The above might not make sense at this point so let’s offer different choices to begin with that, if not any more meaningful, will certainly be more fun as a source from which to derive our identity. How about: “The Case of the Immortal Jellyfish” (Immortality) or “The Aging Karaoke Singer” (Death)? In making your choice you should know that you just might be choosing your absolute authentic identity, your transformed sense of self, because this radically divergent story can mess with your mind—which might not be a bad thing—uh, oh well, one can only hope.
Our story opens in a darkly lit Japanese karaoke bar. At the mic is a frail, elderly Japanese man wailing a slow, mournful tune as he sways back and forth, eyes closed, a slight Buddha-smile revealed on his upturned face. He is Shin Kubota, the world’s most famous scientist who studies hydrozoans. In fact, he is about the only scientist doing a serious long-term study of the most famous of the hydrozoans—Turritopsis dohrni—the immortal jellyfish.
It’s not that Turritopsis does not merit more attention and does not promise worthwhile scientific outcomes; it’s not as if it is not an intriguing challenge for ambitious researchers; it’s just that humanity doesn’t have the “heart” for it. That is, in any case, the opinion of Shin Kubota. Kubota thinks that human beings are not ready to live forever.
If the circuitry of your mind is fragile, that is to say, if you think your fuses are easily blown, better not to read more of this essay. After hearing this story, you will not think of your identity in the same way again. You may even begin to think of yourself as immortal which, come to think of it, is the whole purpose of this book. If we don’t die, do we need to expend so much energy fighting cancer, old age and death? What if that which dies is not us? All the best laid plans for whom?
The Nowhere Man knows not where he’s going to.
Making all his nowhere plans
Death is the inevitable end for all of us. Or could it be the beginning? Or could it be both the end and the beginning? There is a creature in nature that suggests that the latter question contains the correct answer.
Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “Everything goes, everything comes back;
eternally rolls the wheel of being.
Everything dies, everything blossoms again…”
Hydrozoans are small invertebrates and one type, Turritopsis dohrni, is known today as the immortal jellyfish. They are often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish from the title of the recent film. The analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus or the metaphor of a chicken that transforms into an egg and becomes a chicken again; life unfolding in reverse.
Still with us so far? Do you trust that we can sort out the answers to all of the aforementioned questions? Of course we can! No problem. No problem, that is, unless you are an adherent of the one of the myths that provide the narrative for mainstream religions and then mistakenly accept the literal translation of that myth. The world’s major religions have most of us fearing both death and life, even discouraging our consideration of the profound questions concerning our true identity. If you can set aside those beliefs for a moment we can continue. Remember, your beliefs, attitude and values comprise your worldview and your worldview determines your identity and your identity drives your behavior which for most of us provides a sad spectacle indeed.
The 4,000 year-old Babylonian myth of the archetypal hero Gilgamesh has Utnapishtim telling Gilgamesh that the secret of immortality could be found in the coral lying on the ocean floor. Intuition among the ancients? Maybe. In any case, German marine biology student, Christian Sommer, discovered the immortal jellyfish in 1988. He kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and noted something peculiar about Turritopsis. “Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.”
Simple Reality reveals that Life boils down to be stunningly simple as we shall soon see. Thorny intellectual conundrums slowly fade away—fade away that is, if we don’t get stuck, don’t get overly enamored of the ego and its partner in crime—the human intellect. The plot thickens—dum du dum dum!
Trapped in a delusional dilemma we grapple with profound questions, scary questions, anxiety-producing questions. We, all of us, ping pong between despair and joy—faith and doubt—mostly doubt. This is the experience of P-B, and this is the core of our identity in a self-created narrative that doesn’t exist—nor do we—at least not in the way we think. Now back to Turritopsis dhorni.
Different intellects, different opinions! James Carlton, professor of marine sciences at Williams speaking of Turritopsis says, “If by “immortal” you mean passing on your genes, then yes it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.” Returning to the Benjamin Button analogy we would have to say that Button’s cells would be recycled but the persona of the old Benjamin would be gone and we would have a new personality, a new false self and a new True self. This would be energy constantly recycling but matter and an individual “I” or “me” would not be reborn—not even in heaven or hell—thank goodness!
One of the world’s leading hydroid scholars, Daniel Martinez, a biologist at PomonaCollegeis studying a different jellyfish. Starting out as a skeptic, he wanted to prove that hydra were mortal. After 15 years of research, he not only concluded that hydra were immortal but were not that different from human beings. “Genetically hydra are the same as human beings. We’re variations on the same theme.”
Wow! But hold on, we’re not finished yet. “‘There’s a shocking amount of genetic similarity between jellyfish and human beings,’ said Kevin J. Peterson, a molecular paleobiologist…’ we look like a damn jellyfish.’” Kimberly Kolb, Ph. D. candidate at the Rochester Institute of Technology says, “The key to the mystery is how the cells of the jellyfish “know” when to revert to stem cells and when to differentiate again.” Apparently jellyfish know something that we don’t.
Of course, as Peterson says, we “look like a damn jellyfish” because all of Creation is “one thing,” interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. Oneness has been the transcendent message of the mystics for many millennia. The intellect cannot hear that message—but the heart (intuition) can.
That’s enough of the intellect. Limited by its ability to analyze, synthesize and evaluate in the world of form, the intellect is not capable of delivering profound answers to the deepest human longing. The debate about immortality will never end as more and more “facts” pile up. However, there is something that human beings do know that jellyfish do not. Simple Reality reveals all of Creation as energy without end continually expressing an infinite number of possibilities, whereas form has an end and a beginning. Does our Benjamin Button Jellyfish confirm this? Shifting our identity from the intellect to intuition will reveal that answer.
A fellow sleuth in pursuing one of life’s great mysteries—not the origin of life, but the end of life—is The New York Times writer Nathaniel Rich. Rich takes us to the small Japanese beach town ofShirahama in search of the answer to a fascinating question: Is it possible that one day human beings will live forever? This question starts a cascade of other questions in the minds of many of us.
Shin Kubota reached the same conclusions studying jellyfish that Buddha reached engaging in self-introspection. Before we can attain a sustainable human community we must first transcend fear and find that our purpose in life is expressing compassion and serving others. “Human beings,” he said, “are so intelligent [but] before we achieve immortality we must evolve first. The heart is not good … We’re so clever and civilized, but our hearts are very primitive. If our hearts weren’t primitive, there wouldn’t be wars.”
Like all of us, Shin Kubota has a True self and a false self and he is also a scientist and a karaoke singer. In which activity are we most likely to find him experiencing the present moment? Every night after leaving the lab he grabs some dinner on his way to the karaoke bar. He spends at least two hours a day singing karaoke. Kubota is also a songwriter. His songs are available on karaoke machines acrossJapan, have been featured on national television and he has released six albums.
“Kubota does not go to these lengths [singer, songwriter and performer] simply for his own amusement—though it is clear that he enjoys himself immensely. Nor does he consider his public educational work [as a “performer”] secondary to his research. It is instead, he believes, the crux of his life’s work.”
It is Kubota’s heart that leads him to the profound truths of human behavior. “We must love plants—without plants we cannot live. We must love bacteria—without decomposition our bodies can’t go back to the earth. If everyone learns to love living organisms, there will be no crime. No murder. No suicide. Spiritual change is needed. And the most simple way to achieve this is through song.”
Even with all of his powerful intellect, it is Kubota’s intuition that leads him to profound insights. He realizes that humanity’s behavior is not sustainable and that a paradigm shift and a change in identity are essential to avoid self-destruction. “Human beings must learn to love nature. Today the countryside is obsolete. InJapan, it has disappeared. Big Metropolitan places have appeared everywhere. We are in the garbage. If this continues, nature will die. Self-control is very difficult for humans. In order to solve this problem, spiritual change is needed.”
Buddha said that it was not a matter of evolving spiritually as Kubota thinks but rather the imperative is that of awakening to the heaven that is (as the Bible says) “already spread upon the earth.” We are not fundamentally flawed with a “primitive heart” but simply allowing ourselves to behave according to a primitive story, a nightmare. We are like an organism that was designed to become compassionate but chose to stop our natural growth; rigid and unmoving we are paralyzed by fear. Unlike the rest of nature we have the option of intervening in our own growth process. This option to abort the mythological hero’s journey exists only in the relative illusion of P-B (the nightmare), not in the perfection of Simple Reality in which all unfolds perfectly as designed.
The intellect and the scientists studying matter identify with the world of form which is a dead end. The body, the mind and our emotions tell us what we human beings are not. In hoping for immortality we are wishing that the body, which is essentially an illusion housing a delusional mind continuously reacting and creating suffering, will not die. Why would we want that to be our experience, our future forever?
If human beings disappeared, how peaceful it would be.
“Self-control is very difficult for humans,” says Kubota “In order to solve this problem, spiritual change is needed.” Self-control involves choosing an identity that values response over reaction. Spiritual change occurs when human behavior changes and that can only happen in the context of Simple Reality where the joy of self-expression whether singing or dancing or any one of a thousand joyful natural gifts are expressed and become our everyday experience.
Human beings are not the problem, unconscious human being are. If we transformed our identity and stopped identifying with our body, our mind and our emotions, we would be left with an identity that is pure compassion, pure immortal energy desiring nothing more than to serve Creation in the present moment. We have been designed to grow not in a linear back and forth pattern like Turritopsis, nor even in a pattern of evolution evolving through natural selection involving genes. We are meant to grow from the outside (mistaking form for reality) to the inside (discovering the eternal nature of our essence as energy realized intuitively) and to express our unique and natural joy in the present unending moment. That is true immortality.
When we began the search for our lost identity in the noir-like setting of the karaoke bar at the beginning of this essay, which identity spoke to you, the immortal jellyfish or the aging karaoke singer? Perhaps both! That would have been highly unusual but your intuition might have been speaking to you, the still small voice which sees all and knows all.
Conclusion: It is not that we don’t die, it’s that what dies is not us. What remains after the false self and the body are gone returns to undifferentiated energy to express whatever the One Mind, the Implicate Order desires to create and we become once again the joyful expression of the Infinite just as we are now and have always been, the immortal jellyfish, recycling again and again and again, the aging karaoke singer creating heart-felt beauty. What a joyful Reality! What a wonderful identity!
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Where Am I? The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival