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  • benjaminnewman01

Mod. 7.1 - A Speck of Stardust on a Pale Blue Dot

Watch The Overview Effect (19 min) and then read this excerpt from Carl Sagan's book, Pale Blue Dot Links and Paul Hawken's commencement address to the University of Portland's class of 2009.

According to an ancient legend, we all experience 3 deaths: The first death occurs when we contemplate, for the first time in our mind, the idea of our death; The second, when we actually die (the physical body ceases to function); And the third, when our name (and deeds) are spoken of for the last time in the living world.

What is the imprint you would like to leave on the world? Reflect on how enlarging your perspective of our place in the larger scheme of life clarifies your intentions and purpose for this lifetime.

Feel free to draw on other, similar activities you have undertaken in and outside of this program.


Like Cara, I think about death quite a bit. My maternal grandfather passed away when I was 11 years old and he had been my best friend. He encouraged my fandom and love of Detroit sports teams and because he was deaf, we would talk about what was happening over the TTY, which is how I learned to type at a young age. I spiraled after his passing. Less than 18 months later, my paternal grandfather also passed away reifying the grief I felt dealing with so much loss. My weight had doubled from 88 to 168 lbs by the time I was 14. Add to this cacophony the dynamic of being a closeted kid growing up in a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian home going through puberty and the picture for why the first death occurred for me at such a young age becomes clear.

I would argue there’s a death that can occur in between the first and second death’s described by the ancient legend. In 2015 I was on an evening Amtrak train traveling from Washington D.C. to New York City. Less than 10 minutes after we left 30th St. Station in Philadelphia, the train derailed from the tracks and I was thrown out of my seat into the air hurling forward as everything went black. I regained consciousness laying in the middle of the aisle and as I sat up I knew that I might witness a horrifying scene. In comparison to the passengers in the other cars, my fellow travelers and I were very lucky because the last two cars had derailed with far less impact than the ones closer to the front. We were able to get everyone off out of the car and when we stepped out onto the tracks to see the other cars the darkness of night provided a rare mercy by covering the devastation from the other cars which had been completely destroyed. Of the 243 people on the train that night, 8 people were killed, 200 were injured, and I was 1 of 35 who walked away with light scrapes and bruises. This near death experience (NDE) had numerous impacts on my life. The most immediate was the triggering sensation I experienced every time I was on an NYC subway that jostled along the tracks. It would be months before I would ride an Amtrak train again and to this day I still use a series of mental exercises on the train that I was taught by an incredible therapist to help calm my nerves.

For weeks afterwards I felt like a ghost. I would walk down the street in New York and catch a glimpse of my reflection in a window and immediately flinch, almost like my body was responding to a part of my conscious mind being awoken that had forgotten I was still alive. I think that feeling is about as close a person can get to consciously experiencing the second death described in the ancient legend. I wonder if the person responsible for the legend may have had their own NDE because the third type of death asks us to consider the impact of our lives on those around us as measured by the last time one’s name is spoken by someone on this plane. This idea is manifested beautifully in the incredible Pixar film Coco in which we learn that one’s existence in the afterlife depends on being remembered by the living on Dia de los Muertos by having a photo placed on the ofrenda.

Recent therapeutic practices and theories have begun to address some of these very challenging experiences and questions that humans deal with new ways that shift the client or patient’s focus away from the “How could” or the “Why” these horrible things happen and the myriad ways the brain responds to them like depression, addiction and other conditions that emerge as a means of coping, to expanding the person’s reference beyond themselves to the larger story of the universe and their tiny place within it. What many practitioners and patients alike have shared, is that these practices, which range from talk therapy to monitored psychedelic experiences, help people to not only find acceptance around their trauma, but that the psychological impact of the experience on the brain begins to lose its grip. Many psychologists and psychiatrists today have started to frame how we think about the impact of traumatic experiences on the brain (in addition to beneficial and positive experiences) through a lens of “stickiness”. The most common metaphor is to think of the brain like a frying pan. Some experiences hit the brain and stick temporarily, but are easily washed away because of the brain’s teflon coating. This idea connects to our brain’s memory function and helps contextualize some of the reasons why certain people can remember an event while others have no recollection. What researchers are trying to understand now is what causes some experiences, specifically traumatic ones, to stick to the brain’s teflon coating or even seep through the coating to the brain’s central control system and wreak havoc on all the other parts of the brain.

While that question continues to be researched, these new therapeutic practices have found great success in loosening the grip of those traumatic experiences on the brain’s central control system. Whether it’s because of introducing a new chemical element like a psychedelic that triggers the system into noticing the invading traumatic brain cells and then pushes them out, or perhaps the chemical components of the psychedelic act like an army infiltrating past the protective teflon surface into the central control system and eradicates the traumatic brain cells, or some combination of both, it’s clear that people dealing with large degrees of trauma have found real healing through these experiences and as a result, more and more clinical studies are being commissioned by numerous agencies and governments around the world to learn about the inner workings of these substances.

Perhaps because of my NDE or the impact of coping and dealing with depression from age 11 following my maternal grandfather’s passing, but these therapeutic practices have created a new pathway for healing in our world that is so desperately in need of it. I believe that trauma in its many forms is universally experienced by all people and our bodies and minds have developed ways of being able to withstand them without giving up or giving in to madness. I believe that some of those ways are connected to our innate desire to live, to fight to live, and develop a sense of purpose in and throughout our lives. I also believe that artistic practices like dancing, listening to, and making music, that are shared in common by all peoples and cultures around the world, offer clues into the depths of what is happening inside our brain's central control systems. The soothing balm from attending and listening to a Catholic Mass, the euphoria of dancing with others to electronic dance music at a music festival, the tears that fall from our eyes when we hear Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and so many other aesthetic experiences are clear proof to me that the link between the arts and our brains has incredible potential to discover a sustainable pathway for true healing.

While many scientific efforts focus externally on expanding the scope of human knowledge beyond the realm of our planet, I am grateful for the concurrent scientific efforts to look internally and expand the scope of human knowledge of what happens inside of our brains. It is this emerging field and practice that I believe is my purpose in life to pursue. Artists have been sustained, healed and inspired by the power of aesthetic experiences to the degree that they dedicate their entire lives to pursuing their creation and sharing them with others. I believe we are entering an era in which the power of aesthetic experiences and the veracity of its impact that binds artists and grounds them in their respective practices will be more fully accepted and understood for a greater purpose than just entertainment and surface level appreciation of beauty. It is my calling and charge to play whatever role I can to support that effort by artists to the benefit of audiences and humanity alike.

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