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Saturday, August 16, 2014

THE FOURTH STATE

This month's Discover magazine features an article on moss campion - a type of low, flat plant native to the Alaskan tundra that explodes with pink flowers in early summer.
 
Moss campion seedlings are the size of a pushpin, twenty years can pass before they grow much bigger. Scientists studying the plant, which grows across a wide swath of the world's high latitudes and elevations, have discovered that the plant lives for centuries, which is helping to shape an emerging field: the science of how nature ages. By studying how the species makes a living in a place where it's tough to get established and tough to live, research has shown that moss campion follows a biological strategy known as negative senescence. Simply put, the risk of death decreases (negative) as the organism grows older (senescence). Death may still be the ultimate fate for these and other plants, but it doesn't represent the end point of decline, which arrives via catastrophe, or a whim of nature, or due to human-caused changes in the environment.
 
It turns out the moss campion has evolved a strategy of slow, deliberate growth. It spends much of its early energy building an extremely long tap root to ensure water and nutrients later on, though this slows the plant's above-ground growth in the meantime. Scientists are attempting to translate this "live slow, die old" strategy to humans and replicate the millennia-long lifespans seen in some organisms in homosapiens. For example, bristlecone pines living near the California-Nevada border are nearly 5,000 years old.
 
 
Such a long lifespan is a wonder in itself, but what really amazes is the fact that these trees show no signs of decline. In fact, the older they are, the more likely they are to survive environmental stress than their younger counterparts, and they reproduce at a steady rate well into old age. Organisms such as turtles and lizards are other living examples of negative senescence.
 
Which raises the question: if you were offered the opportunity to live a thousand years, would you be up for the task? Many would say no, citing the death of loved ones and the loneliness that would ensue as deterrents to living so long. But what if a millennium (1,000 years) was the average, so your friends and family would be with you till the end of your days, would you care to stick around til then, if you could like our pines, enjoy robust health and fertility throughout? It's something to ponder.
 
 
It has been said that we are all just actors on the stage of life. There are a lot of great roles, but what if you had to play Macbeth your entire career? What if all Stallone could do was reprise his role as Rocky, over and over again? (Wait, that sort of already happens, although Expendables 3 is coming out soon.) If you believe in reincarnation then you may endorse what the mystics say is the purpose of living many lifetimes, which is to play various roles, and for each role, 75 years (the current average lifespan) is for most people somewhat enough. But these days we live lifetimes within lifetimes, with multiple marriages, several careers, and global connectivity providing us options that didn't exist for our ancestors. Ah, it's a good time to be alive! That is, if you can keep your head from spinning with the rapidity of advancements in technology, the next of which may be one app or other that allows you to be a living bristlecone pine yourself (a grove of which is aptly named Methusaleh).
 
So which would you prefer, 1000 years with me, or 10 lifetimes, each lasting 100 years, with a different version of me? The possibility of both may be greater than either of us can even fathom, but so what? This is just fun and games really. In the grand scheme, 100 years and 1000 years are just so many blinks of an eye, one no closer to infinity than the other. And infinity is what we are. Ask yourself this question: "Could I imagine myself not to exist?" Sure, there was a time your body, that capsule of blood, pus, and chyle, was not, but is that really you. And your mind, just a bundle of thoughts. Does it have any reality of its own? Sit in silence and turn attention inward, just for a few seconds to convince yourself that you are No Mind. But the consciousness, the awareness that persists when you are awake, dreaming, or in deep sleep, which transcends the three states and is called by some mystics Turiya. Now that. That is real. Because it can be directly experienced. What greater proof do we need?
 
Athiests deny the existence of God. But ask your favorite atheist this question: "Do you exist?" If the answer is yes, and if they can entertain the possibility (some even are certain) that their existence predates the body and survives its death, then they have endorsed the existence of God, for the Lord is just another name for the Self, for what exists, and since something can only be said to exist if it does so forever, if it is not a wave on the sea of consciousness but consciousness itself, and the Self fits this description, then the Self, you and me, the underlying Unity, eternal existence consciousness and bliss, alone is. In a word, God. There is nothing that needs to be done (which is often the hardest thing, on this Rajasic planet of action we live in.)
When will science get this? It doesn't matter how long the game goes on, be it 100 years or 1000 years. The time has come to recognize that life is just a game, and to play it, but the Player lives on.
 

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