Preface: Undoubtedly, our brain’s mind inherently needs a story for its thoughts to play out. The following “immortality” story is worth considering as it may offer what chapter 16 hints as, The way therefore long enduring, nearly rising beyond oneself. Note, the ‘dao’ of immortality comes at a cost and thus offers no happy home in heaven like most religions. Can you uncover this cost?
Yes, you are immortal… we’re all immortal! And that claim demands proof. My proof may well stand up only if you concur with Buddha’s analysis of self. My version of immortality links specifically to this point Buddha made in his 2nd Noble Truth. The illusion of self originates and manifests itself in a cleaving to things. (photo: an immortal Taoist sage)
About 10 years ago I started taking particular notice of the illusion of self origin. I began to fully realize how entwined my sense-of-self and my possessions were. By possessions, I mean whatever I value, be they material things, ideals, or beliefs — no matter. The cleaving to things produced and maintained my illusion of self — my ego.
The Immortal Illusion of Self
We must first agree here that all life forms carry out the natural work necessary to acquire what they need for survival… they all hunt & gather in one way or another. Each creature strives to cleave out what it needs from its environment. For example, a plant’s leaves cleave C from CO2, then a deer comes along and cleaves the leaves from the plant, then a man comes along and cleaves the meat from the deer. Each object cleaved—the CO2 molecule, the leaves, the deer—all pass away. Only the cleaving process is constant. The plant continues cleaving more carbon; the deer continues cleaving more leaves; the man continues cleaving more meat.
To understand Buddha’s point clearly, we need to uncouple the “cleaving” from the “to things”— the work from the reward. Cleave means to cut, slice. Cleave to means hold on tightly to. As we saw in the paragraph above, all life naturally cleaves from the environment what it needs for survival. Thus, only the cleaving to things creates the illusion of self. Unlike other animals, only human imagination connects the sense of self— identity—to physical objects, knowledge, and belief.
Such cleaving to things imparts a pernicious sense of mortality because things we cleave to are temporary and all pass away in their time. Additionally, our ability to imagine future losses instills even deeper trepidation. I find that when I honestly link my sense of self, my identity to the cleaving experience (the work), and downplay the inevitable links to the things (the reward) —my sense-of-self feels more universal, immortal. Here, “I” becomes the constant moment-to-moment cleaving experience instead of any particular thing or ideal cleaved to.
Conversely, when I cleave to particular objects or ideals, I can’t help but feel more limited, local, and mortal. Ironically, that increases my insecurity, which induces me to cleave to my holdings even tighter, drawing me into a potential vicious circle. This all comes down to the sense of ownership. Put simply, owning the objects of cleaving feels mortal; owning the cleaving experience feels eternal.
The universal cleaving discipline of life—the process—doesn’t die when an individual’s body dies. Chapter 52 ends with a hint of this, This serves as practicing of the constant. This cleaving discipline lives on by all those who live out their lives, generation after generation. Chapter 14 ends with a hint of this as well, The ability to know the ancient beginning; this is called the way’s discipline. If “I” is no more than the “cleaving” discipline, then “I”, as a process, is immortal, ad infinitum…
… Or until our Sun becomes a red giant and consumes the Earth’s orbit. That will evaporate the Earth’s oceans away, and solar radiation will blast away the hydrogen from the water. The Earth will become molten again.
… Or perhaps not even then. Even then, the cleaving discipline (process) will continue to play itself out in other creatures elsewhere in the universe.
… Or perhaps, all will end if the universe expands into a cold dark eternal future. On the other hand, perhaps the universe will fold back onto itself, implode, and presto, initiate the next Big Bang. Then immortality will truly continue forever.
Returning to Earth
Know that cleaving is a universal … your life’s flow = my life’s flow = all life’s flow. All living things are in the same boat and that boat continues to float onward regardless of who is onboard (alive). Here, your immortality is a matter of exchanging a personal, self-centered agenda for a transpersonal one.
Even better, we are not only immortal going forward. Immortality also flows backward in time. Realizing the “illusion of self” origin, connects you to all those who have gone before. Simply said, you are now living through the same essential experience as all those long dead and gone experienced before you. Life’s striving continues through your life currently. In essence, you are them… this is just Tvat Tvam Asi from another angle.
Naturally, this all comes down to a matter of perspective. Other animals have no thought of their mortality and thus no longing for immortality. Our unique cognitive ability (thinking) burdens us with the “illusion of self”. This can really mess with intuitive knowing; yet it can also help liberate us from this predicament. It is mind only (google [Cittamatra] and [The Vijnanvada Conception Of “Consciousness-Only]).
Profound sameness can open the door to immortality
Our awareness of mortality is a result of how we differentiate perceptions. The practical reason for distinguishing differences is that this enables us to manipulate our environment. In particular, the naming of things creates information giving us vast control over our environment in countless ways. The price we pay is a keen perception of death, and our own mortality. This all begins with giving ourselves personal names, and extends throughout our lives as we continue to define “I” am. The “I” creates an explicit mortality. The more “unique” the “I”, the more mortal we feel.
We can mitigate this by striving to notice similarities between that which appears so different on the surface… what chapter 56 calls profound sameness. Much of those differences have been educated into us from infancy, and so unlearning helps. (See: Ants Are Us, p.216; I Amoeba, p.223; Is Rock Conscious, p.212; Just like Us, Just like Them, p,384; A Bee with Personality, p,289; Swarm Savy, p.107; Networks of Networks, p.308; Who says chickens are stupid, p.380; Loving You Ecosystem, p.455; Cultivating Ego, p.473).
Another way to consider this is by knowing what happens in our own body. Each cell strives on pursuing its purpose. Cells only live for 7 years on average, yet your life span is much longer than that. The striving continues even though every cell dies eventually. Striving is the immortal flow of life. Self-identifying with the striving rather than with particular outcomes imparts a sense of immortality. Striving is life’s common denominator while outcomes are transient and relative to individual needs. Buddha hinted at this when his disciples begged him to tell them how they should cope with his passing. He said, “All created things must pass, strive on diligently”. This suggests that life’s striving confers life meaning, not life’s accomplishments. The more I can emotionally embrace that, the less success and failure matter. I am free to be in the eternal moment… to be immortal.
Finally, I suggest cosmic consciousness as a useful synonym for the word immortality in order to avoid thinking immortality means the “I” lives on forever. Speaking of cosmic consciousness, please google [The Nonlocal, Entangled, Conscious Universe – Menas Kafatos].