I’ve set myself a challenge: To prove to you that you have already died, many times, and therefore have no reason to fear death.
It’s become apparent that travelling through space in a physical way – e.g. sitting in a spaceship – is ineffective, and unlikely to be a viable solution for colonizing other planets like Mars.
Far more promising – however seemingly impossible – is Star Trek-style “beaming.” Namely, to transport yourself from one place to another, instantaneously, using some sort of fax machine for human bodies.
Believe it or not, this is starting to look possible. Researchers appear to be coming close to achieving a beginner-level form of teleportation.
If you were to transport yourself in such a way, you’d need to be broken down into particles here on Earth, flung across space, and then reassembled at the other side by a super-advanced 3D meat-printer installed on Mars.
And therein lies the dilemma.
For this to work, the original person stepping into the Earth machine would need to be annihilated. While the person who steps out of the Mars machine at the receiving end would think he was you, and have all your memories – including the memory of stepping into the Earth machine – he would essentially be a reconstruction of you.
The original You would be dead.
This seems like a real bummer, doesn’t it? Many people find this to be heartbreakingly impossible to answer. To commit suicide in order to keep living seems too cruel a joke.
Would you choose to die so that a copy of you could survive on another planet? Maybe not.
And yet, amazingly, you’ve already done this before. Many times.
ALL CELLS MUST DIE
Take a moment to notice yourself physically. Observe your body, your face, your hair and skin.
Now cast your mind back to when you were six years old.
How were you different, physically, to now? Were you smaller? With more hair, perhaps of a slightly different colour? Tighter stomach? Brighter eyes? Did you still have “baby” teeth? Was your skin pure; free from the scars and blemishes you’ve since picked up along the way? Just notice the differences.
And then notice how that six year old child no longer physically exists.
He (or she) has been replaced. For your body to be bigger today, the original skeleton must have been upgraded. That also means means bigger muscles, tendons, and organs, and longer nerves and blood vessels. Everything, in fact, has been changed since you were six.
So what happened to the original?
Do you have him tucked away in a basement somewhere? Is he hanging on your wall for nostalgia, or cut into pieces Dexter-style and pasted into a scrapbook? Jesus, I’m getting weird on it now.
But anyway, no. You don’t have him anywhere.
Not only is he not preserved anywhere, your current body does not contain any trace of that child whatsoever! He died a long time ago. As did your seven year old self, your 14 year old self, and – ready for this? – even the You that existed last week is almost completely gone!
I’m not bullshitting. Scientific studies have conclusively confirmed that every particle in your body is completely replaced, many many times, as the years roll by. Some of your poor cells don’t even last a week before they die.
No matter how tired you might feel, today you are driving a brand new 2017 Human Body, fresh off the production line.
This includes your brain, by the way.
You may think, “Well, I clearly remember my whole life, so some part of me has been here all along.” This might lead you to believe that at least some part of your brain has survived, even if the rest of your body has been reincarnated too many times to count.
Perhaps the most compelling “evidence” that you have been one person your entire life are your memories, stored in that invincible brain of yours.
Well, I hate to break it to you, really I do, but…
MEMORIES AREN’T REAL
You can remember the six year old You, and perhaps with a little prompting, a few gulps of whiskey, and a decent journal, you can trace out your entire life story. This confirms, you think, an ongoing existence of a single entity: You.
The Observer. Consciousness. Soul. Ppersonality. Something, as evidenced by your memories, has always been there, right?
Well, let’s just put that to the test.
Take a moment to notice the experience of recalling a memory. Remember a special time for you in the past, any time will do. A specific incident.
Now, as you recall this memory, notice how you observe it. You watch it inside your mind, almost like watching a movie. There’s the memory; and then there’s the thing observing the memory, a.k.a. “you” – the audience in the theatre.
Memories are stored in one part of your brain – a Netflix-style app located somewhere in your limbic system. And then you “watch” the memory from another part of the brain. A memory could not observe itself – it must be viewed from outside itself.
Stay with me here…
It’s during this experience that you start to create a new memory – the memory of observing a memory.
You watch the memory-movie stored in part 1 of your brain, with a viewing device stored in part 2 of your brain, which then records this movie like a hacker-pirate into part 3 of your brain.
Like an ancient tribe passing down it’s folklore and wisdom, through storytelling and word of mouth, you pass your own memories onto… yourself. And like word of mouth, parts get lost and changed in the translation.
The DVDs in your brain that were first created when you recorded the original experience are probably completely gone. You only have pirated copies left. In fact, copies of copies. The dying cells passed on their wisdom to new cells.
Every time you recall a memory, you make another copy. Notice how your memories distort over time. Remember those times you realized that you recalled something incorrectly. Notice how unreliable memory seems to get over time.
What colour was your first bedsheet? What did your grandmother smell like when you first met her? How many baseball cards did you have in your first collection? You had all this information at one time – how reliable is your recall of it now?
Or even better, try to remember something from before the age of 2 years old. Can’t do it right? Where are those memories?
I’ll tell you where: Nowhere. You will never get them back. Because the cells that were responsible for carrying them died, before you were fully capable of accurately recording a new version during the recall process. You didn’t know how to make copies.
You only think “you” has always been alive because you can’t see this storytelling process happen. Fact is; the older versions of You are completely gone, memories and all. What exists now is a copy, of a copy, of a copy…
You’re almost a spitting image of yourself!
HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU DIED?
What version of yourself are you? How many times has everything about you been completely replaced by something new?
You’ll probably never know the exact number, but there’s one thing you can be sure of: It’s happened a lot.
Death is the end of life. When something stops being alive, we say it’s dead. When the particles that have grouped together to create a categorical character go their separate ways, we say that person or thing is dead.
By the definition of death, you’ve died a whole bunch of times. Shit, you die every time you learn something new.
Yet, here you are, Version 253.6 or something. You’re carrying on the good family name, like a business started hundreds of years ago still being run today by the founder’s ancestors.
The business continues. Though much has been improved since it got started, it still reflects many of the values and systems from way back when. However, the building is different, the logo has been updated, the staff are new, the money and products have been replaced many times over.
It’s the same business in name only. Every single original part has completely died and been replaced.
Take a moment to congratulate yourself on keeping the business of You running through so many deaths. Many people can’t get through more than a few cycles before they go bankrupt!
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE “REAL” DEATH?
Maybe you get my drift about all your parts being replaced like a rebuilt car engine, but you still think there’s really only one “real” death to worry about. We all know the one – that thing when the lights go out for good – the final bankruptcy.
But exactly when does this happen?
Take a second to consider this. What do you consider to be the real finish line for a person? When, precisely, is a person “dead”?
A person can be resuscitated after their heart stops beating, so that ain’t it. Coma patients can be technically out and yet suddenly return to full functioning, so that ain’t it. You aren’t dead when you hold your breath, or stop moving, or pass-out into complete unconsciousness.
So what is death?
Perhaps we can simply say that death is when an event occurs that guarantees “you” are not coming back. It’s when the doctor calls the time, and pulls the sheet over your head.
What has changed? What does it mean to cross this line?
When we look at all the other deaths you’ve experienced earlier in life, we see they have one thing in common: transformation. We see a cell retired and replaced by another. We see change.
Perhaps death is not an end, but a change.
What happens to the retired cell? Where do the “dead” parts go? What happens to “me”?
RETURNING TO THE OCEAN
In the middle of the ocean, the wind causes a small ripple.
Encouraged by wind and currents, the formerly tentative ripple increases in size and intensity, and before long it becomes a swell.
Sharpened by off-shore wind, the swell becomes a discernible wave. This wave, now an individual, and recognisable as separate from the mass of the ocean, has a life of its own. It cruises merrily towards the nearest piece of land.
As it approaches the shoreline, the increasing grade of the ocean floor bleeds energy away, reducing the wave’s strength and size; just as health and vitality bleed away from the elderly.
As it approaches the shore, the wave crests and breaks. The speed at the top of the wave exceeds the speed at the base, and finally it crashes over.
The wave is gone. Dead.
But where has it gone?
There’s no trace of it on the beach. There’s no piece of it remaining anywhere. Obviously, it has returned to the ocean… where it never really left.
The wave was always part of the ocean, supported by it and connected unbreakably to it. And, during its lifetime, the drops of water that formed the wave were continuously replaced by other previously inert drops, many times over.
The whole ocean contributed to the existence of the wave – each drop participating briefly to be a small part of the wave for just a while, like people coming together to make a crowd for just one concert, then individually dispersing back to their homes after the final encore.
The wave that started as a swell was completely different from the wave that crashed, finally, onto the shore. Yet, paradoxically, you could observe it as the same one wave for the entire process, too.
The particles that were used to create you as a baby were not new. They were borrowed from something else.
As you grew and lived, you consumed food, meaning that plants and animal products were transformed into parts of you. Then you went to the toilet, or burned energy into heat through exercise, or cut your hair off, and these particles of food, now transformed into particles of you, returned to the external world as something else again.
When you die, none of your original particles will be there for it. They’ve already played their role and moved on.
Every drip returns to the ocean. Every wave breaks and is absorbed back into the original source. No part of you ever really dies, it just gets a new job. It returns to the ocean of life and is reassigned.
There is no final death, there is only a complete transformation, one where you finally become unrecognisable as a single human to anyone observing you.
Why explore or consider this shit, what does it even matter? Why would I stay up late at night and write about such a thing?
Because when you think you only have one life, you start to get very fucking precious about it.
You get scared of dying, so you do everything you can to prevent that “one” death from happening.
In other words, you start trying to prevent change and transformation.
You follow the rules. You do what everyone says you should do. You play it safe. You cling to your identity. Status quo, all the way. All this just to avoid something that is happening to you on a daily basis anyway, and causes you no suffering at all:
And in avoiding death, you miss out on life.
It’s similar to how you won’t speak up at the team meeting because you’re scared of being ignored. Yet, every day, over 7 billion people around the world completely ignore you and this doesn’t bother you in the slightest.
Why does being ignored by a few people at the meeting bother you more than 7 billion? Because during the meeting you focus your attention on it. You make it important. You wilfully ignore evidence that people ignoring you is a totally harmless experience.
You miss out on the thrill of speaking up. You hide yourself to avoid a pain that isn’t really pain at all.
It’s the same when you overlook the hundreds of deaths you experience throughout your life, yet panic at the thought of just one of them occurring in the future. You focus on it, making it painful.
Or, more accurately, you try to avoid acknowledging it and try to protect yourself from it.
You hide from death behind a safe boring job, settling for a safe boring partner, buying a house like your parents said you should, and playing it safe up and down the board.
You hide behind keeping things the same, because you think if things don’t end then they don’t die… then you don’t die.
Yet, while you will definitely die many times before your lights go out for good, there is no guarantee that you will actually live.
Don’t let death worry you – you got this. Don’t let the fear of death cause you to play it safe, avoid risk, and settle for the easy way out. There’s no need. You’re a master of death.
But can you become a master of life?