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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Life – A personal View

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Please let me share some thoughts on “life” in general, human life in particular.

What is “life”? It is not easy to define life in a sentence or two. However, we can describe what makes for life. In other words, we can list life’s universal properties, tendencies and realities.

At a very basic level, life is exchange of energy. In most terrestrial forms it manifests as “breathing”. Even in this “breathing”, there is difference between breathing in animals and breathing in plants. Life in water also requires energy exchange, but by a different mechanism. Ultimately, the source of energy for all forms of life in this planet is our Sun. Is it any wonder that oriental systems emphasize control of breathing as an essential step in meditation? Is it any wonder that all early traditions and religions worshiped the Sun God?

Once a “life form” comes into being, what are its inherent biological properties? Science is better equipped to answer this question. The following is an answer given by Daniel Koshland (Science 2002: 295: 2215-2216), a distinguished scientist, who used to be the editor of Science magazine. He identified seven common thermodynamic and kinetic factors by which “life” and living systems operate. He described them in the acronym “PICERAS” and called them the “Seven Pillars of Life”. They are: 1. Program – organized plan describing both the ingredients and the kinetics of interaction between the ingredients. 2. Improvisation – allowing the programs to change if and when the environment changes. 3. Compartmentalization – providing special containers in which concentrations of essential chemical ingredients can be maintained in an ideal state and protected from the outside. 4. Energy – availability of continuous source of energy and ability to exchange energy in an open system. 5. Regeneration – includes regeneration of essential constituents and reproduction. 6. Adaptability – different from improvisation in that this is a behavioral response from within the existing repertoire and not a change in the fundamental program itself. 7.Seclusion – of pathways that “allows thousands of reactions to occur with high efficiency in the tiny volume of a cell, while simultaneously receiving selective signals that ensure an appropriate response to environmental changes.”

What are the inherent tendencies of life? Life just wants to be and wants to be forever. Have we not heard the words “clinging to life”? Bill Bryson summarized it best in his book on A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, 2004)@ as follows: “Life wants to be; life does not want to be much; life from time to time goes extinct. To this we may add a fourth: life goes on”. This is a beautiful summary of life from both biological and philosophical point of view.

There is beautiful story in the Mahabharatha in the Anushasana Parvam. The big Kurukshetra war is over. Bhishma is lying on a bed of arrows. Indeed this was his death-bed. Dharma (Yudhistra) asks Bhishma: “ Revered Sir, please tell me what the best among the virtues are? I am told that non-violence is the best. Yet, our scriptures talk about using meat in yagnas. I am confused”. Bhishma gives a discourse on ahimsa (which is non-violence and includes non-killing). This is a long passage and includes the following story of a worm crossing a pathway in a hurry.

“All forms of life want to live forever………. They are afraid of death just like a worm who was crawling on the street at the same time Sage Vyasa was walking along the same path. Vyasa asked the worm why he was moving so fast, faster than he is capable of. The worm replied as follows: “ I am aware of several bullock carts using this road. I am afraid of being crushed. I do not want to die and so I am hurrying”. Sage Vyasa says: “ What happiness do you have? What are you hoping to get done?”. The worm replies as follows: “ Even though I am small and vulnerable, I do have some moments of happiness. What makes me happy is not the same as yours. But there is and I do not wish to die”. What an amazing story written more than 2000 years back!

The other inherent tendency of life is a “built-in” need, an urge to reproduce. We will not be here but for this urge. We need not overemphasize it. But, there is no use denying it either. It is part of life.

Life forms also want to or tend to avoid pain and suffering just like that worm on the road you just read about.

What are the inherent realities of life?

We all know that life is impermanent. Death is inevitable.

As pointed out by Buddha, we are also “inter-beings”. In other words, we are made of elements. Depending on the systems of philosophy these elements may be space, air, fire, water and earth or fire only, or gross and subtle matter etc. Current knowledge tells us that we are made of recycled matter from this earth which came from the sun and the stars. If you break this down, we are made of water and minerals. These in turn are made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, iron etc! This may sound crude, but it is the reality.

Whatever it is made of, our bodies are bound to alter, decay, disappear and get recycled.

Once again, in the words of Bill Bryson, “To begin with, for you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It is an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will exist only this once …….Why the atoms take this trouble is a bit of puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms do not actually care about you - indeed don’t even know that you are there. They do not even “know” that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive, but all of which had once been you.) Yet, somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you, you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown, your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that is it for you”. (From A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, 2004)@

The other reality of human life is loneliness. You will notice that it is a lonely struggle, particularly at moments of disease and stress. Death is a personal experience and a lonely journey. No one can take our burden, feel our pain or die for us!

One other reality is that our actions will have consequences – sooner or later, on ourselves and on others. Whether I believe in future births or not, I still cannot escape the consequences of my actions in this life. Reflexive actions are built in to preserve life. But as human beings, we are obliged to reflect on the consequences of our actions as much as possible.

Here is the central conflict. The life wants to live forever. But, it is impermanent. How can we deal with this conflict?

There are only a limited number of ways we can deal with the reality of death.
We can put up a fight, in vain.
We can accept it gracefully.
We can accept it grudgingly.
We can deny and pretend like we are immortal.
We can build imaginary future abodes.
We can practice rituals to avoid it.
Various cultures have tried all these avenues and more.

My preference is to accept it gracefully and live this ONE LIFE according to the dharma appropriate to my stage in life. I can be prudent and considerate in my actions. I can be aware of interconnectedness of our lives without losing the identity of the personal self. I can be detached without getting disengaged.

I can develop an inner compass to connect with and relate to this Universe and an inner policeman to direct me in this world. I can practice compassion and universal love. I can be humble.

@ Reproduced with permission from Random House Inc.