• A shiny, happy, friendly Death Cult

    by  • January 12, 2011 • Everything Else • 3 Comments

    Only occasionally do I talk about meditation, and then in the abstract, mostly.

    Here’s what meditation is: zero-distraction living. 90% of the benefits at a personality level are from simply sitting with yourself, and not permitting yourself to escape. As one sage put it

    Self-scrutiny, relentless observance of one’s thoughts, is a stark and shattering experience. It pulverizes the stoutest ego. But true self-analysis mathematically operates to produce seers.

    I did this for years. An hour or two a day for six years in my teens and early 20s, followed by the sudden-and-complete cessation of my thoughts – essentially no internal dialogue – from then until the present. I don’t think in words in my head, I sit in silence and watch things happen! I continued to meditate another, hm, four or five years after that and was formally recognized as enlightened by my guru. I don’t teach because I was never formally trained as a teacher – I’m a practitioner, not a teacher.

    Not everybody who paints should teach novice painters.

    I continue to learn. As far as I can tell, this condition commonly called enlightenment simply represents natural human function. It’s the foundation from which real learning about various aspects of life can proceed, but by itself it appears to be no great achievement. It took ages for me because I was damaged emotionally and we live in a very toxic culture, but it seems to be restoration of natural function, at the root.

    I did a lot of what was very hard, mentally. I got used to it. I grew big mental muscles, a high tolerance for psychological discomfort as I watched everything about myself.

    After enlightenment, I was given a new practice by my teachers. I became a Kapalika, that is, “one who carries a skull.” In the pure form, one eats every meal from a human skull to constantly remind one of death. For me the practice took a different form: I began to see and understand the nature of death in the world, how it preys on the poor while the rich buy it off, how it comes in great waves in plagues or nuclear disasters, how people slay each-other in great organized madnesses called genocides. Everywhere I went I broke new ground, and I wondered why nobody seemed to have thought about this stuff.

    This process reached a crescendo last year, when two things happened. The first was my work on death was featured in a paper I co-authored with senior bods from the US Department of Defense. The second was that I expanded my work on mortality from just individuals to groups, organizations and states, asking questions like “how does an organization die?” It is a good question.

    For individuals, there are six ways to die

    • too hot
    • too cold
    • hunger
    • thirst
    • illness
    • injury

    In practice this turns out to generate a relatively short list of basic needs – a bucket of sand or clay that filters water and a well-dug latrine plus a simple cook stove will get most of the life-extension benefits of modernity, particularly if coupled with basic improvements in farming. These individual improvements are widely known about, but the prospect of putting them all together in one place, testing them, and then putting them all together all over the world seems to be very difficult to get people to understand.

    But back to death. The great Mandala of Death that I created is called “Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps.” In its simplest form it looks like this.

    Right in the middle is you. Around you are the six things you might die of and the various forces which prevent you dying of them. The older version was even more mandala-like, showing how all heat comes from the Sun, and all coldness, from Space itself.

    So the point of this is that I’m good enough at thinking about death and not flinching to have made contributions to the state of the art in disaster relief and thinking about emergencies and thinking about poverty and development and natural resource constraints and all the rest of it.

    I’m a master of thinking about death. I’m a kapalika, a skull-bearer and I hail from a particularly hair-raising branch of the Mahasiddha tradition.

    And that’s how you make a Gupta.

    For the last two years my life has been like trying to start a knackered motor by pushing it. The engine sputters and turns over, but it’s freezing cold and there’s something wrong and it won’t quite turn over, won’t quite jump into life, won’t quite go! and it’s been pissing me off. I’ve been trying to scale up my “protecting life by knowing death” operation, essentially without success, and it’s been driving me quietly mad. Fairly quietly, anyway.

    Finally, in the last couple of weeks, The Laundry trilogy by Charlie Stross has come to my rescue. It’s a tale of supernatural horror and bureaucracy which very neatly drove home a point: HP Lovecraft was right.

    The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

    Now, I’m padding about out here with well over 20 years of meditation and other spiritual practice including obscene amounts of contemplating death, both as a spiritual practice and as a practical skill, and I’m just not that scared of it any more. I’m not. I’m not in a hurry, but the point-blank inevitability of it is a cornerstone of my thinking. I wake up every morning knowing I am going to die, and that’s what makes me a worthy kapalika. I’m a death guy.

    Here’s the problem: you’re not, and our culture is so incredibly bad at dealing with death that we are casually ignoring the fact we are killing the planet and murdering the poor at the rate of 20 million a year.

    My apologies if I’ve seemed a little frustrated and struggled to explain myself at times. Much as I might sound like a Scot or an American, the inside of my head is crammed with the sharp and applied end of medieval Hindu cosmology. I can actually look at the numbers and say, yes, without radical transformation, the planet has less than 100 years of forests left, and may well more-or-less die of it. I can look at the numbers and say “the West is bankrupt” and contemplate what it means. I can do this because this is what I was trained to do: think about what is bad, and then deal with it honestly and competently.

    Now I’ve failed, clearly, to find a role inside of Western society which gives me any useful way of exercising that skill to protect people. I think its time for me to head into the third world and find people with the problem and work with them more directly, because the current approach has simply failed.

    I have no idea how this goes or what to do about it, but it’s what’s next.

    Well, after I get The Future We Deserve produced as a viable way for people to think about the future together and act to change it. Still one or two things to do here, I guess!

    But this is serious business, and I have explained myself adequately. I apologize for the inconvenience and confusion that may have resulted from me trying to slot in over here, it just doesn’t work all that well, does it? There’s not enough of a base in this kind of thinking, even inside of military circles, to really leverage what I do well into useful forms.

    This culture is dying because it has destroyed its material base in the following three ways.

    1. demand for oil outstrips supply
    2. carbon is wrecking the climate
    3. the formerly-subjugated colonies are beginning to recover

    The debt crisis is a symptom of these three fundamental drivers, particularly the third. As the formerly subjugated colonies begin to charge fair prices for goods and services, our standard of living falls relative to their standard of living, we feel less privileged, and panic.

    Your mind tells you to ignore the fact that you’re going to get walloped economically in the next five years because you have not trained your mind to stay focussed on what is difficult and unpleasant and laden with the smell of death and failure and losing. Your culture tells you that a positive mental attitude is useful. It is: it’s what keeps you polishing the deck-chairs on the Titanic, serving the meals of the rich while our governments reassure us that everything will be fine, and that there is no iceberg.

    The politician who stands up and says “look, people, one day we’re all going to die – maybe we should start living within our means, stop trashing the planet for our kids and their grandkids, and start accepting that everybody has an equal right to their fair share of the world’s resources” is unelectable because the people are not ready.

    So now we’re going to have to learn to live with the consequences of our mental aversions to thinking about suffering, particularly the suffering of others, and our inability to select effective leadership to transform our cultures into genuinely sustainable forms.

    Unsustainable means “this is going away.”

    I don’t know what to do any more. I just thought perhaps you ought to know.

    flattr this!


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    3 Responses to A shiny, happy, friendly Death Cult

    1. January 12, 2011 at 5:28 am

      Hi Vinay,

      Kapalika. Good word that. I changed my name to death (Deth, from an novel, to which I added an e so it wouldn’t be copying) when I was 15 to remind myself each day of my own mortality in a way that is inescapable. Never had a word for it, though. Thanks for that.

      I got myself the Laundry trilogy for (non-denominational) Xmas and have been enjoying them for the past couple of weeks as well.

      I’m still trying to figure out how to live a 0.8 Earths lifestyle in Vancouver. Lately been reading a lot of John Greer’s work (http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/). I think he might be a soul brother of yours, from an alternate spiritual tradition. He also focuses on the low-tech solutions that are all around us.

      Overall, the economic downturn has done more to prevent C02 emissions than all the Kyoto &ct. efforts. The one sure thing is Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will end.” Our current way of life is unsustainable, and unraveling fast. The hopeful side comes from Bruce Sterling, “The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century’s frontier.”

      We’re all going to be doing more with less shortly, and perhaps having a whole lot more time for meditating. It’s going to all kinds of Not Fun. But it may just save our species.

      Kind regards,


    2. January 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

      Thanks Vinay.

      I constantly consider death, and try to have a shadow of the meditativeness about it that you do.

      When I try to explain it to people, not many seem to understand. It is much appreciated that you’ve written the above – so I’ve read somebody who is ahead of me.

    3. January 12, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      The sense that we are coming into our own mentally and spiritually while finding suitable outlets for what we do either shriveling up, or non-existent; is probably the way collapse feels to people more or less like us.

      Thanks for the clear and concise description of meditation and what it has brought you. I’ve never heard or read a better one. It helps me understand what’s been happening in my own head better.

      I sense the search for more particular and less sweeping ambitions – for lack of a better word – in myself and the people whose work I admire. The old “saving the world” wheeze has gone stale. The “let’s all get together online and…?” is running its course. Put it this way, you’re not the only one thinking about these things who is looking for a new way to act on them that isn’t futile or just adding to the death.

      For what it’s worth, I find your writing is getting more powerful as you get more “personal.”

      As for working in the third world, we’ll all be there soon, whether we move there or just wait for its arrival in place. Either way, I do think that the loss of some of these “distractions,” even the ones we have so much invested in personally – especially those! – will open up the space in which to get some real work done.

      In the meantime, I look forward to following your thoughts on this internet machine. At least so long as we have them or until we no longer pay them any heed – whichever comes first.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *