The recognition of the illusion of death is the beginning of wisdom
We are born, we live for a span, then we die. We can plan our lives in accordance with this self-evident truth, or we can suppress any thought of it and live our lives as if death did not exist or brood in existential lament at the echoes death leaves in its trails. By so doing, however, we are just deluding ourselves because birth and death are the two inseparable poles of earthly life. There is no pulling them apart. No one needs to remind us that we will die someday and that our loved ones will also die, either before or after us. In any case, such a reminder, if given, would be most unwelcome to many people. Death is quite commonplace for us all. The paradox, though, is that we go through life behaving as if we will never die and can live indefinitely, presuming to be sailing on an ever-flowing tide. In ordinary circumstances the thought of death and dying hardly surfaces in an otherwise plain-sailing life, the ageing process being incremental and therefore hardly noticeable in the humdrum of day-to-day living. Mental health experts operate on the basis that religious belief or other forms of acknowledgment of the existence of an afterlife are delusions to counter the fear and anxiety over our own mortality, should it eventually set in, and the strong desire to continue to live in one form or another after the brief gleam of earthly existence has faded all too quickly. Thus, it is implied, even if not openly advocated, that anyone who entertains thoughts of an afterlife must be delusional.
Stirring moments of greater awareness, when one is intuitively animated by the question of the meaning of human existence in general and the nature of one’s own identity in particular –‘Who am I?’–, are soon swept aside in the daily round of lesser and greater cares and challenges, the subject of death or the thought of dying a taboo topic to be avoided in polite conversation. About such things, we cannot know (and should not care) – these seem to be the maxims underlying most of our busy lives. Caught up in the business of earning and spending, many shy away from dwelling on thoughts of approaching death, of what happens when we die, and the central question of what life may possibly expect from us or what its purpose might be. They advocate that we cannot know the answers to such questions and science cannot help us here either, so what is the point of racking our brains over such matters? Let’s enjoy life while we still can.
Unlike the beasts, we are aware of our mortality. We cannot be truly alive without having an instinctive awareness of death, which is constantly informed by stories and experiences all around us, by the ever-present cycle of evolution and dissolution that characterises the natural environment. Some people feel most alive when very close to death. A child comes to realize that death is a certainty. As a youth, buoyed by the joy of being young, or as an adult he will adopt strategies to distance himself from adjusting to such truth in his abiding fear of death. In his declining years, the mind of an ageing person turns more and more to illness and to the management of ailments so that he can no longer ignore or mask every hint of ageing. Then the intimations of death’s ever-present proximity prod beyond a mere abstraction and penetrate our consciousness all the more compellingly at the end of life. We are astounded: Is that all there is? I have not yet really lived at all! Why did I not do what I actually wanted to do and considered to be right? Why was I not strong enough to set the course of my own life? Why could I not make my family and loved ones feel how much they mean to me? Why did I not allow myself to be happier? Such exhausted laments at the end of our days often generate agonising fear in the dark ignorance about what the human being actually is, what is the nature of the world in which we live, what happens when we die and how things continue afterwards. Dispirited, we either anticipate release from life’s burdens in eternal rest or dream of personal survival in a better world than the one we are leaving. We have our methods of survival, growing into that character that allows us to act defiantly and to survive our frailties.
Death is something we shut into hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Sometimes the crippling fear of death becomes a most intense private obsession, even growing into a private hell, which can generate individual acts of irrational behaviour. Such fears, which would be illogical if there was nothing to follow death, are extended forms of natural fears, such as that of being suffocated, devoured alive by a wild animal, or standing on the brink of a terrifying abyss. Religions have played on and intensified such fears, using them to entice adherents to follow their creeds, rather than perhaps to lead better lives, or if so, than only within the narrow limits of their teachings. Today, even churchgoers laugh at such depictions, but this laughter cannot displace the great fear of death and of what may follow it.
But fear of death is not confined to believers. Even those who profess no belief in an afterlife nevertheless often wrestle with a sense of foreboding and dread which only increases as the hour of death approaches, often culminating in absolute despair during their last hours. The word death itself is like a black portentous cloud stretched out on a bright summer’s day, spreading a cold breath darkly over blossoming fields, cramping heart and soul. This paralysis is even more poignant when we unexpectedly lose a family member, relative, neighbour, or friend, when unprepared we are witness to the severance of human life amidst our daily routine. Something choking or oppressive overcomes us, however aware we are that death is inevitable, because we are far from seeing death as a perfectly natural and inescapable part of earthly life. The subject of death and dying is the same as the subject of life. Only when death claims thousands and millions of people in wars, disasters or epidemics does our paralysis, strange to say, seem to lift. As the experience of wars demonstrates, large numbers of deaths around us make us sanguine, serene and calm. We have come to expect and to accept such manner of death. We become de-sensitized because it is all too much to take in. But in ‘normal’ times something frightening and provocative, uncanny and dark clings not only to the fact but also to the very word.
Our life is full of uncertainties, many giving rise to anxieties and even chronic neuroses. We strive a great deal to lead a risk-averse life. This tendency generally increases with age. Death, however, is the final uncertainty. When will it come, and what, if anything, will happen afterwards? We may push it out of our minds, but for most of our lives we are waiting for it, an event far more incisive than starting a new job or seeking a partner. After all there are other jobs, other potential partners to love, but are there other lives?
The question whether or not death really is obliterative end or just a transition to another sphere of existence is up for debate and stirs contradictory answers in a struggle to comprehend human mortality. These are not just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers – there are also questions as to when, why, how and under what conditions that another existence might take place. We seem to have come to the end of our tether here as we move into realms of cloudy speculation.
A major help for a peaceful passing without fear or anxiety consists of knowing as much as possible about all of the attendant circumstances as well as about the dying process itself. A vast array of findings from research into death and dying, including fully documented accounts by tens of millions of people worldwide who have undergone near death experiences or witnessed by attendants at the deathbed, give some insight into otherworldly planes of existence outside the reality of our five senses. These experiences can only be explained if we accept that our consciousness is independent of the body and does not die with it and this therefore suggests that there is an afterlife, because, after all, the consciousness must reside somewhere after it severs itself from the dead physical organism, which turns as inanimate as the objects around it. Some members of the scientific establishment refuse to accept that near death experiences suggest with a strong probability that there is an afterlife and offer other explanations instead, such as that these experiences are tricks played on the mind by a dying brain as well as others even more bizarre, all of which simply demonstrate the limitations of the human intellect, bound as it is to gross-material regions of the Cosmos. For the same reason, our intellect can never know nor grasp what happened before the ‘Big Bang’ and what caused it to take place. Our intuitive perceptions give expression to animated stirrings of our inner life beyond the pleasant guarantees of the outer world we can realise with our senses. Hence, our consciousness lives beyond the body. Let us call this consciousness ‘soul’, a term which is as old as mankind itself. The body is an implement that the soul uses. When the body dies, the soul remains. Death is not an end, but a transition from one state to another. If there is no afterlife, as some people profess to believe, then fear of death is unnecessary. We will accommodate it, just as eventually we accommodated the loss of a particular job or the separation from a partner. Indeed, our worries should be at an end, since there is nothing to fear of the Beyond in time or space, no other life in which to chase shadows. On the other hand, no more cakes and ale, no further scope for ambition, conquest and recognition by our peers. All the same, believing in a life hereafter ought to hold no risk and nothing will be lost. Or will it? Perhaps it is resignation and a deep sense of loss rather than fear that is entrenched in our minds when we think of death. Then survival at any price – as death – is turned into an enemy of life?
Some try to connect with the Beyond to obtain assurances that the hereafter actually exists. But somebody who is sure that life with its possibilities continues does not need such continual reassurance, because he already has an inner conviction. In addition, dabbling in the occult harbours its own dangers and risks. The soul can be imperilled by unknown terrain in a similar way to a person who wanders without protective gear or clear directions onto a major construction site on earth, or analogous to a person who cannot swim but can journey quite protected in a boat through the element of water unfamiliar to him, but who, however, risks drowning should he out of ignorance, complacency, stupidity or vanity, thus out of narrow-mindedness, happen to remove a plank from the bottom of the boat.
Most people, designated as well-adjusted or no more than mildly neurotic, are afraid of death because they are ignorant or unsure of what will happen afterwards. They remain, even at the point of death, preoccupied with the earthly, with materialistic goal setting and values or with people that they will leave behind, perhaps without help, rather than reflecting on the path they must inevitably travel beyond the earth. Earthly life is a matter of finding the right balance between the interests of the earthly, which need to be taken care of, (after all, nobody likes to leave a mess which others then have to sort out), and preparations for the great journey into the other worlds, which last much longer than the small span of an earth-life. If they could but be persuaded of the certainty that life goes on and that to die is to be permitted to continue striving towards the true home of the human spirit, the ground for fear would cease to exist. Or would it? Evil-minded people, or even those who proudly call themselves materialists, thus those who have no goals other than to accumulate wealth, strive for earthly honours and fame and to exercise power over their fellow human beings in order to oppress them, be it in the home, the workplace or in public office, should rightly fear death. However, even if late in their lives they turn back from this road, they need have no fear of death, because the unpleasant experiences they will have to undergo, being the fruits of their own volition, will nevertheless pave the way towards their ascent, once they have been lived through. On the other hand, the good they have accumulated in the meantime will help mitigate the effects of their former volition as well as support them while they undergo these experiences.
Death on earth is but the expulsion of the human soul from the gross material life to a completely different plane, towards ethereal life. It is changing our habitation from the gross-material earthly plane to a plane of finer material, the so-called Beyond, which is not visible to the physical eye, but visible to clairvoyants, who are able to see with their inner eye already here on earth. However, there is no division between this world and the Beyond. An unbroken radiation unites all that exists in the entire Creation into the one great reality that is draped into the mantle of the Creator. At earthly death, the spirit, encased by our soul has simply shed its outermost covering, the physical body together with its intellect, and may step forth in the now outward ethereal body in the Beyond. Death on earth is birth into the Beyond, and birth on earth is transition from the Beyond. Contrary to common belief, a baby is not a brand-new entity, but a soul which has re-entered the physical world after having already lived here several times before. Spirit is our origin, our core and final goal. When all cloaks are discarded, one by one, during the great ascent towards the realm of the spirit, above and beyond the material worlds, we ourselves are revealed as we truly are – spirit.