For most of us, death is an “enormously puzzling” problem indeed, as Watts says. In the traditions that Watts studied and popularized back in the 1960’s, the contemplation of death — specifically, one’s own death — is a central focus of the meditative life. When I began studying Zen, the master there challenged his new students to do just that, as far as each of us could go with it.*
But again, for many of us, death doesn’t grab us that way. Most people encounter it as a family matter, often beginning very early in life. I recall my first funeral: I was 7 or 8 years old and was taken to my grandmother’s. At the wake, my little brother and I were absorbed into the line of people approaching the casket. I was confused about what to do; maybe a little scared. I walked by the open coffin quickly, glancing at my grandma’s face and feeling a wave of strangeness pass through me.
I didn’t understand this feeling until nearly two decades later, when my mother died and there was another wake. This time, the setting was different: there was no crowded room, for we in the immediate family were the first to arrive at the funeral home. I was finally able to articulate that wave of strangeness that I’d sensed as a boy: this…thing…in the coffin wasn’t Mom; it just wasn’t. It was stuffed and dressed and powdered and preserved, like a mannequin in a shopping mall. I turned away from the coffin and noticed that someone was playing music, very faintly, as if in another room. It was an organ — apparently a cheap electronic organ — and it played the tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.” I looked at my oldest brother, who was now standing beside me, and said, “do you hear that?” He smiled grimly and bowed his head. I was getting a little hot, but still tried to keep my voice to a whisper: “John, are they fucking kidding? Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” John laughed gently, but then took my arm and led me outside to air out and settle down a bit.
All the deaths that have struck near me since — my other grandmother’s, my father’s, the smoky shroud of death that covered my city in 2001, two brothers, and most recently the animal I had lived with for 13 years — each one has further exposed and weakened the hard and garish network of lies that comprises our culture’s attitude towards death. Now, the skull remains within me; but most of its teeth are gone.
The point is that death isn’t a problem to be solved or a discomfort to be endured and then repressed, as if it were a fart in church or a bad night at the tavern. If we let its teaching voice speak within us; if we follow it through and past the formaldehyde fairy tales of cheap incense and whispered pabulum and laminated mass cards — we approach something real, which mere intellect can observe but never express. What we find there, in fact, coincides with all the vast and incomprehensible strides of the science of the past century.
Einstein demonstrated, with as compelling and complete a level of certainty as the human mind can deliver, that space and time are each, in isolation, mere illusions; there is only spacetime. Then he made a similar conclusion, with the same mathematical precision, with respect to matter and energy (their separation is the illusion, for they are different expressions of the same reality). Quantum mechanics tells us of a phenomenon known as entanglement (which was mocked by Einstein himself as “spooky action at a distance”); and of the Higgs Boson a/k/a the “God Particle”.** There is also a compellingly demonstrated theory, from Princeton physicist Juan Maldacena, that our universe is a mathematical projection or hologram: Brian Greene tells us that “the holographic principle asserts that our universe is exactly mirrored by phenomena taking place on a distant bounding surface, a physically equivalent parallel universe.”
My point in bringing up this science is not to draw any ontological or psycho-spiritual conclusions from it (I don’t need to be trolled by logical positivists); but instead to show the paradox of how weak and bumbling our language is revealed to be, the nearer our science approaches the borders of a reality which would, not long ago, have been ridiculed as the stuff of superstition.***
So let’s transition back to our main topic, this time with the help of science fiction**** — in fact, one of the hallmark creations of science fiction, Star Trek. We begin with Captain Picard, who is enjoying a glass of wine and some Satie as he awaits his own (seemingly) imminent death after having given the order to self-destruct the Enterprise. After that, we go aboard Voyager to hear Captain Janeway’s reflections on the possibility of an afterlife.
It would be somehow reassuring to me to discover that such a sense of wonder and uncertainty could exist in the 24th century. As Aristotle told us so long ago, wonder is the beginning of wisdom. Brian Greene begins his own book on the strangest and most recent flights of scientific inquiry, the idea that our universe is part of a network or continuum of universes, by telling of his childhood bedroom and its two facing mirrors. Einstein rode lightwaves through space during adolescent daydreams before he constructed his special and general theories of relativity. Newton believed in God (or said he did) and concluded thus of his own work and influence upon history: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have only been a boy playing on the seashore, diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay before me all undiscovered.”
Wonder, then, is the fuel that, combined with each individual’s unique abilities and passions, gives human intellect both its energy and its vector. This applies to scientists, philosophers, visionaries, and spiritualists. It also applies to ordinary working stiffs like me. Without the synergy of wonder and invention; without the creative spirit firing the inquiring mind, there could be neither discovery nor insight. Thus, my response to a positivist’s complaint (or more frequently, calumny) against “woolly thinking” is that I worry more about “woolly feeling.” For when we successfully kill fear and prejudice within ourselves, thought clarifies without any effort.
Too often, thought is isolated and monarchized in the human self and in our societies. This goes for religion as much as it does for any positivist doctrine, by the way: the heart of darkness in every institutional religion is in its ideas rather than its visions. Wherever thought and its gilt-edged proclamations are shoved onto the stage of life naked and alone, I sense that presence of “woolly feeling” doing the pushing. And nearly without exception, the emotion driving such blindness is self-doubt; it is at the back of all prejudice, all hatred, all destruction. Doubt is frequently the light of the intellect; but it is darkness to the heart. When we feel free to explore our emotional lives, we grow in trust of our true selves; but when we repress that voice and attempt to stampede through every problem with intellect alone, we are like someone trying to do brain surgery with a chain saw.
My most recent experience with death has shown me this, that thought alone cannot and will never penetrate the mystery of death, no more than it can lead us to a love of life. That this experience involved the death of an animal is no random coincidence: it has led me, by the most urgent necessity, back to my own animal nature. I could never, will never arrive at the remotest understanding of the unity that Watts spoke of — the unity of death and life — until I can touch and hold once more the symbiotic and collaborative union of thought and feeling; of the words and the music of life; of intellect and instinct.
The animals can understand this without the need to articulate it (or perhaps they do and we simply haven’t learned to decode the message yet). One thing, however, is certain to me by now: the animals are not drunk on thought as we frequently are; therefore, they cross into the next dimension, the next phase of being, without the burdens of ego that we humans ordinarily carry towards the other side. Thus, I feel similarly certain that it is our primary responsibility as intelligent organisms — you might call it a cosmic duty — to strip ourselves psychologically naked during this life; to relentlessly examine every idea and emotion within and around us, discarding whatever is blinding, corrupting, neurotic, or passively derivative. This can’t be done with the blunt, linear tools of thought alone — it must be the work of every member of the family of the psyche, operating democratically and co-equally. If each of us can make this a daily practice within our lives — not an obsession or even a vocation, but just an ordinary activity of quotidian existence, as natural as bathing, defecating, eating, and sleeping — I feel sure we will avoid much pain and struggle in the crossing that awaits us when we leave our physical bodies behind.
So far, the signs are not good for humans in this respect: all our religions and much of our education, acculturation, and academic practices are founded on pain, struggle, resistance, self-doubt, fear, and isolation. Therefore, I follow the teachings of my animal guide; I seek my own animal within me, I call to it and ask that it lead me in the stripping away of ego’s shrouds of despair and arrogance, so that the glow of my original nature may light the space of my life. I sense clearly, at last, that to free the energy of my animal body is not to deny my humanity but to affirm it.
I have a child who I hope will carry this practice forward, this animal sense of involvement in and union with the grateful and naked origin and destiny of life. My mother, who my daughter never knew, lives vibrantly within her; that is as clear to me as the sense of continuance I feel within myself from my brothers who died, one after the other within six months, some three years ago. I suddenly find people listening to me, attending to me as if I had something meaningful to say — just as people did with my brother Hank. Lately, I burst into spontaneous and raucous laughter at modest or invisible jokes — just as my brother John did. People of all types and socioeconomic strata have been approaching me recently with their personal problems and pains, exactly as they did during the lives of both Hank and John. And now, as I have been scraping away the foul crust of prejudice and ego-arrogance that separates us from Nature (and especially our own animal nature); I distinctly feel that remarkable passion for good food that Night (my cat who died last May) made the signature of her personality, along with her ability to simply dwell in whatever moment the world may bring. The supreme reality of spacetime, I now find, is not merely a scientific truth, but an animal one as well. The wholeness of a presence that includes and then surpasses the linear and the logical — this is the water that carries Charon’s boat across the realms between dimensional arrays; between this holographic universe and the event horizon from which it is projected.
So I have no doubt of the reality of continuance, even if I have no words or doctrine as to its shape, direction, and detail. If you still believe that death is mere termination, annihilation, eternal and irrevocable emptiness; I ask you: Where was death before the Big Bang? If it came into being with every other potential and kinetic energy at the birth of our universe, then where is its darkness, and of what is its void?
It all began in an anti-moment’s compression of Infinity that somehow exploded (or expanded) into what we perceive as Being: everything that was before us, that is now, and that ever will be, through every galaxy and every universe of the Multiverse, outside of linear Time and in a spaceless space with no direction, shape, or physical properties. If we are all of That — then how can a single one of us, born or dead or as yet unborn, not be a part of one another — individual threads in the endless cosmic tapestry; unique notes in the same song of eternal transformation?
*This was back in the late 80’s at New York Zendo Shobo-ji in Manhattan’s upper east side. My teacher was a remarkable American Zen master named Clark Strand, who would later become editor-in-chief of the Buddhist periodical Tricycle. He is the author of some very remarkable books and, so far as I know, still teaching the “Koans of the Bible” in Woodstock, NY.
**Some physicists will admit that this might not be that much of a misnomer, given that a Higgs particle or field would have been the spark necessary to ignite the Big Bang.
***My favorite example of this has to do with the notion of “weakness” in the universe. Scientists assure us that gravity is by far the weakest of the four known forces; yet it is another, stronger force, that is given the name “weak” (the weak nuclear force). Another has to do with the choice of the bizarre term, quantum entanglement: how can a beautiful phenomenon of interdependence be construed as entanglement? They should have opted for the old Buddhist term, mutually dependent arising.
****One potential shitstorm I prefer to avoid is that surrounding the claims of an afterlife experience (via NDE, or Near-Death-Experience) made by a neurologist named Alexander, and made famous in his book Proof of Heaven. I have a feeling that Dr. Alexander’s experience is in some sense or degree real, though his telling of it treads within the mundane and borders on the maudlin. That is to say, even if he’s not a very good writer, his experience can no more be dismissed than many of the thousands of other NDEs on record.