A few years ago, after just moving to the Boston area, I discovered that the Dalai Lama was going to speak downtown at TD Garden. I wasn’t very familiar with the city yet or how to get around, but I hopped on a train anyway and made my way up to see him. Until that time, I had read bits and pieces of his writings and listened to a few short YouTube videos that featured him being interviewed or teaching.
The stadium was packed when I arrived, drawing in crowds from all different backgrounds. The funny thing is, I hardly remember a thing about what he actually said. But what I do remember is that he basically made the throngs of people melt. We sat still and quiet, hanging on to every word that he said, and giggling every time he laughed or made a joke. We didn’t just hear a talk by an amazing religious and political leader; we felt the presence of someone who was joyful, and compassionate and seemed to know something that most of the rest of us didn’t.
I fell in love with the Dalai Lama that day. He’s very high on my “People I desperately want to meet but there is very little chance of that happening in this life, gosh darn it!” bucket list.
I own several books written by the Dalai Lama, and was very excited to read The Book Of Joy, which records conversations between the Dalai Lama and his good friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, about what it means to live a joyful life.
In one particular chapter, the Dalai Lama and Tutu discussed death and how we need to learn to face our own mortality, and the fact that things in life constantly change and cease to exist. Here’s a short excerpt that caught my attention:
“In fact, as the Buddha reminds us, the very causes that have given rise to something, such as our life, have created the mechanism, or the seed, for that thing’s eventual end. Recognizing this truth is an important part of the contemplation on impermanence.” (p.165)
When I read this sentence, my mind immediately flew to cellular activity and little bits of DNA sequences called telomeres. When I think of telomeres, I envision health status or life remaining gauges that are common in video games. Telomeres are short nucleotide sequences that “cap” the end of chromosomes in our cells to help keep them from effectively fraying or fusing with nearby chromosomes. Another analogy here would be to think of those little plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that hold the threads together to prevent splaying.
Telomeres can be lengthened with a special enzyme called telomerase, which is present during development in fetal tissue or in adult germ cells (think sperm and egg cells), or cancer cells. It is an important component of the “life-giving” cells, the ones that will reproduce and differentiate into new tissues. In other normal adult cells, telomerase activity is diminished, meaning that telomeres will inevitably erode every time cells divide. Ultimately then, each time a cell divides, it ages just a bit more.
Eventually, as a telomere shortens after repeated rounds of cell division, it reaches a critical length. This critical length affects a cell’s ability to divide and reproduce. Certain tissues in our bodies “age” more quickly because of lots of cell division, like our skin and hair.
While telomere length is negatively correlated to aging (as length decreases, aging factors show increased appearance), shortened telomeres are not necessarily the primary cause of aging. However, studies have shown that individuals with shortened telomeres have increased risk of things like heart disease or infectious disease. If you’re interested in reading a review of the subject, click here.
What I find intriguing about telomeres is how an old Buddhist saying reflects some biological truth. A telomere is a seed or mechanism that is crucially involved in both life, and death. Something that is needed for our development and growth (life processes) also inherently seems to program our length of life to some degree. Sure, we may be able to alter the timeframe a bit with lifestyle choices and staying away from copious amounts of radiation and things like that, but as of right now, we get what we get in regard to telomere length. In other words, our death isn’t something that just “happens” to us because of external causes. Death is inextricably part of the same processes that bring us life.
This all brings us back to the Dalai Lama and his reminder that all things that come into existence will end, and this is because everything is interdependent. Nothing exists independently.
We, as Westerners, are often terrified by our mortality, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. But I think we can learn much about what it means to be human by understanding that nothing stays the same forever, and that the dying process is just as natural as living. The key then, I think, is to learn how to go through both processes with meaning and joy.