Saturday, June 5, 2010
Physical Immortality (Again)
This is a picture a friend sent me of a cemetery in Japan. This is the fate that most humans accept and feel is before them. But why do people die? Is it necessary? Is there an upper limit to our life span? Is it worth extending our lifespan? Is life in the body worth living? The Buddha one time said that we cannot be enlightened without a body and talked of meditation as being ever mindful of the sensations in our bodies, remaining with the sensation, and not reacting to what we feel. In one passage, the Buddha said that his physical body could live for the whole aeon and that the Earth was his witness to this accomplishment. Although he later sacrified this body through a tonglen that took on enough planetary karma to have it die, to give his students some help overcoming obstacles in their enlightenment process, he did still attain this siddhi. What happened to him that allowed him to do this?
I have become a reviewer in the Amazon Vine Program. Apparently enough people had clicked their buttons and said that they liked the book reviews, that Amazon decided to offer me a position as an official reviewer. It is not a paid job, but you get to choose among many new books and get them for free, on condition that you give a review. I usually give the highest, five stars, for any book that seems to be written well and does the job that it intends to do. If I have some reservation about the book, then I give four stars. If there is a serious flaw in the book or sometime that does not jive, then I give three stars. So far I have not given out anything less than three stars.
I am presently reading a book for review called LONG FOR THIS WORLD by Jonathan Weiner. So far the book focuses on a scientist named Aubrey de Grey who is a pioneer in the sciences of life extension. I have been interested in this kind of research, because science has reached a point where it can question whether or not we need to age and die. The subject has been one that brings up some strong human emotions, deeply rooted religious beliefs, and sometimes some intense discussions. I have found that the subject of longevity is one that it hard for humans to explore impartially. Very often, if you believe that aging and death can be transcended, that the body does not have to age and die, then you get all kinds of automatic thoughts given back to you. People theorize that you must be afraid of death, that you want to stay a child your whole life and never grow up, that you are blind to the obvious truth that you are going to age and die, and that you are aging and dying right now.
I do find that the discussions are worth getting into, because the belief that aging and death can be transcended seems to touch upon every relevant religious, scientific, and philosophical issue. But it seems to touch upon the whole issue from a different direction, it brings up the issue empirically.
Even on this blog, the belief that we are all aging and dying, and must age and die is so strong that people say something like, "But when you look in the mirror, you will eventually find those wrinkles and grey hair, that you will look as old as you are supposed to be for your age." People who have not seen my face will assume that I am still seeing what they see in the mirror, without empirically feeling the need to check reality and to see what is true and what is not true. What I find is that people vary a lot in how they look at certain ages. Some people look very youthful well into their 50s, while others look like they have one foot in the grave.
The question about what are the best biological markers to measure aging is an interesting one. Grey hair, for instance, does not seem to be a highly relevant one to me. I had some since High School and it seems that the amount of grey hair is about the same or has only slightly increased. It is something that a person can only find if they are looking intently for it. Perhaps this might change. I theorize that it has something to do with periodic emotional stress and some demineralization. In any case, I do not find this symptom to be a relevant marker in another sense, grey hair does not represent any loss of vitality, youthfulness, and health. I would rather focus on other indicators that are more directly related to health and vitality.
According to the research quoted in the book, the life expectancy of humans in the Stone Age was about 20 years at the most, with the majority of babies dying before the age of three. At the peak of the Roman Empire, the life expectancy was about 25 years. During the Renaissance, the life expectancy was about 33 years. By the year 1900, in the developed countries, the life expectancy had moved up to 47 years. Right now, the life expectancy is at least 76 years. This means that we have, in the last hundred years or so, at least doubled the life expectancy of humans. We have changed our experience of how long we live that much. But in conversations, there is always a feeling, among the people I have talked with, that everyone has always aged and died the way that we do now. It is like believing the Earth is round, rather than flat. People forget that there was a time when people saw the world very differently than we do now. People emotionally imagine that everyone always knew that the world was round and find it hard to imagine a time, not so long ago, when some of the sailors were afraid that Columbus would sail far enough to fall off the edge of the Earth.
One problem that the books point out is that the numbers given above are a little controversial. We are still piecing together the history of the Earth and we do not always have a lot of historical data on every time period. This is compounded by trying to determine what numbers are relevant in this inquiry. It seems that what is emerging is to ask questions like, "What percentage of the total population reaches certain ages?" For instance, in terms of known studies (that I am aware of, new studies happen often enough so that I am not sure I have the most up to date data), the Okinawans have the highest percentage of people of a given country growing older than 100 years. It seems that this is related to diet for two reasons. One is that Okinawans who have moved to other countries and/or eaten a different diet in their own country do not live as long. Their diet is near vegetarian with a certain number being complete vegetarians.
While the percentage of the total population growing old beyond 100 years is relevant, it does not screen out certain kinds of death from accidents, wars, poverty, and disease. Part of the theory of physical immortality is that aging and death are due to controllable causes and that there is no mechanism that forces us to age and die. Whether or not we get a certain disease is a controllable cause. It is a conditional event in that it does not have to happen to every human being and even when it happens a human being does not have to die from the disease. In one recent news item that I saw, Peru found 300 cases of people who tested positive for having been infected with AIDS and who are naturally immune to AIDS. One of the cases was caught soon enough so that they could see what happened inside his immune system. AIDS usually mutates before the immune response can complete itself. But in this person the immune response was a lot faster than usual and completed itself before the AIDS virus could mutate and eliminated the virus. I have a feeling that we all should be having immune systems that operate this fast and that diet is a factor in why this may or may not be so. Many countries have not abandoned their herbal healing traditions and eat a more traditional diet that usually has less animal flesh. In Okinawa, the advent of fast food burgers and the school cafeteria system has lead to an obesity epidemic among teens that the older diet did not generate.
There are some life extension researchers who feel that, when you remove many of the known controllable causes of aging and death, we might "hit the wall" aka reach a point where we cease to extend our lifespan any further or find any further progress very difficult (unlike the slow but steady progress where many relatively easy controllable factors are dealt with as our science. technology, and social conditions have improved). The estimates are around 120 years to 127 years. There seems to be some reason to believe that somewhere around this is our genetic life span maximum limit. Genesis 6:2-3 talks about the human lifespan being 120 years. Later on, a biblical generation is 40 years and was most likely the reasonable lifespan expectation, give or take 10 years, for a lot of human history. I do find it interesting that, taken the allegorical history of Genesis, that humans, Adam and Eve, were essentially immortal in the Garden of Eden, and were on a raw food vegan diet (Genesis 1:29), when they fall to a lesser consciousness, their lifespans seem to be about 900 to 1000 years. It seems that Abel was a farmer and that vegetarian food was the norm in this next time period. After the flood, humans start eating animal flesh (Genesis 9:1-9). The passage is interesting, because humans now evoke terror among animals and now live the pitifully short lifespan of 40 years. This seems to dovetail with the Lankavatara Sutra in Buddhism which points out that when we eat animals our sweat and our breath has the smell of death in it. Many animals have more developed noses than we do and their sense of smell can pick up on who is a predator, on who hunts them, kills them, and eats them. Because of humans needing to kill to survive, karma requires that they be killed in their turn. There is a different relationship with animals at this time, it is based on fear. In the Garden, it seemed that Adam names all the animals and communes with the animals. Eve even talks with a serpent. While I do not think the story is literal, I do find these passages link together and may reveal a certain kind of truth about longevity, diet, and consciousness. Some of it links with some of the numbers that come up in the life extension research.
In religious history, it seems that many saints and alchemists have been reported to have transcended aging and death. It seems that they have many things in common, like doing some kind of breathing energy technique, changing their diet either to at least near vegetarian, some vegetarians, some vegans, and some raw foodists, some kind of physical culture like hatha yoga or chi kung, some practice like meditation, a commitment to live an higher ethical life, having supportive loving friendships and sometimes a long term loving sexual partnership, a good sense of humor, some kind of economic livelihood from a craft or skill, and some sense of life purpose. In some of the numbers I have gleaned from various books, it seems that there is a correlation between certain factors and longevity, that the lifespan increases to the degree a person moves away from eating animals and animal products. It seems that to move beyond 127 year "wall" may require mastery of breathing, energy yogas, and becoming at least relatively enlightened in consciousness. I did run across a book about a Brazilian who lived to be 160 years on a vegan diet. He may have lived longer, but when he started eating an American diet he died only two or three years later.
One of the problems for science is trying to separate legend from historical truth when it comes to the past immortals. There is a story about a Chinese herbalist who lived 256 years and whose lifespan is confirmed, in part, by Chinese birth records and marriage records, with the person having married five times. His profile does match the above mentioned longevity factors with the addition of the use of Ginseng, Foti, and Gotu Kola as herbs. Apparently the use of Ginseng was so regenerative that the herbalist had to stop taking it for two weeks before being able to finally die. There is mention of a Tibetan Buddhist female master who lived at least 500 years and who practiced a meditation designed to create longevity and involved Amitayus Buddha, White Tara, and Unishavijaya, and at one point doing the meditation without sleeping for two weeks. There is also Babaji who has been immortal since 800 CE and who resides somewhere near Badrinath, India, and who, in AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A YOGI by Yogananda, promises to be present to some people in his physical body to the people of this world. This yogi wanted to re-release the idea of physical immortality to humans so that it might be possible for people to attain this in the near future, perhaps becoming more common in the next 500 to 1,000 years.
I generally believe these stories, because they are from different cultures and time periods and seem to have a pattern to them. Certain ideas and practices link them together. Even though, given the possibility that all these stories are essentially accurate, all these saints may collectively represent less than .000001 percent of the total population, this percentage, if true, is important, because it means that the "wall" is passable, that the 127 year maximum lifespan limit is an illusion. I suspect that the factors required to move beyond the wall are things like vegetarianism, veganism, fasting, and mastery of breathing which few humans have been willing to do. This observation seems promising to me, because it means that, even without these more serious commitments, the human lifespan has increased so much.
My sense is that people have very little to lose to adopt the idea that aging and death are not necessary and that aging and death is due to controllable factors. Whether or not I succeed in living several hundred years more or not is secondary to the fact that I am alive now. I find that I am taking responsibility for those factors and choosing to integrate them into my life. When an aging factor seems to appear every now and then, I take it as a feedback that I may need to focus on some factor and work with it until the symptoms disappear. I do not resign myself to the symptom and just assume that it is going to kill me. I am not afraid of death, though if I do die I would prefer some versions of dying over others. There are times when death is better than living. If the body is too maimed and too painful to keep alive, then death may be the wisest option. I do believe in reincarnation, so you always get another chance to live, learn, and grow. One of the things I that I think we are meant to learn is how to keep our bodies alive for longer lifespans and to keep it youthful and healthy as long as possible in those lifespans. I do feel that our bodies, well cared for, can live forever, provided that the Earth does not become too toxic and life on Earth remains worthwhile to live in. There is some indication that many of the saints who have transcended aging and death release their bodies anyway, do evemtually "gently lay the body down" as one book puts it, to go to another dimension where life is even better than on Earth. This is different from the process of reincarnation which usually requires rebirth in a lifetime similar to the one that one had before. We might have glimpses of heaven worlds and hell worlds in the bardo, in the space between death and rebirth, but our karma seems to only get better in stages as we do good deeds to others and to our own bodies, and the force of the good karma uplifts our lives in stages. My view is the opposite of the "drastic view" that after you die you get the blessings of a eternal heaven where sorrow appears no more or the eternal torment at the hands of an angry righteous god. I think we slowly evolve heaven on Earth or evolve to the point where we go beyond the Earth to a higher realm, but karma has us reborn into a world appropriate to where we have been and where we are going. It is possible to accelerate this evolution through meditation practice, wholesome life practices in general, determination, and commitment. My view is also different from the atheistic annihilationist view that believes that the soul is an epiphenomenon of the brain and that when the brain dies we completely cease to exist. The near death experiences that people have seem to indicate that something does survive the process of dying, including getting information that the brain and the usual five senses should not have gotten. This is another research edge which is interesting and which I think will be better understood in time.
I would like to add a footnote here about scientific research in general. I do feel that the scientific method is really an ideal method of investigating reality and helping us to understand reality. I like when the research is done as rigorously as possible. I find that many studies, from my point of view, are not rigorous enough for me and this limits the meaningfulness of the conclusions that are drawn from the data. Even when the research is not fully rigorous, sometimes the research is still valuable when combined with other studies, laid side by side to notice findings and patterns in common with others. I would like for more of the abstracts to name the sample size, conditions, ages of the people involved, what kinds of diets they had, and what kind of mind or philosophy of life they were living. I do feel that a vegan body chemistry is different enough than a more carnivorous human so that studies that do not factor this in cannot completely generalize to all humans. If animals run in terror when they smell carnivorous human sweat and more easily trust humans who are vegan, this is already a big difference that will show up biochemically in other ways. I also feel that dietary studies need to factor in when food is eaten, how it was cooked or overcooked, whether the food is organic, what soil it was grown in, what climate belt it was grown in, whether the farmer lived in compassion or planted the seeds in the mood of anger and frustration, whether the fruit was violently ripped from the plant by machines or lovingly hand picked, whether the food was trucked over a desert highway without being properly cooled or unpacked in truck yards that smell of fuel. There are a lot of factors that shape the quality of our food. While it is not possible to track all these factors in a study, I would like to see more of them tracked than is presently done.
The other factor is the science in human life is not merely a method, but a community of people in the academic world. These people need to look at themselves and try to notice if their own biases are getting in the way of arriving at certain conclusions. When it comes to life extension, many religious dogmas may prevent a person from even believing that aging and death could be transcended. This is a delicate area, because I have found that people have some strong emotional feelings about life and death that will affect their ability to contemplate life extension and physical immortality. I have not found those who study science in college, get hired by corporations to invent and test products, and who have an emotional ambition to write a paper that will make them famous to be a particularly impartial group. Many of these people have done very little or no psychotherapy or any kind of psychological self exploration, have not attempted to look at their ego defense mechanisms and how this ego defenses could be interfering with their ability to do good research. Many of the people who I have met have lost their natural childhood curiousity, which I feel is behind real science, and have even openly stated to me that they dogmatically feel that aging and death are necessary and that they would not even care about hearing anything that questions this, considering it a stupid and irrelevant subject by someone who is afraid of death. With this kind of mindset, the research is not going to be done, and, of course, when I have invited any of them to quote any research that has already been done about the subject that might back up their view, they give absolutely zero. Sometimes I have heard a friend mention the telemere reduction theory, how whenever cells divide a telemere rips and when we run out of telemeres then our cells cannot reproduce. This theory would seem to give some validity to a the 127 year "wall" that some people seem to hit. But it seems that an enzyme called "telemerase" can repair the telemere tears and reload the ability of the cells to do mitosis and regenerate the body. It seems, too, that taking astragalus helps keep our telemeres active. I say "seems" because a lot of this research edge is relatively new and the conclusions are still more suggestive than proven. What I also find interesting is that only those who have some positive feeling about life extension seem to zero in on the telemere reduction theory as relevant. I have yet to see it quoted in a book as a disproof of physical immortality. Those who quote it are those interested in life extension and sense something significant to the aging process is being discussed inside the theory.
What counts for a rigorous scientific proof, for me, is a relatively high state of research, analysis, and testing. In terms of legal proof, a scientific proof is an overkill. It is like presenting ten times more evidence than is usually needed to prove someone guilty or innocent. There is a reason for this, because science is trying to create and maintain a very reliable body of knowledge. Speculative theories are not allowed into this inner sanctum. Too much stuff has become believed by humans in the past that has not survived scientific analysis. It is a cautious and conservative approach. There is a problem, though, because these kinds of studies take a lot of money and I personally cannot afford to do them. I can experiment in my life and have friends join me in my journey. I can study history, find patterns, form beliefs, live them and see where they lead me. I feel I have personally verified much of the teachings of the immortals from Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, Mystical Christianity, and Qabalistic Judaism. I generally believe their basic themes and direction is valid. There is enough difference in terms of various details to warrant being tentative and being willing to double check various beliefs to see if they are valid or obsolete. Science does not happen in a vacuum. Corporations want science to support them making profitable technologies. This is only indirectly related to studying aging and dying. There is more money in creating a drug to conquer one illness than there is in mastering breathing and possibly rising above a thousand illnesses as a result. In short, we need to scientifically evaluate the social process of scientists working for universities and corporations and see how this affects both what they are researching, whether the subject gets enough funding to continue, and how a certain social lens may not even want to look into aging and death in a certain way. I find the data coming from modern science to be generally accurate but somewhat fragmentary. People need a good overall theory to help organize the research, know what to look for, what to expect, and how to design the experiments to test those expectations. I personally feel that physical immortality is such a theory and is an excellent lens to look at the existing research through. There are themes even in corporate studies that you begin to see that are overlooked in usual science because they are not trying to piece together their own findings in this direction. Occasionally some author will summarize what has been found, lay studies side by side to show what is emerging as a pattern, and link it with support for certain theories. The theory of physical immortality is already a "convergent" theory. It gets at least partially confirmed whenever a scientists discovers some aging factor and how it can be cured or when things like humor seem to increase lifespan (no surprise that Bob Hope and George Burns lived past 100). Because the totality of the processes inside that are related to aging and death are complex, variable, and interconnected, physical immortality may be an unproven theory for a long time. But right now it feels superior to holding the hypothesis that there is some factor, yet to be found, that will prove that we have to age and die no matter what we do. The fact is that there is a lot that we can do to increase our healthy lifespan and this belief is something we can hold and be productively rewarded for having. I do think it is important to not be afraid of dying, because fear can age people. I do find it interesting that if you focus on transcending aging and death that people will assume that you are afraid of death, but if you focus on transcending a disease you are not automatically considered afraid of the disease. It is also interesting because curing the disease really means curing death in that form.
I do find that thinking in these terms seems to also be a health and longevity factor. If you are reading this and agreeing with these thoughts, you may find yourself feeling healthier, happier, and younger as a result. I think the reason is that you are not dooming yourself to any inevitable fate. Your life is open ended. You might still age and die, but you are not doomed to it. This is a different energy meeting your life experiences. I do feel that I have felt healthier a result of this thought and making choices from this thought. Whether or not my lifespan moves beyond the 127 year wall or not remains to be seen. If it is does not, I will not consider my life a failure. I already believe that I will live longer than I would have if I did not embrace the idea. As far as I am concerned, I might have been dead already without it. So barring not getting run over by a truck, I expect to have a lot more happy years of life ahead of me and I have learned a lot of things to help others heal themselves and feel better too.