Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Coping With Our Mortality

People have devised different ways to cope with their mortality.  Consider three ways it’s been done in the past. There is a fourth way, however, and it's the only way that we can rely on, if we hope to know the truth.

Epicurus promoted a lifestyle of serene simplicity and made the social value of friendship the basis of enlightened living. For seven hundred years his philosophy claimed the allegiance of followers from Europe to India and Asia Minor.  People wore signet rings with the portrait of Epicurus engraved on them. Women and folks from all grades of society were invited to join.  In this way, the Epicureans were like the early Christian communities. 

But despite persisting for about seven hundred years, they faded from history, and the Christian movement emerged as the dominant Western religion.  Is there a reason for this eclipse of Epicurean society?

I think there is.  The two schools of thought had very different solutions to the problem of mortality. The philosopher Epicurus had a facile argument for dealing with death.  As long as you’re alive, he said, death is not; when you die you are not.  It will be as it was before you were born. Problem solved.

The Christian solution to death is quite different, more hopeful and attractive, one reason for the appeal.  The promise to early Christians was resurrection of the body  for all who accept Jesus as their savior.  The Epicurean way as well as the Buddhist way presuppose a high degree of enlightenment for dealing with one’s mortality. 

Christianity requires simple faith and piety and relies on the beneficence of the Creator.  Unlike the Epicurean who doesn’t have to worry about having a bad time after death, even if you’re Adolf Hitler or Donald Trump, Christians have to worry about hell and Buddhists about rebirth.

So we have Epicurean extinction, Buddhist reincarnation, and Christian resurrection,

What’s the best option?   Squeeze all the possible joys into one life and forget about death (Epicurean).  Aim for enlightenment, even if you have to keep coming back to life again and again until you hit the jackpot (Buddhist).  Hope for eternal bliss but risk misery in hell forever (Christian). 

 I find none of these three options satisfactory.  My view is as follows.  Most religious views of life after death are boring, cruel and absurd.  They may have served purposes of consolation and edification in the past—but not anymore.

But with the rise of modern psychical research, we’re in a position to form opinions on the subject—if, that is, we do some homework.   Actually, there’s quite a bit of data; the issues can get abstract, and require a little philosophical reflection.   But this is a totally new way to approach the question. Epicurus, great thinker, was wrong about assuming there was nothing in the big ‘after.’  He just assumed without testing his view.

It is possible infer that there is (or isn’t) a life after death by virtue of experiences that people have.  Certain experiences can lead us to believe that we will survive our bodily demise.  Apparitions, near-death experiences, mediumistic revelations, reincarnation memories—and so on.  You can decide for yourself what all the data means.

And there’s another way to form an opinion on this.  Some people have experiences that don’t just imply the reality of another world; they have experiences of entering the ‘next’ world now.  In this special state of mind, it becomes luminously self-evident that they are immortal.  For an overview of the issues and the types of evidence, try my book Experiencing the Next World Now (2007).

My main point. We’re at a new place to deal with the question of our mortality.  Religion is no longer able to be of much help.  And for the most part science and philosophy are indifferent or dogmatically negative.  But there’s enough data and understanding of the issues to make up our own minds.

And there’s a kind of inner experiment, disengaging consciousness from the inner chatter, learning to lose oneself in the Great Mind.   


Miguel said...

A kind of fear/concern that I have developed over the years is that the afterlife will largely depend on how we have interpreted our life experiences. Surely, you will recognize that my views have been shaped by your own teachings, Michael, readings in psychical research, Buddhism, etc., all of which you introduced me to, and even my own Catholic upbringing. There is probably nothing original in what follows but, anyway, here is an example of what I have in mind: Even if we have lived a ‘correct life’ a la Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, we might still end up having a crappy afterlife even if, like Ilyich, our agonizing death was followed by a positive NDE. Specifically, I suspect that in the afterlife our mental life will consist on whatever it is that occupies a central aspect of our mental life while we are still living, even if we are not always fully aware of whatever it is that is bothering us. My own take is that perhaps we might continue to agonize over regrets, lost opportunities, etc., beyond the stage of dying (re Ilyich). If so, these key mental experiences may end up continuing into the afterlife. Thus, in spite of any positive imagery of a benevolent, forgiving being, loved ones that greet us at death, the all-embracing bright light, etc. of the traditional NDE, the afterlife might be characterized by a continuous dream-like imagery stemming from whatever images, thoughts, concerns, etc., that are pre-occupying our minds as we transition toward death. On the other hand, if, unlike Ilyich whose life was driven by self-interest, you have spent your life dwelling on the positive, prayer, the love and grace of God, etc., then perhaps THAT is the type of imagery that will permeate the afterlife and that the individual will experience. This view of the afterlife may be the justification for some of the religious traditions’ emphasis on the need for a disciplined mind, whether through prayer, unquestionable faith, mindfulness, etc., as preparation not just for death, but for the expected continuation of our mental lives after death. Frankly, I hope the above is not entirely correct, for I sure have my share of regrets, lack a disciplined mind, etc. I suppose that I still have time, but …

Anyway, just some rambling thoughts on this most important topic. :)

Todd said...

You might consider the afterlife ideas conveyed to Emmanuel Swedenborg in visions. Although they included a kind of hell (hells, really), it is not seem as a place of punishment but rather as a way of accommodating the warped state of some people. There is a strong logic tio Swedenborg's ideas, as well as consistency with modern NDE accounts.

Michael Grosso said...

Miguel, I agree that the being of light may just be an introduction to life after death, just as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead it also begins with a light after which things are likely to go downhill as perhaps in the afterlife, the subconscious memories of our lives will flood our consciousness and send us through hells of recrimination or long broodings where we keep obsessing on what might have been--and that could be a long purgatory. Purgatory could one day end and the disembodied mind could then figure out ways to have some fun in heaven, like trying to make love with somebody without a body. I think like after death may be very boring for some people and then they become peeping toms of live folk making love to each other, and that's how they get sucked into the worst possible fate--reincarnation.

Todd, thank you for reminding me of Swedenborg who had such an impact on Henry James Senior and hence William James, one of the great explorers of the subliminal mind. You should write a paper on Swedenborg and the NDE.


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