Believing in Death

Categorized under Wisdom

It goes without saying that people generally do not want to die.  Most of us want to live for a long time, if not forever.  The thought that it all comes to an end can be a difficult thing to contemplate.

Consider what death means for you personally.  Utterly everything disappears.  Your memories, your hopes, your emotions, your thoughts, your education, your wisdom, your subjectivity, your consciousness, your very identity as a person – all of it vanishes.  Your position in society, your business concerns, your relationships with friends and family, your passions, your loves, your triumphs and attainments – poof!  All gone in the blink of an eye.  Everything that you love and enjoy in life, all the little things that bring you pleasure, all the delightful moments that you experience in music, art, sport and sex, all the social narratives and soap-opera plots that engage you in daily life – all of it is extinguished.  In effect, the whole world vanishes and you along with it.  Everything about you disappears forever and ever and ever.

The thought that Nature will continue to unfold for the rest of eternity and that you will never wake up again…..

The thought that countless civilizations will rise and fall, that countless technologies will come and go, that countless conscious beings, with no knowledge or awareness of the human race, will emerge, flourish and disappear within the swells of countless universes, galaxies and planets, all of it part of a never-ending series of dramatic events, unique situations and fascinating stories that will stretch on forever and you will never get to experience any of it…..

The thought that it could happen at any moment, without warning.  A sudden heart-attack.  A stroke.  A brain aneurysm.  A virus.  A car accident.  A random act of violence.  A meteor crashing down on you.  Death can strike from anywhere, at any time.  People often use the term “death row” when they talk about convicted prisoners who have been sentenced to death.  But in truth, we are all on death row and there is nothing we can do about it.  How we behave or what we believe or what society thinks of us is immaterial.   Nothing can save us.

It is no wonder that human beings do everything they can to paper over this reality with religious fantasy, or try to block it out by keeping busy, by cuddling with each other, by seeking out distractions, by taking drugs.  When a child learns for the first time that he will one day die he is truly horrified and he never really gets over it.  He might try to suppress it, he might become distracted by the challenges of growing up in this world, but it never leaves him.  It becomes a sort of gnawing background horror to his life – constantly pushed away, but ready to erupt at a moment’s notice.

The term “mid-life crisis” immediately springs to mind here, yet the human propensity to suppress death, and the grotesque consequences of this, manifests in many other ways as well.  One of the more interesting examples is grief.  When a person suddenly loses a family member or an intimate friend and falls down howling with grief, he openly displays his life-long suppression of the reality of death.  His howls reveal his shock, as though he has been caught completely by surprise; they reveal that he has been asleep, that he has been stagnating comfortably in a fantasy world which he believed would never end – such has been the strength of his suppression.  He might be 40 or 50 years old and highly experienced in business matters and the ways of society, but it is as though he has never lived.  He naively thought he could get away with living in a fantasy world indefinitely.  And now he howls like a new-born babe at the injustice of it all.

Grief, like love, is rooted in selfishness.  And so the howls of a grieving person are invariably steeped in anger and self-righteous indignation.  Anger at the loved one for suddenly leaving him, anger at the Universe for allowing it to happen, anger at those around him for still being alive.  Consumed with bitterness, the grieving person shamelessly throws around the blackness of his egotism in a very ugly display.  Just as bad fruit comes from bad trees, as the old saying goes, the blackness and ugliness of his grief comes from the blackness and ugliness of his love.  For love itself can only blossom when reality is suppressed and ignored.  The whole cycle of love and grief is a cycle of ignorance, one that depends not only on suppressing death, but suppressing consciousness of the nature of reality as a whole.

If one is forced to choose a single piece of evidence that reveals just how ignorant and out of tune with reality the human race is, then one only has to point the finger at the daily outbreaks of grief worldwide.  For it shows that, spiritually speaking, people everywhere are completely wasting their lives.  You can forgive children if they fall into grief over the loss of a parent or a sibling, for they are young and do not know any better.  But for anyone over the age of 25, it is truly shameful behaviour.

Concentrate your thoughts for a moment and avoid thinking in terms of good and evil. While you are not thinking of good, and not thinking of evil, just at this very moment, return to what you were before your father and mother were born.

Hui-neng

An objection could be raised that it is impossible for me, or indeed for anyone else, to be absolutely certain that our consciousness ends with our death.  While this is true, it is all but irrelevant.  Nobody really believes in an afterlife, not when it comes down to it.  Not even the believers believe in it.  When a person howls with grief over the loss of a loved one, he is not thinking that the loved one has simply travelled to another place and they will probably meet up again soon.  No, his howls tell a completely different story.  They tell us that he knows, deep down, that the person has been extinguished forever.  The afterlife fantasy might be useful for suppressing the thought of death in normal everyday life, but it quickly evaporates the moment reality intrudes.

Looked at objectively, the odds that our consciousness will continue on after the death of the brain, that there is an afterlife, are exceedingly slim.  All the credible evidence points against it.  Everything suggests that we fully emerged out of Nature’s causal processes and that we will one day fully dissolve back into them.  Just as a wave crashes against the shore and wholly disappears, and a cloud dissipates in the sky and wholly disappears, there is no reason to think that our own fate will be any different.

And even if, in the remotest of remote possibilities, some kind of mechanism does exist which enables human consciousness to survive death, it is still going to represent a monumental change.  It still means that all of our connections to the world are going to be ripped away from us.  So either way, our death is going to constitute the most traumatic event of our lives.  The only comparable event, perhaps, is expulsion from the womb, but even here a fetus doesn’t spend decades consciously forming an identity within the womb and consciously attaching himself to its various pleasures and comforts within.  Those who cling to the hope that an afterlife will soften the reality and trauma of death are seriously deluding themselves.

In response to this, a few of you will probably point to the reality of near-death experiences which sometimes involve powerful altered states of consciousness imbued with great joy and an overwhelming sense of divine love, persuading many who undergo these experiences that there is indeed a loving God waiting for us beyond death.   This issue is far too large and complex to go into here, but I will be analyzing these experiences in detail, along with mystical states in general and other similar kinds of neurological phenomena, in a future blog.  For now, I will simply point out that the mere fact these people feel compelled to emphasize the sheer beauty and joy of the near-death experience underlines just how traumatic they consider death to be.

The human race is so mindlessly lost in delusion that it tends to automatically couple spirituality with a belief in an afterlife, without giving it another thought.  But if you believe that it is only possible to experience God and enter into heaven after you have physically died, then you will be far too late.  You will have missed the boat completely.  Heaven can only be experienced here on this earth, while you are still alive, or not at all.  Even near-death experiences are experiences that occur within this life.  In the end, the desire to believe in an afterlife is the desire to cling to this life.  And the desire to cling to this life is the desire to avoid becoming conscious of reality.  It is to turn your back on God.  As such, believing in an afterlife is really a form of evil.

The kingdom of God is for none but the thoroughly dead.

Meister Eckhart

Enough!  Away with the fantasies!  Away with the desperate search for loopholes!  It is far better, from a spiritual perspective, to accept the full horror of death at face value and prepare for the worst.  In this way, a sense of urgency can permeate your life.  A powerful, driving need to become enlightened about the nature of reality NOW, before it is too late, can fill the mind.  People tend to work far more productively when they know they have a deadline, for it can focus the mind like nothing else.  If there is no deadline, if you believe that you have endless amounts of time to complete a task, then it is unlikely you will ever begin it at all.  You will procrastinate and dither so much that you will end up forgetting what the task was to begin with.

Weak men ever lose themselves on the way. And at length their weariness asketh: “Wherefore did we set out? All is indifferent!

Friedrich Nietzsche

For those of us who strive to become fully conscious of reality, death is actually a blessing in disguise.  Not because we want to die and lose our consciousness, but because the ever-present prospect of death can steel the wavering mind and urge it forward.  Those on the spiritual path often vacillate between their love of life and their spiritual desire to abandon all attachments for the sake of becoming fully conscious.  Death teaches us that all of our attachments and loves are going to ripped away from us, regardless.  It is definitely going to happen, one way or the other.  You can either abandon your attachments voluntarily (thereby allowing you the opportunity to experience the greatest wisdom of all), or you can be like everyone else and mindlessly wait for the chopping block to fall.

Imagine you are flying in an aeroplane high above a mountainous region and the captain announces over the intercom, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen.  Do not panic, but the engines are failing and we will be crashing down to earth in a few moments.  Please follow the safety proceedures.”  How will you respond, knowing that you only have a few minutes to live?  Will you continue to sleep away your time with trivial matters like you normally do?  Or will each moment be intensely focused on the most vital of concerns with unbridled urgency?  It is amazing just how clear and focused the mind becomes when it is fully aware of life and death.  We should be striving for this kind of intensity and clarity all the time, in every moment of our daily lives, and being fully aware of the reality of death can serve as the perfect catalyst for this.

It is not enough to simply understand the truth on an intellectual level.  That is a very easy thing to do.  All it takes is a single glance at the world to see the impermanency of everything, to see that things are like fragile bubbles which are sustained by equally fragile causal conditions, that each fleeting moment is a whole universe unto itself.   Death is occuring all around us at every moment.  It is the reality of change.  But to truly understand what this means – to fully understand the illusory nature of our existence and to live in the tremendous freedom this understanding provides - we have to bring the whole of our selves, the whole of our minds, the whole of our lives, into the equation.

It is eternally true that if one knocks, the door will be opened. But suppose that the difficulty for us human beings is simply that we are afraid to go – and knock.

Soren Kierkegaard

In order to go beyond death, one needs to go through death and beyond.  One needs to become like a dead man, without attachment and desire, and only then can the boundless freedom that exists beyond death be fully realized.  Indeed, this boundless freedom already exists around us.  It is there in the way the wind blows without a care in the world, in the way a wave crashes into the shoreline without any thought of self-preservation, in the way a particle of dust settles indifferently onto a table.  And it is there inside us, in the way the neurons fire and our muscles contract, the way the heart beats and the blood courses through our veins, the way the eyes automatically transmit visual data to the brain, the way each thought spontaneously emerges into the mind.  All of it is effortless, fearless, and free.   This fearlessness is the very stuff of life and death and we are fully part of it.

The sages ramble in the vacancy of untroubled ease, find their food in the fields of indifference, and stand in the gardens which they had not borrowed.

Chuang Tzu

A dead man has nothing to lose.  Possessing nothing, being nothing, he is beyond all possibility of harm.  And so too, if a person empties himself of utterly everything while remaining alive, if he becomes the nothingness that he really is, abandoning all desire for personal happiness, discarding everything he has gained from the past and renouncing every hope for the future, no longer seeking anything, no longer storing anything, no longer paying any attention to forms, being wholly unmoved in all circumstances, unmoved even to his own reputation, even to his own consciousness, even to his own life, even to wisdom itself – then death loses all of its power and meaning.  It melts back into the charade that it has always been.   In the end, death is nothing more than a thief, and not even the greatest of thieves can steal from those who have no possessions to begin with.

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2 Responses to “Believing in Death”

  1. Adam Pfleghaar Says:

    This is one of my favorite blog posts on the site thus far. I hadn’t commented on it because I didn’t feel I could add anything, but since no one else has commented I might as well throw in a few references of my own.

    Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this novel in his youth, still not fully spiritually developed yet, but an incredibly perceptive, truthful, and aware artist:

    “Then, you knew (or perhaps you sensed it) that you had your death inside you as a fruit has its core. The children had a small one in them and the grownups a large one. The women had it in their womb and the men in their chest. You had it, and that gave you a strange dignity and a quiet pride.
    It was obvious that my grandfather, old Chamberlain Brigge, still carried a death inside him. And what a death it was: two months long and so loud that it could be heard as far away as the manor farm … But there was something more. There was a voice, the voice of that, seven weeks before, no one had known: for it wasn’t the Chamberlain’s voice. This voice didn’t belong to Christoph Detlev, but to Christoph Detlev’s death.
    Christoph Detlev’s death was alive now, had already been living at Ulsgaard for many, many days, talked with everyone, made demands. Demanded to be carried, demanded the blue room, demanded the small salon, demanded the great banquet-hall. Demanded the dogs, demanded that people laugh, talk, play, stop talking, and all at the same time. Demanded to see friends, women, and people who had died, and demanded to die itself: demanded. Demanded and screamed …
    And you have nobody and nothing, and you travel through the world with a trunk and a carton of books and truly without curiosity. What kind of life is this: without a house, without inherited Things, without dogs. If at least you had your memories. But who has them? If childhood were there: it is as though it had been buried. Perhaps you must be old before you can reach all that. I think it must be good to be old.”

    And among my favorite books in the bible (though the ending disappoints me). As appropriate here as anywhere:

    3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
    4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
    5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
    6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
    7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
    8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
    9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
    10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
    11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

  2. David Quinn Says:

    There is some nice strong imagary in that Rilke quote, Adam. I like way he talks about Christoph Detlev’s death coming alive. It reminds me of when my father and I helped look after my mother in the last few months of her life. She had dementia, and yes it was very much like watching her own inner death gradually taking her over. Her personality slowly vanished before our eyes and she became increasingly more feral, as though everything about her was degenerating back into the wilderness of nature.

    If I wanted to read some of Rilke’s work, what would you recommend?

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