“Eternal life is a free gift.” — It is such a great idea. Or rather, it is such a great marketing ploy. To offer the one thing that no one can have, at no cost at all.
Firstly, no one has invented a machine that can go beyond death, to measure the existence of conscious experience, and bring back the evidence to validate that such a “gift” even exists. So, to believe in life after death, requires pure faith. Faith… that is, to have confidence in something without persuasive evidence. Due to its historic misuse, this is a word that I think should be banned from the human vocabulary. Either you have a high degree of confidence in a particular outcome, based on the evidence of pre-existing data or experiences, or you have doubt. Anything else, should be rightly defined as ‘wishful thinking.’
If there is no persuasive evidence, try to just sit with that uncertainty. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Rest in that.
Will I get that job? I don’t know. Maybe you say you have faith that you’ll get that job… But actually, it’s confidence. Confidence based on the fact that you think you are the best qualified candidate and because you are really well prepared for the interview.
Let’s take a (much) larger concept, ‘How was the universe created?’ I don’t know. What happens after death? I don’t know. How does matter give rise to consciousness? God breathed his spirit into a lump of clay. Did he? Did someone validate this idea or is it a story that you’ve been told over and over, but have never questioned the veracity thereof. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t jump to ideas without evidence, no matter how comforting they might be. It’s a copout.
What would you desire? Delusional comfort, or truthful reality?
Secondly, eternal bliss would not be bliss at all. It would be dreadfully dull. The only way to know light, is by knowing darkness. Peak experiences can only be considered as such by having gone through a valley of shadow and death, to borrow from Psalm 23. An unending peak experience would just be an eternal plateau. Besides, for how long would you be able to sustain the ultimate expression of joy you experience when, say your favorite sports team wins the world cup? Or when you yourself win that gold medal? I think, if one had to try to sustain it beyond 10 minutes, one might just suffer a heart-attack!
The truth is, the experience of having a Self, or a personal identity, is tied to the brain and a specific set of neural processes, called the Default Mode Network (DMN)—a topic I explored in a previous post on psychedelics. This means, that even if consciousness had to continue beyond the death of the body, you would no longer be able to experience the world beyond death as your-Self, as Pierre (substitute for your name), because your sense of Self (your personal identity that is associated with the DMN), is no longer accessible to the consciousness experience. All the stories that constitute you, are lost with the death and decay of your brain.
To discover the non-duality of conscious life, that is, to discover that you are not both a body and an eternal soul, but just a body that is conscious, is perhaps one of the most valuable insights that you can glean from this universe. It allows you to discover that you are a product of your biology and the stories you tell yourself. To some degree science can upgrade your biology, and with regards to your stories, if they are no longer serving you, then you can seek out a new set of stories.
If the idea that the Self is a mere charade is new to you, you may feel yourself protest in defense of your eternal soul that makes decisions independently of your brain, and that has conversations with invisible beings beyond yourself. But this understanding is proffered by your intuitive experience of reality, for which the only evidence you have is your subjective experience. Unfortunately, science has presented much objective evidence to the contrary. As an analogy, consider the Earth in relation to the sun. Subjectively, your experience would have you believe that the sun rotates around the earth, but today we know that this is not true.
I know that it is hard to let go of the idea that you are an eternal soul inside a body. It took me seven years to relinquish my faith and to decouple my identity from the stories I adopted for myself. That’s exactly why you would protest, because you have staked your whole identity on these ideas—to deny them, would mean to deny yourself. To borrow from the Biblical analogy, you would have to die to your (illusionary) Self.
I have deep sympathy with anyone who does not yet recognize the reality of our non-dual existence. I understand how counterintuitive this insight might seem, or even be near impossible to obtain. The brain is pretty much solidified by the age of 25 and in a way, you are very lucky if life offers you a set of experiences that makes you build new neural pathways that allow you to discover a new way of thinking (not a new way of believing). I am one such lucky person and it started with our cinema, Cinemuse, where we were consistently exposed to different ideologies over a period of years. The fresh perspectives brought about by these filmmakers from around the world, along with a certain way of thinking that was instilled by my dad, which is to ask questions and to seek understanding, inspired me, for the first time take aim with questions at the very foundation of my sense of identity, my faith in a God.
If you have the desire to test the veracity of the ideas peddled by the preachers of your youth, or the popular pseudo scientists of our day, then I recommend two specific tools to interrogate your intuitive understanding of reality: Reading and Meditation. By reading I recommend starting with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. By meditation, I recommend the practice of Dzogchen meditation, which directly purposes to elucidate the illusory nature of the Self.
This brings us back to the question of Eternal Life. If eternity, as a matter of experience, is inaccessible, then this means that there will come a time when anything you do, you will do it… for the last time.
You will stroke your dog... for the last time. You will place your one foot in front of the other… for the last time. You will hug a loved one… for the last time. You will see your friend… for the last time. You will eat a peanut butter sandwich… for the last time. You will look at a sunset… for the last time. You will take a breath… for the last time.
This moment, this ephemeral, impermanent present moment… is the inestimable free gift—not eternity.
This story first appeared on Vasgevang on Nov 10th, 2019.