Meditation on Death

Salaam and Greetings of Peace:

Because I could not stop for Death he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just Ourselves and Immortality.Emily Dickinson

In December of 1986, I was operated on to remove my pituitary gland and the small benign tumor within it that had resulted in Cushing’s Disease, and had caused a lengthy hospital stay in the beginning of that year. It was during that earlier hospital stay that I had the out-of-body experience I have written about in a previous post (which you can read here).

I remember the anesthesia being administered and being told to count backwards from one hundred. At about 96, I blinked my eyes, and when I opened them again an instant later, I was being wheeled back to my room. I asked the nurse, “When does it start?”  She answered, “It’s all over.”

Eight hours had passed in the blink of an eye. It could have been eight years, or eight million. The anesthesia blanked me out of existence so completely, that I wondered if death was like that:

An instant that lasts for eternity!

In the years since those two events, and as I approach my sixty-fifth birthday, death itself holds no fear for me, because just as in the Angel of Death excerpt from Master of the Jinn, I really do consider it a mercy from God.  But I cannot but wonder if one of those experiences holds the answer to the great mystery of what comes afterward.  Both possessed the immediacy of experiential truth, but can both be real? Is the instant of nothingness a precursor to awaking on a different plane of existence? Can it be that our spirit, or soul, or ka, or whatever your faith calls it, leaves the physical body at death and after an instant of blankness, joins, or rejoins, the Eternal Godhead?

Socrates asked the same question, concluding: “Death is one of two things…Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from one place to another.”

My late father-in-law believed the former. Once I asked him if he thought that we live on after death. He said, “Yes, in blood and memory.”  In other words, we live on in the bloodline passed to our children and grandchildren and down the generations. And in the memory they carry of us, until that is lost in time, when those that still remember us have also died.  He considered himself a realist.

And yet, the first law of thermodynamics, an expression of the principle of the conservation of energy, states that energy can be transformed (changed from one form to another), but cannot be created or destroyed.

Is that also true of the energy of consciousness, which is, after all, the only part of us that really would go on after the body dies? Or is it just our greater Self that goes on, our soul, which is that ineffable part of us that is always in touch with, and originally a part of, the Oneness of Divine Love? Inshallah, it is so.  I do not mind at all leaving the lesser self behind; the individual ego with its fears and jealousy and enmity and regrets. Let it die as the electro-chemical brain and body functions come to a stop.

I know that love goes on.  And after years on the Sufi path,  I have seen what can only be described as a glimpse of… something other.

There is some comfort in the belief that the body is nothing but a shell for the evolution of consciousness, “to evolve toward the Godhead,” as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest wrote in The Phenomenon of Man.

And, so as not to waste what God has given, I am also an organ donor; I prefer to leave all organs that are still of any use to help others, and the rest to be cremated.  I like the efficiency of the fire, taking up as little room at the end as I did at the beginning. And I like the idea of my ashes scattered to the winds of the world.

But does individual consciousness completely die? Or does the soul or greater Self have its own higher level of consciousness? My late Master, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, was asked this very question, and he said, “In the end, the drop becomes one with the Ocean, but it does not lose its wetness.”

There is hope in that statement. I have studied many religions and their beliefs of the afterlife, and in all honesty they sound mainly the same, a heavenly paradise where the individual self consciousness, and often the resurrected body, is kept intact and rewarded or punished for its life on earth in just measure to its deeds. But if the individual self stops at the end of life, the afterlife must be something else entirely. What that something else, that wetness is, is one of the eternal questions of living beings.  The ultimate mystery!

And that’s what I’m counting on :) All questions are inevitably useless. The answer will come soon enough!

No mythology and metaphor for me. I want the great mystery, all of it, no matter what it is—a billion years in the blink of an eye, or an infinite panorama as vast as the universe; and an endless sea of stars on which to sail.

Death is an angel with two faces; to us he turns a face of terror, blighting all things fair; the other burns with glory of the stars, and love is there.
– T. C. Williams

Alhamdulillah!

Ya Haqq!

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8 Responses to Meditation on Death

  1. Anum Yasar says:

    Salam Brother Irving!
    This truly is a “meditation” post! It has left me awe-inspired and grinning.. :)
    Peace & Love :D

  2. Achelois says:

    Salaam Brother Irving,

    Brilliant! Beautiful! Marvelous!

    Of all the posts on this most remarkable blog, brother Irving, this is the icing. It is just superb. I have no words to explain how much I enjoyed it.

    Thank you so much. There are absolutely no answers in this essay, yet it has silently answered so many of the questions I recently had in my mind.

    How you weave your thoughts into words! It leaves me speechless.

    Thank you!

  3. pbsweeney says:

    The mystery may be enthralling, but don’t rush off just yet, beloved.

  4. Rizal Affif says:

    Salaam, Irving,

    I feel glad that a Sufi like you are open to so vast probabilities for life after death… instead of merely believing Heaven and Hell; end of story.

    As to your musing–it is exactly the question that brought me to this Path. I read a book by Dr. Michael Newton “Journeys of The Soul” and was completely blown away; apparently psychology, particularly hypnosis, has proven reincarnation and life between lives are true. You may google “past-life regression” and find so many entries (though none provides what Newton’s book outlined; consistent stories about what happened in life between lives from 28 regressed subjects).

    And since you bring first law of thermodynamics, I think I need to suggest you to check quantum mechanics as well. Deepak Chopra is one among few writers who can explain life after death, and the existence of soul, scientifically through quantum mechanics. He has written many books, but special for this case I’d recommend you reading:

    http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/deepak_chopra/2010/04/is_consciousness_connected_to_the_fine_structure_of_the_universe.html

    though it’s quite long and quite difficult to grasp ;)

    I hope it helps. Your experience itself is amazing. You reached what Hindus call “deep sleep state”. Not to mention about the out-of-body-experience that brought you to the Path. It seems, Death is a very powerful subject of contemplation to spark our awareness (though in my case, I got it secondhand).

    Salaam… :)

  5. Irving says:

    Salaam and Greetings of Peace:

    Thank you all for your kind comments :) And Rizal, thank you for the links. I know I have barely touched on the subject, and I am familiar with Deepak Chorpra’s work, and well as the quantum mechanics of consciousness theory, as well as past life regression.

    But then the essay would have become a book, and wiser writers than I have already added much to the topic.

    And my dear Sister Achelois, a special note of gratitude for you unfailing support and kindness :) I actually only thought to organize my thoughts about the experiences I had, and how they fit into the what I have learned on the Sufi path. But I am happy that it had some meaning for you :)

    So the questions remain, and cannot really be answered in life, though I promise not to rush off, beloved :) It is not up to me, anyway.

    Ya Haqq!

  6. seeker2008 says:

    Hello Irving,

    Great Post! It gave me reason for pause. I remember there were a few times recently at the khaniqah when I was in meditation and suddenly remember coming too. I had not even been aware that I was unaware or for how long. Though I was absent, I was still somewhere.

    Experiences like this and a few others, have on the one hand plunged me into the mystery of what exactly is this “I” and on the other left me without a doubt that life continues long after the body goes.

    Lately I have come to be overwhelmed when I think of a human life and how seemingly in so many planes we are on and operate from throughout the course of the day. I remember a joke someone told that death is like puberty, a puberty of the soul perhaps. Since everyone saints, prophets and sinners go through it, it can’t be that bad.

    Anyways I am rambling a lot. I read this from al-Muqaddasi recently:

    Although I left you bodily, is not my spirit always close to you! Think of it and you will see that my presence and absence are the same. How right was he who said to me one can compare you to the rose that fades but leaves behind its essence.

  7. Abdur Rahman says:

    Salams Irving bhai

    Huu Dost! This was a beautiful meditation. Thank you

  8. [...] since my dear Brother Irving wrote this post about a month ago I have gone back to it every day and contemplated. I have learned a lot from Brother Irving and [...]

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