"Nobody gets out of here alive."
That's what Jim Morrison of The Doors said.
And then he died alone in a bathtub in Paris. He's gone, and he may or may not have gotten "out of here."
But I believe there is another world, another life beyond the one we're in now, that's available to us, a more enduring existence open to anyone able to embrace some kind of a "leap of faith," or at least see it as JK Rowling puts it in one of her "Harry Potter" novels: for a "well-organized mind: death is but the next great adventure."
Either way, this life is finite. The next one offers infinite possibilities.
"The gate is straight,
Deep and wide.
Break on through to the other side.
Break on through to the other side."
Morrison said that, too.
And while I have no idea what he meant by that, I think there is a gate to a life beyond this one, to the other side.
Maybe we should redefine death. Maybe it really means birth - our rebirth into an afterlife.
There are vast and disparate resources for anchoring a belief in a life after death, from the spiritual to the religious, from medicine and literature to parapsychology. But regardless of where the inspiration comes from, my greatest personal comfort with this prospect comes from simply believing, knowing, that there's something more to life than this life.
It's no more - or no less - than a simple leap of faith.
Of course the cornerstone of Christianity is a belief in the afterlife, as recorded in the New Testament and made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was born a Jew. Traditional Judaism, based on the Torah, or Old Testament, firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence; the ultimate destination for the righteous Jew is Olam Ha-Ba ("The World to Come"), with the first 12 months after death spent in She'ol, or the "Abode of the Dead," where the soul is submitted to punishment and/or purification.
The Qur'an states that "there will be a life after death because the moral consciousness of mankind demands it," and that Islams' "Day of Judgment" will come when "the whole Universe will be destroyed and then the dead will be resurrected to stand before God," a day that will be "the beginning of the life that will never end."
And despite terrorists' claims, the Qur'an does not promise 72 virgins in the afterlife.
For Hindus, "Moksha," or Freedom from the cycle of birth and death, is the ultimate goal; seeing ourselves in all beings and all beings in ourselves, is their essence of life - hence, there is no birth and there is no death as we define it. There is reincarnation.
In fact it is also possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected.
Considered from a radically different perspective, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882 for the purpose of researching "personal survival after death," offers a compelling ten point argument for a life after death based on cumulative "evidence" of supernatural phenomena, including the ability of the human consciousness to exist independent of brain activity, man's psychic powers (telepathy, precognition, psycho kinesis, etc.), near death experiences, deathbed visions and numerous cases suggestive of reincarnation.
Author J. Vyvyan argues in his "A case against Jones" (Ernest Jones being the great behaviorist psychiatrist) that if a case for personal survival after death were tried in a court of law, "a jury might well be convinced of a life after death on the basis of these arguments."
Or consider the following: we are told that our body, everybody's body, loses exactly 21 grams at the moment of death. Young or old, 225 pound athlete or 89 pound grandmother, the instant we die, we're all 21 grams lighter.
What is that?
Well, our last dying breath doesn't weigh anything. So what is it?
I think it's our souls. I think it's our soul leaving this earth, looking for someplace to go. And I believe its destination is a far better and more enduring place than our tenuous, chaotic and insistent struggles here on earth.
Where does it go?
According to Hindu "dharma," when a person dies, his gross physical body is left behind and the soul, with the "subtle body" (consisting of the mind, intellect, sense organs, motor organs, and vital energies) goes to a different plane of existence. Such a plane of existence is called "loka" in Sanskrit. This is certainly consistent with the loss of 21 grams at our deaths.
But I don't think of this ultimate destination as a physical place. I think trying to visualize life after death is just as elusive as a blind person trying to comprehend color.
Try as they might, I don't think they can. And I don't think we can visualize an existence after this life, either. Personally, I don't need to. I don't need colors, or a picture, I simply need to believe. And I do.
Nor do I think it's anything we can truly, fully understand. Not in any rational sense anyway. A life after life, as I like to call it, is simply something you have an opportunity to accept. Or not. Think of it this way: a child in his mother's womb has no comprehension of the life in front of him; he's simply secure in his current warmth and safety and with some basic, instinctive and utterly unformed assumption that there's a world awaiting his arrival. We will get no closer than this unborn child trying to comprehend our own next birth into an afterlife.
And in my view, that's enough.
In fact that's a very good way to reconcile it. Childlike. Expectant.
In Judaism life is valued as more important than almost anything else, including the after life. Living a long life is highly valued and spiritually celebrated. Like Asians, Jews have great respect for their elderly, as should we all.
There's an understanding in these cultures that growing older - which is wonderful as long as you're growing - makes you wiser. You grow aware of how much you don't know. And how much you do. And how much of the material things we accumulate all our lives we don't really need anymore. In fact, probably never did.
The opportunity to grow old is one of this life's blessings.
Aging can also have a way of enriching your sense of self; the essence of you gets a lot simpler. Who you are, and who you aren't. You get familiar with yourself, you can even accept your self. If you can stay healthy, you learn to forgive yourself, your failures, your transgressions, the missed opportunities.
If you don't they will be the death of you.
And you're forced to confront your own mortality, because the longer you live the more those around you die. And each time you wonder, why him, don't you? Why her, and not me?
Or you arrive in the kitchen one morning, like every other morning, ready for work, only nothing is quite the same. You cannot remember what happened five minutes earlier. And then you realize you can't even remember having a job, or what day it is. At the emergency room they tell you that what looked for all the world like it could be a stroke was simply an attack of "Transient Global Amnesia," and you look at this strange doctor as if to say, "Wait a damned minute. This stuff happens to other people, not me. Well, not this one. It happened to me, three weeks ago. And even though it turns out to be an anomaly, it is still a wake up call.
Indeed, it will one day be my turn, too. And so you try to prepare yourself for this wondrous inevitability. For it is wondrous, if nothing else. And terrifying, unless you are somehow, some way prepared. If that is even possible.
I think it is.
You can downsize. You'll eventually retire from a professional life. You simplify routines. You accept limitations. You appreciate different things. You care less about unimportant things. You understand what those things are, and what things really are important.
You count your blessings. You surrender to the uncontrollable inevitabilities. And if you're lucky you will embrace them.
Maybe you finally realize that it's not about things at all. In his wonderful book, "The Four Agreements," Don Miguel Ruiz draws on the teachings of the ancient Toltecs, an enlightened society that lived in southern Mexico thousands of years ago, and tells us how liberating it can be to embrace the inevitability of the "angel of death:" "The angel of death comes to us and says, you see, everything that exists is mine; it is not yours. Your house, your spouse, your children, your car, your career, your money - everything is mine and I can take it away when I want to. But for now you can use it."
In fact, he says, "If we surrender to the angel of death we will be happy forever," because this angel of death teaches us to live in the present, unload the burden of the past and be free to dream of the future.
And so you acknowledge your mortality, growing older. When we're young, we're immortal. This unwarranted bliss is a blessing, for a while. You don't fear death when you're young because you cannot imagine dying. And why should you? You're on the front end of life, full of hopes and dreams and things to do.
When you're older, you reassess friendships. You reminisce. You remember things from 40 years ago and forget things from 40 minutes ago. Maybe because they were more important, back then.
And if you're truly blessed, you accept your own mortality.
But of course life after death isn't limited to elders who have grown old with the wisdom of age and grown comfortable with the idea of a next life. Dr. Melvin Morse is a Seattle Pediatrician who specializes in near-death experiences. He's had encounters with young patients that convince him "the evidence points to something after life."
Morse has recorded dozens of interviews with children who have experienced near death. And even though he doesn't himself believe in God, and has little interest in the experiences many adults have reflecting their own religious beliefs and biases, he says he finds the experiences with children to be the most pure. And the most telling.
One 7-year old girl was clinically dead, underwater for 19 minutes, only to be resuscitated. She was able to draw pictures of her death - from a bird's eye view. This child believed she had to go back to her body to help her mother (who herself did not know she was pregnant!) with her unborn brother - who she drew with a big red heart.
Several months later her little brother was born - with heart disease.
Another young patient went into cardiac arrest; after she was revived she insisted she had risen out of her body and floated up around the hospital where she saw a blue tennis shoe on the third floor ledge.
To calm down his patient Morse took her to look. Sure enough, there was a tennis shoe, on the ledge, just like the patient described it.
"It's clear even when people are flat lining in the last moments of life, something profound is happening," says Dr. Morse. "It is something today's monitors cannot pick up."
Most scientists will explain that near-death experiences, with visions of tunnels of light, are caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain in the last moments of life. And maybe they're right.
But what if they're not? What if there's more to it than that?
Here's what all of these disparate beliefs, philosophies and phenomena provoke, for me: is life, our "existence," limited to a finite space, the one that we're stuck in right now, on this earth, with a specific beginning and a final, unyielding end? Or rather, is our existence an unending journey we participate in, one that we're aware of for most of the time we're temporarily here on earth, but a journey of our spirit that has long been a part of our human selves long before we got here, and will infinitely re-exist in our 21 gram souls when take leave once again of the temporary mooring that was our bodies then, but perhaps something all together different in the next stage?
For my money there's a lot more to life than this life. I don't think life is as limited as the imperfect, flawed, gnawing space we're occupying right now, at these very moments.
But there are even simpler premises for believing there's something beyond this life.
Maybe you're simply a pragmatist, and you're forced to acknowledge that, alas, you won't live forever. What then?
In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Our deaths, like our lives, have meaning and are all part of God's plan. Or, when it's time, you simply let go - of possessions, of ambitions, of the insistent pain of ongoing and potential loss? Of the fears and failures that are incumbent with living a life, here and now.
Hospice volunteers coach their patients to give themselves the gift of letting go, facing the inevitability of death. But if you can find some basis for believing there's more to it than this life here on earth and, with it, inner peace and acceptance of our temporary, even pre-determined tenure on this earth and a confidence in our destiny for an existence beyond this life, perhaps you'll achieve what Buddhists call Nirvana, or AA describes as serenity, or Christians call a state of grace.
Maybe we simply join the ethereal mist, the primordial soup of spiritual beings come back together in one heavenly mass: no possessions, no fears, no individual thoughts - no individuality - and absolutely no physical attributes or characteristics. Just a wisp of an idea, an amp of once-human energy joined with others in what becomes a common, comfortable harbor, freed from human frailties and failures, defined in simple and otherworldly terms that demand no intellectual interpretations, render no judgments, fueled by simple, undemanding emotions. Bliss, perhaps.
I believe our souls find a place like this. I believe they come from a place like this and I believe we are all going back through our souls to a place like this.
But there are even more fundamental bases for taking this leap.
For one, there's the life you're living right now that will spawn a legacy, an existence that will thrive after you are gone: there's the cumulative force of what you leave behind that guarantees your survival beyond death. Your children, their children, your ideas, your impact on your family and the people in your lives, the contributions you've made to the community, your business, your place of worship. The seeds you've sown - the literal ones you may have put in the ground and the figurative seeds you planted as thoughts in somebody else's soul. All of these things linger behind you and grow and flourish and represent extensions of your being, long after you're no longer here on earth.
Or, finally, consider this possibility: I held my first granddaughter in my arms less than one hour after she was born. A remarkable blessing. And when I got a momentary look into the unfocused and emerging eyes of this fresh new miracle and saw the light of God shining back at me, I had all the evidence I needed to know that something wonderful and powerful and indescribable surrounds us. That our ultimate destinies are out of our control, and infinite, guided by some larger force, and that we will ultimately be rewarded for our time here on earth with something far greater than we can imagine now.
We are all children of some higher power.
For me, it's a pretty short leap from there.
There is life before life. There is life after life.
And that's good enough for me.
7 March 2014
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more