Fear of Life
"So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life."
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And on to fear of life…
Did any of you see the Darren Aronofsky’s docuseries, Limitless? I watched (most of) it. I’m guessing—for those of you who did watch it—that you might not have made it all the way through. So here’s the thing: You can skip most of it. Watch one episode, and you’ll get the gist. And then watch the last episode, because it flips the whole enterprise on its head.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the six-part series follows the Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (i.e. Thor) as he bio-hacks away, pursuing longevity and good health. The budget for this life-extension is huge, which means the series is beautiful—they shoot all over the globe, with monks in Japan and the Hadza tribe in Africa. In every episode, the very lovely Chris takes on a challenge—conquering his fear of heights (and stress response), fasting and then spearfishing, swimming in the Arctic—while accompanied by longevity doctor Peter Attia and other experts as he trains. The most compelling part of the first five episodes is that they shoot footage with people who easily do these activities as part of their daily lives—walk lines strung between spires in Moab, swim in ice floe dotted seas, and more—and all of these counterpoints to Chris’s travails are women.
Despite its beauty, the series is pretty tedious—a testosterone-fueled, bio-hacking bonanza—and then, the rug gets pulled out from under the whole thing.
I watched the series because I knew my good bud B.J. Miller, an incredible palliative care physician, was in the show (podcast episode here), and I wanted to see him do his thing. He is a stunning person, inside and out, a walking figure of grace and transformation (he lost both legs and one arm in an accident in college). B.J. leads the final episode, which sees Chris delivered to an assisted living facility—built from scratch by the production—where he’s put in an MIT-designed suit that mimics the effects of aging. Vision and hearing are distorted, range of motion limited. And then B.J. and death doula Alua Arthur teach Chris how to die. It’s an incredible episode—confrontational, moving, lovely—a wonderful pay-off for the first five hours of bro-tastic monotony.
B.J.’s point to Chris as he struggles with his suit is that you can be a physical specimen—prime your body, master your glucose levels, maximize your HRV—and you’re still going to die. Nobody gets out alive. The subtext: Rather than spending your life trying to extend it, maybe start living it.
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I wrote about this in Oprah, but it’s been wild to watch the tenets of “wellness,” which were originally quite feminine and intuitive—eat whole foods, hydrate, move your body, find your real self beneath layers of cultural programming—become entirely co-opted by…patriarchy. Maybe that’s a stretch, but the current landscape is a bit perverse in its commodification and its pressure to pursue an idea of perfect health, with all the corresponding accoutrements, trackers, and tools.
Attempting to iron out life into a trajectory of agelessness and optimized health is a fool’s errand, but also a denial of what it is to be alive. Here’s the wonderful Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart on the idea of yama mara, or fear of death.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.
I know it’s Easter Sunday, or presumably the day when Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, after he had Passover with his apostles, including Judas who followed his destiny and betrayed him. In the tomb where he resurrected, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene. (Her story is hugely important, and an essential book-end to my upcoming book, On Our Best Behavior.) In their encounter, he tells her—noli me tangere—or “do not cling to me,” and while the instruction has been used to malign her over millennia (after all she was painted as a prostitute until recent decades), what he meant is that she should not hold on to his physical body, as he was continuing his return to source.
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