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Death, love, and meaning

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Terror at death and annihilation is at the core of the human psyche. Pursuits to preserve our self-esteem in the form of fame, approval, validation, and wealth all function to keep this terror at bay. Driven in this way, we are slaves to our fears. The wealthiest people and the systems they control have also exploited these fears so that we are caught in lives of struggle, toil, and that lack satisfaction. We can create a different relationship with this way of living by cultivating acceptance and compassion once we face these death terrors and the situation we are in within the economic system. Once we have insight that can only be gained by understanding our own powerlessness and the powerlessness of others, we can use the amount of power that we do have to try to change how we relate to ourselves and others.


Death

Recently, I've been playing a game on Xbox called "Vampire Survivors." It's a simple game. You choose a character with a unique starting power and then you choose a map. Then you run around avoiding getting hurt while accumulating experience and gold. As time goes on, you become more experienced and powerful, but the map becomes more and more challenging at the same time and so you don't really "progress." Eventually, time reaches a certain mark and Death comes. No matter what you do at this point, Death takes you in seconds and the round is over. It doesn't matter which character you play with, how experienced you get, or how much gold you accumulate, when it's time for Death to emerge on the map, the game is over.


Vampire Survivors is a perfect metaphor for our own existence. We are each playing our own unique character gathering experience while avoiding suffering and trying to accumulate wealth. But in the end it doesn't matter. There is an inevitable point where Death arrives and it is all over. It doesn't matter which character you are playing, how much wealth you've accumulated, or how skillful you've become at running around trying to avoiding suffering. We all end up at the same place.

Vampire Survivors
Vampire Survivors

Most people stay comfortably distracted by this reality. However, there are some who have looked deeply into this reality repeatedly gaining insight and wisdom from the process. I'm not talking about the type of wisdom that tries to be a balm from fully experiencing the total oblivion that death will bring. There are plenty of empty promises that exist as memes in our society that only serve to redirect our attention back to being good consumers and cheering on a particular political party. I'm talking about the type of wisdom that comes from seeing the emptiness in everything as a result of death's inevitability.


Death is the only truth of life. None of our knowledge can stop death or help us to know why we even exist. This means our knowledge is empty. This means our actions are empty. This means our cultures are empty. This means our existence is completely empty. By empty, I don't mean not real. Existence is something. It is just that it is empty. What creates experience is our nervous system. It's our own labels and meanings that give life texture.


How our environment prevents us from living meaningfully

While politicians in the United States claim to care about citizen well-being, the truth is that they care about corporations and shareholders whose goals are a global economy and a monoculture. The efforts that go toward social justice seem noble, but if those with vast wealth truly cared about people, they would leave people alone but use their power and influence to pay much higher wages, create access to healthcare so that one accident or illness wouldn't bankrupt or destroy someone's entire family, build a sustainable and nutritious food supply, discourage celebrity worship, create harmony instead of division, set standards of behavior rather than enabling actions that harm society, teach children self-esteem and psychological health rather than allowing them to be flooded with toxic messages on social media, and so on.


In the United States, and subsequently around most of the world, politicians care about money and the economy and the human beings that sustain it are only as important as whatever actions must be taken to placate them and secure enough votes or prevent open revolt. And so most of the activities of life are meaningless. Our impulses, passions and fears are exploited so that we perform well for those at the top of the economic system and their lackeys.


Since the beginning of civilization, those in power have been obsessed with preventing death and pursuing immortality. Everyone else in the civilization has been snared in whatever political system is in place that serves alleviating the anxiety of those in power. Look at the Great Pyramids and the tombs in Xian. Powerful rulers have enslaved their populations to work ceaselessly and meaninglessly for the hopes the rulers have that it will help them fend off death. In modern times there is the endless pursuit of youth treatments and all sorts of expensive technologies that can only be afforded by the wealthy while most of us live in fear that one sickness or illness will cripple us financially. Our productivity goes to help the wealthy pursue their vain search for the Holy Grail of youth and immortality.


This situation means we must live each day performing tasks that keep us in good favor with the system. Those who can't do these tasks or who won't, are imprisoned or disregarded. What is called mental illness in the United States is largely a description of mental and emotional states and behaviors that aren't adapted to conforming to the economic system and it's culture. And this culture and system exists to outsource the anxiety of the wealthy onto the rest of us.


If existence is empty, and our way of life is largely meaningless, what are our options?

The first step is acceptance. We must accept that there is no permanence, security or solution to life. Fame is not a solution. Excessive wealth is not a solution. Youth is not a solution. Being powerful or attached to powerful people or organizations is not a solution. Neither intelligence nor cleverness are solutions. Altruism is not a solution. Neither optimism nor pessimism are solutions. Pets are not a solution. Vacations are not a solution. Substances are not a solution. Engaging with politics and activism is not a solution. Your beliefs are not a solution. Your family is not a solution. Social media and endless distractions are not solutions. Spirituality is not a solution. Work is not a solution. Love is not a solution. Chasing meaning is not a solution.


Underneath all of these lies emptiness and acceptance of this emptiness is the first step. Once we accept this, we can start seeing all of the thoughts and actions we perform trying to solve the problem of life, trying to escape from it. When we stop chasing a solution, we can be in stillness. This is the eternal stillness that underlies this universe and likely any other ones.


Once we encounter stillness, compassion many times arises spontaneously. This is the compassion for all beings that are trapped in empty existence with no solution or escape. This compassion can then lead us. By harmonizing our breath with compassion we can lead our bodies with our intentions to remain in a state of compassion for ourselves and others. We recognize that as long as we feel our breath we are okay. We recognize that there is nothing to accomplish in life that is worth losing touch with compassion and a peaceful mind and heart. We recognize that when our mind is chasing after things, so is our body and we create anxiety and depression when life continuously reminds us of our lack of power and the futility of seeking permanence.


Love and meaning

Earlier I said that love and chasing meaning cannot be solutions. Most psychotherapists disagree with this and believe that chasing meaning is one of the primary goals of therapy. Many popular theorists subscribe to the idea that if you understand your values and perform actions that put you in touch with these actions that you will become better. This is a way of looking at people like they were robots. If I just get up each day and remind myself of my values and perform actions each day where I believe I'm living my values then I am better. People don't work this way but maybe artificial lifeforms do. Who can possibly live like this for the remainder of their lives? They can do this no more than they can remain in emptiness and compassion. They can do this no more than they can constantly be in a state of love with humanity. We are in a constant state of vicissitude. People believe they will become enlightened and transcend life. They won't. There is no enlightenment. There is no solution. There is no escape. There is only the acceptance that life is out of our control. There is no free will (I'm not suggesting that we are totally pre-determined either, just that the number of variables in the environment acting against us are far greater than the ones we have influence over). There is mainly luck, chance, and an ability to witness to our own experiences. This we must accept and then hopefully we will connect with the compassion that arises as a result of the wisdom of our situation.


Insight and change through compassion

In models of therapy that I believe are out-dated, the expectation is that through intellectual insight, people will change. I don't believe it works this way. Without cultivating deep acceptance of our situation in the universe and within the economic and political system, and subsequently cultivating feelings of deep compassion, intellectual insights are insufficient.


When we understand that we are the way we are because we have been shaped by society and culture to be this way, we can start to see that we aren't bad, but rather programmed by society and significant people during our development through childhood and adolescence and even through adulthood. This also doesn't mean that we should identify with being powerless victims. It does mean that we must be open to having respect and consideration toward how all of those factors beyond our control led us to our current beliefs and behaviors. In a different life, a different timeline, we would be totally different people.


We must then also learn to extend the same compassion toward others since they are the products of the same truths. With this understanding and development of compassion for all beings, we can truly change our relationships by focusing internally on compassion and then producing this externally into the world. This is where hope lies. This is where true change lies.


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