The Question of Death
Death is the beginning or the end, or something completely unimaginable. It might seem pointless to contemplate that which is out of our grasp to understand, but I believe there are some insights to gain from the process’ unfolding. It also gives me a lot of enjoyment.
For some years now, I’ve begun to feel this familiar physical and perceptual life to be only partial to total experience, illusory, even. I understood it intellectually, with the help of the science of physics and quantum mechanics, wherein we have learned that all of the universe is composed of waves or wavicles, not particles, and subatomic particles don’t behave intuitively or predictably at all. Nothing is solid, everything is in flux. Nothing is permanent, everything passes.
If nothing in life is as it seems, whatever truths there are about death should escape our imaginations completely. With the infinite possibilities that lay open to what death may bring, chances are that it’ll be something no one has ever even thought up.
Growing up with Catholicism
Catholic dogmas were drilled into me in school from the ages of 6 (perhaps earlier) to 21 and reinforced by my family all throughout. Self-inquiry and doubt never stood a chance. We weren’t encouraged to question or doubt, in fact, we were expected to accept all the church’s beliefs as infallible truths, on the authority of the priests and religion teachers. We memorized catechism for exams, were required to participate in the sacraments regularly, and were raised to live with a sense of immense guilt and fear, because we were born in sin. The memory of it all still sickens me today.
All my friends and family were Catholic, so there was no chance of exposure to other religious beliefs or to any ideas about life and death sans religion; Christianity had a monopoly over my existential life. I didn’t know anything about the philosophies of atheists, they were labeled by the church as heretics, and I was a gullible boy. I didn’t know anything about Islam, Judaism or Buddhism but was taught that to believe in anything else was wrong and I would spend an eternity in hell for doing so.
Needless to say, the fear tactic worked, and I spent most of my life in fear of losing my faith and avoided learning about other religions as much as possible.
Whatever I believed about death and the afterlife was what was told to me by Catholicism. I chose to believe in it. It was comforting and easy… and besides, everyone else around me did the same.
It was comforting to believe that one of my closest friends that died in a car crash when we were 18 didn’t die a senseless death. It was comforting to believe the priests when they said “It’s all in God’s plan… He takes the best of us first,” and “He’s with the Creator in heaven, all is well.” The death of a loved one is a hard thing to make sense of as a young Catholic.
The Beginnings of Doubt
I contemplated the cruelty of an all-good and all-powerful God and why he would allow suffering and evil to exist. Why would he allow war, famine, murder, genocide, rape, et al.? It didn’t make the slightest sense. Why would he allow a hell or Satan, the embodiment of evil, to exist? “God works in mysterious ways,” and “We must have faith in God’s plan and not question Him” didn’t cut it for me any longer. If I was the perfectly loving and powerful God, I wouldn’t allow such sufferings and injustices as we see is so rampant in human history which still continues today ad infinitum, so why would he?
So the Christian God, our father, the Creator of the Universe, was either cruel or impotent. Or he didn’t exist. It’s been said that God made man in his image… I disagree. I think man made God in his image, to satisfy his craving to understand, to try and put some meaning into the unknown, to give peace of mind to those who suffer without any clear reason or purpose, but also to inspire in its followers all the good qualities of Christ: love, compassion, selflessness, etc.
We fear what we don’t know and compulsively fill in the blanks with anything, no matter how far-out and nonsensical.
Christianity was helpful in quelling most of the violence that was commonplace and rampant in the European medieval period, although their methods oftentimes included violence as in the cases of the 200 year-long religious war of the Crusades and the heretic-hunting Inquisition that lasted just as long. As a day-to-day tool to inspire people’s goodness and the spread of love and compassion, I have no quarrel with Christianity. But their use of fear, guilt and a sense of personal inadequacy to gain a following is despicable.
Religions depend on worshipers to survive — a church without followers is bound to wither away into obscurity. On the other hand, worshipers depend on their church for salvation, existential and ethical precepts and a sense of personal affirmation and “infallible” reassurance that everything will be in God’s good hands… if you behave accordingly, that is.
Of course, most Christians will never admit to being controlled or manipulated by their beloved church to develop fear, guilt, or that deep sense of needing the church for salvation. I never saw it that way before. The status quo seemed completely normal and I never questioned it.
Over the course of years, along with my distaste for the male-dominant church’s conservative stand on things like contraception, divorce and gay-marriage and their blind eyes at women-less pulpits, child molesting clergy and obscene amounts of wealth, came the doubt that allowed me to see things differently. To tell the world that the assurance of your spiritual salvation depends upon believing in this or that organized religion has been the grossest transgression of mass manipulation I can think of.
The craziest thing is, there’s no believer of any religion that feels this way. They completely believe in what they believe because they want to believe in something, they yearn to cling to a divine power that will save them. People believe in religion either because they blindly followed their parents’ and culture’s religion, out of fear of death and the beyond, or because they experienced a mystical experience which they attributed to their religion of choice (when in fact, these experiences are universal and occur across the board).
I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if down the millennia, most priests, bishops and popes never felt they were manipulating the masses for the church’s benefit, they just preached because they believed in what they were saying. Wheels in a cog. Spinning. And to think I’ve thought about becoming a priest, myself! OMG.
When I had begun to doubt my church and think for myself, I felt as if I was coming out of a deep and long trance and was beginning to see through the smoke and mirrors with hazy eyes for the very first time.
What if everything you thought you knew about your religion and your God was a lie? What then? If you’re not bold enough to seriously consider that, then live in peace and happiness with your ignorance. If you never doubt, you’ll never free yourself from the ignorance of all the knowledge and wisdom you think you have.
The Search for Truth
Belief in religious dogma hinders philosophical inquiry and is a crude substitute for the search for truth. Instead of embarking on that most epic journey of finding out the meaning of life and ultimate truth, a version of it was handed out to me in the collection of books written by Christ’s followers 2000 years ago, finished by a visionary book written almost a century after the death of their savior.
The vices and the frequency and intensity with which they haunt us: jealousy, anger, pride, greed, et al. has not diminished in the general public since Christ’s arrival and spreading of the Word. Some might say our sins have merely turned from gross infractions like murder, theft and violence to more subtle forms of psychosis and wrong-doing. But the suffering and atrocities still remain rampant. Despite the 2.2 billion Christians in the world today, they’re no closer to addressing the frailties of the mind or the causes of suffering. It is and always has been up to having or not having God’s grace.
The human condition and the trappings of the mind are never mentioned in Christian scripture, as far as I know. We sin because we lack in God’s graces, which can be remedied by going to confession and receiving communion. Without addressing the root causes of the problems, people will continue to commit the same mistakes and indulge in the same vices again and again, despite participating in Christian sacraments and “receiving God’s grace.”
This never ending cycle of the repetition of sins happened to me as it does to all Christians, and I was a frustrated youth drowned in guilt. The behaviours never changed because the thought patterns of the mind remained the same, and the awareness of this is something direly missing in Christian teachings.
What was ignored in Christianity was tackled head-on by Buddha before the time of Christ, whose teachings are not sectarian or theistic in its purest form. Gautama, an ordinary man who awoke with enlightenment 25 centuries ago, shared his findings about the root causes of suffering and the path to alleviate them.
Unlike organized religions, the Buddha showed us a path that didn’t require anyone to believe anything on blind faith, didn’t require anyone to pray to this deity or that, didn’t require belief in dogma or any rituals, didn’t require any worship. The only thing needed was equanimous and objective observation of one’s own sensations through meditation, to see the impermanence of all things to achieve a happier and better life, and possibly a better afterlife, if you believed in one.
Human history has showed us to be fallible, gullible and foolish; ready to arbitrarily cling to ideas and beliefs that reduce whatever cognitive or existential dissonance we may have. It’s all too easy to believe what’s been handed down. With my refusal to accept anything on blind faith comes the shadow of uncertainty that looms like an eclipse over me. Not a frightening shadow, but a comforting one.
I choose to only believe in what i experience and what my reasoning and intellect allows me to understand. Would God really condemn to eternal flames those who chose not to believe in Him or his church on bad evidence?
Along come the proclaimed “truths” about death, the universe and the afterlife of what a wise one, sage, prophet, chosen one or son of God has come to share with the world, in his loving kindness. There’s no way to prove or disprove the veracity of any such claim, and that is where the chasm lies between believers and non-believers.
It’s purely an arbitrary and personal choice to accept or reject what any church or dogma says. I was perfectly happy believing in the church I grew up in, until of course I started noticing inconsistencies in it. The biggest one for me was their exclusivity; there was always a right side to be on versus a wrong side. The “in” group was always better than the “out” group. The sinners and the saved. There was always a reason to need the church, whereby now I see none.
If God was all good and powerful, there wouldn’t be such discrepancies. It ceased to make sense to me emotionally and intellectually. Like I mentioned earlier, I was a young man curious for the truth but afraid to lose my faith. I avoided all non-Christian material, as I’m sure most devout Christians do today. It was purely by chance and my curiosity that led me to begin devouring Buddhist ideas, which are non-sectarian and all inclusive. You can be a Buddhist Christian, a Buddhist Muslim, a Buddhist Atheist, a Buddhist anything.
We allow an irrational fear of losing our faith to keep us in the dark about other ideas. A balanced upbringing, an ideal one, would consist of children (and adults) being encouraged to explore the different philosophies and religions and then decide for themselves what they want to believe, if any.
If we carried on with our lives accepting the status quo and never questioning our attitudes and behaviors, never doubting our parents, the law or religions, we may very well pave the way for our grand children or their children’s children to be borne into a dystopian future where more and more liberties are replaced by conditionings and subtle manipulations that feed back into the system. Think 1984, or Brave New World.
To encourage this investigative mentality seems to be the wisest course to take. If you truly believed in Christianity’s truth, for instance, should you not be fearless and trust that God will lead your child to him and his church? Is not having a personal journey of finding the truth out for ourselves the most relevant of rites of passage in life? To believe on faith is to prevent any search to happen.
The major reason I’ve realized we don’t venture out of the ideologies we were brought up with is the belief that our parents, our natural idols in life, are infallible. What they say, what they believe, we take as truth. And here lies the danger of being a parent that is too sure of himself/herself, about anything. Everything is in flux. To cling on to any of your old beliefs is metaphysical suicide
When we mature into adults and develop a sense of belonging and attachment with an ideology (it could be the belief in a religion, or in being republican, or in the world being flat, or the evils of homosexuality, et al.), our individual egos join up with the collective ego of the group to the point that we begin to feel insulted and offended when the group’s idea is argued against or criticized. We believe our church, our political party, our cause or cult is no less than infallible.
We are attached to the idea that we and our ideology are right, hence, we’re reluctant to let go of or even consider being wrong about it. And the mental walls of defensiveness and closed-mindedness spin like a relentlessly fast double-helix, almost impossible to penetrate. Our headstrong convictions belie our hubris in ourselves and our beliefs.
Death to a Skeptic
Death can be looked at like the spaces between the sounds in music; without which, the musical masterpiece would not exist. Accepting the absence of life is the only course of action I see fit, regardless of what comes next: a recurrence as in reincarnation or oblivion and an absolute void. Accepting Death with an easy willingness is allowing the music to take its course and appreciating the totality of reality. What comes to be will also pass, always.
Thinking of death often and accepting it as a part of life without aversion or hatred is essential to living a fuller life, it seems. From the roots of the fear of death sprouts the fear we have of living — living true to ourselves. When we accept death and face it bravely, the weight lifts off from our shoulders and we can finally breathe easily, knowing well that no amount of suffering or hardships will last, eradicating aversion. We also realize that all pleasures and worldly joys are fleeting, so the pursuit of pleasures and superficial happiness is meaningless, thus eradicating craving.
What I have lost is the ultimate seriousness of all things in life. Death washes everything away, so the accumulation of things and yes, even experiences seems futile. That isn’t to say, we shouldn’t participate in life and stay in bed or in a cave for the rest of our lives. We must, instead, finely hone the itinerary of our lives and carefully consider what’s worth doing instead of blindly following the majority, even if it’s scandalously against the mold of global society.
Psychedelic Introspection and Dreams
I was fortunate enough to have experienced states of consciousness, beyond complete understanding, that made me aware of a subtler side of reality that was out-shadowed by the gross realities of the sensory world. Anyone who’s recreationally enjoyed Psilocybin or Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psychedelic compounds capable of breaking down mental constructs, ideologies, ego-boundaries, prejudices, any and all compulsive thought patterns that usually hinder us from viewing any situation without bias, might have at some point began to wonder and question the workings of the mind.
What did it mean to gaze at and lose oneself to our consciousness sans the Ego? Why did I feel more connected with nature, others and even the most mundane of objects under the influence of these psychoactive compounds? It felt as if the mind facilitated a narrowing and simplification of experience and taking these psychedelics twisted open the tap that allowed a broader range of experience, beyond the normal senses. You feel and see things that escape description; words fail you at every turn.
Was any of this real or were they elaborate imaginations? Regardless of the answer, it showed me that there was a fascinating landscape of the mind that was immensely larger than the outside world and seemed infinite in depth and scope, capable of crossing dimensions, twisting time and the comforting sense of physical reality we have grown familiar with. Are dreams imaginations or are they real in some other place, maybe, in some other way? Can we learn things about ourselves and the world in our dreams? I don’t see why not.
A dream is usually indistinguishable from reality. And we carry on in the dream without questioning, but reacting to the stimuli normally, as if awake. In that case, how sure can anyone be that they’re awake and not dreaming? We might be walking our whole lives in a dream-state thinking we’re awake when we’re not.
With the illusory ego (the sense of “I” vanishes when confronted) and the illusion of physical reality (matter is not solid; it’s made of subatomic particles moving so fast as to seem fixed), the mind probes and plays with the realities of itself and of matter; is the physical world more real than the inner landscapes of the mind?
There is a Taoist parable (from around 300 BCE) that comes to mind:
“Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”
When dreams can seem as real as reality, what assurance is there that what we perceive as reality is not a complete illusion, wherein our consciousness exists elsewhere (or everywhere) and merely perceives the vehicle of our bodies go through this sensory “real life?” There is none.
I would consider my psychedelic experiences to be the most profound and meaningful experiences of my life. In the least, it facilitates self-observation from a different perspective, one from which we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise, or not until we go through tremendous amounts of pain, suffering and loss, or not until we lie on our death beds.
It unshackles us from our thought-patterns, allowing a white man and a black man, for instance, who formerly hated each other because of conditioned racial prejudice, develop for each other some empathy, understanding, acceptance and even compassion for one another.
Ayahuasca: Real or Imagined?
The most powerful and strangest experience of them all happened about 5 years ago. Through no forceful action or planning of my own, I had come across Ayahuasca — an ancient shamanic concoction of a vine and a leaf found in the Amazon that is said to reconnect one with the spirit world and Mother Earth. My curiosity and my still unconscious inclination towards synchronistic events overpowered the hesitation, anxiety and fear I had when faced with the decision to join the ceremony and take the “medicine.”
Amazonian shamans have been using Ayahuasca as medicine to heal people and reconnect them with nature for at least 5,000 years. The Western scientific community has done experiments and succeeded in relieving many patients from PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), depression and addiction to heroin, cocaine and alcohol.
I felt like my life was in good standing: I had loving friends and family, had ample professional direction and a healthy sense of self-worth. I was more than aware that mind-altering substances like this, Psilocybin or LSD, can have adverse effects on too-fragile a psyche or on people with shaky grips on reality or themselves. I was confident I would make it out alive and well. What happened next has always been very hard to put into words.
I entered a space, no, I became the space, from which there is no other. All that I have ever known disappeared and I was left with an eternal consciousness, not drifting, but only being. To drift would mean there was some space other than myself, but there was none.
All man-made concepts dissolved before my eyes, including everything I thought of as myself, and I was left with an all-pervading sense of love and bliss — never ending and all inclusive. Time did not exist, and there was no “I” that would have felt its passage if it had been there.
My memory of having taken anything, of language, of every bit of knowledge I’ve thus far accumulated in life, was gone — as if only deep space pervaded and not a single speck, wave or vibration was made of anything other than whatever I was. It was a uniform feeling. The absence of the passage of time made the whole experience feel like it’s always been like that and will be such for eternity.
There was no doubt or uncertainty during the experience; it felt like I had remembered something long forgotten: the Godhead, the center of being, a unified existence — it was everything and it was nothing. Coming down from it, sobering up from the euphoria and wide-eyed, I was at a loss. I didn’t understand any of it and only felt that I had just crossed the boundary of life and death. It felt more real than reality. This was my mystical experience.
Many who have had near-death experiences have reported having a similar experience. But the similarities don’t stop there. There are thousands of other visionary plants and compounds that have been used ceremonially over the millennia by tribes and shamans precisely to gain this sort of reconnection with each other, Gaia and the divine.
Whether or not what I experienced with Ayahuasca had in fact been real or was only a shared hallucination with many others, invaluable changes have come out of it. The experience itself didn’t change me, at least not right away. What did I know? All I knew was Catholic dogma and their beliefs that have been handed down through the millennia, slightly changing here and there to fit the social norms of the times.
Implications and Insights
For the first chunk of my life, I truly believed in the reality of Satan and Hell, the personification of God the Father and the stories of angels and demons. My Ayahuasca experience shattered that belief into a billion pieces, never to be formed again. The feeling of unconditional love that pervaded everything made it clear to me that there wasn’t any space in existence for an Inferno, nor for a physical personification of God separate from myself that I was supposed to fear.
Debate has raged over the millennia of the realities of the varying religions and existential ideologies. A good friend once told me, “If we can never prove or be sure of what comes next, of why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do, why don’t we all just believe what we want to with an open mind towards others’ belief as well?” Very wise words I won’t soon forget.
The problem with most quarrelling religions is their exclusivity and stance that “I’m right and you’re wrong.” If we were all open to our own fallibility, we would be open to others’ ideas and beliefs and break the barriers of prejudice that separate us needlessly. We wouldn’t be so headstrong and arrogant, never too sure of ourselves, never overconfident in our beliefs.
Over the years, I have since gained a slightly clearer understanding of my experience with Ayahuasca, with the help of eastern philosophies and ideologies — never taking any as absolute truth but using what insights made sense to me. The Ego, for instance — the illusory “I” that we think as ourselves, the “Me” that possess all these fantastic gadgets, clothes and real estate, the persona that is the sum total of all your past experiences, your attitudes, beliefs and ideologies, the “I” that becomes angry, lustfull, selfish, greedy or even happy — has eluded my perception entirely until I had taken Ayahuasca.
With Psilocybin and LSD, I’ve experienced ego boundary-dissolution many times, but it never occurred to me that the ego itself was an illusion the mind conjured for individual survival, I thought it had merely taken a back seat but was real and lasting. I had always taken these psychedelics recreationally, and enjoyed in the awareness expansion, sensory synesthesia and prejudice destruction, but the insights have yet to be as profound as with Ayahuasca.
As the saying goes: “You can’t fill your cup if it’s already full.” This refers to not being able to find the truth in anything if you’re already so sure of what that truth might be. If you accept something as truth, you deny everything else in the matter as unacceptable. You automatically reject all other opinions.
I believe that there will never be any proof of anything, but I assume that there is something that encompasses and permeates the total reality, rather than nothing. The strongest evidence for that, of course, is my experience of myself. If there was nothing else in existence I can be sure of except for my own consciousness, that tells me that consciousness must be the basic stuff of the universe. Solipsistic, sure. But I could be wrong and what we feel as our consciousness peering at itself might be some errant reflection, or we may be in the Matrix, or we may be in the exact universe in the infinitely-diversified multiverse where the Christian God exists as well as heaven and hell.
Life and Death can’t be seriously considered without querying consciousness, without asking “Who am I?” As much as it’s discussed by scientists, philosophers and theologians, consciousness remains elusive to understanding and thus, so does any empirical understanding of the afterlife.
Personally, Death is the next and (maybe last) greatest adventure into the unknown. I aim to embrace it and welcome it openly, but these things don’t happen overnight. Life would not be so thrilling if we lived forever, as light would be meaningless without the dark.
I can only wait with patience, in gratitude and in eagerness at what may be experienced. There shouldn’t be any sense of loss at our deaths, for we possessed nothing to begin with. From the abyss we’ve come, and to the abyss we shall return, much richer for the experience. Embarking on a journey and then finally coming back is different from not having gone at all.
Without consciously deciding to start doing it, I’ve begun imagining while on plane rides and long bus trips that the vehicle is about to crash or careen down a cliff, and I go through the initial stage of fear for a second or two, and my ego panics. My persona doesn’t want to die. I regain my composure, accept my death and smile. I’m at peace. Although imagining it and actually accepting it when it finally comes are surely miles apart, the short films of my own death are good practice in letting go… and by default, they make me feel happier to be alive.
Death amuses me: the certainty of its coming, the uncertainty of what comes next and the futility of its denial. Regardless of what’s to come, die in anger, denial, frustration or regret and you cause your own suffering and create your own hell. Die in full acceptance and embrace the unchangeable, and you will experience Heaven, Nirvana, oneness with the universe, or at the least, inner peace. The choice is ours: die in suffering or die in peace.