“Seriously your starting with that topic! You must be seriously morbid or something I don’t want to think or talk about that!” Maybe this or something along these lines just went through your mind when you read the title. You wouldn’t be alone in thinking this, many people would consider it appalling that one would discuss such a topic. This topic is in many respects a taboo subject, little spoken of and thought about even less. Let’s first look at why these reactions occur and why death is treat this way by many.
I know a young girl who has recently become concerned about death and is also worrying about losing those close to her (such concerns are a perfectly natural thing to go through). The parent of this girl said they felt the same way about death and that they also worried about death and the following ‘nothingness’ and ‘ceasing to exist’. It is a shame that many people today seem to be feeling this way. Such discussions take us into the realms of religious beliefs but I will not be going in-depth into this aspect of the topic. I believe the ideas presented below can be followed either without any particular religious beliefs or in addition to whatever your beliefs may be. I hope that I can give you something better than the view that after death there is just ‘nothingness’ which seems to be a prevalent view in our society today, particularly amongst the many people who do not follow a religion.
Whilst there are a wide range of religious faiths practised in the UK predominantly our culture is science orientated and even those who follow a particular religion which may believe in some form of afterlife such as heaven still inadvertently find themselves swept along by the scientific mind set regarding death.
Just to be clear before I continue lest it seem that I am anti-science, I believe science has much to offer us just that it has some serious flaws too. In particular its view that if something cannot be ‘seen’ and/or measured then it does not exist. This in not explicitly stated but this is the ‘deep mindset of most scientists, although there are of course some exceptions to this in certain scientific fields of study such as quantum physics.
But certainly the average person who is not a scientist still has this view of the world as it is what we are taught in school and then later in life by the media. However this then begs the question – “what about all the things science did not know about 100 years ago because it had not ‘seen’ or measured them but have since been ‘discovered’ by science? Did they just puff into existence the moment they were observed, did they not exists before then?”
Why am I mentioning this about science here? Well how can one study or measure what happens after death using the common scientific methods? One cannot. Therefore it is the scientific view that after death there is nothing, void, blackness, you are no more, you are obliterated and nothing of you exists any longer. No wonder people fear death and do not wish to think or talk about it! So just because science cannot investigate things after death, clearly this does not mean there is ‘nothing’.
There are two concepts we need to be clear on before we go any further and which at first glance may seem to be contradictory:
1. Nothing is permanent, not even the self
2. Nothing ever becomes nothing
1. Nothing is permanent, not even the self
Try and think of something that seems permanent and stays the same forever. Let’s say a massive mountain that has been where it is for billions of years. Is this permanent and will it always be there and never change? As the wind blows across its peak minute particles of dust and earth are blown lower down the mountain. As it rains more of the mountains surface is washed down its slopes. Mountains become smaller, there shape changes. If you can stay around long enough the mountain will change shape, move, shrink and ‘disappear’ in time.
I am now 38, am I the same as I was when I was 8? Clearly not. I’m taller my body has changed in a myriad of ways. It is also currently believed that many if not all of the cells in your body completely change every 10 years or so. So is the me now, the me that was then? No. I can remember little if anything of my life at aged 7 now and it seems likely to me that this is due to many of the cells in my brain having being replaced with new ones and hence those memories are gone. Clearly we do not remain the same over time, we are constantly changing.
Can you think of something that is permanent as opposed to something that simply lasts a very long time?
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that nothing is permanent, particularly the self and so we have the notion of a spirit or soul. This allows us to feel that there is something that is permanent which will ‘carry on’ through life and beyond death. But this then creates its own problem. What do you then say happens to this permanent aspect of ‘self’ that continues after death?
But why is it so bad that nothing is permanent and that things are always changing? If things were permanent would we be happier? If things were permanent you could never grow up, never learn, never experience new things, never have children, your moods thoughts and feelings would be all stuck on one ‘channel’ (better hope it’s a good ‘channel’) – this would not be living. Indeed this is what happens, people stop truly living so desperate are they to cling onto things and concepts desperately trying to make them ‘permanent’, even to the point of clinging onto negative emotions just because they have become familiar aspects of the self. Do not cling to this concept of impermanence either. We need to ‘let go’, breath out and live in the moment.
2. Nothing ever becomes nothing
Take a sheet of paper outside, then burn it! (err carefully please and with full adult supervision of course. The paper has gone, the paper has become nothing right? No. There may or may not be some ash (depends on the type of paper I think), there was energy released in the form of heat and light in the fire. There was smoke which has risen into the sky, some of which was water vapour.
The ash will go into the earth and add to the properties of the soil which supports a myriad of plants and animals. The energy in the form of heat and light will have impacted on the near-bye environment in ways I can’t even begin to comprehend. The smoke and water vapour released has risen into the sky and become part of a cloud. The cloud then travels around the world releasing rain on another continent, helping plants grow and humans and animals to drink, eat and live. Still think the paper has become ‘nothing’?
So we die. The body and the self that we have become very familiar with (attached to) ceases to exist in the form that we or anyone else would recognise as ‘us’. This is just one of many changes we have been through over the years. No one who knows you now would recognise you as you were in the womb (or earlier) and probably not even as you were at age one. At death our physical form changes, so we have become nothing have we? No. It is just another change, nothing is permanent after all and nothing becomes nothing.
I believe one of the factors in our thinking of life and death as we do is that we tend to think of many things in a linear way. In this case I mean people think of life as a line that has a beginning middle and end. So what happens when you are travelling along a line and you reach the bit labelled ‘end’ and the line stops? Why you drop off the end of course! This linear view of things can be seen throughout our culture if one but looks. Think of a narrative in a book or film for example. These typically all have a beginning middle and end and no doubt you will have been taught such at school. I believe there may be some avant garde stories that are not linear but I don’t think there are many.
Thinking about things in this linear way is entirely arbitrary. Why not think in circles instead of lines? Think of a circle (and the positions on a clock) at the twelve o’clock position we have a ‘start’, at the three o’clock position we have a middle then the six o’clock position we have an ‘end’ then at nine o’clock a middle and then we are back at twelve o’clock, ‘start’. Is this any less valid than the line? Maybe its better? At worst it is just as arbitrary as the line. But when you examine the world around you closely and indeed the Universe, we begin to see that things tend to be cyclic.
Still concerned that there may be some aspect of yourself floating in a strange dark void after death simply because this is all science can come up with for such an unknown? Lets look at something we have already all been through, the moment before. Before; that is the point at which you believe you came out of this world into existence, to become who you are now. You may consider this to be either at the moment of birth, or a certain point of cell division in the womb or at the point of conception it does not matter for our purposes when you feel you became you.
Before continuing on this, to clarify when I say we come ‘out of this world’ this is as opposed to ‘into this world’ as people tend to phrase it. The latter suggests we come from somewhere outside the world which could not be the case. Just as an apple tree ‘apples’ the World or Universe ‘peoples’, it seems unreasonable and nonsensical to think we have been transplanted here from ‘outside’ the World. As such we come from it and are of it.
Consider that you could equally suppose that in the time before you ‘became’ you, you were floating in darkness then too. After all, the time before your life is equally as unknown as the time after your life. Just for the sake of the argument if we suppose this is correct and you were floating in this ‘dark nothingness’ before your current state of existence, was this necessarily a problem or a concern? You were not you yet to be concerned about such matters, to the whatever that became you that was in that place of ‘darkness’ this was a ‘normal’ state of affairs. Equally after this life you will change again and not be the you, you are now and so there will be no you to be concerned about whatever condition you may be experiencing.
As you can see from the paragraph above this is the point at which language really starts to reach its limits in describing such experiences and states of being which in part accounts for why various philosophies stop talking about certain things that are largely beyond language and use more ‘novel’ methods of imparting such wisdom such as the methods used in Zen for example.
It seems clear to me that this concept of ‘dark nothingness’ after death has been conjured up through peoples fear of no longer being themselves, of losing their self, their ego. The question is why cling to such a thing when you know that nothing stays the same and that nothing ever becomes nothing. It is clear that myself at age 8 does not in the least resemble the me now at 38. Do I morn or fear the loss of the 8 year old me? No. Do I morn or fear no longer being the 38 year old me when thinking of myself becoming aged 68 in the future? No. Although of course some cling desperately to their younger ‘selves’ at certain stages in their lives which is just yet another symptom of living in the illusion that things can be permanent. As we have discussed above such an unchanging state would not be desirable anyway. Such clinging to external conditions and the self has been described as shadows grasping at mist.
So in conclusion, all things change as nothing is permanent but because they change they never become nothing. I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have on this topic.
Footnote: As previously stated I do not claim the above ideas are all my own unique thoughts, indeed can anyone claim this for their philosophies. However I acknowledge they have been greatly influenced by and in some cases taken entirely from some of the following: R H Blyth, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nietzsche, The Dalai Lama and Buddhist/Taoist philosophy in general, to mention but a few.