Weekly Review Issue No. 20
On grief and the Overview Effect, leading a spiritual life as a Householder, the wakefulness of the dying brain and the opportunities at the end of the world (as we know it)
Hello and welcome back to another Review. I hope you’ll at least one thing you find interesting, useful or enjoyable. If something particularly resonated, I’d love to know about it.
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What’s alive for me
I did it again! Another week flew past and I didn’t send you a Weekly Review. Sorry about that. If there is any consolation, I think the links below are excellent and very much worth all of your time.
One reason I’ve been a bit behind on this is that I’ve been finding time to speak to people about their relationship between mortality and meaning. It’s been incredible. This is one reflection I had:
Some of you have been in touch via this newsletter and we’ve chatted. But I have a few more spaces in my diary for this activity. So if you would like to join me for a 30 minute Zoom call to discuss your mortality and how you make meaning - and I’ll pay you £10 for your time - please find a slot and let’s chat!
Outside of that, I am feeling really in a big flux of emotions at the moment. There is a lot of movement in me and everything around me in my life, which is a good thing. But there are less things to hold onto, less solid ground than usual. Thankfully, the ground we are preparing for ourselves is more solid than before (like the house we bought, finally escaping the rental market). But at the same time, its hard to stay with the uncertainty and flux. It’s funny how Spring brings its own opportunity for growth, but also maybe a bit of recognition that changes brings a leaving behind of old things. Thankfully, I am increasingly aware of how I feel about it, and am not just experiencing this unease. It is not a disassociation, but a deeper discernment of emotions and thoughts. This is good I think.
May is feeling way more damp than previous years, and a friend shared something about the generally unravelling Gulf jet stream which is causing all this wetness. There was me thinking we’d get some respite, but this is just another symptom of our falling apart ecosystem. Bah.
Really, did you ever care so much about the weather and let our patterns of rain, sun, heat and cold affect you so much? What a burden to take on if you choose to. No wonder we are seeking deeper meaning and having to confront our existential fears on a daily basis and seeking actions to remedy them. This is both a poignant symptom but also an incredible opportunity.
So with that in mind, let’s unpack some of these thoughts via the links…
Research on the edges
🤷🏻♂️ We Don’t Know What Will Happen Next
This is like a bingo card of all the things I’ve been thinking about for the last 3 years: climate change! existential crises! That Gramsci quote! The title says it all, and bears repeating. No one has a monopoly on the future, and nothing is set in stone (despite the very real locked-in tipping points, extinction level events). There is freedom in how we choose to respond to these existential problems. Don’t forget it.
To truly grasp the complex nature of our current time, we need first of all to embrace its most terrifying aspect: its fundamental open-endedness. It is precisely this radical uncertainty — not knowing where we are and what lies ahead — that gives rise to such existential anxiety.
Anthropologists have a name for this disturbing type of experience: liminality. It sounds technical, but it captures an essential aspect of the human condition. Derived from the Latin word for threshold, liminality originally referred to the sense of disorientation that arises during a rite of passage. In a traditional coming-of-age ritual, for instance, it marks the point at which the adolescent is no longer considered a child but is not yet recognized as an adult — betwixt and between, neither here nor there. Ask any teenager: Such a state of suspension can be a very disconcerting time to live through.
We are ourselves in the midst of a painful transition, a sort of interregnum, as the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci famously called it, between an old world that is dying and a new one that is struggling to be born. Such epochal shifts are inevitably fraught with danger. Yet for all their destructive potential, they are also full of possibility.
An important reminder for all those parents who feel that the responsibilities are somehow/sometimes a restriction on their ability to continue self-development or engaging in the ‘deeper’ things in life (i.e. going on yoga retreats in pre-baby/child life): You are invited to inhabit the role of the Householder:
This household life is the field for developing various virtues such as mercy, love, generosity, patience, tolerance, purity, prudence, right judgment, etc. It is highly lamentable to note that the grandeur, solemnity and dignity of this stage of life is not fully realised these days.
The worldly duties are not ties. The world is the best teacher. You are not required to renounce the world and take shelter in the Himalayan caves to claim back your lost divinity. The world cannot stand in the way of your God-realisation. Live in the world but allow not the world to live in you. He who living in the midst of temptations of the world attains perfection is the true hero.
🎇 Surge of neurophysiological coupling and connectivity of gamma oscillations in the dying human brain
This is pretty wild, and validates some things I’ve heard over the years from other reseachers: that at the point of death, the brain is not a silent thing. In fact, increasing evidence shows that there is a burst of activity, and specifically of gamma waves, which are similar to dreaming or wakefulness. Simply put: people in comas showed ‘conscious-like’ brain activity as they died. Who knows what the subjective experience is of a dying person, but you can’t help but wonder what this means for our understanding on the experience death…
The present study confirmed that global hypoxia increased gamma power and gamma coupling with slower oscillations, findings previously reported in our animal models and in a dying patient. More importantly, this study revealed in the dying human brain, the high-frequency activation of the TPO junctions that is also observed in healthy human brain during waking and dreaming and in seizure patients during visual hallucinations and out-of-body experiences (OBE). Empirical evidence presented in this study strongly suggests that the dying human brain can be activated.
🧑🚀 My Trip to Space Filled Me With Sadness
I was reminded of this account by the Star Trek star, William Shatner, about his experience and reflection of being the oldest man into space. You may have read this at the time (late 2022) but its still so powerful. His experience of the ‘Overview Effect’ is pretty profound and highlights to me the importance of a) older people’s perspective about the world b) the strange orientation towards space travel as man’s future c) why grief is so important for any meaningful change to happen.
We got out of our harnesses and began to float around. The other folks went straight into somersaults and enjoying all the effects of weightlessness. I wanted no part in that. I wanted, needed to get to the window as quickly as possible to see what was out there.
I looked down and I could see the hole that our spaceship had punched in the thin, blue-tinged layer of oxygen around Earth. It was as if there was a wake trailing behind where we had just been, and just as soon as I’d noticed it, it disappeared.
I continued my self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into space. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us over thousands of years of exploration and hypotheses. Stars exploding years ago, their light traveling to us years later; black holes absorbing energy; satellites showing us entire galaxies in areas thought to be devoid of matter entirely… all of that has thrilled me for years… but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death.
It’s Spring, which seems like the time that Four Tet emerges and brings another instant thematic soundtrack to the year. I love musicians who seemingly tap into the deeper currents of things, and his new track Three Drums just captures this life beat, leaf-turning-to-the-sun feeling so well.