In January 2002, literally out of the ashes of 9/11, Schuyler opened Kula Yoga Project just blocks north of the World Trade Center. This humble little studio up 4 flights of cock-eyed lime green stairs became home for the bereaved denizens of lower Manhattan. My office, on the second floor, gave me a front row seat to witness the power of yoga and community to heal and help people rediscover their creative spark.
It bent the arc of my life. It led me to found Wanderlust and 13 years later move to Los Angeles and build Wanderlust Hollywood, an admittedly less humble center for yoga culture. I emptied my soul into building this place. Like a bedraggled chimneysweep out of a Dickens’ novel, I heaved myself out of the drywall soot every night with the vision of someday hosting the likes of Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, Russell Brand, Wim Hof, Byron Katie and the other brilliant poets and mystics that gave my life meaning. It all happened.
In this very strange time, in the very same week, both Kula Tribeca and Wanderlust Hollywood closed their doors for good.
The meditator in me can appreciate that we are just experiencing transitory phenomena from moment to moment. But if I am the sky and emotions are just clouds, then I am shrouded in a fog of sorrow. I cannot pretend that these gathering places did not hold the sacred.
These passings are, of course, just small totems of a deeper global heartache.
The harsh awareness of our own mortality has never been more acute. The global pandemic, replete with its archetypes and memes;
the Grim reaper clutching a scythe collecting souls on a Miami beach and images of desolate post-apocalyptical urban streets, has shone a blinding light on our impermanence.
Part of being human is having the awareness of inevitable death. Homo sapiens roaming the Serengeti 100,000 years ago knew they were going to die, just like you and I know.
However, our conception of death has evolved significantly over the past few hundred years. Throughout the Middle Ages, death was inextricably fastened to religion. There was a sense of helpless resignation around our own mortality, as God served as playwright of life’s final act.
When the Black Death emerged in the mid-14th century, it wasn’t traced by epidemiologists to a market in Wuhan. (Though, ironically, it now seems to have come from East Asia, as a virus carried by fleas on rats that were freighted along trade routes known as the Silk Road.)
This plague, which killed almost a third of the continent’s population, was largely believed to be supernatural. Religious scholars taught that death by pestilence was a martyrdom, assuring the believer’s place in paradise. For non-believers, it was a punishment.
The medical faculty of Philip VI in Paris blamed the heavens in the form of a conjunction of three planets that caused a “great pestilence in the air.” This explanation persisted as the miasma theory until modern germ theory took primacy in the late 1800’s through the work of Louis Pasteur.
Until recently, for most of humanity, meaning in life was revealed through death, in the form of heaven, hell or reincarnation. In the after-life, all would be revealed. Our earthly occupation was an opening act to the eternal life.
As science has uncovered the genuine physiological causes for death, our relationship to mortality has evolved. For better… and worse. It’s become a human engineering problem. Death is no longer the providence of God, it’s in the hands of doctors and scientists. As Yuval Harari posits, “when someone dies now, it’s generally someone’s fault.”
We think of our current pandemic as a human mistake from its inception in the Wuhan market to our varying degrees of success in managing it worldwide. A comparison of fatality totals between the United States and New Zealand, for example, paints a stark political portrait of death.
And, of course, the solution to the pandemic, the vaccine, is also squarely in human hands. While some may be praying in churches, synagogues and mosques, no one expects a pastor, in a moment of revelation, to pull a vaccine serum out from behind the pulpit.
The development of the vaccine will take place in a lab by someone in white coat not a merlin’s cap. It will be a product of human knowledge that we expect as part of our Amazon prime account.
The human fixation with the afterlife has significantly waned. In a very short period of time, from an evolutionary standpoint, we have re-framed the meaning of life into very corporeal and ephemeral terms. It’s happening right here, right now, connected to our physiology.
Science has certainly done a better job than religion in being flexible, applying trial and error as a method for analysis. But there is danger in ascribing “meaning” to our limited and uncertain lifespan and to presuming that we have undue power over our mortality. We now live with a tremendous fear of death.
We marshal endless resources in keeping our elderly on life-support, despite terminal conditions, often leading to drawn-out, inhumane deaths. Our elders, once seen as the holders of ancient wisdom, are increasingly perceived as a burden, relegated to grim nursing homes.
Well-intentioned safety measures seemingly have no end. Charles Eisenstein addresses this idea beautifully in his article The Coronation.
No more diving boards, endless helmeting and belting, home security systems, and a general distrust of the natural world.
And, of course, now, in the fever pitch of our pandemic-induced hysteria, we incessantly scrub our hands, avoid touching our own faces and relegate our social interactions to Zoom whenever possible.
Certainly, for a short period, we must cohere as a society for our mutual benefit. We can and should wear face masks, elbow bump and socially distance.
In the long term, however, how much are we willing to sacrifice in life in an attempt to avert death?
Are we willing to shutter our community centers, our yoga studios, our temples for music, sport and culture?
Are we willing to succumb to a surveillance culture that tracks our every move and encounter?
Are we willing to give up on our own immune function?
Are we willing to strip the life out of life for the sake of life?
Has the shift from understanding death as a matter of God to a matter of science undermined any possibility of dying well? Has our fear of death given way to a fear of life?
We have become culturally obsessed with transcending our evolutionary biology. The longevity movement with its bio-hacks and gadgets is both fascinating and worrisome.
Research on hormesis, epigenetics, microbiome, inflammation and chronic disease is part of the exciting and relentless march of expanding human knowledge.
If we can thrive physically and psychologically into our 100’s without depleting all of the earth’s resources, then I am all for trying.
But if life becomes a checklist of monitoring blood sugar levels, heart rate variability, ozone treatments, IV drips, home sterilizations, Zoom birthdays and anti-bacterial soap then I might prefer a grittier existence of family camping trips despite its inherent risks.
Longevity is, of course, just a pit-stop in the War on Death on the road to immortality, as Harari suggests, to transform Homo Sapiens to Homo Deus, to become God.
You can only imagine the fear one would have knowing that every organ in their body could be regenerated or replaced. Would you ever even leave your house to risk your own immortality?
Prior to scientific innovation, medicine was the realm of religion. Jesus was predominantly a healer. If someone fell ill, we summoned the witch doctor or the shaman. We can be grateful that science has wrested medicine from bloodletting, but what have we sacrificed in the process?
For all of science’s great achievements, it has done little to solve the hard problem of consciousness or provide insight into why we are here and what is our purpose. That is best left in the hands of the spiritual.
Despite all of the heart-wrenching suffering, the pandemic has offered humanity numerous opportunities, among them a pause for the re-assessment of life and death and what makes them sacred.
Now that we have hunkered down with our families stripped of many of the externalities of “normalcy”, many of us are discovering that a life of cooking, reading, walking, gardening, conversing, fixing, less flying and driving is more fulfilling than the hustle-bustle of dull care. We miss our community at-large but perhaps we see our neighbors and local essential workers in a new light.
Eastern traditions teach us that to be awakened is to be keenly aware of the present, to non-judgmentally witness transitory phenomena in the moment. Perhaps a life with meaning is simply focusing this consciousness on the elements of life that make it worthwhile.
This includes embracing death, not as a sanctimonious rebirth, but as a quiet return home.
Does consciousness spring forth out of a fortuitous combination of atoms, only to terminate with physical death? Or it is a wave that crests and, with death, dissolves into a vast, infinite ocean? What is the experience of what it’s like to be me after I die? No one can know for certain.
What is certain is that we are experiencing an unprecedented, collective illusion of dominion over the bodies we wear. And that there is an inherent tension in our grasping for this control and our deeper yearning for meaning in this short life. Perhaps the solution to both is a shift from fear of death to a joy for life.