Last updateFri, 06 Feb 2015 5pm

A mathematician reflects on death: Caleb Gattegno lights a candle in the darkness

Thirty-six years ago, one of the deepest thinkers I’ve ever bumped into wrote a short essay on death. I tried to read it all those years ago but the ideas were too difficult for me to grasp ... or maybe I just wasn’t ready.

A few months ago, I read a letter to the editor of this newspaper outlining a number of well-thought-out and positive reflections on dying. John de Waal’s comments (May 10, 2014) led me to believe that death might be a topic of interest to more than one English speaker in Jalisco, many of whom, of course, are retirees.

So, I pulled out my faded copy of On Death, an essay by Dr. Caleb Gattegno (1911-1988), mathematician and author of 120 books largely on the topics of education and human development. This time I could read it—actually, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Gattegno suggests that we might learn something about life and death by looking at the cycle of being awake and being asleep which we experience daily. “Why do we sleep?” he asked himself for years, but only moved towards an answer when he changed the question to “Why do we wake up?” He saw sleep as a chance for our inner self to shut off sensory input and sort things out, to make sense at night of what we have learned during the day.

Let’s jump to another topic: What is living? He says living is exchanging time for experience. And how about the purpose of life? Why are we here? Gattegno suggests we are on this earth to grow in awareness and that awareness is what we take with us when we leave. Yes, when we die we don’t take along our riches or fame or even our memories, but we do retain our awareness and willpower. Popular thinking is that we are our memories and our memories are us, but memories reside in the brain and we leave the brain and the rest of our body behind when we die.

According to Gattegno, we begin life at the instant the sperm enters the egg. At this instant, he says, a “quantum of energy” descends into the now fertilized egg. The quantum has intelligence and awareness and will. The quantum immediately begins its work of orchestrating our growth, beginning with the first divisions of our cells. The quantum is a very small amount of energy, says Gattegno, but it is very clever and knows how to manage other energies, for example energy which comes to it through our mother’s bloodstream. This quantum, which could also be called the mind or our true self, precedes the brain, sees to the brain’s development and teaches it (Another of Caleb Gattegno’s books is, in fact, titled “The Mind Teaches the Brain”).

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