Mycology is the branch of biology that deals with fungi.
I once heard Paul Stamets, a mycologist, express reassuring ideas about life. Not that what he said was new to me, but hearing from someone who, in a way, dedicates himself to observe the process of death and rebirth, was comforting. His ideas replenished my reserves of tranquility to deal with the inevitable end of life, or, to be more precise, the end of the physical life in the shape and form we currently occupy in this physical dimension.
Since my youth I have been aware of Lavoisier’s principle of conservation of mass which states, in my own simplified way of putting it, that “in nature nothing goes to waste, everything is transformed.”
Pause for a moment, and think about transformation. We are changing all the time, aren’t we? Where are the newborns and toddlers we once were? They are not here anymore. In this physical realm, we are all part of this amazing circle of life where everything changes constantly through a process of birth, growth, decay, and death. Everyone and everything is in constant transformation. When we cease to exist as live organisms, we are transformed — we change form — and become nutrients for other living organisms. For instance, the matter we are made of decomposes and becomes soil from which vegetables sprout. Those vegetables become the food that sustains life. Vegetables and animals will exist for a time and then they will die and disintegrate into soil again, only to become nutrients for other life forms. And this process keeps repeating itself, without end. My friend Audrey calls it “The Potato Principle,” poetically indicating our destiny: we will all become soil, vegetables, animals, and molecules of all other living creatures.
I can see that we are made of everyone and everything else. Every life form that preceded us is somehow in us now. Nothing is destroyed. Nothing is created. Everything goes through a transmutation. Everything that has ever existed, exists in me. All my ancestors are, in some way, in me. We are in everything and everyone, and everything and everyone is in us. There’s no separation. We are all interconnected and interdependent: we inter-are.
What follows is the result of my attempt to capture Paul Stamets’s ideas. This is not a word-by-word transcription of what he said. I was not able to capture every word, but these are his ideas, and he deserves credit for them.
“Knowing that we are connected with every organism on this planet should inspire us to pause and feel the wonder of it all. We are not a part of nature; we are of nature. I feel better about my own mortality knowing that I have sprung from nature, I am of nature, and I will return to nature. Life and death is a continuum. Molecules are assembled, disassembled, and reassembled in different forms.
It gives me solace in my own mortality to realize that from this web-like ecosystem I have sprung and to this web-like ecosystem I will return. I know that when I die, my molecules will be spread throughout the Universe, free to be reassembled in different forms, free to become elements of other organisms.
We all share the same molecular Universe and knowing that we are this Universe gives me great peace and gratitude.”
I like to think that I am made of everyone and everything else, that I carry in me particles of everyone who has ever lived before me, and of everything that has ever existed. I like to believe that through the rearrangement of molecules, all my ancestors live in me, and that, after my physical death, my particles will also inhabit everyone and everything, and I will be omnipresent. I conclude that we are one very large organism: some parts are dying, some parts are being born, but no part ever disappears. The processes of transformation, transmutation, assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of elements never stops. We are everpresent. We are all connected, not only through total interdependent relationships, but at a deep molecular level.
The truth is that, in this physical dimension, nothing is permanent; everything is impermanent. Life is not about birth and death; it is about metamorphosis. Every single thing undergoes changes of form, appearance, structure, or substance. All life forms go through structural or functional modifications during their development. Mutations are happening all the time. Think about the transmutation of a tadpole into a frog, of a chrysalis into a butterfly, of a fertilized egg into a newborn animal, of a tiny newborn baby into a full developed adult human being. And even when physical death occurs, tissues degenerate and facilitate the appearance of new physical life, and metamorphosis continues. Again, the only permanent thing in life is change.
During our life journeys, we go through many of those metamorphoses; some are completely involuntary, beyond our choosing and control, but others aren’t.
And here I change gears, to talk about a different kind of death and rebirth: many are the times when we can choose if we are going to heed the calls to change and leave behind lives that have played themselves out and don’t serve us anymore, or if we will keep trying to hold on to what once was but isn’t anymore. If we accept those calls — if we face our fears and take the leaps of faith they demand — we go through those radical transformations, those spiritual awakenings, those deaths that allow us to be born again and reappear as new beings, capable of seeing what we weren’t able to see before.
I accept the existence of two universes — the physical and the non-physical — and consider that we inhabit both at the same time. I believe that we are, both, mortal and immortal, that we experience birth and death in this physical plane, but not in the spiritual one. I believe that we are, at the same time, separated and united, many and one, human and divine.
You may want to read “The Potato Principle – 2,” one more reflection on birth and death by the great Thich Nhat Hanh. And you may want to watch “Fantastic Fungi: The Forbidden Fruit,” a short movie with Paul Stamets. And if you want the best book on the subject, please read Paul Veliyathil’s “Sunset Stories: Lessons from the Dying for the Living.” Here are the links:
Piero Falci is an author and educator who believes that the inner work that leads to personal awakening and transformation is indispensable to create a wholesome world. He is an explorer of the mysteries of life who loves to observe, reflect, and write, and who not only strives to live a life that matters, but also hopes to inspire others to do the same. He is a promoter of peace who believes in advancing the idea that Heaven is here if we want it to be. He teaches mindfulness meditation, mindful living, and the official Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as taught at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He organizes Silent Peace Walks.
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