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?