Thoughts on life and the afterlife

I’m really not sure why anyone would be interested in my thoughts on the afterlife but it helps me to clarify my own thinking when I write.  So I did.  I’ve been thinking about death a lot as several close friends have died recently and the corona virus has surely put death in the news.  These sort of ponderings seem to happen to many people as they age.  I offer these ideas in a public forum in hopes that some readers might share their own thought/feelings about life and death (in the Comments box below). 

SO HERE GOES…

First, I’m not terribly fond of the word “afterlife” – even though I used it in the title.  Most people know what is meant by the term afterlife, so it is useful.  But the word “afterlife” feels too final as I have come to believe in the continuation of consciousness after the death of the physical body.  For me, the death experience appears to be more of a transition to another form of existence, a continuation – not an ending.  I need a better word to describe the “condition of being that follows once the spirit-self has left its bodily container.”  Perhaps you have a suggestion.

I surely don’t have a picture in mind of a heaven with “pearly white gates, hanging out with old friends playing harps in the clouds etc.”, I do understand why that description might be a useful story to tell children and I suspect it can be a comfort to those who believe.  But it’s just a bit too easy for me to accept what seems more like a fairy tale than a thoughtful depiction of the state of existence that continues following the demise of the body.  Nevertheless, I believe that we live forever, as suggested in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic book, The Secret Garden.

I was reading this children’s book again (it is quite suitable for adults) recently and was reminded of the pampered, sickly child Colin Craven’s cry as he first entered the secret garden… “I shall live forever and ever and ever!”  This memorable scene occurred when this 10-year-old boy who had rarely been out of bed his entire life and thought he was dying is introduced to a springtime garden bursting with new life and all of the wonders of Mother Nature by his two new friends, “Mistress Mary” and the “local nature boy” Dickon.  Burnett writes…

“One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever.  One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one’s head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one’s heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun – which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.  One knows it (that they will live forever) then for a moment or so.” 

In other words, we come to know we will live “forever and ever and ever” when our soul connects with something bigger than ourselves, like Mother Nature in young Colin’s case.  I interpreted this reading as reminding us that there is a part of us that lives outside the body and never dies, even when the physical body is no longer animate.  Let’s call that part the “spirit-self”.  Some people might call it the soul or simply consciousness. 

Of course, the belief in the continuation of consciousness beyond the physical body is an age-old concept, often associated with Eastern and nature-based religions.  In the West, Harvard psychologist William James included this idea in his lectures on transpersonal psychology as far back as 1905.  Aldous Huxley wrote about this idea in his classic book, The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1944.  And it is surely found in one form or another in the writings of psychologists Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow and Ken Wilber.  I’m not making this stuff up, you know.  It’s a useful theory that helps explain the experiences of many thoughtful people. We all try to make sense out of our personal experience, much like the desert people of the Hebrew Bible described their spiritual experiences as the appearance of a patriarchal father figure called Jehovah.

Of course, there is also the “vast nothingness theory.”  That is – there is no awareness, no consciousness, nothing there – once the body stops breathing.  Lots of scientists claim this theory since they can find no verifiable and empirical evidence to the contrary.  And while I respect this theory, I don’t much like the arrogance of those who state with apparent authority “when you die, you’re done….  nothing is there, dead is dead, caput, nada… end of discussion.”  This is often expressed with a knowing smile and an air of superiority that truly pisses me off. 

I admit that there is little verifiable, empirical evidence for the continuation of consciousness either beyond the body while we are alive or outside of the body after our death, but there is an awful lot of circumstantial evidence that might be worth pondering.  I’m thinking of reports of near-death experiences (thousands of them), centuries of spiritual master’s reflections on consciousness, “spooky” coincidences in our everyday lives, transcendent experiences in which the observer “sees” the connectedness of all things, and deja vu occurrences (that I’ve had) suggesting that the material world is not the full story.   Science is pretty good at measuring the material.  It’s not so good at explaining spiritual experiences. 

Of course, the “material-world only” scientists may be right.  But it seems to me that a good scientist might respond to the suggestion that there is something “other than the material” at work in our lives with just a bit more curiosity.  The logic and the absolute surety of the strident atheist seems, well… just too strident and sure.  One of my favorite quotes from the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, questions the logic of the “material-world only” scientists when it states, “…for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere.”   Hmmmmmmm…

In any case, I’ve become convinced there is something “bigger than ourselves” at work in the universe and that death of the body is not the end of the “self”.  And yes, I do recognize there is a somewhat reassuring convenience to such a belief.  However, the fact that belief in a continuation of consciousness makes it easier to deal with the impending death of the body doesn’t make it wrong.  So until there is verifiable, empirical evidence otherwise, I think I’ll continue to explore the possibility that we are much more than just our physical bodies, and that the “much more” continues after our bodies expire. 

THE PERSONAL

I’ll admit I’ve been particularly influenced by a few smart people and many philosophical writings. Among those are Ken Wilber (transpersonal psychologist), Kathleen Dowling Singh (hospice worker), Henri Nouwen (priest), Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (psychiatrist), Ram Dass (psychologist and spiritual teacher), Pierre Tielhard de Chardin (paleontologist and priest), among others.

That said, my own personal spiritual experience opened the door to this line of inquiry.  Having struggled for 20+ years trying to stop drinking alcohol with no success, I was told by some people I didn’t know who were practicing a 12-step program “to get down on my knees and pray to a power greater than myself for help.”  Well, self-delusion or divine influence… I don’t know, but it worked.  I recognize that it wasn’t a scientific experiment but over the past two decades I’ve seen this same process work hundreds of times.  Mass delusion?  Could be. But something happened that I could not do by myself and in any case this experience opened the door for me to begin wondering if the material world which we can all see, feel, taste and measure is all there is.

And my conclusion? Well, what is there besides that which we can measure in the universe?  It seems there is consciousness, that is, the awareness of all that physical matter and energy around us. All living things seem to be aware and respond to the world around them in one way or another.  Plants grow toward the light, dogs respond to a call, and microorganisms move away from excessive heat for example.  Humans however, are the only living organism that seems to be aware that we are aware.   We are conscious that we are conscious. This makes us different from other living beings. 

When I ask myself the question, “is it more true that I am a body” or “is it more true that I have a body”… well, I land on the “I have a body” conclusion.  And the “I” that “has a body” describes my experience of human consciousness, the same consciousness that continues once the body is no longer useful.  And this perspective influences how I think about life and how I think about death.

ON DEATH

Awareness of a form of consciousness that goes beyond the body means for me that death of the body is not “the end” of the self.  What happens just before consciousness exits the material body has been well-described by Kathleen Dowling Singh in her book The Grace in Dying (which I referred to at length in my essay called A Socratic Dialogue on Dying.   What happens after consciousness leaves the body is speculative of course but some evidence emerges from studies of near-death experiences (that is, when a person’s heart stops and brain activity is no longer measurable for a while and then “comes back” to life).   Much to my surprise when I started reading about them, there are thousands of cases of near-death experiences. Some are obviously bullshit, but the “death doctor” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and other reputable scientists and physicians have convinced me that we have something to learn from these experiences. 

Dr. Kubler-Ross, is most famous for her studies on the stages people go through when they learn of their own approaching death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression/sadness, and finally acceptance).  While her findings have been criticized by some, frankly my own experience with loss suggests there is something worth considering here.  Dr. Kubler-Ross also interviewed people who had a near-death experience and reported that there was a freaky consistency among many of the stories they told. 

In her book, The Wheel of Life: a Memoir of Living and Dying, she described the death experience as occurring in phases.  In the first phase, many people reported leaving their physical bodies but were able to hear and see what was happening around their own recently-departed physical form.  Many people reported hearing  conversations that they should not have been able to hear if they had no brain activity.  During this phase, they also experienced a renewed sense of physical wholeness so that if they were blind they could now see, or if they were paralyzed they could now move easily in the space of a hospital room or near their automobile accident. 

In the next phase, the feeling of having a body faded and they became more like a spirit-energy.  They could travel instantaneously to distant locations to observe members of their family.  Many people (including myself) have experienced a sense of closeness to a recently departed loved one shortly after their death.  This state of “hanging around for a while” is also described in the ancient book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  In this phase the new spirit forms also met loved ones who had died and now welcomed them into the next realm of existence.

Finally, they entered the oft described “tunnel” which took them toward a light, radiating intense warmth, energy, and the feeling of unconditional love. In this phase, they felt excitement, peace, tranquility and the anticipation of “going home.”  Toward the end of the tunnel they began to experience a feeling that is generally described as oneness or wholeness.  Many have described this state as the re-merging of the personal spirit (individual consciousness) with the universal spirit (unity consciousness).  In all cases it seems to be about the individual connecting with something “larger than itself.”    

Dr. Lani Leary, psychotherapist and hospital intensive care unit Chaplin, following 30+ years of research, concluded in her book, No One has to Die Alone, that:

  • The dying do not suffer at the moment of death
  • The deceased continue to exist in some other form and dimension
  • Conscious continues after death
  • The deceased are healed and whole after death
  • Contact may occur between the deceased and the living for a time
  • Loved ones are reunited in death

There are many other reports from respected voices that death is indeed not the end.  One of the common themes of most people speaking about their near-death is a sense of disappointment of having to return to the (physically) living.  It seems, as much as they loved those left behind, most preferred to be “dead.” 

While I have no idea if this voyage to the next realm of existence is really anything like that described by so many people, I do believe that our individual consciousness returns to unity consciousness when it leaves the body.  This feels right to me. The story of being greeted by familiar forms during the death experience is kind of nice too.  I don’t believe we have a reunion with dead family members and just “continue the party” but as a part of the transition, it seems possible to experience the love of others who have gone before us. 

Another part of this story that seems believable is the ability to “look in on” family members still alive.  I believe we will be able to “live stream” our grandchildren from the other side for example.  Of course, maybe that is all just wishful thinking but the basic idea of a unity consciousness that includes and goes beyond the individual consciousness is surely worth considering.

UNITY CONSCIOUSNESS

Transpersonal psychologist and author, Ken Wilber, is most closely associated with the term “unity consciousness.”  It seems similar to Carl Jung’s thinking on the “collective unconscious”, Pierre Tielhard de Chardin’s writing on “universal consciousness”, and how others speak of Mother Nature, Atman, Buddha Nature, or God.  In any case, I am fond of the term unity consciousness and have tried to understand at some depth Ken Wilber’s writings. 

Wilber writes his book, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, that present day religions, at least in the West, provide a “somewhat anemic” environment for exploration of transcendence, yet he claims that awareness of a transpersonal self remains “nestled in the deepest recesses of our being.”  Wilber’s experience that meditating on the larger self, that is the self beyond the individual body, offers us a way to quiet the clamor of the individual ego and connect with something bigger than oneself. 

In 12-Step Programs, this is called a “higher power”.  Others call it “God” but for Wilber it is the unity consciousness that allows us to experience a “lucid stillness even amid the raging winds of anxiety and suffering.”  If we are more than a physical body then perhaps we can realize that “we are not our anxieties.” Much like the true self has a body we have anxieties, however these anxieties do not have to define or control.  This idea was called into test when his wife, Treya, was dying of cancer and is described in his moving book, Grace and Grit.   Wilber states that 1) there is only one consciousness in which we all participate and 2) it is transpersonal and immortal (“I shall live forever and ever and ever!”).  

He writes, “This is the message of Jung; and more, of the saints, sages, and mystics, whether Amerindian, Taoist, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, or Christian: At the bottom of your soul is the soul of humanity itself; a divine, transcendent soul, leading from bondage to liberation, from enchantment to awakening, from time to eternity, from death to immortality.” 

Yes….. this is theory.   But it is theory based on the personal experience of many thoughtful people over the ages.  Abraham experienced this and called it Yahweh.  Saul of Tarsus experienced this and called it Christ.  Lao Tzu experienced this and called it The Tao.  Ken Wilber experienced this and called it unity consciousness.  It matters little how we name the experience.  What matters is that we try not to discount or ignore the experience because it is difficult to talk about.  We need to talk about this stuff. 

Again, Francis Hodgsen Burnett wrote about “this stuff” in The Secret Garden, when Colin claimed that he would…  “live forever and ever and ever”.   Burnett wrote…

“And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries.  Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of start waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in some one’s eyes.”

It is called transcendence.

Although by no means unique, Father Thomas Merton described his experience of transcendence which occurred on March 18, 1958 while running errands in Louisville, Kentucky. This is from his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander;

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

This experience changed Merton as he explored both Eastern religions and the Christian mystics during the last 10 years of his life.  According to his biographer William H. Shannon, Merton…experienced the glorious destiny that comes simply from being a human person and from being united with, not separated from, the rest of the human race.” 

It seems that the connection with something “bigger than oneself” might occur with other human beings as in the case of Thomas Merton.  It may be with Mother Nature as described in The Secret Garden.   It may also happen during meditation according to Ken Wilber.  The point is that a connection with something larger than our limited self is an integral part of the human experience.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin went so far as to claim that nurturing this connection was the purpose and fulfillment of human life.  He called it our “earthly vocation and responsibility” and related it to the process of evolution of the human species.    de Chardin wrote;

“I am becoming more and more convinced that at the fundamental root of the multiple currents and conflicts that are now convulsing the human mass we must place our generation’s gradual awakening to consciousness of a movement which is cosmic in breadth.”

He claimed that this movement would result in the further evolution of the human species and the emergence of a new cosmic consciousness that produced a more “loving and lovable” world. 

I don’t know if a more “loving and lovable” world will evolve from our increasing awareness of the unity consciousness as suggested by de Chardin, but I have experienced the “lucid stillness even amid the raging winds of anxiety and suffering” described by Ken Wilber.  And I know that an understanding of our collective participation in the transpersonal and immortal nature of unity consciousness quiets my own fear of death.  My practice (paraphrasing Step 11 in my 12-step program) is to seek through prayer and meditation to improve my conscious contact with a power greater than myself, that I choose to call God.   

And this it turns out is a pretty good way to live….

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