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Old News

Updated: Aug 9, 2023


"Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come”

Rabindranath Tagore

Last November, after finishing my latest long essay, I had started a newsletter for the project. Notifications about plans for the journeys, ideas for a vlog and for fundraising, for texts and essays, practical reflections.

But then my wife Agnes' mother, who lives in Hungary, became seriously ill (Agnes is of Hungarian descent). In a fall Mariann broke her sacral bone in two places, and for her that was the beginning of an extremely painful process of physical suffering, during which her organs and bodily functions began to falter or fail one after another. A process similar to what often happens to people of that age after a fall (Mariann was almost ninety).

It became a difficult time for Agnes too, as she was at first trying to help and care for her mom herself. But after a time it became abundantly clear that full-time professional medical help would be needed, first in a rehabilitation facility and a hospital, and then at home with 24/7 home nursing. Several times Mariann was declared near death by doctors and nursing staff, but each time her body and mind regained some vestige of strength and came back from the brink. It became a grueling roller-coaster of intense emotions which lasted for several months.

I followed this situation necessarily from a distance, from Belgium, our other homeland, ready to come to Agnes' aid should the situation become untenable for her. In those circumstances of constant extreme uncertainty about life or death, it became increasingly difficult to continue working on the newsletter or other aspects of the project, and it also began to seem somewhat inappropriate or irrelevant to send such a newsletter out into the world.

I then started a new version of the newsletter during those very uncertain months, which I called ‘Old News’.

It became a form of reflection: illness, suffering and death invariably bring us to ourselves, to our essence. To what remains when all nonsense and distraction and (self) deception fall away. It was already the fourth time in four years that one of our loved ones had died (it looked like it wouldn't be long for Mariann either). Those repeated confrontations with suffering and death were also a recurring invitation for Agnes and myself to return to ourselves, to leave the busy-ness behind, and simply exist in the awareness of the finiteness of things and of the need to live fully in the here and now.

The whole situation made me think, in the background of this suffering and this impending death, about what my real goals are, what the essence of my enterprise is. I felt my way toward what I hold most dear in what I want to try in the coming years.

"Discover that for which you would be willing to die, and then live for that." It is very good advice, in my opinion. THAT is what real life purpose can mean: something like a matter of life or death. What else are we here for? Just to kill time, and thereby slowly kill ourselves?

And the death that was now approaching again in our family, for the fourth time in a few years, made it clear that it was good to reflect on that. The outcome of my little research can be summarized as follows: I now believe that what I most want to do in my new project is not so much (or not only) to sound the alarm about the convergence of ecological and other crises on our planet, but above all to help spread knowledge about the new stories (which are often very old stories) that give a different meaning to what is happening now, and can profoundly shift our perspective on our situation.

Yes, there is a need to continue to sound the alarm about what is happening to our planet, because collectively we are still looking the other way and still refusing to realize what is about to happen. But it is equally necessary to look at this "perfect storm" in a different way, to change our frame of mind, to begin to adopt a much wider perspective in space and time. And perspectives in space and time are formed in stories. We often think of ‘fiction’ when we hear the word ‘story’, but every interpretation of our perceptions is a story. What we think of as ‘reality’ is also a story, that of our interpretation of our perceptions in our space and time. And after thirty years of teaching observational drawing and painting, I have learned a thing or two about how we perceive and how we do not perceive, and how very often we perceive what we think rather than what is really there in front of us. As Anthony De Mello phrased it so well: "Thoughts can arrange the world in such a way that that world becomes invisible”.

In this ‘Old-News Letter’ I then began by introducing some of those contemporary tellers of old stories: people who have greatly inspired me in recent years, each in their own way reshaping new old stories. Philosophers, therapists, artists, scientists, wise people. Seers who are breathing new life into the old stories for a time when we are going to need the old wisdom very much. For as the radical ‘spiritual’ economist E.F. Schumacher put it, "Man has now become too clever to survive without wisdom." And one of the ways in which those stories differ from the story in which we live today is the degree to which they focus on the miraculous character of life. The way they not only make us grow intellectually, but can shift the vantage point from which we experience and perceive things, which is a life-changing experience on a much more fundamental level than just the mental level.

Then came the moment when the condition of Agnes' mother deteriorated so much that I took leave from my teaching assignment in Belgium and left for Hungary to help Agnes and Mariann throughout this painful process. And then, on January 31st, at one in the morning, Mariann passed away. At that point it was also a relief: the intense agony was at an end, and she had finally been allowed to merge into the light.

This is what I wrote in my journal: “This is the fourth time in four years that someone close to us passes away. Almost four years ago my sister-in-law, two years ago my father and Agnes’ aunt and godmother, and now Agnes’ mother.

We have seen their lifeless bodies, and each time we felt that these are really only empty shells that have nothing to do with the life energies, any more than the beds they were lying on. It is amazing how a body changes after life has departed. It is a totally different reality. When seeing their bodies this way, it is so much more clear that the energy that animates us when we are living is so much more than biological energy derived from digesting food. The life-force becomes also clear in its absence, in a way, like black makes us see white in a different light. In fact, it would be impossible to talk about white without knowing black.

The subtle energy that makes a body from the inside out expand slightly beyond the physical boundary of the body, the energy we feel when we speak of someone's 'radiance', the energy of the aura that makes the physical body shimmer with life: when that energy is gone, it becomes clear how our body is a bag of water and calcium and fat tissue once that animating life force has departed. In this sense, seeing a lifeless body is an affirmation of the miracle of life.“

Many practical concerns asked our attention in the weeks that followed, like organizing the memorial service, and so on. And as so often after a death, the experience of the practical and worldly was inevitably mixed with the surreal experience of that new absence, absence that was sometimes barely perceptible and sometimes intense and alienating.

Fortunately, we were also able to spend time in our old farmhouse in a small village in Hungary, and there was time for just being, experiencing and feeling what this all means. We took long walks in the fields and forests around the village, and, as always, that was a blessing. I wrote this in my journal:

"This morning we took one of our favorite walks in the area, and everywhere it was clear how life and death are two parts of the same reality. How in nature everything that lives constantly dies, and through death makes new life possible. How everything that dies immediately becomes nourishment for new life. Fallen trees slowly decay and new plants grow on their remains. The carcass of a deer we saw had already been largely eaten by scavengers, and what was left slowly dissolves into the earth, and will become food for other life in another way. At the same time we noticed the dead deer, we saw a huge herd of dozens of deer crossing a meadow a few hundred yards away. The glorious cycle of life and death is everywhere, and is never-ending.”

Yes, death is essential to life, but we don't often see it that way. The great Stephen Jenkinson, author of the book 'Die Wise', calls our Western culture ‘death-phobic’, and he is spot-on. We prefer to look away from death and suffering and everything to do with it, as if it were a deep black hole we could fall into ourselves if we get too close. And because we are always avoiding the experience of death during life, we are collectively actually scared to death of life itself as well. In Jenkinson's words, "What modern Western man "suffers most from is a failing culture, from amnesia of ancestors and deep family stories, from ghost or sham rituals, from a lack of instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history."

By shunning the experience of death, we miss the opportunity to begin to re-experience deeper layers of life, to feel those connections that connect us to our ancestors and to our descendants (including those in a distant future). And that avoidance of the experience of death, and the avoidance of all the big questions that death raises, is part of the story we live in. A story that is very one-dimensional, limiting what we think of as real mostly to that which is practical and measurable.

But other stories are possible about death as well as about life. In other cultures, death is an occasion for joy and celebration. If we begin to see death as a normal and healthy phase of a cycle, we also begin to look at life differently.

And so in this way I have come round to the ‘old news’ again. In a sense, death is the oldest news of all (or rather, the second oldest: the first organism to ever die had first come to life).

Before I send another ‘regular’ newsletter or blogpost out into the world, I will communicate ‘Old News’ for a while. In upcoming blogposts, I will feature some of the great tellers of New Old Stories in video and audio clips.

As a first taste of this series of ‘sages’ and seers, here is an audio recording of a talk by philosopher and religious scholar Alan Watts on death, called "Making Friends With Death. And making friends with death is indeed what we have to do if we want to give life another chance.

Preferably enjoy this talk slowly as intended. Alan Watts leaves much silence between words, and his silences speak as much as the words. His sense of humor is also very nice and puts into perspective the heaviness we usually project on this subject. As I said, in many other cultures death is cause for celebration and merriment, and Alan Watts also indicates that this is appropriate: to consider death as an equally important a cause of joy as a birth is. The way he both laughs ànd makes his audience laugh is very infectious. Between minute 6:15 and 6:45 there are a few hiccups in the recording causing a small fragment to be missing. After 6:45 there are no more gaps and right after that, at 6:50, a hilarious fragment begins.

Most of Alan Watts' lectures and seminars were recorded in the 1960s and 1970s with very basic equipment. Consequently, many of these recordings contain all sorts of static and background noise, but for me that is part of their charm. Many of his lectures are available through the official Alan Watts organization and podcast, this one I found elsewhere.

Quite a few of Alan Watts' lectures and seminars are posted by various channels on Youtube with background music or slideshows of more or less romantic landscapes, something they don't need in my opinion. Not everyone is happy with that however, and for example this channel prides itself on the fact that they post the talk with 'black screen, no music'.

Take the time to listen to this. It deserves to be enjoyed with full attention, like good wine. Enjoy!

You will find the video here.

All the best,


Alan Watts (1915-1973)


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