Death and Longevity

Concept Art Pict 011

How People Cope with Death

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The inspiration for this concept art is “Samurai Image,” Dia por Dia me, The longevity calligraphy shown is Chinese in form.

Research on aging is a relatively new enterprise, and surprising developments indicate that aging and death are not inevitable. An interesting clue has occurred recently, with the finding that the blood of young mice when injected into old mice can significantly extend life. Obviously, there is a chemical factor in young blood that physiologically impacts longevity (Dr. Tony Coray, at Stanford Univ., to be published in Nature).

But there have been many exciting findings, including noting that cell life can be extended by manipulating the tail end of DNA (telomeres). Even a cut in calories of the diet of mammals can extend health and length of life. Genes are clearly implicated, suggesting that inducing genetic change in relevant genes can extend life, and evolutionary hypotheses are critical. Right now, human life runs up against a biological barrier at about 120 years, but breakthroughs are inevitable (Evolutionary Theories of Aging and Longevity:

Dr. J. Graig Venter, a genomic investigator, and a critical member of a research team that first sequenced the human genome, is now examining the DNA of thousands of humans in order to determine which genes are critical for extending the length of life. He has elaborated the known DNA molecular code and has created an electronic version that may allow him to synthesize a life form (or use an existing synthesized genome) and transmit that genome to anywhere in the world (or through space) electronically, where it can be received and transfigured into a replica of the original genome. He hasn’t accomplished the feat yet, but it is entirely possible. It is also possible that the code for the synthesized genome can be saved and later stimulated to develop a clone.

Even scientific writers for Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, are looking optimistically into the near future, saying:

There is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence.

In addition, genetic damage or “wear and tear” theories

could not explain why biologically similar organisms

(e.g. mammals) exhibited such dramatically different

life spans. Furthermore, this initial theory failed to

explain why most organisms maintain themselves so

efficiently until adulthood and then, after reproductive

maturity, begin to succumb to age-related damage.


Still, the live all become dead, and the dead do not rise up to prosper; we must adjust to the inevitability that all of us will perish before we can take advantage of scientific findings.

Ernest Becker wrote a profound book on death in 1973 (The Denial of Death, Simon & Schuster). He concluded:

Each person thinks that he has the formula for

triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with

authority what it means to be a man, and he usually

tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today

we know that people try so hard to win converts for

their point of view because it is more than merely an

outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.

The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal

nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness,

but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and

achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the

cause of the worst.

Several years ago, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski wrapped Ernest Becker’s notions on death in psychological and evolutionary terms and concluded that thoughts of death stimulated anxiety. Death-induced anxiety could be reduced by high personal esteem and social and world view concepts. Indeed, cultures are structured to unconsciously hide or disguise death anxiety and provide avenues of personal development that can reduce fears of death (see Goldenberg, 2000, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 200-218).


In the 1600s armed Samurai guards attended to the defense of their retainers (shoguns, clan leaders, regimes), agreeing to die in the defense of their lord. The regimented origin of the Samurai is Buddhism, but a more militant form. Buddhism was an escape from reality by turning within and learning not to fight adversity and death. Shoguns saw these notions in their favor and encouraged the aggressive style of the Buddhism/ Samurai for their own benefit.

The entire movement was supported by a Samurai and Buddhist monk, Yamamoto Tsunetomo who in 1716 wrote a famous book, titled Hagakure, which advocates the rituals associated with the understanding of the Samurai philosophy. Hagakure is translated to mean “hidden leaves,” or “hidden by the leaves.” Its main principle is that the Samurai must prepare himself for death: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult.” Accordingly:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed

daily. Every day when one’ body and mind are at peace,

one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows,

rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging

waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being

struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great

earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of

disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s

master. And every day without fail one should consider

himself as dead.

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of

the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession

of moment after moment. If one fully understands the

present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and

nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single

purpose of the moment.

Many Samurai and others have learned to be immune from the fear of death, a process that not only frees oneself of anxiety and ill-directed activities, but permits the individual to redeem himself from dishonorable behavior with the killing of one’s self by a ritualized disembowelment with a knife, followed by decapitation by an aide (seppuku).

A famous Japanese writer and the last Samurai, Yukio Mishima, realizing that he could not reignite the honorable practice of the Samurai and thus change the nation after World War II, committed seppuku in Tokyo in 1970. His biographers, Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato, writing a beautiful book, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (Stone Bridge Press, 2012, describe the event:

The wound Mishima made by disembowelment started

1.6 inches below his navel, 5.5 inches long from left

to right, and 1.6 to 2 inches deep. Twenty inches of

his intestines came out.

It was a magnificent seppuku.

Obviously there are many ways to shake hands with death, but as I did the canvases that I introduce here, I learned a lesson not so much in techniques in painting (I have a long road to pursue here), but in the powerful link that we have with the universe in the better understanding of artistic creations and in comprehending how important beauty is in defining life and leading us toward greater truth. I have referred to Buddhism and other Asian approaches to spiritual fulfillment, not as an attempt to displace the Western concept of God, but as a method for coming to terms with our inner source of discontent.

Western canon excels in our understanding of external motivators of behavior, and it certainly is effective in driving economic prosperity, but for some of us a more internalized vision of ourselves has much to recommend it. Fortunately our quest can begin anywhere.

I use to feel, as a young man, that if I could only understand one thing – a tree, for example – I would eventually understand the entire universe. In a sense, I still believe that. The bigger lesson, I think, is that everything is related to everything else. Start anywhere and the road will always lead to the same core, one that we all share. That is true because we all carry the founding molecules and imperatives of our common origin. Those who have seen the other side of things, who have pursued the “obedience of the unenforceable,” know that the best game played is not the best game won. It’s pulling back the bow string and finding that the arrow flew without our command.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 20, 2015

Michima twoYukio Mishima, A man longing for and finding honorable death

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