Take it or leave it.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


The greatest mystery in life is where we come from when we are born and where we go when we die. Most philosophers put this mystery into the category of impenetrable knowledge and seal it up for the aliens to figure out - that is, if they ever deign to show their faces. But here's a thought: If the aliens are just humans visiting from the future, what if light years from now we still haven't cracked the ancient riddle?

How different life would be if we had access to the hidden truth! Not that thinkers haven't attempted to speculate on the hereafter. But if you believe in the Christian's Heaven and Hell, the Hindu's reincarnation after a spell in the spirit realm, or the Buddhist's Void, you can only do so on faith. Faith stops where personal experience ends and reason fails. I just hope that when the time comes to take the leap, the fall doesn't kill you. But if it does, well, then I suppose you'll get your answer.

Until then, let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that you died right now. Right this very moment you suffered a massive heart attack, a deadly stroke, got struck by a blast of lightning or, if you live in L.A. like me, maybe perished in an earthquake. If you live elsewhere, feel free to choose your preferred method of demise. There's still getting hit by a car, exploding in a plane crash, or getting eaten by a shark, but the latter is highly unlikely - you have a 75-fold better chance of being electrocuted in a thunderstorm - and besides you are not in the water right now so becoming shark bait isn't really an option. Nor for that matter is a thunderstorm, at least not in April in the Northern Hemisphere. But suffice it to say you are dead. Would you view your life as complete? Of course you'd have to be around as a spirit to even ask the question. But would you be fulfilled? Or, if there exists such a thing as reincarnation, would you decide instead to born again and have another go?

In answer to my own question, if I could choose the moment of my own death, and die as it were on a count of three, then yes, I'd be ready to go even right now. So beam me up Scotty. But if my end were sudden, unexpected and/or violent, then I could be left with a desire to return, if not for an encore then at least to tie up loose ends. Those whites won't wash themselves.

Sometimes while swimming in my pool I imagine what it would be like to drown or to be trapped under water without means of egress. If I had been, say, aboard the Titanic and locked in my cabin as the great ship went down, I'd struggle frantically to free myself and possibly not die with a quiet mind. This is precisely why I spend so much time in my room. To increase the odds that when the time comes for me to meet my maker I can do so in the comfort of my bed, possibly in the arms of a lady. And why I don't take long cruises.

My mother once stated for me in true mom style that I must have wanted to be born since here I am. Moms view themselves as an authority on everything that goes on in their child's life, even before we are their child! I replied that no, I did not wish to be born. Because if I had, I would have remembered the fact! Is that too much to ask, some memory of the events before the womb? It's as if prior to conception we didn't even exist! I get why the Creationists think that the soul was created during intercourse, and not just because it has sex appeal.

Reincarnationists argue that our failure to remember prior lives is not evidence against multiple visits to earth, just as your inability to remember your infancy does not mean you spontaneously appeared in the world at the age of your earliest memory. But I argue that we do not remember the first years of childhood because our brain is still growing and taking shape. This plasticity accounts for our ability to learn many new things as toddlers, including foreign languages which as adults we often struggle to master; but the steep learning curve for forming new knowledge coincides with the failure to remember many events, such as our very existence! So rapid is the rate of brain change, that in the time it takes for an event to become a memory, you are literally a different person, as old information gets crowded out to make way for the new. 

But this analogy doesn't apply to former lifetimes, because by spirit we are positing a subtle self which exists separately from the physical body, which is its shell. And the subtle brain, which as DNA is to genes acts as repository of all our memories of all our incarnations, should contain some remembrance of life before the present one. But I have not one memory. No recollection of being a sultan in a harem, or an Indian chieftain, or the emperor of God knows where. And so I conclude that I didn't decide to be born. If some other me who I cannot recall made the momentous decision to take a body, that me is not this me, for the very reason that we are separated by this lack of shared experience. Things owe their existence to remembrance, and if I don't recall an event, either it didn't happen or I wasn't there, or both. Except that time I drank too much vodka and blacked out. But that didn't count, 'cause I was drunk.

I personally would not want to return to Earth. I foresee an age when humans will be separated entirely from our natural environment, on other planets or in orbit around other planets, live in artificial environments completely disconnected from what for me it means to be alive. If I can't run in the sun and lie in the grass and swim in the ocean, then I don't want to be around. Of course, if I do return to Earth, I won't remember our having had this conversation, and maybe I'll find that interplanetary life has its perks. I just can't think of any right now. Though sex in a space suit could be fun.

But without memory of today, in a new body, with a new set of skills and a different personality, that Jetson version of me bears little if any resemblance to the one writing these words. I so get why the Buddhists reject the notion of the soul. It is always changing. It doesn't sit still long enough to just be. Like the river, which is never quite the same from moment to next, with different water, different borders, different fish, but is given a name for convenience, the soul is really just a concept. It has no real permanence or reality, in the absolute sense.

Perhaps if I knew for a fact that by meditating x hours a day I could assure myself of not having to return to Earth, that would be sufficient reason to remain in the lotus position. But then the purity is lost. It's like what Christ said about goodness. The moment you do good works for anything other than the sake of goodness alone (like earning a spot in Heaven, or being praised for being so good), the goodness dies. "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them." Goodness is as goodness does, but don't let anybody catch you doing it. Not even your left hand, which shouldn't even know "what thy right hand doeth." 

And so I go on meditating. Because liberation or no, it's a great excuse for a nap. Death and deep sleep may finally be where it's at.

Of course, in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna tells his disciple: "Many lives, Arjuna, you and I have lived. I remember them all, but you do not." So there's someone who remembers life before and after now. It would seem then that only by becoming a god oneself does one gain memory and with it, eternity. All the more reason to strive.

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