We all die. I don’t know whether or not there is an afterlife, and neither does anyone else.
People have a range of beliefs. Some people believe in a heaven of fluffy clouds. Some people believe in a hell of unending torture. Some people believe in a gray space of limbo.
Some believe that one’s place in the afterlife can be purchased with money or obedience or membership or works or sacrifice or mantras.
Some believe that your spirit rejoins the energy of the cosmos, or that you will sing with the stars. Some believe that souls return to the timeless space of eternal Dreaming. Some believe the afterlife will be a difficult journey of some kind, or an entrance into an eternal perspective where all times and places exist together.
Some believe that death is a transition into another realm or dimension, or a pause before starting up another life here through reincarnation.
Some believe that in death, everyone wanders around in an underground cavern.
Some believe that necromancers (the more accurate translation of the biblical “witch”) communicate with the dead, so there must be a place where individual consciousness continues. Some believe that sacrifices or homage ought to be paid to ancestors because they get more energy and can continue their existence that way.
But nobody knows.
We can comfort ourselves with the notions that someone who has died is now with God, or in a better place, singing with the angels, carrying messages, dancing a skeleton dance with us, guarding us and looking down from the stars.
But nobody knows.
It is understandable that the thought of our ultimate non-being causes anxiety.
It is understandable that we want to feel more important when we contemplate the sublime majesty of the universe – and all its possible parallel universes.
It is understandable that comforting mythologies exist that attempt to mitigate the pain of loss and grief and injustice and feelings of powerlessness and meaninglessness that confront us.
Thomas Aquinas proclaimed that one of the sublime joys of heaven had to be witnessing the agonies of those who have hurt us.
When I am sad and anxious about death, I imagine an ideal afterlife. I’ve imagined it in great detail – my fantasy living space, with a community of loving friends and family who are now everything they were meant to be, and surrounded by wonderful smells and tastes (note that I’m not willing to give up a sensual existence of some kind). There is a part of me that persists in the hope that whatever is sufficiently envisioned may exist.
I pray, yes I do. I entreat benevolent entities at all levels of whatever hierarchical or distributed spiritual systems could possibly exist. Male and female and beyond gender. Sure. But I don’t know.
We are the only beings that we know of who live with the knowledge that someday we all – without exception – will die. Heidegger called it Being-towards-death. We can repress and cover-up this knowledge, but that is an inauthentic kind of living.
I taste eternity, but eternity – well, it isn’t human. It’s an everything-ness that overwhelms me, and while it may bring a kind of ecstasy that is beyond language or explanation, it doesn’t seem – to me – to promise an afterlife.
I have a very difficult time believing in consciousness without mind. Perhaps mind can somehow extract itself from the brain’s electro-magnetic impulses, like bees leaving a hive, and find some other form of containment. I don’t know (pause… and neither does anyone else, got it?).
For various reasons (and no reason), it’s a good time to note of some of the thoughts that have been helpful to me, and which have given me some alternatives to the pathological visions that I was imbued with when young.
Living, learning, and navigating around through the admittedly limited form of our existence has been deeply improved and enriched for me with the following attitudinal choices:
Focused Attention. Curiosity and Questioning. Appreciation and Gratitude. Compassion and Caring and Kindness.
They are momentary choices, of course, but the more often you can really pay attention and observe, allow yourself to be curious and to ask questions, feel appreciation and gratitude, and open yourself up to receiving and giving kindness and feeling compassion for self and others… well, the better life seems to be: more real, more textured, more meaningful, more everything.
Tomorrow we may die, but no-one and no-thing can ever take away that we have existed.
The universe is unimaginably large, but our bit of life and history has its place in the timeline and we all help to create and uphold the rich fabric of the cosmos. In our human niche, bound by space and time, we are ourselves – and we affect others and we are all affected by one another and we are all together (Koo koo ka-choo).
The fact that I once saw the sun shining over ochre cliffs is not erased because it was a momentary event. Although it has passed, it is not gone. Although I may misremember or reinterpret it, the very value of that experience is that it happened – on that day, with someone dear. The light was just so, I was in a particular emotional state, I paid attention to it, I was curious about ochre because of its beauty, I was grateful to be there in that moment, and I carry that moment with me. I even have a photograph, but it doesn’t capture the spirit of that moment. It is only a reminder. The aromas, the feeling of the wind, the high-altitude mood, all of it – it happened then, and then the moment was gone (ok, yeah, a little reference to “Dust in the Wind” but stay with me here).
The bits of our lives that we most value are transitory by their very nature.
Everything changes, and if it didn’t, we really would be in hell – and never out of it.
Without passing through (and within and as part of) our human streams of time and space, outside of the ever-moving lines and processes of chaos meeting order, we would have nothing, nothing at all.
While you move in time and space, while you can perceive and question and appreciate, be just as authentic and kind as you can.
Value that spark of eternity in all of us, and dwell there from time to time – alone or in communion – but know this: We exist on the borders, moving, changing, living and dying.
Our lives are so special because we each have our own ways of experiencing, our own limited perspectives, our unique – and yes, transitory – associations and configurations of memory and projection and imagination and meaning-making.
We are human. We have a niche in this cosmos, and it can be very very complex and rich.
Even in pain and suffering and injustice, there are moments of bliss and celebration and laughter and love. With the knowledge of death, and the fundamental ignorance about life after death, be grateful for your span of days.
Our limitations are precisely what enable us to experience and construct our context, our meanings, our lives and our loves.