I first met Rick Hanson at a small café in Mill Valley, California. The founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, Hanson is a psychologist who studies evolutionary neuropsychology. Given his background, it isn’t surprising that Hanson’s understanding of death is informed by a big picture of the natural cycle of life:
Death clears the way for young to come forward, and it enables a species itself to adapt and improve itself over time. In other words, if members of the species do not die, the species could not evolve. So, we’re sitting here today, 3.5 billion years after life emerged on the planet, at the top of the food chain, in some sense aided and handed off to by all of the creatures that have died before us, so that we may live here today. It’s in that context that I find myself experiencing gratitude and appreciating those who have died and the role of death in life.
Hanson is a Buddhist practitioner, and his personal philosophy about life and death have also developed based on his spiritual practice:
The nature of dying is a teaching about the nature of living. In other words, as we die, the body decomposes and its elements spread out, one way or the other. As the mind dies, its elements spread out, decompose, and disperse. All eddies disperse eventually. That reality of death and of dying is also the reality of living. In any moment, the body and mind are constantly changing, made up of so many parts, so many patterns emerging, coalescing, organizing, stabilizing, and then moving on. Just like the little kid says at the end [of a meal], “All gone.” That’s the nature of every moment. The ending of a life-span helps us appreciate and turn more into the peace and the wisdom of seeing the ways in which every moment itself has a living and a dying.
Hanson’s perspective illustrates the multidimensional nature of our personal worldviews. He holds scientific, clinical, and spiritual perspectives simultaneously. His particular worldview, in turn, inspires his approach to life:
Starting back in my twenties, I began appreciating the wisdom of Don Juan in Carlos Castaneda’s books. The teacher, Don Juan, essentially says, live in such a way that you’re prepared for death at every moment. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in living that way because you just literally never know. We all know people who suddenly stroked out or suddenly got cancer, and they were dead ten days later, or ten months later, or maybe ten years later. But it also is in that context that it makes me appreciate hugging my kids every night, enjoying every sandwich, relishing every sunrise. . . .
If you know the movie is going to come to an end, at least as far as you’re concerned, it really motivates you to make it as good a movie as possible, and enjoy it as much as we can, and not ruin it for others.