February 18, 2013

The Hereafter

If you had asked me when I was a child what happens to us when we die, I probably would have said, "We go to heaven." On a superficial level I probably believed that. I imagine I believed that I believed that.

But I have some very vivid memories, from the time I was eight until I was into my late teens, of lying awake at night, unable to sleep, terrified of ceasing to exist after I died. Thoughts of the afterlife were of no comfort. I don't even remember having such thoughts. Death meant annihilation. Looking back now, this is what I really believed, and I lost a lot of sleep over it.

By the time I went to university I was, for all intents and purposes, an agnostic. I was also suffering through a period of depression that began in high school and didn't let up until halfway through my second year. That was when, very early one Saturday morning in January, I had an insight into something that happened when I was four years old, and had haunted me ever since. I'm not going to go into any detail about what it was—it's not at all relevant to this post—but suffice it to say, I was finally able to forgive someone for saying something that was really quite damaging to me, and for which I had been harbouring an almost-conscious resentment for the better part of twenty years (though, looking back, it was probably perfectly innocuous from his perspective).

My mind started racing and I had what I soon started calling, ignorantly but not entirely inappropriately, my "Zen experience." Actually, it wasn't a single experience. Over the rest of the weekend I had over a dozen of them. They were relatively brief, always came unexpectedly, and at first I found them quite terrifying. I thought I was losing my mind. But the insights I was having made too much sense, they were so inarguably true, that I was soon able to embrace the experiences when they came.

The most salient insight that occurred to me I later recognized as what the Buddhist tradition calls pratitya samutpada, which is translated in a number of different ways (e.g., "conditioned arising," or "dependent origination," among many others).

But accompanying it was something else, something not obviously related to that: I "knew" that death is an illusion; that is, it is not the end that I had previously imagined it to be; it does not entail the annhilation I had lain awake dreading as a child, but had, after several years of mind-numbing depression, rather calmly accepted as our inevitable fate.

I couldn't account for this "knowledge" (which is why I put it in quotation marks: I have no way of justifying it epistemologically). And I had no insight into what came next. But I was certain that it wasn't nothing.

And for a long time after that, I was content to leave it that: whatever came next was necessarily unknown. We could speculate; we could imagine an eternal heaven and hell, a temporary sojourn in purgatory, a cycle of birth and rebirth, or an existence as ghosts haunting the future owners of our homes. But these were, I thought, necessarily speculations, and nothing more than that. Given that we couldn't know (or even be reasonable confident) that one was more likely than another, it was best to remain agnostic on the subject of what comes next.

Basically I agreed with Martin Luther's approach to the matter, as described here by Marcus Borg:
Luther expressed our not-knowing about the details of the afterlife with a particularly apt analogy: we can know as much about life beyond death as a fetus traveling down the birth canal and about to be born can know about the world it is about to enter. How much is that? Nothing. Yet the analogy affirms that there is something at the end of the journey.1
When I first read this years ago it made a lot of sense to me. But I've done some reading over the past few years that has convinced me that we are not necessarily as in-the-dark as I previously imagined.

But that will be the subject of an upcoming post. Maybe more than one.


1. Borg, The God We Never Knew, 175. Borg does not say where in Luther's writings this can be found.


  1. I used to worry about death too as a kid. Still do sometimes. Can you explain more about pratitya samutpada?

  2. Sure, I'll try to write a post about it in the next little while (maybe tonight). It's one of those things that's easy enough to grasp intellectually, but explaining why it's so important is a bit of a challenge. I'll do my best to explain my own understanding of it, though.