Perhaps you’ve encountered this headline in some of your recent World Weird Web wanderings: Scientists find that consciousness continues after death. If not, click, read, and make of it what you will (or won’t).
I have no particular conclusion to draw from that research; first, because it’s founded on the same flawed probability theories that I’ve criticized before; and second, because the researchers themselves (correctly) draw no conclusions. I’m simply encouraged that scientists are paying attention to this question, which — especially in this era of aging Boomers — looms ever larger in our shared consciousness.
If you’ve read even a little of what I’ve posted here before, then you know that my feeling on this issue is already fairly well formed: of course consciousness goes on after bodily death — what else can it do? The problem with drawing that understanding into yourself and letting it nourish your individual life is that it seems to mean so little when it’s put into words. Such questions don’t respond resonantly to purely verbal explanations — as Watts used to say, using words to talk about such things is like drinking water with a fork. You get just enough inside you to make the thirst burn ever hotter.
Still, it’s a very good thing that scientists are exploring a question that has been the monopolistic property of religions, philosophers and philosophies, metaphysics, and other tribalistic and ideologically-entrenched systems of noise and confusion about the very things on which we need silence and clarity. This, by the way, is why poets and musicians tend to be so deeply insightful about such things as death, spirit, beauty, and truth. The best among these lack any particular tribal affiliation; thus they speak to us like private shamans, or personal spiritual guides with no religious or philosophical branding. How I read Lao Tzu or hear Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites will be different from your experience, though neither of us will be more right or less wrong than the other.
That research on death and consciousness does appear to support a metaphorical sense I’ve had about consciousness, which Watts (among many others) has articulated better than I can — viz., that consciousness (or spirit or soul, if you prefer) is more a kind of “wrapper” rather than something trapped inside our physical bodies. The way I like to think about it is with the admittedly clumsy term of mine, “energy-body.” This term (could it be better expressed as “bodergy” or “enerbody”?) is meant to describe an invisible emanation of the physical body, which I have sensed in such creations as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
With respect to that research, I suspect that consciousness is designed to quickly cross dimensions or universes at the physical body’s death; but perhaps because it is and has been a part of the physical organism for so long, it is confused about where or how to go, to move on at such a moment. Therefore, the findings mentioned in that research — that the energy-body delays; that it stands on that unfamiliar shore with its often alluring light and confusing darkness, and clings backward, as if for support or guidance. This perspective, incidentally, has been well known to the Tibetans for centuries — see Sogyal Rinpoche’s classic for more on that.
The point in discussing all this is not to take you down another rabbit-hole of tribalism and ideology — that is, to attempt a formulaic approach to thinking and feeling about consciousness and death. The point rather is to draw you into your own personal exploration of these matters. Here we are at a moment when scientists are using the best analytical tools they think they have available to them to go into these questions — why not look for yourself, then?
The final point to be made here is perhaps the most crucial: this kind of exploration is fundamental to living, so it’s best done now. Not when you’re older and closer to death; not when you can find a priest, roshi, master, or guru to guide you along that path; nor when science delves deeper into it all for you and delivers The Answer. Because that moment won’t come; you need to open your own inquiry into all this right now. Your energy-body, your personal consciousness, already knows what will happen with it (not to it) when your physical organism dies — why not open a conversation with it now? It knows, not necessarily because it’s been there/done that (i.e., reincarnation); but because it is an intrinsic, inseparable, and essential part of that entirety of consciousness and being and presence and space that has been called many names by many cultures: Sunyata, Brahman, Atman, Tao, Buddha, Dharmadatu, Christ, Allah, Yahweh, God.
Personally (and I emphasize “personally”), I think the word chosen for this experience matters — a lot. “All” is a good one; but I most prefer Whole. The spacey terms that I and others have used are probably too hackneyed and perhaps inaccurate as well: scientists have already posited, with some good evidence, that ours is probably not the only universe in existence; the same may be true of the cosmos as well. So I lean towards a simple, flexible word that’s not too badly beaten with usage; something that can work as both noun and adjective, and which also deeply implies a verb, action, movement.
Finally, “Whole” is an ordinary word with no tribal or biblical baggage of any sort. I am reminded here of the old Zen warning about the “finger pointing to the moon.” If the finger is too big or too strident or too intrusive in its pointing, it tends to obscure our vision of the moon; we wind up looking at the finger rather than its direction. This is precisely what happens to us when we follow religions, philosophies, masters, teachers, priests, and gurus: we are so addled with the affiliation to something or someone that is not ourselves, that we completely lose the experience that we so desperately sought at the beginning — a personal understanding of life, and therefore of death. Idolatry of any sort inevitably destroys our own natural potential for a deeper and truly peaceful understanding, both of ourselves and one another.
To begin with this exploration is to overthrow the demagoguery and muddy fixation of mind that is so often trained into us. Merely to question, to examine, the cause of that mental death, that morbidity of our natural intelligence that is programmed into us by our conditioning — this is to take the first step in opening that conversation with your energy-body that I mentioned earlier. In one of his beautiful talks to children, Krishnamurti once delivered a similar encouragement:
The other morning I saw a dead body being carried away to be burnt. It was wrapped in bright magenta cloth and it swayed with the rhythm of the four mortals who were carrying it. I wonder what kind of impression a dead body makes on one. Don’t you wonder why there is deterioration? You buy a brand new motor, and within a few years it is worn out. The body also wears out; but don’t you inquire a little further to find out why the mind deteriorates? Sooner or later there is the death of the body, but most of us have minds which are already dead. Deterioration has already taken place; and why does the mind deteriorate? The body deteriorates because we are constantly using it and the physical organism wears out. Disease, accident, old age, bad food, poor heredity — these are the factors which cause the deterioration and death of the body. But why should the mind deteriorate, become old, heavy, dull?
The answer is only seemingly paradoxical: because we do not use it. That is, many of us do not use our own minds, but those of others who, we are trained to believe, are wiser, more powerful or authoritative, more eloquent, or more sacred than ourselves. But think of this for just a moment: if what I am suggesting here is even remotely true — that your mind, your energy-body, your consciousness, is joined in its very essence to that which I call the Whole — then doesn’t it make sense that you rely upon your own natural longing to understand your source, origin, and destination? Doesn’t it make sense that you find out for yourself, without regard for scriptures, Bibles, vedas, or double-blind probabilistic research studies? After all, you don’t want to start this journey of the ultimate discovery and nourishment by drinking water with a fork.
To be sure, some of that derived stuff from other minds may come into it and make some sense as you make and explore your own discoveries. But it begins within you, where the words and beliefs of others cannot inhibit your own mind, your own experience; and it can begin right now.