Journal: Thoughts on the Afterlife

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(Sunday, March 10, 2019, 3:45 pm)

My views on the afterlife, religion, the nature of reality, etc. are taken in bits and pieces from science and various religions and mythologies, as well as from my own imagination. It’s always evolving and it’s all just a metaphor for some incomprehensible greater Truth. I assume this Truth to be so incomprehensible and indescribable, that it almost may as well not exist. However, I believe it to be a good exercise, both for individuals as well as for humanity, to attempt to understand and describe it.

So, with respect to the afterlife and immortal souls and whatnot, I begin with the idea of the atman of Hindu philosophy. The idea is that each individual life is like a bubble, called a jiva, filled with atman, the soul. And all the bubbles are strung together as if on a necklace. But when life ends, the bubble pops and the jiva is gone, but the atman inside is still there. It then rejoins the greater atman outside the bubble, just as it was before that life began.

Then I combine that abstract idea with a number of other literal ones, such as the more concrete early Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In the earlier texts of the Torah/Old Testament, they seem to literally believe that there was no consciousness after death. You are buried in the ground and you turn to dust. Later, there was some idea that some consciousness remained, but it probably wasn’t very pleasant, being stuck down there in the ground and all. The Norsemen and Egyptians and others would entomb their dead underground, preserving their bodies to be used in the afterlife. And some burned the dead, to allow their souls to go up into the heavens as smoke. 

I do not see those as mutually exclusive. I think that consciousness, or something resembling it, exists everywhere. It could be located in some sort of particle that we don’t fully understand yet (of which, there are many). I think that it becomes focussed on our physical forms while we are alive, but is released slowly once we die (like the bubble popping). Then, wherever we are, whatever happens to our bodies, those physical particles that made up our consciousness in life begin to disperse. Some go into the ground if we are buried there to decompose. Some go up into the air as smoke if we are burned. If our bodies are mummified or preserved, most of those particles may stay put. Regardless of the concentration of the original particles contained in the individual jiva, once the bubble has popped, there will be more awareness of and connection to the greater atman. 

As the particles of consciousness disperse, some may go up into the heavens and become stardust; some deep into the ground; and some may be taken up and reformed into new jivas. That would be a kind of reincarnation. It could be human, plant, animal, whatever. So I don’t think that an entire person’s consciousness is likely to have been reformed as one jiva, but it seems plausible to me that some of the particles could carry memory or sensation from one jiva to another, from one life to the next. So, to me, all things are possible.

I also think that the level of unpleasantness after death greatly depends on how hard one clings to life afterward. If you’re trying to hang on to your body as it’s decomposing and being slowly devoured by worms, that could be a pretty terrible experience. But if you can let it go and rejoin the greater atman, you could go anywhere, explore the universe, or choose to be reborn as whatever you wish. So the state of mind that we habitually inhabit in life, and the one we’re in at the moment of death, will influence our experience of the afterlife.

And one might cling to life if they really loved life and didn’t want to die, but I think more often it would be because they felt some sort of shame and had a desire for or expectation of punishment. It might also be the result of unfinished business that they couldn’t let go of. What I mean when I say they “cling to life” is that the particles of consciousness attempt to cling to each other, to resist dispersal, fighting a losing battle against the inevitable, and hold themselves apart from the greater atman and therefore from enlightenment. It is bound to be a frustrating and hellish experience.

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