A Dead End

“Remember that there are two kinds of lunatics: those who don’t know they must die, and those that have forgotten they are alive.”
Patrick Declerk (As quoted by Matthieu Ricard in Happiness)

In a commentary to one of the chapters of Augustus Finds Serenity, I wrote the following:

Once, Augustus asked Takygulpa to explain how a life should be viewed.
“Imagine it is night, and you are a bat. You fly through the darkness. Eventually you approach a small hut. In the hut there is a candle. The candle lights up the room with its brightness. By good fortune the window is open. You fly through the window and out the open door on the other side. That short passage through the lightened room is like a life!”
“Is that all there is?” says Augustus in surprise. “What about reincarnation?”
“Perhaps there are other huts with open doors or windows up ahead,” replied the sage. “But can you rely on that?”

It is always been surprising to me the attitude we take towards death. Many religions are focussed on providing an antidote to death. It seems that very few of us are willing to confront a future that does not contain some sort of ongoing existence of our essential essence (often referred to as our soul) but what we really fear is the extinguishing of our individual consciousness (the “light” in the above parable).

And yet if we consider our existence, contemplating the state before birth seems to elicit no such concern. None of us (except for a few eccentric celebrities who believe that they had previous existences – usually exalted ones) seem too concerned that prior to our births we had no consciousness. I have heard few people complain that they regret the unconscious state that they seemed to emerge from at birth. Yet most of us fear that after death we might again be delivered into such a state.

The Mystics counselled against worrying about the future, death included, or dwelling in the past. We are encouraged to live in the “eternal present”. This might seem idealistic but in fact it is all we can really do! We can only be conscious of this instant. Our future is an imagined anticipation but that anticipation is only experienced now. Our past is a fabricated recollection of times past but even that recollection can only be experienced now. This is a prevalent theme in Buddhism and recently taken up again by the spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle in his 1999 book The Power of Now.

The first historical evidence in a belief in an afterlife seems to come from Egypt. The pagan Mysteries brought this notion to the Greeks where it was a new and heretical doctrine. I have previously written about how there was no reference to heaven and hell in the Old Testament. (See my blog essay titled Paradise Lost.) The Greek historian Plutarch writing in the first century to console his wife over the death of their daughter Timoxena urged her to remember the teachings of Dionysus that the soul is indestructible and in the afterlife “is like a bird set free from its cage”. (See the quote below for a similar metaphor). The 2nd century Greek philosopher, Celsus strongly maintained that the Christian concepts of heaven and hell stemmed from very old teachings of the cult of Mithras. It seems these concepts were adopted by the early Christians and woven into the fabric of the New Testament.

At a time of bereavement the good Dr Phil sent me this quote:

“Birth is not the beginning of life –
only of an individual awareness.
Change into another state is not death –
only the ending of this awareness.
Most people are ignorant of the Truth,
and therefore afraid of death,
believing it to be the greatest of all evils.
But death is only the dissolution
of a worn out body.
Our term of service as guardians of the world
is ended when we are freed
from the bonds of this mortal frame
and restored, cleansed, and purified,
to the primal condition of our higher nature.”

Hermes Trismegistus

Phil reliably informs me this quotation comes from a book by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (whom we met in my last blog essay), called The Wisdom of the Pagan Philosophers.

Hermes is a legendary figure identified with the Egyptian god Toth. The writings attributed to him appear to have been laid down about 200BCE.

I like the reference above which refers to life being the experience of “individual awareness”.

In Augustus Finds Serenity I suggested readers attempt the following exercise:

When your mind is somewhat stilled, picture the ocean. Be part of the ocean. Consider the ocean as deep and replete with consciousness. How comforting it is to be part of the ocean? At its core, the ocean is steady and assured. The wind catches the ocean’s surface, causing waves to form. Each of the waves is imbued with a little of the ocean’s consciousness. The waves like to imagine they are separate from the ocean. Imagine, now, you are a wave. You are pleased and somewhat proud now that you perceive yourself with a separate identity. You have, in this way, created ego. But think, when the wind eases, the wave will again resolve itself into the rest of the ocean. But, for now, you are so proud to be your own separate entity which appears to be separate from the ocean.

When the wind subsides how will you feel? Will you mourn the loss of your imaginary separateness?

Or will you be gratified to be part of the universal consciousness once more?
Sit for a while and still your mind. Go back to being the wave. Fix the scene in your mind again. The wind grows in strength and the wave becomes larger and more boisterous. Finally, filled with fury now, you dash yourself against the rocks. Part of you now becomes spray that flings itself high and washes back over the rocks.
Each drop of water now believes it is separate. And, for a moment, it is. What do you seize upon to mark your new identity? How far you were flung? How circuitous your path?
But then, the fury of the wave has abated and you are running back over the rocks into the sea. What is the driving force now? To maintain your separateness, or to be one again with the whole?
Imagine the drops running one by one over the rocks and finally dropping back into the sea. Was there ever any real doubt where you belonged? Was the momentary exhilaration of your separateness any real consolation for being stolen away from the “One that is All”? What has happened to your sense of separateness?

Apparently, the current estimate of the human population is somewhat in excess of 7 billion. Can you imagine the frenetic and often futile struggle of most of those 7 billion selves struggling to be special and thus different to their fellows?
The young Jewish diarist, Etty Hillesum wrote:
“We cannot live fully by excluding death from life, but by welcoming death into our lives, we grow and enrich our lives.”
There is truth in this. The way we think about death has a considerable impact on our quality of life. Many of us avoid the thought of death until we can’t avoid the imminence of our mortality and then suffer great angst, often tinged with a sense of injustice.
Anthony De Mello in his marvellous book, Awareness, recounts the following:

“I remember when my own mother got cancer, my sister said to me, ‘Tony, why did God allow this to happen to Mother?’ I said to her, ‘My dear, last year, a million people died in China from starvation because of the drought and you never raised a question.’”
De Mello believed that meditating on your death, visualizing your body in your coffin in your grave was a liberating practice! The courageous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn also recommended such meditation.
To finish this week’s essay, I have included below such a meditation that I wrote for Augustus Finds Serenity.

Take up your usual meditation position and go through the processes that bring your mind into a calm state of awareness. Picture a coffin in the earth. In your mind you are able to see the bones that now lie in the coffin. These are your bones. The flesh has all rotted away and is now one with the earth. What does it feel like to see your own bones, the only physical remains of the body that was your host?
The body is in a graveyard alongside many others. Turn your attention to the bones of those nearby. How can you distinguish them from your bones? You may have had a deposit from some arthritis you suffered or perhaps you had lost different teeth? Maybe your bones are smaller or larger? Notice, though, the similarity; the differences are really few. What evidence is there now of the smooth skin or the toned muscles you admired?

Consider the problems that are currently confronting you. Perhaps you are struggling to pay the mortgage? Maybe your children are proving disobedient? Then there’s that job opportunity that you just lost. What do they look like from the vantage point of a pile of bones in the bottom of a coffin?

Remember that person who harmed us? How dearly we sought revenge? What does it matter now?
Bring your attention, now, to the rest of the graveyard. Read the headstones. See that here there is someone who died a hundred years ago. Who knows of him now? Of what consequence is he now?
(Remember Shelley’s description of the inscription on the ruined statue of Ozymandias? It read, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, you mighty, and despair!” Is there anyone now in awe of Ozymandias?)
Look beyond the graveyard. Do you recognise the streets? No, because they have all changed too. Some blocks away, there is a shopping centre full of people going about their business. Is there even one person in that huge crowd that is likely to be giving any thought at all to you?

Look up. See the sun still shines. Tonight, the stars will still appear. But what mark did you leave on the universe?
Are you prepared to have your mortal remains be taken back into the earth?
Are you comfortable that the essential essence of your being will return to be consciously with the One that is All?
Do you understand that it is only when you’re ready to lose your life that you can really live it?

“Learn to die and you shall live,
for there shall be none who learn to truly live
who have not learned to die.”

“So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present we do not exist!”


8 Replies to “A Dead End”

    1. Ah, but you are wrong Jack! I lead a very satisfying life. I have beliefs about spirituality and beyond these there is something quite god-like. It is just I can’t believe in the traditional Gods of the traditional monotheisms be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim. It is of a concern to me that most “believers” come arbitrarily to their belief systems and never challenge them. If you had been born in Baghdad you most likely would have been Muslim. If you would have been born in Delhi you most likely would have been Hindu. If you would have been born in Tibet you most likely would have been Buddhist. Most people with religious beliefs have never even explored other faiths but merely accept the doctrines that they have accidently inherited through the accidents of birth and geography. My philosophy with respect to religion is such that I will never try to force my beliefs on others and I feel gratified that people gain consolation and hope from ther religious beliefs. But I have this perverse notion that if God exists and He/She endowed me with intellect He/She must have wanted me to apply it to my belief system and not to merely acquiesce to a belief system that I accessed arbitrarily through an accident of birth!

  1. For those who can fall back on their childhood teaching / beliefs and accept the supernatural associated with, virgin births, walking on water, the parting of oceans, Rainbow Serpents, re-incarnation or what ever else works to give comfort to your ego; good luck to you. As I have said in comments before I genuinely do envy you the comfort that this brings. I was once able to do this myself but my analytical nature eventually won out. I am still a sceptic about the whole single conscious concept although I can at least see this as a plausible idea that does genuinely explain much of what I observe internally and externally. All of the other religious doctrine only seems credible to those who have been exposed to it at an early age. We look at the religious beliefs of other societies as if they are primitive and childish but can’t see that our own beliefs are no different.

    Ted, at least the meditation and thought exercises you propose are not routed in any requirement to have faith (as Mark Twain describe it, believing something you know isn’t true). Death is fear of what we might miss out on and fear of the unknown and it is the only thing in life that everyone must do alone. To visualise what it would be like and realise that it is not necessarily bad and to get use to this over time surely has got to help a bit with accepting the inevitable.

  2. Ted, you mentioned last week the Buddhist saying “when a sage points to the moon the fool sees only the finger”. Do you consider the moon to be God and the finger the various religions of the world that point the way, or do you instead consider the finger to be God and the moon some higher level of consciousness or enlightement?

    1. The sage is seeking to assist people to a higher level of understanding – it might be his concept of God or indeed some other universal truth he is helping us access. He is guiding the direction of our thinking. But to the uninitiated the guiding principle can often take on more importance than the truth itself. All of a sudden we are studying the finger and writing learned treatises about it as though it was the prime subject of importance. We then get obsessed with its angle of inclination, its colour, which finger it is appropriate to point with, whose fingers are worth paying attention to and so on.

      You will recall from some of the books you have read that this was a point of contention among the early Christians. The Gnostics believed that the story of Jesus was a parable that led them to a greater understanding of God. The literalists however believed in the literal truth of the gospels and maintained the story of Jesus was historical fact.

      Islam has of course suffered in this way as well. The fundamentalists who have insisted on the literal translation of the Koran have caused and are still causing great misery in the world.

      As someone so insightfully said not only does the fool only see the finger but he often then uses it to poke someone’s eye out with!

      Now I know I haven’t answered the subtlety you included in your question. In a way, I think you could be right and in some respects God could be the finger. I suspect it becomes a matter of definition. What say I define God as the fundamental ordering principle of the Universe? Our concept of God will always be constrained by our inability to understand the universe. We now understand the nature of the universe far better than the authors of the Old Testament for example. Very few of us (but unfortunately not all of us) would believe God created the universe in the manner suggested in the creation myth of the Old Testament. Or indeed wandered in the Garden of Eden in the late afternoon talking with Adam. You might surmise that as our knowledge of the universe increases we could successively modify our notion of God to take in our new understanding. But we are faced with an infinite regression here. Because we will never have the capacity to understand the universe in its entirety each God-concept would be an improvement on its predecessor but never the final all encompassing God. It could be then argued that our developing God-concept is indeed the finger pointing the way to a real truth beyond our rational comprehension.

      As you will remember it was this impossibility of defining God that compelled Thomas Aquinas to resort to the Via Negativa and resign himself to defining what God was not! Similar processes were adopted in Hinduism, Judaism and Islam.

  3. In Hinduism “Neti neti” – “God is neither this nor that”. In Christianity: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” (John Scot Erigena, 9th Century Christian theologian)

  4. I have heard the quote, not sure who said it, “death is only a problem for the living”. I took comfort in for a brief moment while recently grieving of a lost loved one until I thought, how can we know this? Death could be the deluded idea of heaven, hell, or nothing. Nothing must be a delusion to. Again i get carried away within the limitations (if that is correct) of reason/logic. I think reason is as far as we can go because any argument or proposition of spirituality appears to be advocated or challenged with reason. I’ve even seen reason actually used to dethrone reason. It is the at point I get stuck. Perhaps in years to come I will not see things this way.

    Ted your first post (second comment) is a Richard Dawkins catch phrase that is very popular atheist argument against religion. I have many times previously wondered how this would go – If you had been born in Australia you would be ???? Or further – If you had been born in a mixed and free country with agnostic parents and read far and wide, including many religious texts, philosophies etc you would not be limited within a delusional belief system.

  5. On further reflection it was AC Grayling who said ‘death is only a problem for the living’. He also said that if we envy the dead it would be a failure of humanity. I agree with that.

    It is fear of death which can be the basis of religion. It is this fear that can be used as leverage in submission to religion. I recall this being the main point I took away from Sunday school as a kid.

    Living not in the past, nor in the future, but in the present is something that many other animals do because their consciousness has not evolved to the level of humans. The present for us is where the past and future (hope) meet and I question the idea of trying to limit this consciousness that is the fundamental privileged difference separating humans. I do take the point to some extend though when I see how content and happy my cat appears.

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