Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Batchelor and artist Lita Albuquerque discuss their views on life, death, and the concept of impermanence with KCRW host Jonathan Bastian. This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
What do you make of Brian Greene’s idea of impermanence?
Lita Albuquerque: “At first, it really threw me for a loop in that I really do believe in consciousness after life, and I'm questioning that. What happens when the cosmos itself is no longer? I still believe in some different kind of thought form — that’s created through the body and our relationship to the cosmos.
Stephen Batchelor: “It's very tempting to imagine that a consciousness has a special status, and that he can somehow survive brain death. And I think we have to consider that in terms of our own personal existential motives.To what extent is that just another way of denying deaths, of somehow hoping for something that will enable me to keep going?
To me, the whole idea of impermanence, if we take it really seriously, has to take into account the fact that death means that I do not continue in any recognizable shape, form, size, conscious or otherwise. I approach death with a great reverence because death is the ultimate experience that life affords us. To be able to hold death as a question, to hold impermanence as an existential question is to me more important than theorizing about the existence or the nonexistence of consciousness after death.”
How should we approach the fragility of life?
Batchelor: “When I was training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk back in the 1970s, one of the meditations that was most effective was a contemplation of death — the fact that death is the only thing that is certain in the future. Nothing else is certain in our lives.
The only thing [that] is certain is that we will die. Try to imagine if you could live each moment thinking this might actually be my last moment, my last day on Earth. I suspect that would have a radical effect on what you consider to be really important, what your priorities are, what matters most.
The question it boils down to is: If death is certain, it's time is also uncertain, what do I do? How do I live? It forces you to take your life more seriously. It forces you to get out of your habits of procrastination and putting off the more important things until you’ve got the time.
By denying death, pretending that we might live after death, we actually go to sleep in terms of our actual experience of being alive. … The most extraordinary thing is to be conscious in this world, as it engages us through our senses, through our memory, through our plans, through our relationships, through our work, through our art. To take impermanence on board and really embed it in the way you experience yourself in your life leads to a depth of human flourishing, a depth of human awareness that becomes a real ground for living your life with greater authenticity and with greater commitment to what we really value.”
Albuquerque: “That kind of consciousness has been a thought throughout my life and was embedded in my childhood. I was put in a Catholic convent at the age of 3 in Carthage in North Africa without parents. I had God, I had the ocean, the sea, and I had nature.
My mother is from Tunisia, and we left when I was 11 years old, and that was another rupture for me, another death. So my life has been about the understanding of that, and it is something that seeps into my work.
When I started out as a painter in the mid 70s, I started doing these impermanent pieces, these ephemeral pieces out in the desert with powder pigments that would get blown away by the wind. The first time it happened, the wind came and blew that piece and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what a disaster.’
Until I came back, and I saw what I had in my photographs and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ And that’s what it feels like. I don't have an attachment.
What was important to me at the time is the mark or that pattern that remains in your mind. It doesn't have to be material. It’s just like in a human life. It’s ephemeral. It’s beauty and poetry, and that's what matters.”