Perhaps our separate bodies aren’t as crucial to us as we think. Of course, we can’t help thinking of ourselves as separate individuals whose survival is paramount. That’s the way we evolved. Thinking that way helps us survive and reproduce, but what if it’s not true? What if we are more like particular manifestations of a larger whole (a flock, an ecology, a universe), that come back over and over?
Unity of life and the way it recurs are basic themes in Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism. Modern scientists like neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran have found the same thing in their brain studies. Ramachandran says the consciousness of ourselves as separate, limited individuals can be explained by certain brain functions. If our brains worked a bit differently (as most animals’ brains do,) we might not believe we are separate at all.
That’s what neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor found when she had a stroke that knocked out the left (differentiating, categorizing) part of her brain. She says she was living in a state of permanent peace (her limbic brain.) There was no sense of time and nothing to fear in her world, only a feeling of oneness and being loved.
This is almost certainly what happened to Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who went through a week-long coma and who is now claiming he spent a week in Heaven. He actually spent that week in his limbic brain, and it felt like heaven. But perhaps those realities are not that different. Perhaps death, as Chuang-Tzu believed, is like taking a long nap before coming back on stage, whether in months or millennia.
I don’t think of this as reincarnation, because I don’t believe there is a “soul” to be incarnated. I think of it more as re-assembly. What if our apparently separate, unique selves are more like assemblies of matter, energy, genetic information, thoughts, social and environmental influences that come and go? This re-assembly process is going on all the time. Every once in a while, it will produce someone much like you.
(I’m not arguing with a billion Hindus and a half-billion Buddhists who believe in reincarnation, or with others who believe in the soul. Maybe they’re right about souls and their transmigration – for my point of view, it doesn’t make much difference.)
Science as well as religion seem to back up this more relative view of life and death. My friend Tricia gave me a book on quantum mechanics. In the subatomic world, it seems particles go in and out of existence constantly. Sometimes physicists can see a reason for these changes; sometimes they just happen. Things seem to exist; then they don’t. Then they do again.
Taoism agrees. It says that existence is yang and non-existence is yin, and they constantly change into and interpenetrate each other.
What if people are like that, too? What if death, instead of being annihilation, is a change of state from existence to non-existence, which can change back when the time is right?
Thanks for writing this, David. I enjoyed reading it.
David I always find myself stretched to grow when I read your work! You ask the “hard questions” without flinching and with a curiosity that can be almost playful. Maybe it is part of your personality or your gift as a writer but you convey buoyancy when you write about grief. There is a resilient hope always shine through even when the answers to questions may evoke pain as part of a given experience.
I do not always “believe” what you do but I always grow from what you write and am challenged to reflect on other ways of viewing and understanding life and the world. I am so happy that you are focused on writing and have integrated your health-care background with your gift of writing. I walk away from reading your work feeling warm, reflective and always aware of our broader humanity. Thank you for sharing!
I appreciate you taking your observations, your knowledge (technical and philosophical,) and your own senses of curiosity and peace and painting a picture of the universe that makes sense, not just to yourself but to those of us who also share those traits.
These thoughts have been had before – in line with your thoughts on genetic reincarnation ( although you took some effort to not call it that,) by philosophers, i.e., ‘the gestalt’, and the observations have been made before by writers, religious thinkers, atheist philosophers etc.
And there will be people who hold a particular religious view that may prompt them to condemn your attempt to challenge their world-views. But my thought parallels your thinking; truth is like subatomic particles, it changes states, from existence in this reality to non-existence; truth to a dogmatic Buddhist is truth. Truth to a dogmatic Christian is also truth, even it may conflict with the truth of the dogmatic Buddhist. Likewise the Sufis and other Muslims (completely different one from the other,) Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans and Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Athiests and agnostics; it is all true at the same time. And conversely all false at the same time.
Dodos are no longer walking this path with us, but still exist in records and in lessons – and in imagination.
May we each reach our own form of Satori; deep enlightenment, peaceful understanding of life and the universes. Thanks for your essay.
David, thank you for this. You write with such gentleness and earthiness. I love the idea that we exist whether we are here or not, or whatever form the energy that is “me” takes; physical, spiritual, genetic or reconstituted into some other form. We create “heaven” here and now, as we breathe the air and drink the water that has been here for millennia before and will continue to be here long after we have need for them.
Beautiful thoughts, David. Thank you
As usual, I feel better after having read one of your posts. I am still having a hard time with my mother’s death, but this helps. Besides that, death is one of those mysterious, complex things. It’s not a shared experience that we get to have while alive, and then talk about. (Although of course, some people supposedly die and come back.) So I appreciate your thoughtful musings on the subject.
David, you’ve got me thinking this morning. I’m hungry for breakfast, and still, I’m moved to write.
The more we can feel a part of the larger community of living creatures, the better for our experience of being alive, and the greater peace we can feel about our mortality. Each of us lives very unique lives– there is nobody else exactly like any one of us. Each of us may be just the current wave in the ocean of humanity, but no other wave has ever been or ever will be exactly like this one.
I read your piece early this morning- before I went for my swim. I was thinking of what you’d written in the locker room. In the shower, I thought of the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”- “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery- none but ourselves can free our minds…”
On Saturday morning, I spoke at a memorial service for a friend who’d asked me to do that for him. He wanted me to be with his family and for his family to hear whatever I might say about my friend- who I treated with acupuncture at least once weekly for the past year, as he was doing his best to appreciate each day while living with a terminal liver cancer diagnosis. He was a person who enjoyed connecting with other people- who wanted to bring his friends together.
One of his cousins read a number of passages from the New Testament, and asserted that my friend had faith in Jesus. That wasn’t what I understood about my friend- who had been a student of Zen, who especially appreciated the writings of Frederick Franck, the artist who wrote “A Little Compendium on that Which Matters”. It seemed foolish and unnecessary to correct this cousin’s depiction of my friend’s beliefs- but I did mention that my friend had taken the steps necessary to find Franck’s book and hand it to me– at a time when taking steps with his walker took a lot of his energy.
There are some people who are less comfortable in relationship- who isolate themselves, for whatever reasons. They seem less joyful in their lives and may feel less sense of connection and peace at death, but who am I to say?
Our lives are mysterious- some of us discover meaning and connection and paths to greater enjoyment of being alive, while some of us suffer persistently, any sense of peace or joy hard to come by.
The way you write creates a sense of connection, because you write about what really matters.
My cat is in my lap at the computer. She seems on a mission to calm me down when I’m writing. Way to go, Sophie.
What ever gets one through the night- Mort Weiss
You and your teachings are present to me regularly when I am dealing with patients with chronic illness, in my practice and sometimes in my own family. I think of what self-management tools I might offer them, how I might partner with them to find meaning in what they can do, rather than feeling only loss in what they can’t. When I make time to slow down and read your posts, I am reminded again of the way you can transform observations into wisdom. Thanks for sharing your gift. Peace be with you.
Thank you for sending the second link. It obviously worked. I always enjoy your writing. It makes me think (that’s a good thing). I have very different beliefs from yours but you still make me stretch and grow (think).
Thank you for your note, David. It made me think of my father. He lost a part of his cognitive ability from normal pressure hydrocephalus, and remarked that he couldn’t count cards any more. Then he fell and had an acute subdural hematoma, was in a coma , and now is conscious but cannot remember much of anything for more than a few seconds. However, he is happy, and now expresses the timbre and partial yet detailed sketch of his best side.
Yes, I agree; maybe we shouldn’t take this life and death thing so seriously. But each do have their place in reminding us that this chapter of our book is not a dress rehearsal, so we may as well live with meaning and purpose while we still have the breath in us to say, “I love you”, or, “I am glad that you are in my life”.
Sometimes we get distracted in the hustle and bustle of existence of everyday life that The Great Orchestrator reaches for the “reset button” to get our attention and make us realize that this life is but a vapor and we cannot take tomorrow for granted. So, whatever it takes to rock our little boats and say, “I will be thankful today” is a good thing.
And when we are called home one fine day, we can say, “I fulfilled my purpose- I added joy to someone’s life”, whomever it may be, then we can touch the invisible and taste eternity with confidence, for, all happened in its time.
Best to You, Dear Friend.
I know it’s a miracle, but I am at a loss for words! This was a perfect way to start my day, so beautiful. Thank you! Quacks and jah mahn!
“the Way is to live your life fully and share it freely, not hold too hard to it. ”
Yes. Thank you David.
And thankfully we can take delight in others’ lives and being with them, standing close to their fires. Especially little ones.
My mother died young, when I was 23; I feel that I have a lot of her alive in me. Nothing too novel there. But for years, I denied that I resembled her. Didn’t want to hear about it. Insisted that I resembled my father. As I grew older, I came to realize not only that she was a huge role model and inspiration, but also that I truly value that of her than lives on in me.
Very thought provoking and well written as usual, David–thanks for sharing this, and bringing up ideas that I had not really thought about in a while.
They reminded me of a poem written in a different context, in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam war, which I always thought of as expressing a Vietnamese outlook, but which now seems like it could be anywhere:
Revolutionary Letter #2 by Diane Di Prima, 1971
“The value of an individual life a credo they taught us
to instil fear, and inaction, ‘you only live once’
a fog in our eyes, we are
endless as the sea, not separate, we die
a million times each day, we are born
a million times, each breath life and death
get up , put your shoes on, get
started, someone will finish
an organism, one flesh, breathing joy as the stars
breathe destiny down on us, get
going, join hands, see to business, thousands of sons
will see to it when you fail, you will grow
a thousand times in the bellies of your sisters…”
thoughts worth exploring…
Thanks for all these beautiful comments. That DiPrima poem is fantastic.
This might be my favorite one yet. Pretty sure it is. 🙂
“The opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. Life has no opposite.”
— Eckhart Tolle
Thanks David, brilliant and beautiful!
life is a process
enlightenment is one too
stagnation is death
cycles of being
death is just a part of life
we all have a turn
all living things die
it is the natural way
yet it is still sad
a heartfelt approach—-
choose life while we’re living
choose death when dying
death comes easily
similarly it goes too
the living suffer
no ends without beginnings
no death without life