It is the time of year, as the Earth returns to sleep, when death seems closer to us. Perhaps then, it’s no surprise my attention was caught by a feature on radio 5 about cryogenics. Cryogenics is a process where a body is frozen after death, in the hope that at some future point the body will be defrosted, and in some way reanimated.
I say body because I have no way of knowing what constitutes person-hood, what vital essence makes me, me, and you, you. However I am open-minded enough to accept that there may be something not of the body which is that strange indefinable quality. This is not a blog about the soul though, that is an area where personal opinion can never be anything but that, opinion. Instead I was struck by the strong feelings the people who wanted to be frozen had about what happened to their body after death.
Perhaps that needs rephrasing, because as they talked of worms, of not wanting to “lie in the ground” or of cremation it became clear they were not discussing a body, an inanimate object, but themselves, as living, breathing creatures. It struck me that this recent development of cryogenics is simply an a reframing of an ancient problem. How do reconcile there a moment where we cease to be with our current existence?
Historically people created the idea of a heaven, a place where they met their loved ones, or famous figures, floated on clouds, and generally continued life as it was, but with more Philadelphia cheese. It was a way people came to terms with the idea of non-existence, inventing a world which was just like this one, only a little nicer. (I say inventing not to put down any markers as atheist, but because this idea of heaven is an invention of people, not theology). Those believing in cryogenics have replaced pearly gates and angel wings with a future world of such incomprehensible technology it has solved the mind-body problem of philosophy. Those adherents of it seem to believe that death itself is nothing more than that Victorian “falling asleep” where they remain, fully themselves, waiting to be reawakened. In this way they side step the fear that death is genuinely an ending.
This fear of death, which is in fact a fear of ceasing to be, is often found in the counselling room. Existentialism has attempted to tackle it with a centering of the individual, and their choices, within an irrational universe. All we can ever know is ourselves, so making choices about events which will occur after we cease to be, is not only impossible, but a foolish waste of energy. Existential counselling takes this idea, of only being able to work on ourselves, as the only firm ground in an ocean of change and absurdity, and uses it to walk along side clients as they explore their inner selves.
I am not an existentialist, though like many others I find much wisdom within it. Sometimes however for a client, afraid of that moment of ceasing to be, often paralysed in the here and now by the fear of the unknowable there and then, existentialism can seem too cold for consolation. Saying, you cannot know, so why are you worrying, might be true, but it is not always a truth people want to hear. This fear, combined with the idea that once your body is dead you may cease to be is perhaps the reason non religious people are turning to things such as cryogenics.
Often, when we dig into this fear it is not so much about the future but about the past. Being able to accept the here and now, means also being able to accept all those choices which led to the present moment. Acceptance does not mean being OK about abuse, or things which have hurt us, instead it is treating ones past self with kindness. Letting go of guilt and regret can be life changing, and liberating. However for many people caught up in looking at the past, and living those choices over and over, it is a release that never comes. In this pattern of looking back and regret, the idea of somehow getting a second chance to fix mistakes can seem very alluring. The contrary to this, the knowledge that their is a final moment, past which there are no more second chances, can be too frightening to contemplate. So, the idea of death as a finality is resisted, and instead time, and money spent on that impossible second chance. I wonder how different people’s attitudes would be if that time and money were spent on being OK with the past which had led them to the present? If instead the future, and the end of life held no fears, because it held no regrets?
I am reminded of a zen koan I have always liked, about that quality of acceptance.
There was a monk named Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.
In the village, there lived a young woman, the daughter of the food sellers. The young woman became pregnant by her boy friend who worked nearby in the fish market. When the parents found out about this, they were very angry and pressured her to reveal the name of the father. She wanted to protect the young man and blurted out the name of Hakuin as the father.
After the baby was born, the parents took the baby to Hakuin. They told Hakuin that he was responsible for the baby and left the infant with him. He responded: “Is that so?” And he simply accepted the responsibility for the child without further reaction.
The monk had no experience with babies. But he began to care for its needs, finding food, clothing, and warm shelter. The other villagers became very angry with Hakuin for his offense and his reputation was trashed. These comments did not affect Hakuin, who continued to put his effort and attention into the care of the baby.
After several years, the young woman was filled with remorse. She confessed to her parents the name of the true father. They immediately went to see Hakuin, apologized, and took the baby back with them. Hakuin watched as they returned to there home with the child he had cared for since birth and replied “Is that so?”
Acceptance does not mean withdrawing from the world, or ceasing to live up to our responsibilities, it means letting go of those things which, in this often absurd world, do not really matter. Public opinion might seem important, reputation, and proving you are right. However, all too often they feed the fear of the ending, the desperate desire for second chances. Hakuin understood that, in the moment, he could not change either the past, or the future, what mattered were the choices he made in the ever present now.