With the recent passing of my father, almost 94 years into his remarkably healthy lifespan, I’ve been pondering the nature of death. The key question for all of us is whether individual consciousness persists after the neural network that serves it ceases to function. Are we purely existential beings who are part of the machine and expire along with it, or are we more numinous passengers who disembark at the appointed time and place, leaving the mortal shell behind for a more glorious destination? (An unlikely fairy tale, methinks.) Does cognition blink out like switching off a light, does it slowly tatter into confusion and then fade, or does it live on in a different form of awareness? I sometimes think that the the nightly retreat into unconsciousness that we all experience – the “Little Sleep” of the title – is just a chain of rehearsals for the final curtain – the “Big Sleep” of Raymond Chandler’s novel. If the dreams that well up in the sleeping mind are compelling, how much more momentous are those that engage the spirit when there is no chance of awakening from them? Even Shakespeare was wary of this, giving Hamlet the words: “To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” But on the night my father passed, I received a subliminal message in his voice, sounding bleak and puzzled: “. . . falling into darkness . . .” It reminded me strongly of Aleister Crowley’s last words: “I am perplexed.” This may not be the last stanza in my father’s long-running saga, but it certainly gave me pause.
I know the Western religious position: human life is a “one-and-done” proposition; you don’t miss a beat upon dying and your intact soul winds up in “the good place” or the “bad place” in short order (after a judicious interlude of weighing). But – although spiritually inclined – I’m devoutly non-religious, so those concepts don’t hold any water for me. Hindu yogis teach that the phenomenal world we perceive with our senses is illusion (maya), a natural outgrowth of the relativity and duality of earthly existence. Edgar Allan Poe had a characteristically somber outlook on the subject: “All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.” For the average person, the spiritual path that frees us of this illusion doesn’t reach its terminus in a single lifetime, so I assume the burden remains ours, in-body or out. Somehow I can’t see death letting us off the hook for having to engineer our own eventual salvation. Perhaps Steely Dan said it most succinctly: “You go back, Jack, do it again/Wheels turnin’ ’round and ’round.” More ominously, the Eagles stuck an oar in the water with “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” the famous line from Hotel California. There is work to be done and we can’t hire a surrogate, no matter who (or should that be Who?) wants to pick up the tab for our purported sins.
It strikes me that the whole “Heaven and Hell” thing is a fear-mongering tactic by the Church to reinforce moral conduct, part of the grand mind-control scheme that is Western organized religion. If this reward-or-punishment scenario is taken off the table, the argument goes, what other motive is there to live an ethical life? Humans are too flawed to find virtue on their own, so we’ll just give them a paternal nudge. Although he returned to the Christian fold late in his life, most of my father’s numerous days were a testament to the falsehood of this belief. He needed neither book nor preacher to become one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. Although he wasn’t complex, he was “salt of the earth” and goodness was its own reward. We should all be so honorable in our ways.