Death and the Deathless #2
If a fish is born in your aquarium and you call it John, write out a birth certificate, tell him about his family history, and two minutes later he gets eaten by another fish—that’s tragic. But it’s only tragic because you projected a separate self where there was none. You got hold of a fraction of a dynamic process, a molecular dance, and made a separate entity out of it.
Nothing is ever lost. That which took the shape of the object then, is taking the shape of its ‘recollection’ now.
Nagarjuna says that a complete and thorough understanding of impermanence is that nothing is impermanent. What Nagarjuna is pointing to is that believing things are impermanent involves a contradiction. First we posit separate, persisting things (in effect, absolute objects); then we refer to them as impermanent (that is, relative). What we fail to see is that we are still holding to a view of substance. We don’t really appreciate the thoroughgoing nature of change, the thoroughgoing nature of selflessness. Nagarjuna makes it abundantly clear that impermanence (the relative) is total, complete, thoroughgoing, Absolute. It’s not that the universe is made up of innumerable objects in flux. There’s only flux. Nothing is (or can be) riding along in the flux, like a cork in a stream; nothing actually arises or passes away. There’s only stream.
Something unknown is doing we don't know what.
The comparison to electricity is often used to describe what survives death. Electricity is the energy that enlivens a multitude of different gadgets. The gadgets come in all different sizes and shapes and serve many diverse functions: washing machines, toasters, refrigerators, televisions, CPAP machines, lamps, vacuum cleaners, cars, microwaves, toaster ovens, drills, computers, vibrators, blenders. All of these gadgets have a limited lifespan—eventually they break down and fall apart. But the electricity that gives them life is ever-present. It isn’t created by the gadgets, and it doesn’t die with the gadgets. And it’s not that the toaster dies and then reincarnates as a lamp—the electricity was never confined to any particular form or function, and no form or functioning is a static “thing” that reincarnates intact in a different appliance.
The electricity that runs the refrigerator is the same electricity that runs the toaster oven or the lamp. Likewise, the same consciousness-intelligence-energy appears as the whole ever-changing universe. The forms come and go, but that which is being all the different forms is unborn and undying. When the electricity is turned off, the gadget no longer functions. And in the same way, when the life force is no longer present in a human body, the body is like a dead shell left behind. And yet, even then it is alive with the processes of decay and dissolution and with subatomic events of all kinds.
Of course, this model of electricity and different gadgets is a bit dualistic because actually, even the apparent forms (the toasters and lamps) are themselves nothing but energy or movement showing up as apparent forms. Everything is one seamless, interdependent movement without beginning or end, always Here-Now.
Here-Now (awareness-consciousness-presence-experiencing) is the common factor in every different experience. We never actually experience anything outside of Here-Now (or outside of consciousness). Are all my friends “out there” in some actual material world as I have been taught to believe, or are they “in here” in my subjective consciousness? Is consciousness all there is? Is it the fundamental ground of being? Or is this a universe made of dead matter, with consciousness arising out of complex nervous systems and brains? This is a question that has perplexed many, and perhaps in the end, we have to admit that, "Something unknown is doing we don't know what." And even to suppose that some-thing is "doing" all this creates a dualistic split that is purely conceptual and not actual. When we're simply present with the suchness (the vibrant presence and immediacy) of this moment here and now, these kinds of perplexing metaphysical questions (such as which comes first, the chicken or the egg, mind or matter?) seem to melt away. The one who needs to know vanishes. There is simply the sound of traffic, the clouds in the sky, the taste of coffee, the touch of a loved one, the spacious openness of aware presence. Just this! Without words, what is consciousness? What is matter? Are they two different things? Does one come first?
Whether we explore by going more and more deeply into our
sensations with open attention, or by backing up to see what is beholding all of our experiences (what is aware of all of them, from the subatomic to the cosmic), or whether we explore the universe with physics, we come to subtler and subtler layers of reality. Time and space are modes of perception, and so perhaps it's not about what comes first in time, but what is more subtle, closer to the core, or vaster, more all-inclusive. My sense is that in death, we are simply going Home (dissolving into) the timeless, spaceless, dimensionless no-thing-ness that we have never actually left – the deepest core of our being that is simultaneously the most expanded and all-inclusive vastness, this immediacy here-now that is most intimate, most subtle, subtler than anything perceivable or conceivable, this unbroken wholeness that is all there is. And this dying is moment to moment. No "thing" actually persists. Continuity is an illusion, as is separation.
Just as the body is not really separate from the whole world, or the wave not really separate from the ocean and the other waves, in the same way, I strongly suspect that our individual consciousness is not really separate from consciousness as a whole, or from the body and the so-called physical world. The distinctions are conceptual, not actual. No two of us are seeing exactly the same world, and we can never know exactly what anyone else’s experience is like. And yet, our world is obviously not entirely private. We interpenetrate one another in relationships, conversations, the exchange of ideas, physical touch, memes, language and so on. Like fractals or holograms or the jewels in Indra’s Net, it seems that each unique world (or mind) is a reflection of all the others in an amazing harmony where every part contains the whole. Whatever this is, it doesn't seem to actually be divided up into separate, independent parts that can be pulled apart. Maybe all these different words (consciousness, energy, matter, intelligence, the universe, me, you, birth, death) are just different ways of naming and seeing one infinite no-thing-ness, a dance without beginning or end.
When we go into deep sleep or under anesthesia, and (I assume) at the moment of death, consciousness empties out. Experience disappears. Our world slips away. Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. There is no more world, no self or other than self, no time and space, no drama or storyline. Even the first impersonal sense of being aware and present (what is often called the I AM) is gone. And the one who cares about all this is gone completely. No one is leftover to worry about not waking up again, or to feel lost in some dreadful empty void, or to wonder what remains.
Does anything remain? Like the eye that cannot see itself, the all-inclusive wholeness of infinite totality cannot be seen. Infinity is not an object in any way whatsoever, and yet we have a deep intuition of this unbroken wholeness.
Every time I’ve gone under anesthesia, I have felt myself going, and every time, I’ve said aloud, “Here I go,” just before experience ends. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in the recovery room. But that spontaneous expression that always arises, “Here I go,” seems to suggest that “I” intuitively know myself to be something deeper than conscious experiencing, deeper than what is often called mind (i.e., sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings). “I” can depart from the world of mind and sink into a deeper, darker place—as “I” do in deep sleep as well. Scientists say that about 96% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, and we know that most of our own functioning happens at a level below conscious awareness. The mind (sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings—what we call “the world”) is like the tip of an iceberg. Many sages have pointed to that which is prior to consciousness, more subtle than anything perceivable or conceivable, more subtle than even the first bare sense of being present and aware.
Our fear of death always has to do with a belief that we are a separate, independent, persisting form, and a fear of no longer being able to watch our unique movie of waking life. By giving careful and open attention to reality itself, we can see that these fears are baseless, for no such separate, independent, persisting forms can actually be found, and we happily leave behind our movie of waking life every night when we enter into deep sleep. And in deep sleep, the one who fears death and worries about losing "my" life is totally absent. Our fear of death stems from the illusion of being a separate, independent entity, cut off from the whole. It is as if a wave forgot that it was a moving, changing, dynamic expression of the ocean, inseparable from all the other waves, all moving together as one whole happening. It is as if this wave saw itself as a static and solid form, cut off from the ocean, responsible for moving itself and choosing its direction, imagining itself capable of going off in a direction other than the one in which the whole ocean is moving, fearing that when it subsides, everything will die. That is our suffering.
Sometimes upon waking up from sleep, there is a moment of not knowing who I am or where I am. I think everyone has probably had this experience. And then gradually (or suddenly) the story of “me the person” returns, and there is once again a sense of being somebody in particular. Sometimes, after someone we love has died or a relationship has ended, it takes a few seconds upon waking up before we remember this loss, and then when the memory comes (“I’ll never see her again”), grief suddenly floods the body. But for a moment, the whole story was absent. These experiences give us a sense of how insubstantial everything actually is.
In fact, the bodymind and the story of being a particular somebody appears intermittently within this impersonal awaring presence. If you pay attention, you may notice that there are many moments in any ordinary day when there is simply walking, driving, eating, washing dishes, watching a movie, whatever it is—being here now, with no thought-sense at all of being a particular person. The story and the thought-sense of being “me” comes and goes. You might notice that sometimes you are simply being here as thoughtless presence (breathing, sensing, seeing, hearing, functioning) and then suddenly someone calls your name or asks you a question like, “What do you do?” or “How are you?” or “What have you been doing since I last saw you a year ago?” – and suddenly there is a sense of contracting and shrinking down into this encapsulated form and having to remember or conjure up a story about what I do or how I am or what I’ve done in the past year.
All experience is temporary, momentary, non-existant in a way because the actuality is gone before it arrives. Death is moment to moment. Birth is moment to moment. This dance of existence is never the same way twice. Deep sleep is a wonderfully relaxing, relieving, rejuvenating experience, except that it’s not an experience at all. It leaves no trace. What is it that remains in deep sleep or after death? Is it some-thing in particular that can be singled out apart from the totality? Or is it simply this undivided wholeness that is without beginning or end, this groundlessness, the no-thing-ness of everything? That no-thing-ness (or emptiness) is not nothing in the nihilistic sense of a dead void. It is actually the aliveness of everything.
To awaken (to be liberated on the spot) is to see through the dream of being a separate, independent, persisting "thing." It is to recognize the seamless flow that we are and that everything is. It is to be awake to the simplicity of right here, right now. Nothing can really obscure this, not even the intermittent thought-sense of being a particular person, which is no more substantial than a passing cloud in the sky. The waves don’t obscure the ocean; they are a play of the ocean, and in the same way, this movie of waking life (including the waving that we call Joan-ing and people-ing and chair-ing and tree-ing) is the dance of emptiness, a dance without a dancer. In this ever-present, ever-changing dance, birth and death are moment-to-moment, but no-thing is ever born, no-thing persists, and no-thing dies.
-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2017, 2018, 2020--
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