At the end of autumn, as the season dies, signs of decay are all around. Walking down Wimbledon Broadway, the leaves are soggy on the ground. Shoppers sport red poppies in remembrance of the war dead and, to compound the gloom, a hearse passes in funereal pomp. Life is short, it all seems to say, and then you die.
Since time immemorial humans have railed against the grim reaper, desperately hunting for the elusive secret of immortality. The ancient Chinese sought P’eng-lai, the fabled Isles of Immortality, alchemists tried to formulate the elixir of life and magicians proffered their souls in return for life unending.
It hasn’t stopped even now. We are still trying everything we can to dodge the graveyard shift: from the Nemectron (an orb believed to regenerate brain cells via dangling rings suspended on the ears) to the oxygen diet (beloved of Michael Jackson) or placental implants. Fads come and go but undertakers are still making a good living out of dying.
But some people do live longer, if not perhaps forever, and from far-flung corners of the globe (the mountains of Tibet, the islands of Japan) come tantalising tales of humans who live to vast ages, their secrets ranging from a regular diet of arcane herbs and cigarettes, through happy, stress-free lives with plenty of sex, to frequent imbibing of a foul brew of lizard and dog-penis wine. But the grisly fact remains that no one beats the final rap, the last curtain call, that bony tap on the shoulder. No one, that is, except the group snugly ensconced in Wimbledon’s Wayfarer Hotel.
Around 50 people are sitting in a semi-circle, listening raptly to the tall, lean American in the centre. ‘I am an immortal being,’ he states boldly with total conviction. ‘I will be here physically forever and I will be here for you forever.’ He paused and the crowd erupts: people jump to their feet, clapping wildly and shouting, ‘Yeah!’, ‘Yo!’, ‘That’s it!’ ‘It’s not a question of becoming immortal,’ he continues, ‘its a question of remembering that we are immortal. The whole human race has the potential of never dying, but we have been programmed that death is inevitable.’ More cheers. Sighs of profound satisfaction. ‘So true,’ says a 30-something man in front of me. He shakes his head in wonder and clasps the hand of his neatly bobbed wife. They smile and kiss on the lips. Around the room shoulders are massages, hands are held, knees are stroked – it’s like a cross between an Evangelical service and a love-in, except this ain’t no inspirational choir and these sure as hell ain’t hippies.
I’m witnessing the testament of Dr Donald Leon, at a gathering entitled ‘Living Together Forever’, billed as a ‘two day event to explore daily living for physically immortal people.’ The participants are all members of the UK branch of the Flame Foundation – a worldwide community who believe that they have discovered the secret of eternal life – gathered together to hear Leon and his partner Lynne Erickson, who hail from the heart-base of the movement in Scottsdale, Arizona.
So what’s the magic formula? Two parts dog-penis wine to one part CoQ10? Lifelong study of mystical texts and three hours a day at the gym? Nope. According to the Wimbledon immortalists, it’s all in the cells. Once you remember that you are physically immortal, your cells can transform your body into a physically immortal structure – just like that. Yes, they take care of their diet, exercise and read up all the latest on longevity, but they firmly believe no one product or regime will keep them coming up roses. It’s simply being part of the group that counts.
Daft as a brush? Well, so it may seem but, curiously, the ancient texts back them up and even modern science is beginning to nod (albeit grudgingly) in their direction. The Sufis believed that mankind was infinitely perfectable and that when a complete balance ws attained between mind, spirit and body, then transformation could take place. It’s an idea that runs through most mystical traditions but nowhere more graphically than in the alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life. Transmutation of gold from base metals was merely the proof that the formula had been found – the transformation of the adept him/herself was the final goal and, throughout history, there exist accounts of strange beings who mysteriously vanished and appeared again through the ages.
Back in the recent world, scientists are discovering that the human body is not a simple slab of flesh. What we think affects what our body does. In his book Perfect Health: The Complete Mind Body Guide Deepak Chopra, MD, describes people who have cured terminal cancers by deciding to get well.
Discoveries in the area of multiple personality disorder show that the mind can influence startling changes in the body. Chopra documents cases of eye colour change between sub-personalities; of scars, warts and sores appearing and disappearing; even of sub-personalities being diabetic, or having cancer while the main personality will show no somatic indication of the condition. The New York Times reported a case of a six-year old boy who had one sub-personality that was allergic to orange juice. If the boy drank orange juice while in his sub-personality he would break out in hives. But when his main personality re-emerged, the itching would immediately disappear and the water-filled blisters would start to subside.
Scientists can grow replacement fingers on young children; they are even on the brink of forming fresh organs alongside their diseased counterparts. Dr Alex Carrel, MD, who won the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 1912, asserted that the cell itself could be immortal. He said, ‘If our cells are cleansed of all toxins and the proper nutriments are provided, as far as we know the pulse of life can go on forever.’ But despite all this they are still a long way from creating the immortal body, and they sure as hell don’t have any super-people on display. So what makes the immortalists so sure they won’t kick the bucket at the end of their three score years and ten? ‘It’s the cellular connection we have with each other,’ explains Leon. It seems that to stay immortal you have to hang around with other immortals so that, by some weird quantum osmosis, your cells take up an ‘agreement’ with everyone else’s cells and agree to oscillate together forever. Cosy. But how does it actually work. ‘I don’t know,’ admits Leon frankly, ‘but I do know when I experience someone who has that cellular agreement; it’s blissful, connected, exciting, alive. It transcends all beliefs, agreements, likes and dislikes, all knowledge – everything I’ve ever known.’
Paul Massey, a compact, slightly balding 41-year old who, along with wife Gemma, runs the Wimbledon group, puts it like this: ‘There are these sub-atomic particles and they are not just stationary in the body. They are moving at the speed of light and they are penetrating you as I speak and you are penetrating me as I speak.’ Rather sexual imagery but then the energy of the Together Forever group does have a distinctly sexual tinge. When we mere mortals meet and greet our friends and acquaintances we usually settle for a handshake or a chaste peck on the cheek; immortalists on the other hand hug and kiss on the lips and entwine more than a bunch of teenagers at the school disco. But sexual relations, they insist, are strictly one-on-one. All this physical contact, they aver, is simply because immortalists just can’t get enough of each other.
Which is pretty handy. Eternity might well be a very long time – especially if you’re living in Wimbledon. And here’s the rub: dedicated immortalists sell up and move to be near other immortalists. That means Wimbledon, or Scottsdale Arizona. But what if you don’t actually like your fellow immortalists? When Sartre declared that ‘Hell is other people’ I always thought he had a good point. ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ smiles Leon. ‘Personalities don’t matter.’ Massey agrees: ‘It’s what people used to call unconditional love. I want these people on the planet forever, whether I have a personal liking for them or not.’ Admirable, but surely someone who drives you nuts within half an hour is going to be a bit of a drag for eternity? ‘Most abrasive personalities are only due to defence systems,’ says Leon. ‘Melt the defence system and abrasiveness usually goes too.’
There’s certainly a lot of melting going on at this session. Walking into a Together Forever group is like being the prodigal daughter at a vast family get-together. I haven’t been so hugged, squeezed, kissed and grinned at since I was in the school play, aged six. At first it’s somewhat unsettling and just plain irritating, but after a while it becomes curiously addictive. You get the idea that these people genuinely want you to be there.
It’s easy to dismiss them as a bunch of cranks, weirdos or psychological misfits, but everyone I spoke to would have passed muster on the normality scale; in fact they all seems more balanced, happy and well-adjusted than most people I know. So, they have a rather unusual (some might say deluded) view on life; so, they have thrown way their life insurances and their pension plans. So what? And, at the end of the day, so what if they don’t achieve immortality, if they simply go the way of all flesh. Sure, they’ll be mightily pissed off but they will still have had a quality of life and a level of community and trust far deeper than most families and churches.
While they insist they are not a religion or sect (there are no hard and fast rules, no membership fees, initiations or ‘God’), Leon does use biblical imagery to explain the spiritual aspect of their world, that heaven isn’t up there but here on earth. And together, they believe, we can achieve anything. Ask them all the logical questions, like what will happen about overpopulation with all these immortal people; or what about genetic diseases; or what happens when we blow ourselves up with atomic power or drown ourselves through global warming, and they smile benignly. ‘We can’t even begin to fantasise about what will happen when we create heaven on earth,’ says Leon. ‘We’re still using only eight to 12 per cent of the brain and we haven’t opened the frontal lobes yet. When we open up all our brain connections and connect with everyone – six billion people – that’s beyond imagination.’
They believe there will come a point when the process will happen automatically – you might just end up immortal whether you want to or not. ‘It will reach a point where it happens spontaneously,’ says Leon. ‘We don’t know if it will take one more person or six million – we;ll just keep going. But the human race is an extinct race – there are only two choices. We either destroy this planet or we evolve into a race of immortals. We’ll be immortal human beings who have changed their genetic structure.’
The writing, you see, is on the wall. In this case, on the cave walls of the Hopi Indian in Arizona – home, remember, of the parent group the Flame Foundation. Apparently the Hopi predicted 40,000 years of history, dividing the future into hefty thousand or hundred-thousand chunks. But, come 1975, they started drawing it year by year and by the early 90s this 40,000 year line breaks into two paths. ‘The human race has a decision to make,’ warns Leon. ‘One line shows the energy of the sun destroying the planet. The other grows on year by year. The 90s are the most important ten years in a 40,000 year history. This is an extraordinary time and we are creating it.’
Walking back down Wimbledon Broadway, the leaves have all blown away. On a TV in a shop window is a news flash of the cenotaph ceremony and it seems unusually poignant. The scene shifts to scientists leaping around. It seems they have just discovered that nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, can work. A brave new world indeed but what will it bring? Hell on earth or heaven in Wimbledon? Only time, and the immortalists’ continued existence, will tell.
This is a very old piece (as you can tell by the news references!), that first appeared in ELLE (UK edition).
Postscript: Just Googled Dr Leon and, er…he’s dead. Here’s an interesting piece on the full history of the Together Forever bunch.