Do you believe in life after death?
Too often I find that the subject of death is addressed with goofy speculation, close-minded stubbornness, or outright fear and avoidance. So let's bypass the "Death for Dummies" approach and take a deeper intellectual look at death to better understand the important role it plays in our lives... and especially what it can teach us about how to live.
As far as our human bodies are concerned, death eventually captures all of us. As far as I can tell, no human being has yet managed to live forever. Even if we evolve new silicon bodies for ourselves and find a way to transfer our minds into them, there's no reason to believe those bodies will be immortal either (even with frequent upgrades). We may be able to delay death, perhaps even for a very long time, but eventually our physical existence will end at some point. Forever is too long for us to last as physical beings. No backup system is foolproof, especially when its opponent is the infinity of time.
On average more than 150,000 people die every day on this planet. That's 2 people per second. Over a million corpses a week. And this is "normal" for planet earth. Does this fact help you get some perspective on the scope of various tragedies? If 3000 people get wiped out in a single stroke, that's still only 2% of one day's total... hardly significant from a cosmic point of view.
And here's the worst part. You don't even know when you'll die (unless you're reading this right before committing suicide, in which case I'd better keep writing). But my guess is that you don't have an item labeled "die" on your to do list or in your tickler file.
So how comfortable do you feel with the idea that today might be your last day alive?
For 150,000 people today, that's about to become the reality, so if you happen to be among them, you'll have plenty of company. I wonder how many of those people feel prepared for what awaits them.
What do we really know about what happens after death?
Instead of launching into stories about near-death experiences and what various religions say, let's try sneaking up on this problem from a different angle. Let's ask this question instead:
What can we reasonably say does NOT happen after death?
Obviously what's "reasonable" will differ a bit from person to person based on his/her context and beliefs, but I think most of us can agree on some fairly basic observations.
First, you can't take it with you. All your physical stuff stays here. Whenever someone dies, we notice that their stuff remains in the physical world. It doesn't suddenly vanish.
Another thing we notice is that our physical bodies stay here. That includes our heart, lungs, brain, hemp tattoos, etc.
Also, it's fair to say that because the physical stuff stays here, then any knowledge and skills you've developed which are rooted in the physical world will become obsolete when you die. Your knowledge of HTML probably won't be of much use in the afterlife, unless of course there are dead computers in the afterlife too, such as my old Atari 800. I hope you still know BASIC.
If we manage to retain anything of ourselves after death, it seems reasonable to say that it won't include any of our physical stuff or our physical bodies. And much of our knowledge will be obsolete as well.
If we can take anything with us after death then, it would have to be something non-physical in nature. And the non-physical part of ourselves is our consciousness. You can call it other names if you wish -- soul, spirit, etc. The exact term you use doesn't really matter. I'll use the term consciousness.
So we have a couple alternatives that seem reasonable to me:
- After we die we retain some part of our consciousness, but all the physical parts of our existence are lost.
- After we die we cease to exist. Our consciousness gets wiped out along with the physical. Dead and gone forever.
Life After Death
I can think of many other options which are variations on these two. You can twist and reword these basic ideas into different forms, and you can speculate endlessly about what it would be like to experience option 1 (such as a precursor to reincarnation), but I think this is what death basically boils down to. Either we continue to exist in some non-physical state of consciousness, or we don't.
Now which one of these general options is most likely true and correct?
Certainly we can unearth pieces of evidence that may favor one side or the other. We can look externally and examine things like near-death experiences and those who claim to channel dead people and so on. We can look to ancient texts and other people (living or dead) for guidance. Or we can look within ourselves and attempt to intuit the truth.
Personally I've done plenty of both looking within and looking without, and so far it hasn't really given me a satisfying answer. I found enough evidence to partially convince me that option 1 is more likely correct than option 2, but there are still a number of holes that leave me with doubt. Given what I know about beliefs, I always have to wonder to what degree I may be finding what I expect to find at any given time.
This uncertainty about death presents a serious problem though. In order to live my life in a manner I feel is intelligent, I'd really prefer a clear answer here. If I know that option 1 is correct, I'm going to live my life very differently than if I know option 2 is correct. I can't do both at the same time because they seem incompatible. I'd set different goals on one side vs. the other.
Living in a state of uncertainty doesn't quite work either. Uncertainty in this particular area gives me a poor basis for making intelligent lifelong decisions. It's fine that I'm uncertain about what the weather will be like next week. But uncertainty about death itself makes long-term planning nearly impossible unless I lower my consciousness, watch a lot of TV, and subscribe to the social context without thinking for myself. Think about it -- if you knew with absolute and total certainty what will happen to you after death, would it change how you're living your life today?
Remaining uncertain in this area is a suboptimal choice -- it's better to decide one way or the other and be wrong than it is to remain uncertain and do nothing. Too much doubt in this area will produce the worst outcome of all. In order to intelligently decide how to live, we need to have a reasonable understanding of where we're headed. We can still live OK without this certainty, but we couldn't really say that we're living intelligently, since we'd have no basis for knowing if our decisions would ultimately turn out to be smart or foolish in the long run.
This line of thinking helped me realize that I needed to achieve certainty on whether I was going to live in accordance with option 1 or option 2. Only then would I really have the freedom and direction needed to live intelligently.
But looking at all the evidence wasn't quite enough to convince me to intelligently choose one side or the other. It leaned me towards option 1 but not enough to give me total certainty. I could at least see that the approach of looking for evidence wasn't going to work. It would continue to produce more data but not more certainty.
That's when I decided to come at this problem from a different perspective, as I mentioned in a blog post called, A Scientific Method for Exploring Consciousness. Instead of worrying about which option was correct, I decided to more immersively explore both sides -- to treat each of these options as its own belief system in order to experience them directly. I realized that I would never have enough data to make a firm decision from the outside looking in. So I chose to consider the inside looking out.
One perspective I took was the perspective of being already dead. Under option 2 I would completely cease to exist, so that was an easy perspective to consider. It was in fact no perspective at all. I wouldn't be around to regret or praise anything I did. So if option 2 ultimately turned out to be true and correct, then in the long run it would make very little difference how I lived, at least in the sense of getting anywhere in the future. About the only meaningful conclusion I could draw from this (un)perspective was that a life lived under option 2 should be lived with a strong focus on the present moment.
Then I considered the perspective of option 1. That one had a lot more branches to explore, but essentially they fell into two types. First, there's the possibility that I can no longer really do anything with my consciousness after death. Perhaps I enter some sort of eternal state of existence from which there's no escape. Maybe it's a heaven or a hell of sorts. No more doing... just being. So if I found my consciousness frozen in such a manner, where I was still self-aware but unable to really do anything other than ponder my celestial navel, there is a reasonable leap of logic I can make there. And that is that if this happens, I think the most likely state in which my consciousness would freeze would be related to the general state it's in when I die. So my death would sort of be a continuation of my life, but there would be no further development of my consciousness. I don't really need to consider the situation where my consciousness is frozen in some random state that's out of my control, since that doesn't give me any more information about how to live and basically reverts to the same conclusions as option 2.
The other branch of option 1 is that perhaps I will have some ability to continue to take action after I die. So there's some type of postmortem doing in addition to just being. But what would I do? If it wouldn't be anything physical, then the only real doing would have to involve something for my consciousness to experience. And this implies that I'd be able to continue developing and growing as a conscious being even after death. Perhaps there will be a new phase of existence similar to a human life but without any of the physical elements. Then I could continue what I'm doing now and put together a soul site called, "Personal Development for Dead People." The URL could be www.StevePavlina.rip.
There was a lot more to consider in exploring these options, but let's fast-forward to the part where the results of that thinking all get smooshed together.
I've already mentioned that option 2 doesn't provide much direction except to suggest it's best to live fully in the present moment because there won't be any future beyond death. The first branch of option 1 (where I end up frozen in a certain state of being without the ability to do anything) suggests that I should develop my consciousness during my physical lifetime as much as possible, such that when I die, I'm at least frozen in a good and peaceful state if my postmortem condition is based on how I develop my consciousness as a human. It also suggests that I should take full advantage of my physical existence in order to develop my own tools of consciousness, since perhaps I'll still be able to use them after death. The second branch of option 1 (where I can continue to develop my consciousness after death and maybe even interact with other conscious beings) suggests that any growth I experience in my consciousness here on earth may have a chance of continuing after I die. And since I'm going to spend a lot more time dead than living as a human, it seems logical to hold as my highest priority the development of my consciousness and the consciousness of others. And in fact, that might very well be the entire purpose of human existence from the point of view of non-physical conscious entities.
So ultimately, even if I couldn't determine the truth to life after death from the outside looking in, that actually doesn't seem to matter as much as I thought it would. Option 2 provides so little info about how to live, but option 1 provides quite a bit. So I can actually live congruently even without knowing the complete truth in advance because even if it turns out I'm wrong, I'm still pursuing an intelligent course of action.
I think the main reason I found it so difficult to understand the possibilities beyond death is that I was coming at it from the wrong perspective. I was trying to understand certainty from the perspective of doubt and skepticism. And that turned out to be a mistake because doubt cannot create certainty -- it can only perpetuate doubt. So I had to change my perspective to experience these options from the inside looking out. I considered the perspective of option 1 looking at option 2 and vice versa. So I put myself into a state of certainty looking at another state of certainty. As an another analogy, you'll gain more information by looking at Catholicism from the perspective of atheism (and vice versa) than you will by looking at both of them from the perspective of agnosticism. Those side views are the key to discovering what is true for your consciousness.
I should also address the perspective of the humans left behind on earth after you die. I spent a lot of time considering that viewpoint as well, but ultimately it doesn't change anything. In fact, it only adds more fuel to the fire. The path of developing your consciousness is precisely the path of service. Raising your own consciousness will put you in the position of being able to help others. Consider this web site for example. It is intended to be of service to others, but it is also a medium through which I continue to develop my own consciousness. The two outcomes are in perfect harmony with each other. If you work to raise your own consciousness, you will simultaneously raise the consciousness of others. And if you strive to serve others, you will simultaneously raise your own level of consciousness.
Ultimately, I realized that the simple truth here was that of free will. Once I understood the perspectives of both options 1 and 2, I had all the information I needed to make a choice. But it wasn't really a choice between which option was provably correct from an external point of view. None of the options were externally provable because consciousness is not subject to the scientific method. Consciousness works on an entirely different level. So at this level, the real "truth" was to apply my own free will to decide what I wanted to be true for me... what I wanted to make a part of my own consciousness. Did I want to choose to live in accordance with option 1 or option 2? There was no externally right or wrong answer. It was simply a matter of choice.
So I chose option 1, the branch which suggests that conscious action and growth continue even after death. And part of the reason I chose this to be my own truth was that I realized that it's the most intelligent choice I can make no matter what the reality of death turns out to be. Even if we all go to oblivion when we die, it's still the most intelligent choice to live with the belief that we are immortal conscious beings. That belief will actually yield a more intelligently lived life, one that is dedicated to the greatest good of all. It will promote and enhance the survival of all humans. Where the scientific method fails, choice must fill in the gap. And that choice can be either certainty or doubt. But in order to understand this great choice, we must experience both the certainty and the doubt to know what we're really choosing. It is entirely up to us to choose a life of greatness or to choose a life of nothingness. I think this is what Helen Keller meant by the quote, "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." It is our personal choice that makes it so. Choose doubt and get nothing. Choose certainty and greatness results.
To sum it all up for you, here's why holding the development of your own consciousness as your highest priority in life makes sense:
- Developing your consciousness will give you the tools to understand life and death much better, which will help you decide how to live as intelligently as possible.
- Developing your consciousness will help you escape pain and create tremendous pleasure for yourself, so if you ultimately go to oblivion, at least you'll fully enjoy your life along the way. It will also help you transcend the fear of death.
- If you die and find yourself frozen in a certain state of consciousness, it probably won't be so bad because you'll have developed your consciousness as much as possible while you lived. You'll have done the best you can to prepare for this possibility.
- If you die and find that you're able to continue developing your consciousness after death, then your human existence will have given you a great head start. And if I get there first, you'll immediately be able to subscribe to the feed for "Personal Development for Dead People," and we'll continue growing together as spirits in the ether. Won't that be fun?
- Developing your consciousness will ultimately cause you to live in such a manner that raises the awareness of other people around you, helping to transform the world into a better place for everyone. So this is in fact the best way to live if you wish to be of service to all of humanity.
For these and other reasons, I believe the most intelligent thing we can do with our human lives is to pursue the development of our own consciousness. Now perhaps we can't take our consciousness with us either, but at the very least, it's the only thing that even has the potential to continue with us after death.
This is the manner in which I live right now. It has produced some very powerful side effects. First, there's no fear of death. I feel prepared to die at any time, whether it be tomorrow or next year or 100 years from now. I'm totally at peace with the realization that my human existence could come to an end at any given moment, possibly without warning.
Secondly, I feel I'm living fully in the present. I'm enjoying this life tremendously, but more as a spiritual experience than a physical one. I expect that if I died today and looked back on my human life, I'd feel really good about how I used the time I had. I would feel I'd done my best.
Thirdly, I feel my life is firmly rooted in what is permanent, not what is temporary. I see everything physical as merely temporary. By itself physical stuff doesn't hold much meaning for me. When I look around the physical world, I see animated dust filled with consciousness. The dust is boring and lifeless, but the consciousness is rich and exciting and alive. I see money and other physical stuff as temporary tools to be used for the long-term development of consciousness. Even my physical body is just a temporary tool, mainly for communicating.
My highest priorities as a human being are rooted in what I feel is permanent. If I'm able to continue on after I die, my to do list would essentially remain the same. I would only need to change the form of the most important items but not the intention behind them. Whether I'm dead or alive, my purpose remains the same: to grow and to help others grow in consciousness. Only the manner in which that purpose manifests would change. To me the service of the highest good is to devote my life to the service of consciousness itself, regardless of whether I exist as a physical or an etheric being.
To me this is the highest degree of personal productivity -- to adopt a context for living that even makes sense from the perspective of beyond the grave, to live here on earth as a timeless being instead of a mortal one. How many of your current goals and dreams seem shallow and lifeless when viewed from this perspective? Do you live for what is permanent or for what is ephemeral? Is your human existence devoted to the servicing of dust or the realization of destiny?
This originally appeared on Steve Pavlina's blog. I'm a big fan of his and he recently removed the copyright on his blog posts, so that his writings can be spread far and wide and help as many people as possible; this is one of my favorites of his, and I'll be sharing a few more of my favorites.