Death, the Afterlife, and Human Being

Death, the Afterlife, and Human Being

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.


6 thoughts on “Death, the Afterlife, and Human Being

  1. As I am a little closer to my hour of departure, than yourself, I believe, I can only admire & appreciate your wisdom. You and I may never meet in the flesh,but as you said we are interconnected and precious parts of the same reality. I am glad to have known and appreciated you and value our friendship.

  2. Wow. that is deep! When Russ had his heart attack just over a year ago now, he had a near death experience. It really changed him. He had the angioplasty and then after that, he checked out for about 1 minute. The doctor was at a loss to explain it. He had tolerated the procedure well, but then when he was in recovery, he “left them” for a short time. He said he felt like he was walking in a building, like a really nice office building with a lot of doors. He could not remember who he was with, but that he felt really good, calm, warm, no worries and yes, it was bright. He asked who he was with what door he should take and they said they did not know. He ended up choosing a door and then he “woke up” and there was a bunch of people around him. He was actually depressed about it for a while, thinking Heaven did not want him and he wondered why, what did he do? Then about 3 weeks ago, he said that he had a thought, it finally hit him. They did not send him back, he CHOOSE the right door, and HE choose to come back. He feels much better now! I totally believe in Heaven (and Hell for that matter). I expect to see my parents again. I look forward to it. I dont’ fear death, I fear dying. The act of it. The pain. I would rather go quick like my Dad then suffer like my Mom. I may not attend church, but I pray. I thank God most every day while walking to my car as I watch the sun rise across the street. My Dad and I used to walk me to school when I was in middle school, then go to his job down the street (had to save money, the 70’s gas shortages, etc). He had a prayer he said every morning from Saint Francis of Assisi (his patron saint) It began with “Brother Sun Sister Moon” something like that. We used to talk about how the earth is our mother (he was also indian!). My Dad was smart. I miss his wisdom. He was a totally devoted Catholic – almost became a priest! Today I found out the priest from my old parish was dismissed as he had a charge leveled against him for sexual misconduct in 1979, while serving at the parish I attended. He was a great priest. I am finding it very hard to believe. I feel so betrayed, so weird. With everything that has been in the news about the scandal, I kept saying “it did not happen where I was”. It’s a strange feeling.

  3. Hi Heidi, Very interesting post. Your statement: “I taste eternity, but eternity – well, it isn’t human”, reminded me of a verse, but I hadn’t gone on a search for it. Coincidently I stumbled onto it last night while looking for something else: “Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Eccl 3:11. It parallels your thought of the knowability and unknowability of eternity.
    The New Testament suggests that it will be consciousness with a mind and a new body (Jesus ate after the resurrection)–so that tradition is consistent with your misgivings concerning a mindless consciousness.
    Eternity is also a mystery I’ve considered. I agree with Paul [I Cor 15:9] that it is central to the Christian faith. I agree with you that a sensual aspect seems important–otherwise I get visions of an endless church service–not exactly paradise for me…

    VanceH’s last blog post..Modern Day Miracles

  4. Terrific comments – thank you so much!

    Elainna – You are a gem, a treasure, an inspiration to me every day. Huge hugs and lots of love to you.

    Mary – I am a big fan of St. Francis. I read “Brother Sun Sister Moon” for consolation. I have an beautifully illustrated version of the poem in book form that I dwell with from time to time. Hugs to both – I’d love to spend some more time at your house sometime soon!

    Rob – Ok, I’m a sucker for these quiz thingies, so I went to look. I’m to be a Sheep in the next life. Of all the ironies…

    Vance – Ah… Ecclesiastes… I might have known…. In my more mystical moments, I feel the underlying unity behind the dance of order and chaos. Sometimes I can almost hear its music, so there may be some kind of human resonance. I can only hope that the great spirit has more in store for me. I’m open to the insights of the benevolent deities, although at times – to me – the big guy (as represented in the scriptures) seems like he might need a little more guidance from his own god(s). The path to illumination is via negativa for me. The mystics path… with compassion. Best I can do at this point.

  5. Heidi,
    This is a wonderfully written and beautifully expressed blog entry on one of the most intriguing subjects in the world – i.e. what is our true nature. I must say whenever I have a spare moment in the day I find myself contemplating questions such as these…endlessly pondering the infinite possibilities of what ‘it’ is all about. What will death feel like? What comes next? What am I supposed to learn in this lifetime in order to be prepared for whatever it is that comes next? Is the law of karma real, and if so, have my actions been sufficiently good to merit a better future life? These questions are not also easy to grapple with, indeed the contemplation of one’s mortality and ideas of ‘non-existence’ goes against our ego’s innate instinct to not think about its own destruction, to go on living life as though our place in this world is permanent (the biggest delusion of all, and the one in my opinion which leads to so much selfishness and suffering throughout the human race.)
    I will respectfully disagree with you on one point that nobody really knows what happens after death. There are people who know what happens next, they are very wise and very learned people who feel the magnitude of the universe coursing through their veins. They know what our real nature is. They get it. But even if they wanted to tell us, and some of them do…how many of us would really ever be prepared to listen or believe them? But I know they are there and they are blessed – whether it be through luck, wisdom, or perhaps a spiritual element to their beings that has been progressively developed over many lifetimes (in Buddhism this type of person is revered to as a bodhisattva) – and they are the ones who continue to return to earthly existence in order to try and ease the suffering of others and to ensure that the cumulative wisdom of the ages is not lost.
    Meditation is one way to visit the divine realm. Through many years of diligent practice you can achieve a level of consciousness that eventually reveals all. Some would call this becoming enlightened. Entheogens used in shamanic rituals such as Ayahuasca and plants containing Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) are also capable of opening that door in your mind which seems to be otherwise blocked by the ego or self. I am not condoning these drugs, indeed many would disagree and say that the affects produced by these drugs are mere hallucinations. Having used them myself to produce an unintentional near death experience I can tell you the realm I went to was unequivocally a real place….the ONLY real place in my opinion…the ultimate reality. Call it what you will, the cosmos, god, the universe, universal consciousness. But it exists and I need only read other people’s accounts of where they’ve been and what they saw – accounts which they have somehow managed to describe in words better than I could have ever chosen myself, to know that many experience the exact same phenomenon I went through, right down to a tee.
    Anyway food for thought, thanks again for your thought provoking post. It was really comforting to know that other people out there have the same thoughts as me. (I’m not going crazy afterall)
    .-= Ocean of Joy´s last blog ..Dying by Alex Grey =-.

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