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DEATH: An article for Inzicht Magazine
(November 2018)

This article appeared, in Dutch translation, in the November issue of Inzicht, under the title Death: The End of Self-Improvement—

I’ve been working for over a decade now on a new book about aging and dying called Death: The End of Self-Improvement. It’s also about questioning our curative fantasies, our quest for self-improvement, our desire to transcend ordinary life. It’s about my own descent from transcendent spirituality down into the freedom and relief of groundlessness, uncertainty and fully embracing the unresolvable, ungraspable and messy nature of reality. The book considers not only the personal death each of us faces, but also the mass extinction of species that is currently underway and the potential for an even more catastrophic extinction through climate change and/or nuclear holocaust. Even without human activity, someday the sun will explode. Death is an unavoidable aspect of reality along with impermanence, pain, suffering and the fact that our lives are fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable.

That might all sound quite dreadful, but paradoxically, when we truly open to the reality of it—not our thoughts about it—the fear and dread dissolves into a great sense of freedom and relief, or that’s been my experience again and again.

Fear of death comes in two varieties. There is the instinctual fear that causes us to jump out of the path of a speeding vehicle or run from an approaching fire. This fear is one we share with other animals and is vital to our survival as a living organism. It is immediate and visceral. The other kind of fear is psychological, based in thinking, and as far as we know, humans are alone in suffering this type of fear. We have the ability to imagine all the things that might happen to us in the future. This ability to imagine and plan for different contingencies has gotten us to the top of the food chain and to the moon and is useful in many areas of life, but it also gets us into a great deal of suffering. As Mark Twain famously quipped, I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, and some of them actually happened. For many humans, the bottom-line psychological fear is the fear of death. Not surprisingly, we have many comforting fantasies about the after-life where “I” will continue.

As far as I can tell, no one knows for sure what happens after death, because no one ever really comes back to report. Yes, NDEs are real experiences, but they are near death, not death itself. People may claim that what was experienced occurred while they were technically “dead,” but much more likely, it occurred just as they were either losing or regaining consciousness, as a kind of dream. So, I don’t take those reports as reliable proof that we really do go down a long tunnel, dissolve into white light, meet Jesus, fly off to heaven to reunite with our long deceased loved ones, or reincarnate in a new body. I may be surprised, but I strongly suspect those are fairytales.

That doesn’t mean I think nothing survives death. All our human mythologies, visions, dreams, religious beliefs and popular ideas about the afterlife or reincarnation have a grain of truth in them. It seems very clear to me that whatever this infinite wholeness is, it doesn’t begin or end. Forms (such as bodies and minds) are actually dying moment to moment—in fact, they are nothing but continuous change, interdependent with and inseparable from their surroundings. As the great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna pointed out, the true understanding of impermanence is that there is no impermanence, because no-thing ever actually forms or persists to even be impermanent. As Zen teacher Steve Hagen explains it, “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.”

In nature, when something dies, it disintegrates and is absorbed into the soil or eaten by other creatures—everything gets recycled—in that way, everything continues. When a wave subsides, the ocean remains—the wave was never anything but an ever-changing activity of the ocean—it had no independent existence and no solid, persisting form. Quite possibly, awareness or consciousness is equally seamless, interdependent and intersubjective, and may also survive in the sense that it dis-integrates and is re-absorbed back into the larger whole which it never truly left, just as when the bubble pops, the space inside merges with the space outside from which it was never really separate. Birth and death, like mind and matter, are conceptual dividing lines on a map, artificially carving up what is actually a seamless whole. We cannot actually find where anything begins or ends. Worrying about death is like worrying about what will happen if we fall off the edge of the flat earth. The problem is imaginary, based on a faulty map.

Some people like to say that impersonal consciousness or awareness is the fundamental ground of being, the unchanging background on which the changing content appears, like the screen behind the movie. Many teachers claim that awareness is what survives death. I’ve probably said something like this myself, but I’ve been moving away from this formulation, which now seems like a dualistic reification, making awareness into a solid, unchanging, separate “thing.” The division between subject and object, seer and seen, awareness and content is—as far as I can tell—purely conceptual. In reality, if we look closely, no boundary can be found.

I have no experience of awareness without content, and I have no experience of being present in deep sleep or under anesthesia, although presumably consciousness is still there—we wake up from deep sleep when the alarm goes off or if we smell smoke, and some people report conscious experiences during surgery. But in death, the brain actually dies. It stops functioning. While it’s debatable, and perhaps unknowable, whether the brain produces consciousness or merely plays some role in transmitting or manifesting it, it seems undeniable that the brain and nervous system are, in some way, involved. Dead bodies do not appear to be conscious and aware in the way living bodies are.

Of course, the more closely we look at any apparent “thing,” including brains and nervous systems, the more they seem to dissolve into ungraspable vastness. Are they dream-like paintings in consciousness, or are they actually here as material realities, somehow producing consciousness? How will we ever know? Couldn’t these just be two ways of describing or seeing the same unresolvable and ungraspable event? The endless debates over which comes first, mind or matter, may all be based on purely conceptual divisions and dualistic patterns of thinking.

There’s an old Zen story about a Zen master and his student going on a condolence call. The coffin with the body of the newly deceased person sits in the middle of the room. The student bangs on the coffin and demands to know, “Dead or alive?” The master replies, “I won’t say alive; I won’t say dead.” This becomes the student’s koan: “Dead or alive, I won’t say.” Whenever we land on one side of an apparent dualism or polarity, we are fixating on half the truth. The living reality is utterly ungraspable, and we can’t pick up anything without picking up the whole universe along with it.

I find myself lately not knowing (and not needing to know) what the ground of being is, or if there even is any ground of being, or if there is only groundlessness, as the quote from Steve Hagen above suggests. In the end, ground and groundlessness may turn out to be two words for one event.

I don’t have a psychological fear of death, but not because I expect “Joan” to survive. I don’t. Nor do I expect my movie of waking life, my memories, my thoughts, my experiences or my point of view to survive. In fact, these were never anything solid or persisting to begin with! My own assumption is that, experientially, death will be very much the same as going under anesthesia or falling into deep sleep. Conscious experiencing will slip away and I won’t be here anymore when it’s gone to miss it or to worry about the fact that I’m dead.

Every night, our entire movie of waking life ends completely – and the phantom watcher ends too. No one is leftover to miss the show. Even the first bare sense of being present and aware is absent. We find this refreshing and rejuvenating, not terrifying. But when we think about death, we imagine ourselves buried alive, unable to turn the TV back on and find out what happens next in The Story of Me and The Story of the World. This fear is like the fear of stepping off the edge of the flat earth. It’s based on a misconception.

As far as I can see, this body and this consciousness (not two) won’t still be here in any form that is recognizable as Joan, but matter-consciousness-energy-intelligence (whatever those all are) will continue in other forms. This body and consciousness have never been separate from the rest of the universe, and in death, it will all disintegrate back into the universe from which it was never apart, just as the wave subsides back into the ocean and no longer exists as that wave. This body is already disintegrating as I age, as are my memory and cognitive skills, and after my death, this bodily disintegration will be hastened by the cremation fire I have already paid for. My ashes will be dropped into the ocean, further dissolving any discernable trace of this form. And I, Joan, will not be around to miss myself or my life!

This whole undivided happening that we variously call energy, matter, intelligence, consciousness, the Tao, God, the vibrant dance of existence, the universe, or simply Here-Now is, I strongly suspect, infinite—unborn and unending. And no words can capture it. The danger in words is that they seem to reify and draw boundary-lines, thus creating (in the imagination) apparently solid, separate, persisting, objective, independent “things” that the mind can grasp. That has a functional value, but it also gets us into a great deal of unnecessary confusion and suffering. We endlessly mistake the map for the territory without even realizing we’re doing it, and the ways we do it get subtler and subtler. The very question of whether I will survive death can only arise in the map-world of thought, and from a flat-earth map to boot, one that presumes all kinds of things about “I” and “death,” time and future, that are highly questionable.

Although I don’t fear death, I do sometimes fear what comes before death—the possible pain and suffering. But I notice that I only fear this when I think about it. We scare ourselves with imaginations of what might happen—but even if the things we fear actually happen, they won’t be the way we imagined them.

Old age is not always pretty or easy. We try very hard to “stay young forever,” but in the end, death always wins. Some people strive to live forever—but if we all lived forever, we’d have a pretty serious population problem, not to mention that the beauty of a flower or a person may be precisely in its fragility, its impermanence. Perhaps if we stopped running away from aging and dying and imperfection, we might find that what we’re running from isn’t the way we think it is at all. We might discover that the Holy Reality we’ve been seeking elsewhere is right here, not in some transcendent awareness beyond it all, but literally right here in the sounds of traffic, the taste of tea, the smell of shit and the magnificent wrinkles in the aging flesh.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson and Inzicht 2018 --

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