Now there’s a thought: if space+time= spacetime, does life+death= lifedeath?

June 24, 2014 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

*Update: see comment below for Tom Crompton’s reference to a study where sustained reflection on death led to a shift to intrinsic values, while people only briefly reflecting on death responded by chopping down lots of trees!*


“I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up the morning and make toast.” - Will Self (c51.28)

Who would have thought death would be such a draw? The Twitter hashtag for last night’s public event: ‘Let’s Talk about Death’ was #rsadeath but the event was heavily oversubscribed, and in light of the struggle people had getting a seat in The Great Room, #rschairgate was suggested as an alternative. As the chair, there were some tense moments for me, as one might expect, and not least when Will Self appeared to be uncomfortably close to recommending suicide; although many said afterwards that if you’re serious about opening up this kind of discussion, nothing can really be off limits.

As indicated in my pre-event post: ‘We’re all going to die’, we put this event on because our denial of death is a key driver of how we live our lives and plan our societies; it is also a key component of whatever we think spirituality is, or should be. The discussion feels difficult at first blush, but once you open yourself to its ubiquity and significance, you almost wonder why people talk about anything else.

I thought the panel were excellent individually and complemented each other well. I offer a few select quotes and thoughts for now, with some analysis to follow when we have the manuscript.

The Philosopher and writer Stephen Cave gave a distilled overview of how human cultures have tried to evade death over time with informed contributions arising from his recent book on the perennial quest for immortality. I particularly liked his not altogether facetious suggestion near the end, imagining a family around the breakfast table posing themselves a familiar question with an important twist: “Given that we’re all going to die, what shall we do today?”

I was also struck by the way Stephen set the scene before unpacking details of research in social psychology(c05.00): “Death is a Taboo, maybe our last taboo…Death shifts you into a different gear…If you are religious you’ll now be feeling more religious. If you are patriotic you’ll now be feeling more patriotic. Whatever the core of your worldview is, because we’ve mentioned the death word, you’ll now be holding on to it more tightly and will more aggressively defend it.”

Joanna Cooke offered a compelling perspective based on her experience of spiritual practices as a Therevada Buddhist nun in Northern Thailand; further enriched by her athropological acumen. (c15.40) “In my own sitting I was aware of my own skeletal structure, and the muscles and sinews and so on that make up the body…But not just the body, my body; as in, me….So there is no cheating death here. The meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally….”

Joanna went on to quote Steve Jobs in celebrated Stanford commencement address in 2005: “Remembering you are going to die is the best way of avoiding the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Spacetime and ‘Lifedeath’

Will Self was typically unnerving, subversive and dark, but also brilliant, funny, substantively helpful, and periodically generous in spirit. I was particularly struck by his life/death continuim idea. Just as physicists now speak of ‘spacetime’ rather than seperate dimensions of space and time, so life and death are not really seperate things.Death is such an integral part of life that we should think of them as part of the same ontological or phenomenological fabric.

Will also made some challenging comments about the State’s need for military deaths as a kind of sacrificial rite to legitimase its ongoing monopoly of sanctioned violence Relatedly: (c1.09.30) “Surely there is nothing more obscene than the sight of a priest in military uniform. It really shows the whole charade up for what it is.” I was also struck by his sympathy for certain aspects of Christianity e.g. (c37.10)”When I say, as an agnostic, that religion does death well, what I mean is, that the part of me that is a genuine agnostic is swayed, under the influence of a Christian funeral. I couldn’t believe I think they do it well if I was sitting there thinking this is obviously…Sky-God nonsense, clearly part of me is responding.”

And later, in response to a question by Mark Vernon, I felt part of his answer was particularly elegant line (c49 mins): “What is interesting about Christianity is that it views salvation as simultaneously a dissolution and an actualisation of the ego.”

Beyond all the great contributions, my main reflection concerns the connection between the public salience of death and research in the social psychology of values championed by Common Cause. I will unpack this point in another post – because it’s a potentially huge issue, but in essence, if reflecting on our own deaths tends to promote intrinsic values(love, nature, craft) and weaken extrinsic values(fame, money, status), and concealing death has the opposite effect, our cultural representations of death clearly have much greater political and economic implications than we tend to realise.



  • Tom Crompton

    How we think about death seems to be very important for concern about other people and the planet. Tim Kasser and I reviewed some of the evidence on this, and explored the likely reasons, in a book “Meeting Environmental Challenges” (PDF here: As you say, Jonathan, it seems that a sustained, reflective meditation on death can increase concern for others (human and non-human) (pp. 48-49). But brief reminders of mortality has the opposite effect (pp.19-22). Indeed, in one study we cite, Tim found that writing briefly about their own death led participants in a simulated forestry-management scenario to chop down more trees!

    • Jonathanrowson

      Gosh! That’s quite something. I’ll look into the research and plan to write further about this soon. Thanks Tom.

  • MatthewMezey

    I’ve always felt that death – or the repression of ‘death’ –
    played some major role in squelching our true ‘spiritual’ experience of reality. This was because of a ‘Glimpse’ experience – as Guy Claxton called ‘peak experiences’ in a previous RSA spirituality lecture – that I had decades ago.

    What was most striking was that I became very aware of my
    own mortality, and the mortality of others – it made everyone I came into
    contact with seem immeasurably precious. But in direct proportion to that
    feeling of death-awareness, I also became more energised by life. It really felt like this feeling of aliveness, of benevolence, is the birthright of all of us. The ‘real’ reality. But we rarely ever see it – just as Guy Claxton

    It was only later – via Ken Wilber’s amazing book ‘Up from
    Eden – a transpersonal view of human evolution’ (flawed but fun!) – that I heard about the theories of people like Ernest Becker and Norman O. Brown, and realised than our death-denial neatly removes death fear from our lives. But at
    the expense of repressing our life-energy too.
    We pay a price for our illusion of immortality.

    It’s interesting to note that the ‘Fourth Way’ (GI Gurdjieff)
    spiritual movement that has been around for over a century (and which focuses
    on mindfulness-style practice to encourage being truly present) had as one of
    its early aphorisms:

    “One of the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realise that
    you may die at any moment. But first you must learn how to keep it in mind.”

    I’m not sure I’ve ever thought to ask how to keep death in

    I’m too busy negotiating my ‘dark night of the soul’ since my
    teenage ‘Glimpse’… ;-)

    (See all the aphorisms here:

    Matthew Mezey

    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • drokhole

    Alan Watts offers a number of great meditations/insights worth contemplating on death. I will share a number of his edited clips and videos in another post, but since that comment will likely take some time to be approved I just wanted to stick to text with this one and emphasize another point similar to the conceptual shift offered by the title (but coming at it from a slightly different perspective). Then, in regarding:

    “Just as physicists now speak of ‘spacetime’ rather than seperate dimensions of space and time, so life and death are not really seperate things.”

    So, too, organism and environment are not really separate. I mean (would be remiss if I didn’t again credit Watts here), you are not an organism in an environment – “you” are an organism-environment (or, if you prefer, an “organismenvironment”). In the exact same way, every “solid” is a “solidspace” (and vice versa). It is a total field. And “you” are the whole works. This is what Guy Claxton meant when he said “…right here and now, the World is Guy Claxtoning in a particular (and, it has to be said, rather peculiar) way.” Consider also these two quotes:

    “If all the parts of the universe are interchained in a certain measure, any one phenomenon will not be the effect of a single cause, but the resultant of causes infinitely numerous; it is, one often says, the consequence of the state of the universe the moment before.” – Henri Poincare

    “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

    With that in mind, think of a green caterpillar – one would recognize, then, that rather than saying you have a green caterpillar in an environment, your perspective shifts to see the entirety of the environment is “green caterpillar-ing” at present circumstance – it’s not a “thing,” it’s an event.

    To briefly elaborate further, as an expression of (let’s limit it to) the Earth, one could say that – in the same way an apple tree “apples” – the Earth “humans” (or, is “humaning”). And, in order to “human,” it needs something like a tree to provide air fit for breathing. Truly, half of your lung exists outside of you in the form of a tree and other carbon dioxide-inhaling/oxygen-exhaling plant life. Only, we’ve cut ourselves off from our “external” organs (like the sun, rivers, plants, other animals, etc…) to identify with a very narrowly circumscribed version of “ourselves.” To paraphrase Watts again, rocks are just as much you as your fingernails.

    We may seem like the living tip of the iceberg, but you don’t poke your head out of the water without the rest of the berg beneath you lifting you up. In other words, the Earth (and Solar System/Universe, really) is the sufficiently complex organization that makes “humans” possible. In the same way that Aldous Huxley had delineated a “Mind-at-Large” that was accessible through various means, this can well be understood as our “Body-at-Large.”

    So then, when “you” die, the vast majority of your “body” still lives on (and is continually regenerated as other “forms” of life, at that). It may not provide a complete answer as to what the “experience” is of the cessation of this localized and concentrated (relatively speaking) aspect/expression of “self,” but it should give us another perspective of lifedeath (if nothing else, from a purely “physical” standpoint).

  • MatthewMezey

    Interesting to hear about Alan Watts’ “Institute of Creative Dying” idea. I used to work for the Natural Death Centre – which very much had a purpose similar to what Watts was talking about, it seems. It was set up by Nicholas Albery, a great social innovator.

    • drokhole

      Very interesting! And I happened to find the quote from Watts:

      “That’s why you may think it a grisly habit, but certain monks keep skulls on their desks, ‘memento mori,’ ‘be mindful of death.’ Gurdjieff says in one of his books that the most important thing for anyone to realize is that you and every person you see will soon be dead. It sounds so gloomy to us, because we have devised a culture fundamentally resisting death. There is a wonderful saying that Anandakuri Swami used to quote: ‘I pray that death will not come and find me still unannihilated.’ In other words, that man dies happy if there is no one to die. In other words, if the ego’s disappeared before death caught up to him.

      But you see, the knowledge of death helps the ego to disappear, because it tells you you can’t hang on. So what we need, if we’re going to have a good religion around, that’s one of the places where it can start: having, I suppose they’d call it The Institution For Creative Dying, something like that. You can have one department where you can have champaign and cocktail parties to die with, another department where you can have glorious religious rituals with priests and things like that, another department where you can have psychedelic drugs, another department where you can have special kinds of music – anything, you know. All these arrangements will be provided for in a hospital for delightful dying. But that’s the thing, to go out with a bang instead of a whimper.”

      You can find it around the 23:55 mark of a YouTube video/lecture called “Alan Watts: Out of Your Mind Series – The World as Emptiness 12 of 12″