengthen anyone’s personal identity and social status. It is everything and yet it is nothing, and for many reasons, the least of which being that it is not subject to representation leading to material profit or psychological gain. For the psychological entity defined, limited, and alienated from the totality of existence by exclusive experience and acquired knowledge, insight is death.
I would have to be mad to claim that the humble set of images of dying and dead leaves, the poems, and this essay, have the power to induce insight, or even that they reflect instances of insight. No, they are just words and images, and as such part of the familiar currency of experience-based thought. However, they may nonetheless serve to contemplate on the beauty and urgent necessity of living a life that is simple, anonymous, and quiet because it is dying at every moment an equally simple, anonymous, and quiet death. I trust that in the willing and infinitely creative demise the fallen leaves shown in the following pages, others may discern the possibility of their own willing surrender —their own quotidian death. The possibility of a human presence on Earth not bloated by deceptive self-importance, and therefore free of greed and hostility, disillusion and fear, depends entirely on the separate self being devoured by the mystery.
Perhaps a bit of further development will make some of the arguments made in the first part of this essay easier to understand. One of the things briefly mentioned was that to any relatively well-educated, reasonable person, it is obvious that the physical body does not last forever. That even though there might be certain apprehension about the pain that may be involved in the often-long process of dying, the end of the organism is not so much where the anxiety about death lies. It is much more related to the fact that death anihilates the psychological entity we each know as a private story spooling out of my past, through my present, and into my future. (Interestingly enough, this private collection of recorded and projected experiences that constitutes the psychological self, is generally perceived as relatively independent from, and of a higher nature, than the physical organism that for the same reason also tends to be seen as part of a lowly and often burdensome material world.) Not in the same way or to the same extent, but every one of the cultural fragments into which humanity has divided itself, conditions the self to see itself as a relatively unique and on-going act of existence that deserves and is destined to seek some form of exclusive fulfillment. Endowed with such a false vision of what it is to be human, it is no wonder we are chronically at odds with ourselves, trapped in self-delusion, in frequent conflict with others, and terrified of death. This terror is so great and persistent, that after thousands of years of “progress,” a significant majority of human beings are still subscribing to belief systems that extend the continuity of the self beyond the life cycle of the body and into subsequent states of being. The illusion of secular fame whereby the cramped mental space of surviving admirers serves to keep forever the illustrious record of the deceased, represents what is not the least of these imaginary states of post-mortem personal transcendence.
Seeing the immense sorrow involved in our millennary terror of death and the absurdity of what we do to assuage it, all of it on top of the mental anguish and antagonism generated by competitive sectarian self-centeredness, compels one to find out for oneself what is the truth about the self, its life and death. Is a separate and continuous personal life an actual necessity, the only alternative, or is it a mental fiction, a colossal collective error, justified and sustained by a very long and not properly questioned historical record? If the differentially conditioned and absurdly isolated entity we each know so well, is the only possible mode of human existence, then there is nothing more to say. We are simply condemned to remain eternally at odds with ourselves and in conflict with one another, experiencing occasional flashes of love and joy, but generally living and dying in delusion, fear, confusion, and pain. But what if there is another more sensitive and intelligent way of being in the world, but not one thought can discern and bring about?
It is quite evident that mental heath and relationship are negatively affected by the attempt made by billions of individuals to overcome the intrinsic insecurity of their proprietary being through particular identification, fantasy, and the acquisition of wealth, power, and other indicators of higher status. This damage, in turn, endlessly fuels the disorder and violence present in the world as a whole. Especially revealing of the lack of intelligence and sensitivity of the general system of thought is the zeal with which so many of us pursue the future fulfillment we dream for ourselves, generally in disregard of the cost others and the rest of life on Earth will have to pay for our reckless material, psychological, and “spiritual” ambitions. If we are so intelligent in other matters, why are we so stupid when it comes to fundamental issues such as cooperation, justice, and peace?
We all love to point fingers away from ourselves, but once fully seen the facts declare that the source of all our problems lies in every one’s conception of himself as fundamentally separate from (most) others and existence as a whole. The fact we do not know what to do about it is no reason to deny the fact that the existentially isolated self is a monstrous error, perhaps also an evolutionary dead end. We unwittingly inherit this error and then unquestioningly embody and transmit it to the next generation by assuming that permanent injustice, dissension, and suffering in our minds and the world constitute a reasonable price to pay for “being ourselves” and having a dim crack at self-realization in this world or an imagined next.
We may at first hate to even contemplate, let alone admit, the possibility that what we know about ourselves is part of a general mental error, and that our deeper and common nature is much better suited to be —to live and to die— in a manner that transcends metaphor and language itself. Because we cannot at this point communicate by means other than language and metaphor, I will nevertheless hesitantly go on to suggest is far more like that of the nameless leaves shown in the photographs that make up the bulk of this book. For sure, the state of the human mind and of the world this mind creates, would be entirely different if we all saw ourselves for what we fundamentally are, equal manifestations of life —engaged in significant and significantly different social functions, but still insignificant in ourselves. One cannot not even imagine what social character this integrated being would take, but for sure the world would be doing far better if we all were fully integrated within the cosmic organism, transparently revealing the beauty and fecundity of its fluid unity in life and death, everything and no-thing.
The reality generated by self-centered and sectarian thought is, in our day, experiencing enormous turmoil. It always has. Only that the present confluence of self-serving ideologies, exploding demographics, increasingly dangerous technical means, and progressive ecological damage makes the final disintegration of this reality a much greater possibility than ever before. I am well aware that this view is contested for seeming pessimistic to the point of insanity. It seems not to take into consideration the enormous progress achieved thus far, to distrust the great capacity and ingenuity of human thought, and perhaps worst of all, to cynically disregard the good will of human beings everywhere. My response to this criticism and the endorsement of the status quo that it implies, is that it arises from the failure to perceive, not only the level of stress and sorrow present in the human mind and the critical situation of the world at large, but also that this is the result of a single, all-encompassing and deeply flawed mental system conditioned and divided by experience. There are some people who do see the chronic crisis of the species and pre-programmed and divided thought as the culprit, but they tend to join the majority in upholding the status quo if only because they feel that no other mode of human existence is possible if it is not conceivable by thought. In the latter case, the verdict is that we are most probably doomed and can do nothing about it. In the former, the thing to do is continue to trust that some particular form or sector of the same system (most probably the one “we” subscribe to or are working hard to join) will in due time generate the necessary redemptive and salvific actions.
The majority of human beings still believe progress, deliverance, or salvation will come from one part or sector of human thought. All the subdivisions of the major and minor religious faiths are equal candidates. So are the multiple manifestations of each of the sciences, the humanities, the arts, the political theories, and the economic schools. Radical Islam, late stage democratic and corporate capitalism, the capacity of music to generate peace, Zen Buddhism, charismatic Catholicism, endless technological prowess, enhanced entertainment sports, string theory and new weapon systems, all want to be the force that brings peace and truth to humanity.
Those who feel well protected within their tribal enclaves and feel they have a good chance to succeed in accordance to their personal agendas, worldly and otherworldly, are particularly prone to ignore the present dangers and sorrows and stay the predetermined course of action —the one that along with all the rest brought us to this sorry juncture. Those who are more modern and put their trust in “positive” thinking, also tend reject the wisdom, let alone the urgent necessity, of a highly skeptical review of everything created by thought, first and foremost, ourselves.
Given that the opposition to the stated possibility of a fundamental change is so sternly experienced and extensive, let us briefly re-examine the general situation to see if this radical questioning of knowledge and thought is warranted or not. It seems fair to say that at its most fundamental level, thought is a global mental system conditioned and fragmented by previous experience and accumulated knowledge. Every single human being thinks, and does so within the norms and strictures determined by their personal experience and their respective cultural contexts. This differentiation is good in certain respects, eminently the necessary specialization of functional knowledge necessary for practical problem solving, but very bad in others that are just as essential.
The bottom line is that no form of thought seems to be able to deal conclusively with the increasingly interconnected psychological, social, and ecological problems created by self-centered human organisms intent on assuaging their intrinsic insecurity by expanding their wealth and influence, more often than not at the cost of those of others. The reason for this common failure being that the existence, guidance, and protection of individual human beings, depends to the greatest extent on the antagonistic, self-replicating, forms of thought, ideologies, with which they are each identified. Different ideologies, and the groups and institutions they serve, grant exclusive identity and a measure of protection to some, thus necessarily excluding and often harassing and exploiting others. The larger social reality produced by this mental system is highly instable, inherently unjust, full of aggression, and highly prone to recklessly exploit and disrupt natural systems it does not properly understand. Because it generates so much division and so much danger and sorrow for so many, it is not either uncaring or strange to conclude that self-centered thought is as unintelligent as it is dangerous. The problem is, we are so convinced that we are who we think we are, and that the realm of the known and the knowable constitutes our only possible reality, that to challenge the whole mindset responsible for this form of thinking seems, at best impractical, at worst, mad. The habitual momentum of our though and behavior is so rapid, that we just go along accepting an otherwise intolerable reality as the truth.
We cling to the reality created by thought out of habit and because we are terrified of anything beyond the particular and contradictory conceptions of mental, social, ecological, and universal reality that determine, not just what we think, but our very existence. Isolated and habitual patterns of fear and desire sustain with the power of pain and pleasure the central function of ignoring or denying, not just the consequences of hostile psychological and cultural division, but also, and more importantly, the existence and significance of what lies beyond the reach of knowledge and thought. We are generally so threatened by anything that may rattle the foundations of our personal trenches and tribal palisades that, as already repeatedly mentioned, not even the high level of unhappiness and anxious depression afflicting our minds and souring our relationships, constitutes a sufficient incentive to seriously inquire what is our relationship to what lies beyond the self and its exclusive cultural affiliations; that is, beyond thought. The psychological and social structures created by particular knowledge and self-centered thinking, have surreptitiously taken the place and significance of life itself, and so we fear the loss of our cultural inheritance and personal identity as if it were death itself.
The questions of what is life and what is death, and of who is the human being who lives and dies, are really one and the same —and the truth be told, we do not have, and may never have, (and may not need) a truthful, definitive, answer to this seminal question. Awareness of this necessary ignorance only constitutes a problem because we generally hate to face up to the limitation and possible harm of what we think of ourselves and the manner and form in which we project this knowledge onto the future. Belief in the redemptive power of past, present, or future knowledge, especially self-centered knowledge, hates to confront the fact that the map is not ever the territory. We are not at all inclined to look and see that the human intellect, while contained within the totality of actual and potential existence (and somehow able to barely acknowledge it) has developed in such a way that now it is hardly related to it. This distaste of the unknowable determines the reckless alienation of a sense of personal being and becoming mistakenly drawn by association and dis-association with superficially different formulations of thought, what we each know, think, feel, and desire at any given point of space and time. In systematically ignoring the unknowable (infinity, truth, the sacred, the mystery, or whatever one may chose to call it) as the fundamental ground of its presence and all existence, humanity finds itself locked in a fixed, highly dysfunctional rut. Its only option is to remain as fragmented as ever, and at war with itself and with nature. Are we not soldiers and factions fighting each other from the ancient trenches of personal and tribal identity, each proclaiming righteousness and brandishing as weapons exclusive, and therefore necessarily false and counter-productive, demands for security and hope?
Let us now find our way back to our central theme of death. We have seen how the additive and largely common record of human experience has somehow usurped the throne of indivisible being splintering in the process into billions of entities claiming proprietary existence. This conceit prolongs itself in time through the largely exclusive and therefore contradictory process of psychological development and social and “spiritual” climbing (the process of personal becoming) we each regard as my life. The experientially personal and laborious continuity of each false claim to separate being, sustains in turn the general alienation of the species from the totality of existence. Seen the other way around, a sustained alienation from life as a whole creates the mental time and space in which each particular claim to separate psychological existence finds itself. Naturally, for the intrinsically insecure psyche bent on self-fulfillment, death appears as the tragic end of every source of previous identification and future fulfillment. That is, my life ends because death destroys who I think I am by denying my right and duty to struggle and become who I think I ought to become. Death is the irreversible frustration of all my dreams of security, success, love, and social and/or spiritual status.
There may be a death with an entirely different timing and significance, and even though it involves the end of the process of self-centered thought, there is nothing painful or tragic about it. It comes about with the sudden and direct, not theoretical, realization that the independent existence of the self, is an illusion responsible for the conflictive fragmentation of the species and the sorrowful reality of billions of largely isolated lives lived in almost permanent fear of the failure to sustain and fulfill themselves and of death as the ultimate failure and humiliation.
Being what it is, this realization into the human condition as embodied in one-self is necessarily impersonal. That is, exclusive knowledge, desire, and will have nothing to do with it. It cannot the achievement of a particular person because, unlike a plan for personal development or even suicide, the end of the psychological self is not a goal that thought can conceive or project. Nor is full insight into the human tragic comedy, a gift granted by any particular sector of human culture, either secular or religious, to its most deserving adherents. Complete awareness of the folly of separate existence, and with it the collapse of the mind’s participation in it, cannot be granted by any particular cultural fragment that depends for its own separate existence on its capacity to grant this conceit and maintain it by means of a certain sense (largely false) of security and continuity. It cannot be positively defined. The tragic mental and social reality generated by the conceit of separate existence with its attendant cultural division, violence, and sorrow is the lack of insight.
A keen interest on the matters we have discussed here, although necessary and useful in attaining a more orderly participation in life, is not sufficient to generate an insight that is by definition unrelated to any previous condition. It may take some effort to open one’s eyes to the reality and consequences of the general system of conditioned and fragmented thought, and by inference to gather some dim sense of the possibility of radical mental change, and this is as far as thought and will can go. What can and needs to be seen by thought is that the inquiring experience/memory-based self is the block impeding the actual realization of this possibility and therefore has no further role to play. It becomes evident that any pre-determined and deliberate effort of personal will and desire, merely implies the continuity of the general problem of conflict and suffering. With that, the movement of self-centered thought comes to an end. Thought remains as a mental function necessary for practical matters, but it is not anymore involved in the symbolic accumulation of personal experience, and in the defense and projection of this accumulation.
It is not naïve to imagine that at this dangerous point of history in which so many people seem to be retreating to the presumed safety of their most familiar personal and cultural sanctuaries, a critical number of the most sensitive and caring members of the species are doing something entirely different. In their growing awareness of the broken state of the world and the absurdity and danger of continuing to identify with particular experiences, groups, and ideologies, they are walking away from their own psychological and cultural comfort zones. It is clear to them that whatever psychological security may be garnered through exclusive identification and prolonged attachment, is nullified by the danger posed by the reckless competition or outright violent confrontation between different and contradictory forms of thought in a world on the brink of complete disintegration. Trading one form of cultural consensus for another is for them utterly out of the question, and for the same reason. Knowing that alternative forms of exclusive cultural consensus are only parts of the same corrupt system of self-centered thought, it does not make any sense to them to move from one stifling source of secular or religious affiliation and false security to another that will surely prove to be as stifling and deceptive.
The removal of the biased optics of nationality, race, gender, religion, age, class, profession, and whatever else lends the self a sense of its own importance, may create at first a troubling sense of insecurity. However, the mental emptying that allows for reintegration into the general stream of life soon dissolves this distress by the way in which it clears the mind’s eye and enormously broadens its angle of vision. Broad, non-reactive, perception uncovers the endlessly unfolding tragedy of humankind gathering all the energy of the organism in a flash of insight that invalidates the deposit of personal memories and terminates the progression of fear and desire that determined and sustained the existence of the separate self. As facts purge the mind from false and illusory psychological and tribal content, the largely predetermined process of becoming that is motivated and led by successive representations of an idealized self, also ends. The death of the self is the puncturing of the bubble of psychological time, and the bursting of self-centered and self-projective memory eliminates all traces of ambition and jealousy, of fear, conflict, frustration, and hate. All that remains is the limited functional thinking necessary to sustain the presence of the organism within a given social reality, and an indefinable and timeless presence keenly perceptive and seamlessly embedded within the unthinkable cosmic flow of manifest and non-manifest existence.
The death of the organism means nothing much to the mind that, being nothing in itself, does not measure and compare itself with anything, and therefore has no interest in becoming better or something else. Again, and this time to close, in its freedom from the fallacy of an evolving separate existence, this impersonal mind is very much like any of the leaves that appear in the photographs in this book. An insignificant and unassuming little leaf that unfurls out of the tree of life at a certain time to perform in all humility an essential function, and that soon enough falls and eventually disappears in the act of anonymously sustaining other life forms, in all this revealing an intelligence and a love utterly beyond itself. The presence of a leaf, as your and my presence, is that of life itself and therefore fundamental; and its death —so splendid in its simplicity and fecundity— is but a further gift of life to itself. Love is the all-inclusive embrace of life.