This is a big one. And I apologize. But nobody ever talks about death in an elaborative way. This is where I come in. I recommend something to hold you off, like coffee and chocolate. Simply because those are my favourite combination. The Cosmos series is a tribute and an overview of the body of work of the philosopher Alan W. Watts(see the P.S. section of the last article for more information).
We tend to ignore to large parts our own mortality. Death is a very bad thing, and is to be avoided at all costs. A lot of people can dismiss it until their very last breath. But what I want to suggest now is an entirely new approach to death. Where it is not seen as the finish line, something morbidly serious, but as a joke. That is to say, we have to relate to it in terms of humour, otherwise we’ll go out of our heads. The following is an attempt to describe death and all its aspects.
In age-old times, all monarchs had at their courts a jester. And occasionally it was probably correct, that the jester was a crazy person, who had the unique capacity to make disproportionate comments at the most unexpected times, which can be funny. And so by making the right kind of comment at the right moment, could bring an entire house down into ruins. But as time passed, the function of the jester became more elaborative than this. And he became someone whose function it was to remind the monarch of their humanity, of their mortality.
“For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!”
This you see was the function of the court fool, the fool being the antic. He was pointing out your finitude, of the fact that one day you won’t exist, so don’t get too comfortable in thinking that you can rule over everyone. And monks used to keep grinning skulls at their desks. We regard that as very morbid these days, because we tend to repress death quite firmly. And the function of the mortician in a sense, is to sweep you under the floorboards at a considerable price. They’re a down-player, who pretends that death doesn’t happen.
Now, there doesn’t seem to be an institution or a system in our society, in which the role of the jester is operating. Because even when there is the political cartoonist, or the satirist, or the commentator, they don’t reside in the leader’s office. And so there really isn’t an institution of the fool in modern times. And the major reason for it, is that the system does not really allow for fundamental criticism. Because it is much too insecure about itself. And so we don’t really like the idea or the suggestion, that our social structures are not altogether that serious.
So also, the non-participation of the person is looked upon as a detriment from the point of view of society, it cannot stand it. And “wherever you go, people will seek you out, and compel you to belong to their desperate group of odd-fellows.” And nobody is looked with more shall we say, alienation, then the person who makes fun of our social structures. And in this way the jester and the monk has a parallel function. Because the monk is a person, who has “discarded” society. He is an outlaw, in the upper side instead of the lower side. And he cannot therefore usually call upon the services of that society to his aid, such as the police. And that is why the monks in the ancient days would dress up in yellow robes, because those were the clothing of criminals.
But the jester is in a different class altogether from the monk, and for one to fully understand their position, we have to go into the nature of what is known as a social institution. Because, from the point of the view of the jester, all social institutions are seen as games. And when people take their games too seriously, he gets the laughs. Not because he is going to somehow “get them”, but because he wants to remind them of the original point of his function to his ruler, that it won’t last. No matter how hard we try. Now, when people usually use the word game, they mean it to say something is trivial, or frivolous. But just as one doesn’t regard a great performance by a pianist mere entertainment, but something more profound, it is the same with the jester. But the true meaning of game, in this context, is that the world is musical in its basic nature. It is a dance, of all kinds of patterns.
And so what could be called the ‘game theory of the universe’, to quote Watts, is that every thing within it is its own point. It’s doing its stuff for its own sake, and nothing else beyond that. In other words, for shits and giggles. It plays, different components. It varies itself, and in playing, involves a certain sense of some pretense, because illusion, from the Latin root ludere, to play, involves the illusion of the components being separate. And so what we might call the physical games, entities or processes, known as natural phenomena, on top of those we have the ‘social institutions, or subdivisions of the human game’, to quote Watts again.
And so what is the social institution? It is not only our forms of governments, the departments of the governments, or banks, or large corporate entities, or hospitals, or marriage. But also money, our systems of measurement, our timing, clocks and so on. What makes all these things social institutions is in another sense that they are conventions, from the Latin convenere, to come to together. Something we can agree on, so as to control them and use them in a social context, to “order our lives” so to speak.
For example, did you know that pain is a social institution? In cultures such as ours, it is very painful to go to the dentist. But there are other cultures where visits to dentists are not an issue at all. But they might have severe pain when their finger nails are cut or hair is cut. We are largely hoodwinked or discussed into pain, in extreme childhood. Social institutions also govern what we tend to notice or consider noteworthy. It isn’t only what nature has “designed into” our biological features to be attractive, it is the social institutions that dictate what is considered as attractive. And this varies by and large between different cultures, or between the social contexts.
But social institutions, go much deeper than that. One of them, has to do with role-playing, of who you are. When asked “who are you,” people answer it usually in two different ways. One person will say, “I’m a business man,” but the other person will fall silent because they realise what a profound question it really is. They are asked who is their ego, really. And we tend to fixate on this role or ego, and describe our identity in terms of it. There are names, families, hobbies, and also of one’s character. These are all roles. And we are largely taught since our childhood, to be actors in a way. But it wasn’t called acting, it was called education, or upbringing. And our peer groups and parents very quickly tell us which acts are appropriate and which are not.
All parents are concerned with their children having a certain role in life, of having an identity by which they can distinguished. It would be immensily discombobulating if the child had one personality one day, and an entirely different one on another. But they can do that! We all had that capacity early in our lives, to be able to adapt and adjust to different circumstances and environments. I was a different child with my friends, and another child all alone, and so on. But the whole clement of education is to shake and rattle all those off, so that you become more or less a constant person, and everybody knows who you are. As if there was a real self, that was a certain way, which we all had, and which we all had to discover in life.
And we all tell each other who we are, all throughout our lives. But there are some who have a major inner conflict and are miserable in the world, because they just can’t find a satisfactory role in which to fit. They don’t know who they are. And in this way, your role in life, is a social institution. But this ego, this role of all roles, is a hallucination, as was said in previous articles. Because that is not the way our organisms are functioning in the physical world. Our physical organisms are so interrelated with everything else in the network, that there can be no true division within it. And what your real identity is, is the entire game. The whole works.
But we get the fundamental fear sometimes that the show might be given away. And that feeling is not altogether irrational. Because part of the nature of plays or games is that we get into them and forget that they are games. Like the actor on the stage who is dedicated to making his damnest to persuade you that they are moving in the actual world. They want to sitting on the corner of your chair, weeping, anxious, chuckling and so on. And to forget for a brief moment that what you are witnessing is only part of the show. And so also, children like to get absorbed into their games, at playing war or hide and seek.
But there comes a point, where it is essential to play the game of playing against the non-game. And that is essentially the art of knowing that it’s a game, and still keep playing it. This is the person known as a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. They participate in life, in all its aspects, while still sensing and knowing that it’s a game. Now, this for most people comes about until the final moment of Nirvana, and that is that, at least popularly how it is though of. But in so far as the bodhisattva operates in life, they can live on two different levels at once. They are released, while still in the middle of it, it being Samsara or the cycle of existence. They know that the human game is a game, yet keep playing it with considerable zest and gusto. And so that is role of the jester, to give just enough of the show or the game away, but not too much.
But even though the jester sees and senses everything as a game, or does not take anything seriously, it does not mean that he is shallow or frivolous. Because don’t forget, that the function of them is not simply to poke fun, it is to remind you of your transience. And the point of it, is this. There is nothing more depressing, than not knowing that you’re happy, while you are happy. It gives it a certain resonance, like singing in the bathroom. We might as well not be happy, if we weren’t aware of being happy. And so the lesson in transiency is one, of knowing that you should enjoy the game while it lasts. Because it is fleeting. And to miss it, is tantamount to not living at all.
Now let me switch a bit here, as it comes through transiency to the prospect of change. Why do we have such a resistance to change? We seem to dislike anything that moves our perception away from what it is used to. Whether it is the weather or other people. We do not seem to enjoy transitions or modifications to our environment. Coupled with this is the tendency to settle for features we select that seem to be more consistent than things that are on the move. Because moving processes takes more time and work to analyse than relatively stationary processes, such as personalities in human beings. And so we feel safe with still objects, and insecure with moving objects.
The need for consistency stems from the fact that our ego, that is to say our centre field of consciousness is looking to the past for answers. The majority of the things we think during the day are events that have already been taken place. Because the past is something stationary, something that is simply there, so it is safe. But of course it is not “there”. Then we worry about the future based on these past events. We never stop and watch what is happening right now. Because the present moment is ever-changing. And this “reiteration” is what keeps the ego trapped in a never-ending cycle of the fear of change. And we fear change because we know that part of it is witnessing our own decay. And the price for being alive is knowing that one day we simply cease to be. And every little shift in our so-called external world has as its hidden premise that it will move us to a more uncomfortable territory.
Why are we so afraid? There’s no need to be. If everything is an constant state of flux, and appears, disappears and reappears, it should give some clue as to what it is. It is a cycle. And it comes and it goes. This should not be seen as a bad thing by any case. After all, the transiency of life is part of its splendour. It wouldn’t be so magnificent were it not temporary. Now, there are people who will argue that we have to “fix” nature’s decay, which is ridiculous. Because the problem is not a problem, in the sense that it should or even could be fixed. Since the scientific naturalism of the 19th century, we have thought that we have to to not only beat nature into shape, we have to interfere with the physical processes themselves, and manipulate them to suit our needs. And this is very dangerous.
Obviously, we have to interfere with physical processes all the time, when for example we eat another being. But there’s a difference between doing something and forcing something. And this is very well understood in certain Far Eastern arts such as judo, or even in the art of sailing, where you cooperate with the field of forces in which you find yourself. In other words, you use change to your advantage. And we use primarily time to keep track of changes in our environment. We can predict, or we can see what alterations were made in the past. That is observing change. And if it doesn’t tick regularly, we get uncomfortable. Because we become slaves to the clock. And we generally do not allow ourselves to simply observe change without a clock pointer attached to it.
So then. We resist change out of fear. Fear of the other side and movement by it. But this other side is no other than us. It is the necessary counterpart for our inside. The fact that we don’t see it as such in the ordinary way, indicates that we are in some way asleep. And the way back to seeing this as such requires not only our presence of mind in the present moment, which is the only time that there is, it requires also our ability to withstand change. Because what change is, is the relative motion of everything else to the way you are. And we think that in between two stationary unconscious states of being, we have our moment of change and then we cease to be.
It’s like two blanks, in between which our life takes place. And we think that after the other blank there’s unconsciousness. That it would be like being locked up in a darkroom for forever and ever. But this blank is the necessary counterpart for the conscious experience. We would have no notion of existence unless we weren’t once here. And so what will happen after unconsciousness is obviously consciousness. A new birth. New births are happening all over the universe all the time, and it’s always I. Always the central self which is being channelled through various particulars, of unique points of view.
The great lesson in death then becomes not that one has to defeat it somehow, but that one submits and gives into it entirely. No greater pain is caused than fighting against something which is an inevitability. When one’s time has come to an end, and they know this is it, it would be an incredible waste, to deny it all. Because one has at that moment, the greatest possible chance of giving up all responsibilities of life. And many people that do, suddenly will get access to an enormous reservoir of psychic energy. Where they will see, that it was all a grand hoax.
And that is I think the most important point of death. Of reminding one’s self that it was a temporary show. And while it lasted, you had the chance of living it up, or you botched it entirely. But worry not, the cosmos isn’t geared towards being a kind of judicial system, of counting one’s failures. Every death gives rise to new possibilities, new lives. And you keep coming and going. Where in that, does death have its victory?
Now, there seems to be also the ultimate death, of the world. The Age of Darkness, which will see declines in social contexts, cultural contexts, psychological contexts, just to name a few. A great number of the system will fight against this decline, while majority will roll over and accept it. Our speech already reflects it, our conduct in these ghastly political structures reflect it. It’s in the air, it’s in the water. The utter pollution and destruction of our environment, the inevitable decay of our very way of life. And the ones on the top, the ones that weaseled their way up to it, who seemed to have won at the ‘God game’, will oversee their own advantage. They don’t care, they just demolish. As long as it brings more numbers to their accounts, they just don’t give a shit.
Then there is the dread of a full-blown nuclear war. Or the rampaging of an artificial intelligence. Or just a plain old virus. The possibilities of things going wrong do not seem to be left to scarcity. We have developed one of the most effective and swift conclusions ever for our species to meet its end in history and its horrible records.
Now, it may be that we took a wrong turn somewhere within that history. But it also might be that the Hindus had it right from the very beginning. The Kali Yuga, which began on February the 2nd, 3120 B.C.E., has about 5000 years to run its course. Now, this date might be arbitrary, or it just might be the result of a divination, arrived at the at peak of a psychedelic experience. I don’t know. What I do know however, is that I’ve witnessed this decline myself just generally observing the world. The wars, the resource scarcity, the abuse and exploitation of the rest of them, the attempt to control the very language we use. And it does seem to spiral down, doesn’t it. The only possible chance I have in coming to terms with it all, is that I regard it not so serious. That is the one final solace I can take from the ultimate fear, and that is the ultimate joke.