As the conversation about Near-Term Human Extinction (NTHE) grows increasingly deafening, I notice many people behaving as if they are already dead—and in fact they may be. Do we have 15 years, 20 years, 50 years? Should I move to another location? What’s the point of doing the job I now have? Why even have health insurance if I’m not going to be here anyway? And on it goes…
I have no problem with preparing for the future. I’ve been writing books on that topic for about six years. The future has come to meet us and smack us upside the head on just about every level imaginable. And…living primarily in the future takes a terrible toll on us in current time. In fact, it strip-mines our lives in the here and now and guarantees that we become “extinct” long before NTHE does its dirty deed.
Recently, I was watching an interview with mindfulness teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn. When asked what he believes about life after death, Kabat-Zinn responded by saying that he doesn’t think about it much because he’s much more intrigued with whether or not there is life before death. If there isn’t life before death, he said, then we are already dead.
So how do we reconcile living life fully in current time with NTHE? The simplest response I have is: Give them equal time. Read the science, keep current with the news, talk about it with people with whom it is safe to do so, but give the present moment as much time as you give NTHE.
Giving the present equal time means committing to several necessary practices.
- Get away from the computer and the stack of books and get yourself OUT into raw nature. I never cease to be amazed at individuals who “fight for” the environment but don’t know how to spend quality time in it. This means not doing anything in nature but simply being in it. That sounds like a big waste of time? Good. That anxiety you’re feeling when you think about this is a tip-off that that is exactly what you need to do. When immersing yourself in nature, don’t “go for a hike” or “exercise” or “garden.” Just simply be mindfully present in nature. That means listening to every sound intently, really noticing everything you see, smelling the fragrances (unpleasant as well as pleasant), perhaps even tasting grass or leaves or plants that you know are safe to eat. Sit or lie on the earth. Honor your sensuality, and bring your body into contact with nature. Lose yourself in Earth eroticism.
- Practice appreciating beauty at least once a day. It could be taking a moment to look at, smell, or touch the flowers growing wild or in your backyard. It could be painting or drawing something beautiful. It could be listening to an extraordinary piece of music that moves you to your depths. It could be cooking an exquisite meal for your loved ones.
- Practice creativity every day. Creativity can be expressed in myriad forms—writing, drawing, cooking, playing music, helping your child with homework, planting a garden. Make something new every day even if that only means cleaning, de-cluttering, re-purposing an object. Learn and tell stories—especially to children and to each other. Tell stories of heroes and “sheroes” of integrity and passion for the earth. Immerse yourself in mythology and allow it to reveal to you the story you came here to live.
- Live passionately. “Suck the marrow out of life,” as Professor Keating might have said in “Dead Poet’s Society.” And speaking of poetry, delight in reading and writing poetry and memorize it by heart, from the heart.
- Move/exercise/stretch the body every day. Recently, when leaving the gym where I work out several times a week, I heard wonderfully wild music coming from a Zumba class and stopped to watch. I found myself welling up with tears of joy as I focused on every individual in the class dancing their passion. Indeed, many individuals are ill or suffering from chronic pain or severe disabilities and cannot take Zumba classes, but every one of us can do something for the body every day.
- Express love to another being every day. Beyond someone in your family, make a conscious effort to be kind to someone or something. It may be easy to express love to family members or pets, but it’s often more challenging to extend kindness to the grocery clerk, the bank teller, or the customer service person on the phone whom you will never see and whom you can’t wait to stop dealing with.
- “Inflict” humor and joy on others when least expected. This does not mean being disrespectful or insensitive. Be discerning and considerate, but lighten up as you carry the heavy load of Anthropocene awareness.
- Breathe, breathe, breathe. Check in with yourself regularly to see if you are breathing. The second you feel stressed, breathe. Taking long, slow, deep belly breaths is the best medicine for body and mind in any situation, even when you’re not feeling stressed.
- Practice acceptance. Acceptance does not mean being resigned. It means recognizing the actuality of things without your particular story of how bad the situation is or your story of how the future will play out. It means taking a situation into your awareness and working with it in order to help it find its own place in your heart and mind rather than being the dominating force in your life.
- Commit to a stillness/mindfulness practice. You can be well aware of NTHE and the probability of a bleak future for humanity and at the same time be passionately alive. One of the most effective ways of facilitating this is learning and practicing mindfulness. It is one of the oldest survival techniques known to our species. Hunter-gatherers knew that if they didn’t practice mindfulness, they would be eaten.As a result of our awareness of NTHE, we can easily get caught in depressive rumination, that is, a thought pattern that keeps bringing us down. If you find yourself ruminating, ask: Who is ruminating right now? Just keep asking the question. You are not your thoughts but the awareness of your thoughts. Ruminations come and go, but you don’t. Wherever you go, there you are, so it’s more than important to know who’s ruminating.
If action is the antidote to despair, then stillness is the antidote to hysteria and rumination about the future. A short exercise by Kabat-Zinn offers a taste of mindfulness practice. Kabat-Zinn founded the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, and his video presentation on Mindfulness, Stress Reduction and Healing is a remarkable integration of science and mindfulness.
Lest we assume that practicing mindfulness is just one more form of sitting meditation, it’s important to understand that it can be practiced anywhere—while walking or doing almost any activity because it simply involves paying full attention to whatever we are doing or experiencing in the moment.
So there is life before death, and as the African proverb says, “When death comes, may it find you fully alive.