Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Illusion of Death

No one has witnessed their own death, however almost all of us are totally convinced that we will die someday. Without a direct experience of death, one can say that that death is only a belief. Of course we see many others who die every day, its all very common and obvious. What's not so obvious is that we see only their bodies dropping dead. The rest is mere extrapolation of same event in our own case.

Fantasies of Death

We see that a body is destroyed after death, and we actually ensure that it is destroyed by cremating it. So it is fair to conclude that our own body will be destroyed, and since our body is no different than all those dead bodies, there is no reason to conclude otherwise. Anyhow one cannot witness the destruction of one’s own body. It is just an assumption.

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Once the body is dead and destroyed, we lose all contact with the person, the owner of the body himself, there is no emergency backup line to a person, the body is the one and the only instrument of communication with others. Therefore one has no other option but to assume that the person has disappeared too. In other words, destruction of the body implies destruction of the owner of the body. This explains why (almost) everyone so strongly believes in non-existence of the personality after death. Note that no one knows this objectively, it is an assumption.

What about the Self, does it drop dead too? Usually a person reports a Self via his body and without a body and no access to the person, it'd be impossible to know his experience of Self. Is the Self still witnessing all this death and destruction? May be, may be not. There is no way to know, for an ordinary person. And this explains the strong belief that even the Self or the Consciousness also disappears after death.

What about the world? Obviously it stays. Or does it go too? The world from the point of view of the dead becomes an unknown, but the world from the point of view of others continues. Deaths of people hardly affect the world at all, this is exactly our experience. We are pretty much sure of it and so its fair to conclude that the world will continue as if nothing happened, after we are dead. Its the same beautiful world you were so attached to, but it seems it cares not if you stay or leave.

Some people do care, especially those with sweet memories of you. The memories last for a while, but not too long. Some people feel that it is important to leave good memories of oneself behind, some do not care much. A few feel that they should do something great for this world which they are going to leave behind, and a few manage to do that. Most do leave behind wills and money etc. for the people they care about. Note that all these people are totally convinced that they are leaving a world behind and it will continue to exist just as it is now, with all those people, relatives, gold and buildings they own. Logic tells us that no one can witness a world after his own annihilation. If you are witnessing a world, then you are far from dead, in terms of the commonly accepted meaning of death. What is the reason for this belief? It seems the reason is their own experience that the world continued after someone else died and people extrapolate it in case of their own death. It is a fair assumption, but nevertheless an assumption.

Life after life

As many already know, total annihilation of the Self, person and the body is the most common belief, but there are other beliefs too. Some assume that the dead person continues living in some other world with a brand new body. The new body is imagined to be better than our gross old body. If one must indulge in a fantasy, its better to make it a pretty one. So the other world is also imagined to be much better than the plain vanilla variety. Of course why send bad people or your enemies to a pretty world, so for them specially crafted terrible worlds exist with ugliest possible bodies. Some believe that the new body is non-existent and only the personality survives, and moreover, it comes right back very soon in another physical body. Some go ahead and call all this bodies and worlds business hogwash and believe that only the Self continues. Perhaps there are many more, one for each culture and group, ancient or modern.

An alert and aware reader must have noticed by now that most of the concepts related to death are mere assumptions. This is mind boggling. Why would someone choose one assumption over the other? In the absence of knowledge, why not just remain Agnostic? The answer is - indoctrination. A child uncritically accepts whatever he was told by the people around him. Adults do that too in order to conform to “norms”. No questions asked. Some even try to force their beliefs on others. Whole philosophies and religions were erected over something which masses do not know directly, and have no means to know. Fights over death are cause of many deaths. Death shows us a mirror, we are – ignorant blind believers. Well, a majority of us are, unfortunately.

So which one of belief should I choose out of these colourful garden varieties of beliefs on death? It is not necessary to choose any. Its not that you will die if you don't choose, there is no compulsion. Wait for the actual experience, it will come sooner or later, even if you don’t want it. Once you are dead you will know, or will you? There has to be a “you” to know anything.

The Unknowable

As we know, knowing something is a function of the Mind. It arranges all experiences in a neat structure and presents them to the Self. It also forms impressions. In the absence of the Mind, there is no knowledge and no impressions are formed for later retrieval. The issue in the case of the experience of death is - the Mind is trying to know something which happens after its disappearance. Same issue is seen in the case of birth, where the Mind tries to comprehend something which lies before it appears.

How am I so certain that the Mind disappears after death? I’m not certain obviously. I carefully avoided the word destruction, instead I use disappearance of Mind, like in the state of deep sleep, a deactivation of it, if you will. It knows nothing of the deep sleep state, where it gets deactivated and this is a common everyday experience. The Mind is awesome and great, but is limited. We hit its limitations when we try to explain death using the Mind, very similar situation as that of deep sleep. From the point of view of the Mind, there is nothing to know after death. And that is the exact answer we get when we ask our Mind about its experience of the death. Death is a great unknown for the Mind.

What honest answer do you get when you ask Self about death? In my experience, it denies any experience of death and even of birth. I come empty handed. From the point of view of the Self there is no death.

So can we now begin our celebrations? There is no death after all, aren't we immortal already? I'd suggest you wait until you are dead. If you find anything remotely resembling "you", its time to celebrate. In fact why wait for death, we have already seen that there is no you, the identity is only an illusion. The “you” is already dead. There is no one to celebrate, but Self itself, and it too has no reasons to celebrate, it was never born. Isn’t all this confusing? Yes, that’s what we get when we go to the bottom of beliefs, we never find anything solid. Death is something illusory, a creation of fearful Ego, of ignorant masses. You cannot find death, if you search honestly.

Death of the beliefs 

Lets dismantle the beliefs regarding death using nothing but enquiry. It does not take magical abilities, superpowers or exotic states of Mind to destroy the illusion of death. What is needed is brutal honesty. We will explore what is it that can be known with certainty.

Firstly, for something to die, it needs to be born. An end implies a beginning. So let’s find out when you were born, your beginning. Find an experience that conclusively shows that you were born. You will surely find a concrete experience of existing now but nothing indicates that you are just starting now. And then you will instinctively search the storehouse of experiences - the memories, as you firmly believe that you must have existed yesterday and even a year ago and you try to go back into the past in hopes of finding an experience of a start. All the memories happen now as faded sensory and mental perceptions. You find your identity changing, a younger body, a different personality and soon you arrive at some really dim experiences of playing in a park or crying in the arms of your mother, or some similar event. And the memories go no further. You can’t remember any experience of the birth.

Then you might assume that the experience must have continued beyond your limits of memory and there must be a "you" before that and you might even imagine yourself having an experience of coming out of the tunnel of a womb and even living inside the warm red glow of a womb. You may suppose all this while giving an excuse that your memory doesn’t go so far. But that’s cheating - beliefs, assumptions, imaginations, excuses and suppositions are not allowed, they do not take us to the truth, only an experience does. So one must conclude that if one can't even remember his beginning, then it is foolish to be so certain of it. Remember that we are not claiming that there was no beginning, we are simply gathering solid evidence, if any.

Now you might recall some memories of others whom you heard saying that you were actually born and on such and such date in such and such family, and perhaps those family members are still around you to confirm that. Isn’t that an evidence that you were born? Its an evidence that a body was born, a tiny one. This is exactly the experience of your mother and others. They still have no clue if you existed before they saw this tiny body. Of course, at this point you can equate yourself with a body and call it a start. Now death has become a reality for you, because the body will surely die. You will not know it, but others will. Again you must rely on the experience of others to conclude about your body-death and moreover they won't be able to tell you, unless a dead body is interested in listening about how it died.

We have seen that assigning the identity to the body is arbitrary. The identity keeps shifting and the body is never the same. So in such assignment, the thing you refer to as "me" is uncertain and arbitrary. Your decision to call the start of the body as start of "you" is also arbitrary. You simply chose a point in time which is an event of separation of a piece of matter from your mothers body. One can as well define a start at the point of conception. Moreover, one can trace the chain of causal events that produced this body to the beginning (if any) of the universe. The matter took many forms and countless events happened, which one of these is the real start of you? So contrary to popular belief, one still cannot find a beginning even when one assumes the body as self. This can be shocking for some, their beliefs were so strong and certain till a minute ago [1].

Lets not be so random and explore the other option of the identity being a collection of your experiences, aka the personality. We have seen that the personality is all that random stuff one likes to call as oneself - name, gender, age, looks, relations, job titles, things he did or said or liked or disliked etc. Its much more flimsy and fickle compared to a solid body, but for some strange reason people want to call themselves as this stuff. And you will find that it has no real start, or its beginning can be placed anywhere arbitrarily. You may like to place it at the point of start of memories, but you will never be sure, perhaps the forgotten part before the commencement of memory was real start of your personality.

Its end is not within your direct knowledge too, unless the personality survives the death and you know that you have died, but then you are not really dead. If you are the personality itself, it needs to be alive to know that it is dead. This doesn’t make sense. There is no direct way to know if a personality dies. Others may infer it from the obvious inactivity of the dead body, which the person animated in his unique way. But is that inactivity due to breakdown of the body or due to destruction of the personality? Others cannot even know this.

Lastly, we ask the Self. Did it begin somewhere at some time? It cannot say anything, all it can do is witness the now. It witnesses the time too and so is timeless. It cannot say if it will end in future. There is no such thing as future for the Self. The time - past and future are made up by the Mind. The Self transcends the time and hence is beyond any beginning or any end. The beginning and end are concepts that are applicable only to the objects. The objects, including the Mind are witnessed as coming and going on the screen of Self. There is nothing else out there to witness the coming and going of the Self itself. As soon as you assume an experiencer of the Self, that experiencer becomes the Self and everything else is reduced to objects – the experienced. So the only possible conclusion is that the Self, the Consciousness, by necessity cannot have a beginning or an end. Note that we are on a solid ground here, there is no uncertainty of any kind. And therefore one can as well call this as the truth. It is all so simple and beautiful, certain, consistent and self-evident, as truth must be.

So we have weakened the belief that there can be an end to whatever this thing called "me" is, because there is no evidence of its birth. One must arbitrarily define a start and an end to the various entities one arbitrarily defines as "I" and call some state of it as death. In the case of the Self, even that is not possible and we remain uncertain about its birth and death. So we find that the concept of death is, well, a concept, an opinion, just an idea in the mind.

The Changeless One

Another way to weaken the beliefs about death is as follows:
In order for an entity to be born or die, there must be a change. In other words, a beginning or an end imply a change or various in-between states. So there is death only when there is change. Lets see what our direct experience (aka knowledge) tells us about the change.
The body is ever changing and in spite of logical difficulties one can mark a start and end point on the continual change of this structure of matter. Same for the personality, a person is never the same. So under the criteria of the change, both body and personality must die. Bad news. But the good news is - the change means just that, a different state, it does not mean annihilation. So there is some hope, at least for the personality, because the body is hopelessly changed into entirely different structures even though the matter that made it still exists in one or the other form, e.g. the oil in your car, which comes from dead bodies, its useful, but I’d hesitate to call it “my self”.

Lets check out the Self. Find an experience of witnessing that was different in any possible way in recent past from the experience of witnessing now. If there was no perceptible difference then try it for an earlier time using your long term memory. E.g. the witnessing that happened during childhood.  Perhaps you know things much better now and understand whatever you are witnessing much better, but that would be a change in the Mind, it is more evolved now compared to the past. How can the Self, the Awareness itself, be aware of something in a different way in different instances? Its tricky to observe it, but one would see that the experiences are varied but the experiencer is always the same. There cannot be two ways of being conscious of something.

Another way to check that is to ask the question - Can a changing Self register a change? In other words, can a changing Self experience anything? Experience is a change, no change implies no experience. Since the Self, by definition, is experiencer, not the experience, it has to be changeless. Whatever changes becomes an experience, and whatever does not change becomes an experiencer.

Suppose the Self changes, who registers this change? As soon as you say, another Self registers the changing Self, then the changing Self becomes merely another experience and ceases to be an experiencer. Now the new Self who registered it is the Self, which again needs to be changeless. The only conclusion one can draw is that the Self cannot change and it is by necessity, not by an arbitrary choice or definition.

Change implies time and it is very obvious that the Self is beyond time, as time is also experienced. Not being in time makes the concept of change inapplicable for the Self.

The changeless attribute of the Self can be understood via a metaphor of screen. The Self is like a screen on which experiences (images) appear. It is the screen that becomes images while still remaining changeless. It seems paradoxical, but that is how it is [2]. In order to register the changing imagery on the screen, the screen must remain perfectly changeless, pure white and motionless. If it changes, say patterns of colour appear on it out of nowhere, then one cannot distinguish the screen from images. In fact the changing patterns of the screen become a part of the imagery, the screen is always seen as a background, changeless and invisible as far as its true nature is concerned, the latter is hidden behind the ever changing imagery.

No change directly implies no start and no end. This is how the Self is. And if you wish to call yourself as the Self that is witnessing all that is, then you are beginning-less and endless. However as far as the matter of death is concerned, we will just say that the beliefs about the death have gone from perfectly true and certain to weak and uncertain and have fallen to pieces.

I don't know 

By using the tools of direct experience and mere logical and critical thinking one can arrive at that stage of "I don't know ". Once you say that, the cup is empty and doors to new knowledge open. The Mind cannot know anything which it cannot experience. Experiences come out of Grace [3]. I do not know any other way of putting this. Many are fortunate to be blessed by grace and have amazing and extraordinary experiences under their belt and do know death (and birth or life, for that matter) better than I do. Even though I cannot speak from experience regarding other’s experiences about death, I will throw my random opinions about them in the next article.


[1] One must explain the whole universe first in order to explain oneself. This should be a great insight in itself. The start of the body can be arbitrarily placed at any point, but that will be a convention, a convenience, not a fact.

[2] The pixels are the only reality of a screen, such as the one you are using now. The values or colours the pixels take up are transitory, unreal. The experience need changing colors, but the screen (the experiencer) needs to remain unchanging. If a movie plays on a screen, the characters (assuming they are wise and conscious beings) can sense the presence of the screen while the movie plays, but they will not be able to see things before the start of the movie and after the end of it. The screen would see the start and end and the blackness before and after. However, the screen won’t be able to say anything about its own start and end. Our bodies and minds/personalities are characters and the Self is the screen, in this metaphor. Notice that the characters would perceive themselves as separate entities with a mysterious changeless nothing of the screen always present throughout the movie, but the screen will be fully aware that all characters, scenery, time, shapes and spaces are happening in it, there won’t be any separation, just oneness. I’m thankful to Rupert Spira for this metaphor. Check out his videos for in-depth explanations.

[3] My understanding of the Grace is that it is a natural ripening of the Self. The term ripening is only metaphorical, the Self does not change, only the fog covering it dissipates slowly. As it progresses, it gets novel experiences, which show it to itself in a better light. Grace happens, you cannot go “get” it. You can only remain open to receive it when it happens. See past articles for a brief discussion on this topic.

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