“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
People ask me if I believe in life after death, to which I reply, of course I do. And I can prove it too. When I die, when you die, life goes on doesn’t it? So there you go: there really is such a thing as life after death.
Look around you now: the world is teeming with life. It’s bursting with it. The Earth is a cornucopia of continual abundance, overflowing with life. How can you say there’s no life after death, when the evidence is clear everywhere that there is.
Ah no: you mean YOUR life, don’t you? Your ego’s life? Will YOU still go on? That’s another question, which I will get round to answering presently.
About two days before my Mum died I had a last communication with her. She was home from the hospital by then, dosed up with morphine, hardly moving, in a specialist bed in the living room, in the place where the table used to be. I must have been standing over her looking at her in a worried way. And she opened her eyes and glanced at me. It was very brief, no more than a second or two. There was the merest hint of a nod of recognition as our eyes met, and then she closed her eyes. I’m not sure she ever opened them again after that.
But that communication, for all its brevity, was very deep. My eyes, I know, were filled with concern. I didn’t know then that she would soon be dead. So there was worry in my eyes. The worry of not knowing.
The look in her eyes…. Is that even the right word? The presence in her eyes. Her presence. It was the presence of knowing: of knowing who I was. It was the presence of awareness, of simple recognition, uncluttered by demands or requirements, of questions and answers, of past and future. It came from a place before there were words and spoke to a place before there were names. It was elemental and unconditional, clear and simple, peaceful, just there: a last gleam of life from the being who had borne me and whose eyes and whose presence were the first I had known in this life.
She was saying goodbye.
I was present too at her death. Dad was holding her hand on one side of the bed, and I was on the other. He suddenly spoke up, sounding worried. “Her breathing is slowing down,” he said. I panicked. I tried ringing 111, but it was just a recorded message. I passed the phone onto Dad to wait. Still no answer. In the end I rang 999 and, in a voice charged with emotion, told them I thought my Mum was dying.
I was being completely absurd, feeding her from a bottle of vitamin enriched milkshake, which is all she would take in the end. There was an autonomic response which made her suckle, like a baby from the teat. It died slowly away with her breath, and after a minute or two a little curl of chocolate milkshake ran down her chin from the side of her mouth. I didn’t need to ask what that meant.
The ambulance was very quick. They bustled in efficiently, and got on with the business. They were absolutely glorious beings those two, like energetic angels. I remember the woman particularly: wire thin and sinewy, in the peak of health, with cropped hair and a tan. These people spend their working lives at the front line between life and death and it showed. It kind of emanated from them. There was compassion and intimacy mixed with a strong dose of rude efficiency for good measure.
They ripped my Mums top so her chest was exposed. She’d had her breast removed at the start of her illness, but there was no squeamishness from me, no embarrassment. This was a technical event and had nothing to do with any relationship I might once have had with the woman who had previously occupied this body. It was already a cadaver by then, bereft of life, a husk.
They applied the electrical pads, and the body jumped but no life came. After a while – how long I don’t know – they said sorry but there was nothing more they could do. She was dead. But I already knew that.
So where had the life gone, that presence that had spoken to me only two days before? Had it just fizzled away, like a battery running out? Or had it flown away from the body, shedding words and explanations as it went? It seemed to me to have sailed away like a boat on a rising tide, or like a feather on the waft of a breeze, and who am I to say where it had gone really? Into nothingness, or emptiness? Or into song, into air, into rainbows and the silent miracle of light?
There’s a dismal story going about. When people talk about death they affect the grim face of realism. When you’re dead, you’re dead, they say, and that’s all there is to it. Those old beautiful mysteries of the past, like the one in the song above, the stories we told our kids to comfort them, were just that. Just fairy stories, that’s all.
There’s no heaven, no hell, no afterlife. Just the body that rots in the ground.
But this seems to me as much an argument from ignorance as the tales that went before.
What is life? Do you know? Do the scientists know? Can they make it? Has any scientist produced the proverbial Frankenstein’s Monster yet, from bits of cadaver animated by lightning bolts? Has anyone ever connected up the right number of molecules in the right way and made them squirm with the ecstasy of life?
No, they never have. I suspect they never will.
In other words, life is a mystery. No one can tell you what it is. If the religious people are arguing from a position of ignorance, the atheists are doing the same. One lot are arguing up, to an optimistic conclusion, while the others are arguing down, to pessimism disguised as realism; but neither of them knows what they are talking about really.
We’ve let go of the religious certainty of an afterlife and replaced it with the religious certainty of nothing. But nothingness does not exist. There is no such thing as nothing. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Every void invites a presence. Every crevice is a home. Every nook, every cranny, every space is filled.
Life is everywhere. It’s in the air you breathe. In the darkness of the earth that teems with wriggling, crawling, many-legged things. In the fungal mycelium that twists and threads through the dank soil like a living web, bringing communication between the trees. In the leaves that shimmer in the bright air, feeding the branches and the roots. In the seas. In the deepest oceans. On the tops of mountains. In sulphurous, boiling pools and in the drilled cores of Antarctic ice going back millions of years. Even frozen into rocks. Prolific, unstoppable, ubiquitous life.
So is all of that completely meaningless?
When you go to make a cup of tea, is that an accident? Of course not. You had purpose in it. Desire. You wanted a cup of tea. So why do we say that life is purposeless? Surely evolution implies intent. The intent is to survive, to get better, to get stronger. That too is desire, is it not? We ascribe purpose and intent to ourselves, but not to the rest of life. How arrogant is that?
The Mandaeans of Iraq call God the Great Life. They say that water is sacred. It is a living thing, the living water, and they baptise themselves in it every day. Is there not some truth in this? What if we make Life our God? What if we say that Life itself carries the mystery of purpose within it? We are made up of millions of independent cells, which somehow, in their collectivity, manifest a purpose, even if the purpose is just to make a cup of tea. The cells don’t know that they are part of a higher purpose do they, so why should we?
I give that example not in order to convert you to anything, but to show that there are many stories, many myths, many explanations with varying degrees of elegance and beauty. Science is beautiful, but so is Mandaeanism. We’ve been telling ourselves stories ever since we first appeared on this planet. If the purpose of the other creatures is to live, to love, to move, to eat, to communicate, our purpose might also be to tell stories.
I saw a Hindu woman in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004. She had lost her child. She said, simply, “God has returned to God.” And if you are not moved by the elegant beauty of that response to a personal tragedy, then I feel sorry for you.
So now I am going to tell you my story, the story as I see it. I don’t guarantee it is 100% true, but I do guarantee it is as honest as I can make it. I have my own reasons for telling it, which I will share with you one day.
See if you can remain still for a moment. Silent. Let the only sound be the sound of your breath, moving in and out of your body. Do you hear anything? I do. I hear a kind of hiss, a buzz, a hum, like electricity in my brain. It’s running throughout my body, from the crown of my head, to the tips of my fingers and toes, like ripples through the ducts of my skin. That’s life. It is real and entirely measurable. It is electromagnetic energy and every living creature surges with it. You have your own electromagnetic signature, like an aura, hovering around your body. That’s you. That’s why you don’t like people stepping too close to your space. It’s like they are treading on your electromagnetic toes. But it is out there in the aether too, hissing and sizzling through the branches of all the trees, rising like breath through the buds and the flowers as they bloom, surging through the animals in the throes of sexual ecstasy, roaring gloriously with life.
The Buddhists have a good word for it. They call it Nirvana, which in some translations is said to mean “the roaring silence”. The roaring silence is the blissful electromagnetic ocean of life. When the body dies, because it is worn out, old and decrepit, that electromagnetic signature, the all that you really are, leaves the body, flies out from it, to re-enter the glorious ocean of blissful awareness in the Great Life of us all.
There are two yous, not just one. There’s the old familiar you that you know, that is attached to your body. It’s purpose is to protect your body, to look after it. It is the temporary you, nearby and familiar. It learns to speak, and then becomes an incessant chatter in your brain. It’s the ego, a very important function of your psychic being, but, like your body, it will die. That’s the bit of you that is scared of death, so when another creature dies, the cold hand of death enters your heart, and you either make up stories about heaven, or you put on that old grim face of realism and say that the world is meaningless.
But there is another you, ancient and deep, connected to you by the endless, fine thread of synchronicity. You are like two particles in quantum entanglement. I don’t know where it exists. A long, long way away: maybe in another dimension, maybe in a parallel universe. Maybe in the backwards universe that will exist once this universe collapses in on itself, systole to your diastole, in-breath to your out-breath, Yang to your Yin, light to your shade, immortal to your mortal bones. It existed before there were words to describe it, and it will exist after the words have ceased to have meaning. It is the you of pure awareness, of pure knowledge, of pure being. It is like an energy wave in that ocean of bliss, a sine wave of electromagnetic awareness, made up of three parts, to represent the three parts of your being: your sexual centre, your emotional centre, and your intellectual centre. In the body these are represented by your sexual organs, your heart and your brain, in ascending order, but they exist outside your body too, in your bliss body of pure awareness. “You”, the real you, is a pulse of self-identity that surges between the three in a continual dance of creativity and joy.
It’s OK: you don’t have to believe these words. It’s just another story I’m telling you. Your sceptical brain is right to be wary. Wariness is another form of awareness and you should trust its impulses and nurture them, as you nurture your heart and your heart’s desire and your urge to connect with another in the ecstatic union of dance.
Just don’t be afraid of your death, that is all. It really is your friend, come to embrace you in its loving arms, to take you home again.
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For information about the Mandaeans, please read their sacred texts here.
My thanks to Peter Wilberg for some of the terminology and concepts used in this piece.