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