14. Death revisited
We have already discussed how the mind (a mind in which self-will is dominant, we can now say) employs the machinery of identification in an attempt to avoid death, but we were dealing specifically with physical death. Self-identity, however, faces a more constant foe. The individual self, for all its complexity, is an illusion that reality could expose at any moment. And such exposure is more than traumatic. Reality, in the form of undifferentiated consciousness, is fatal to the self.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the gravity of the situation. The individual self exists in what appears a grand flux of individual selves, and for the most part, this self is who each of us thinks we are. Self-identity has a real component — all your memories, all the mental records you associate with your physical self do in fact exist in a unique relationship with your physical self – but it also insists that you somehow exist as an individual consciousness, which almost always includes some final, hidden ability to leave the physical self behind when the time comes. If consciousness turns out not to be individualized, however, your existence as an individual effectively ceases; in a very real way you die.
Do you want to die? Your reaction can speak for itself. Death is a most disturbing thought if you think your existence begins and ends with selfhood. And just as the self tries to transcend its mortal limitations by identifying with other people and things, some of which in all likelihood will outlast it, it can also work subconsciously to preempt any realizations that could lead to its annihilation.
This still might sound too bizarre, but consider for a moment how much goes on around or within you that you are completely unaware of. Beside the body’s myriad involuntary functions, think of the countless sights, sounds and other stimuli that bombard your senses daily. You would be hopelessly overwhelmed if you paid attention to every detail. How often do you see something you failed to notice earlier? Is it because you didn’t see it? Of course not. Our eyes are quite marvelous sensors that can detect extremely subtle differences in contrast and texture. They can easily sort out jumbled lines and shapes that computers with the most advanced artificial intelligence could not make a start on.
We fail to notice things because the part of our mind that operates outside or beneath our ordinary awareness does not bring them to our attention. By and large, this is an invaluable service our minds perform of filtering out the “noise” from everyday occurrences so we can concentrate on the most important things. But if our mind, or at least a significant part of it, can get lost in self-identity and the identification game, is it really so hard to conceive of it filtering out uncomfortable perceptions that could undermine the utopian reality it has constructed, that could bring death into paradise?
Tom Waits lays it bare in his song The Fall of Troy. The opening line goes: “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs; nothing wants to die.” And it gets more intense from there. Rather than offer false comfort, it dares to observe that we all “have to find our own way home.” But self-consciousness does its best to keep each of us safe and warm.
But what if the self’s defenses fail? What if compassion gains the upper hand? If you lose your self and can’t find it again? Then your self dies, and only a full psychotic break with reality could bring it back. But disastrous as death is for the self, it is the necessary next step in the human evolutionary journey. So what is lost and what remains?
What is lost, and admittedly this seems a great loss from the common human perspective, is the sense or hope of permanence we have come to think lies at the core of individual being. The fantasy that we will live forever slips from our grasp. But it is like losing a baby tooth, which is pushed out by something sturdier. The realization of the material nature of self, that self is inseparable from physical existence, uproots the fantasy. I realize that my self is precisely the sum of its parts, the collection of memories and thoughts stored in my brain. It cannot outlast this lifetime, at least not without mechanisms of unimaginable complexity that have left not the slightest measurable trace in the physical world from which our bodies and brains arise and to which they return.
It is reasonable to think that despair would flood in to fill every nook and cranny vacated by the late self — reasonable, that is, from a self-ish perspective. But the fact that I remain casts things in a new light. And not only do I remain, but all my memories and thoughts too, all the data my mind used to assemble the self. So it might seem that nothing of any consequence has changed. After all, only an illusion dies, as we have noted; except we should not underestimate the extent to which we build our personal “reality” around that illusion.
If my permanent, unique individuality goes, then so does everyone else’s. As we have already discussed, I lose the basis for putting my or my family’s interests ahead of anyone else’s. I lose the basis for treating anyone differently from anyone else. To the extent that I built my life around my self, that my actions and relationships were driven by self-interest, I lose the life I knew and thought was mine. The three-dimensional nature of that life, with people and things placed in nearer and farther circles of intimacy/identity, collapses. At the same time, my personal boundaries rupture. Naturally, my brain and body continue to define my physical existence as before, but my mind operates from a consciousness that recognizes this existence as no more and no less than any other.
The change, then, is severe, but we do not live in a vacuum. So the effects of this change will depend to some extent on circumstances. It is possible that someone might sever all connections built on the former self; literally walk away from them and start a new life. More commonly, I think, a person would begin making smaller changes in the way he or she acts and relates to others. As we discussed earlier, acknowledging unity does not mean pushing family or friends away to achieve a uniform relational distance with others. It means removing distance.
We return here to a previous point. Seeing the unity of life is not something out of a fairy tale. We are not suddenly flooded with the wisdom of the universe, the answers to all questions and the sure knowledge of what to do the next and every succeeding moment. We still must use our brains and experience to seek answers and solve problems, but we do not suffer from the delusion that we need solve only our “own” problems, or that a solution that disadvantages others is acceptable.
We start to love with the indivisible love we have become aware of, but the world we have found a place in does not rearrange itself for us. The people, places and things in our life remain relatively unchanged, so we embark on a new journey. This journey is one of discovery, for sure, but it is much more. Guided by a love that is truly self-less and aware of our existence as instances of consciousness through which life is becoming aware of itself, we become co-creators of a future that can be that much better for it, rather than that much worse for the selfishness we outgrew.