By Mark O’Brien

It’s no secret that Western society is obsessed with youth; or more specifically, the appearance of it. Our cultural anxiety around aging and the focused determination with which we veer away from the present moment in pursuit of a perpetually-distant future is a bit like staring down at our “smart” phones as we march into oncoming traffic—just plain stupid. This oversight has profound implications for our personal lives and the broader societies in which we live.

Perhaps the greatest misfortune of living a life out of tune with our own ultimate demise is that the world we are busy co-creating with family, friends, children and colleagues is likely to be a short-sighted one—and almost certainly, a lot less fun.


A holiday worthy of the name

When I first learned of Día de los Muertos “The Day of the Dead” in my hot, dusty, middle school Spanish class, I was immediately struck by the wisdom and beauty of this national multi-day holi-day (literally derived from the Old English “holy day”). The Day of the Dead is of course the colorful and festive Mexican holiday where family and friends gather to remember and reconnect with their deceased loved ones. Beyond the exotic looking “sugar skulls” and spectacularly-decorated altars, spending a day to honor and celebrate death as part of life was a day that I recognized as “holy” even as an ardent atheist at the age of 15. But rather than reserve a special day each year to reflect on death, I began to wonder how might life transform if we were able to integrate the full scope of existence—including mortality—into our daily lives? How would my own life transform? How might society evolve when shaped by a citizenry more fully-connected to its own essential and impermanent nature? To consider this proposition, we first have to get at the heart of what we mean by life and death. What is the sense of “I” that exists NOW and that will one day, apparently cease to be?

Now let me be perfectly clear, I’m not suggesting that your new morning routine should incorporate a deep and sober contemplation of death prior to the first sip of coffee. Rather, I believe it is possible—and increasingly important to live a life that is “in-sync” with death. As the Day of the Dead so beautifully teaches us, to honor death while we’re alive—only then do we have the opportunity to fully arrive in the present moment and live our lives to their fullest.


Dis-covering the Self

Despite the fact that “I” is one of the most common words in human language, closer inspection reveals it to be one slippery fish. As Westerners, we tend to identify primarily with our thoughts and therefore locate “I” inside the head. Alternatively, many contemporary and ancient cultures identify with “I” inside the chest—pointing to a subtly felt sensation that can be discovered in the area known energetically as the “heart chakra”. We commonly use the word “I” to describe our (seemingly) stable sense of self as well as our more fleeting phases of mind and body.

I am Mark
I am 32 years old
I’m hungry
I’m full

In conventional terms, “I” refers to an endless river of self-identification—our own “internal-monologue”. But in those moments where several competing thoughts arise and the self appears conflicted, just who is disagreeing with who and what stands back aware of the whole debate?

If “I” is like a river, where is its point of origin? From where in the mind’s majestic mountaintops does the sense of “I” first begin and what directs its flow over the vast and varied landscape of our lives toward the mouth of the river where it becomes one with the ocean? Speaking of mouths, how can “I” be hungry one moment and the same “I” be “full to the brim” 20 minutes later?

This persistent, yet ever-changing, sense of self points to an obvious (but often overlooked) realization that “I” is anything but a static identity—it is in fact the quintessence of impermanence! And yet, we have constructed our identities, institutions, and much of the modern world around this grand illusion.


The conventional sense of “self” is a pale simulacrum of our most essential nature

When you look closely for the personal self, all you can find are ever-changing thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions—hardly qualities to invest your identity in. Then what or where is the self and how can we say that it exists at all?

Investigating into the experience of self through meditative practice (or with the help of an entheogenic catalyst) will reveal that the “I” that you thought you were doesn’t really exist at all—it’s a fiction. That is, there is not a static identity of “You”. In fact, you are not a noun at all…you’re a verb. You’re a process. An infinite, ever-changing canvas from which all objects of attention are painted upon.

Examining the nature of the Self in this manner will reveal that there is an unchanging presence from which we view this life—call it awareness. This is the ground of being, your true Self, and a presence that cannot be denied.


You don’t travel through life, life travels through you

To live in synch with our own death is to know one Self in this way—as the aware presence that knows the appearance of all things but doesn’t come and go with them. This is the part of “you” that hasn’t grown up, gained knowledge, traveled the world, sprouted silver hair or lost it all together. Through all of the ups and downs, twists and turns of life, you remain ever-present–unbounded by time and space. You are as clear and crisp as the morning dew on a fresh spring morning.

We cannot meaningfully speak about time, life, death, or relativity without first understanding the nature of the “Self”. If we are to utilize time, integrate death with life, and conceive ourselves in relation to some “other”, we must first come to understand who or what we really are.

What is the ageless, un-changing aspect of you? Is it a limited sense of self that has an expiry date? Or does its very existence give birth to all of life and the universe itself?