“I am not afraid of death,
I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
– Woody Allen
What do you think about, when you think about death? Your own absence? The end of you? The falling-away of your world? The world without you? What would that look like – the world without you?
We try to imagine ‘the world without me’, and we run into a huge, cosmic problem.
You see, your world (your past, your future, your memories, your concepts, your opinions, your judgements, your philosophies, your religious and spiritual beliefs, your regrets, your guilt, your fears, your seeking, your achievements, your successes, your failures… basically everything that you know, everything that you think is true, everything that you think might be true, everything you don’t know but suspect might be true, every hunch, every hope, every doubt, every certainty….) is all you have ever known. Your world is all you know, and all you have ever known.
Your world – which is the world, to you – is you.
Your world – the world – is all of the above, and also the absence of the above (because negation is also part of your world).
As all the authentic spiritual teachers throughout the ages have been reminding us, the world cannot exist without you. The world arises and falls away with the ‘I’. No ‘I’, no world.
The world without you? Not a possibility.
Every night in deep dreamless sleep, where is the world? And where is the one who experiences a world? These reflections are obliterated. As Ramana Maharshi once said, that which does not exist in deep dreamless sleep is not real.
In deep dreamless sleep, there is not even anyone there who can experience the absence of the world. Nobody ‘experiences’ deep dreamless sleep. The one who experiences, the experiencer, is not there. There is not even anybody there who can experience ‘nothing’. In deep dreamless sleep, there is not even ‘nothing’ as separate from ‘something’. These mind-made opposites are not there either.
Deep dreamless sleep is death. Every night we die. And every morning we wake up and we say ‘I was asleep’. No you weren’t. You weren’t there! But we love the idea of continuity. We love the idea of being an entity that exists continuously. We love the idea that we are, in some way, constant, unchangeable, solid, Absolute. Ingeniously, it dampens our fear of death. We love our ideas and beliefs in eternal souls, constant unchanging presence, of an Absolute Reality that exists even when we aren’t there to know it’s there.
But if there is an unchangeable presence, you have no way of knowing it, and therefore no way of experiencing it. It is the very experiencing structure which is obliterated when you are obliterated. So there is nobody there to report the existence of “eternally self-shining presence-awareness” during deep dreamless sleep, or to know that “the real Self remains constant” throughout deep dreamless sleep. All of these are simply more concepts – concepts that are obliterated too.
If you know that there is “eternally self-shining presence-awareness” during deep dreamless sleep, or that “the real Self remains constant” throughout deep dreamless sleep, you know way too much. These are concepts that arise with the experiencer. Without the experiencer, there would be no way of knowing this constant awareness, and certainly no way of reporting it. No way of speaking it, no way of teaching it.
Undoubtedly, during deep dreamless sleep, life goes on. But ‘you’ have no way of knowing that, and no way of experiencing it. This is a crucial point that often gets missed out in Advaita / Nondual teachings. For many people Nonduality / Advaita is just an excuse to swap their belief in God for a belief in ‘unchanging, eternal, everlasting, presence-awareness’ which exists even after the individual has disappeared. Same belief, different words. I’m not saying that life doesn’t go on. I’m saying you cannot know it or experience it. And so you certainly cannot formulate it into a Truth about existence. That is why there cannot be any teachers of this (including me!)…
Death seems to be the falling-away of the dream, which is the falling-away of the experiencer. And who is going to experience the absence of the experiencer?
You cannot experience your own absence. This is why death can never be an experience for you. You can only experience what you know, and with death, all knowledge is rendered irrelevant, because the absence of the knower cannot be known. No knowledge is necessary or relevant then. All knowledge burns up. All conditioning, all beliefs. It is total extinction.
In other words, in order to know what you are experiencing, on some level there must be a narrative, a story running about someone experiencing something. Even if the experience is ‘the absence of the self’, there is already somebody there (a self) who knows that and who attributes those qualities to their experience. Without the story, there is no way of knowing what you are experiencing. Without the story, there is no way of separating one thing (an experiencer) from another thing (their experience). Without the story there cannot be two things. Where there are two things, you will always find a story. The story is duality. Even to say “there is only present awareness after death” is already another story. That story too falls away upon death. And what is left, you have no way of knowing for yourself, and therefore no way of experiencing.
Death is nothing. Which is to say, death is not an event. Any event is in the story of time, which is the story of a world, which is the story of you. The falling away of the story of you does not happen in time. It is the falling-away of time. Death is the death of the experience of time and space. How can there be anything left after that? How can there be any residue whatsoever? ‘Eternal presence awareness’ (or at least, the knowing of it) would be residue…
And so, who dies? Only a time-bound story could die. Because ‘death’ is simply another time-bound concept. The mind splits ‘life’ from ‘death’ – one is loved and one is feared. Or perhaps both are loved, or both feared. But either way, without the story, can there be life as separate from death? Right now, how do you know you are alive? On some level, in order to experience ‘being alive’ (and not being dead) you have to tell yourself that you are alive and not dead. You have to tell yourself that you were born and that one day you will die. What you believe is what you experience.
But to whom do all these stories arise? In who or what does the story “I am a separate person who was born and who will die one day” arise?
What you are is already free from all of these stories. It is that in which the whole world comes and goes. And yet, it is not separate from that which comes and goes, either. It is not ‘not duality’. That would be dualistic. It is radically all-inclusive. If it is non-duality, it is also duality. Then it is neither non-duality or duality. It is unspeakable, ultimately. Because it is not an ‘it’ at all.
Some people believe that everything is impermanent except Awareness. Or that only Consciousness is eternal. That the Presence that you are exists even after death. They take these as unshakeable facts, as inarguable Truths about existence.
It all hinges on our understanding of the word “exists”. Once it is seen that ‘existence’ is simply another word for ‘existence in the story’ (in other words, in time) then it is seen that even the idea of Self-Shining Awareness that exists after death must also burn up. Even that is another concept held by the seeker – the seeker is always looking for something permanent. Whether you believe in the eternal soul, or eternal self-shining awareness, it is essentially the same belief.
Even awareness, consciousness and presence are seen to be concepts in the end.
Undeniably, life goes on. Millions of dinosaurs are born and die. Humans emerge. Fish, plants, trees, elephants come and go. A cat dies, rots, and maggots feed on its flesh. A human dies and their body is burnt – their ashes fertilise the soil. In this way, and in this way only, Life goes on. Everything else must be a projection of the individual. Why? Because it is in time. All talk of the time and the timeless – that is the ‘me’ talking.
How do I know? Well, in deep dreamless sleep, where are your concepts about life and death? In deep dreamless sleep, it is all obliterated. And then in the morning, the person reappears (this is the true resurrection, the true reincarnation!) with all their ideas about life and death, about past lives and reincarnation, about eternal presence and eternal souls and continuous existence. The person reincarnates, and reports on deep dreamless sleep. But it is a report, and it is not deep dreamless sleep. The report is the story.
Eternal souls? Eternal presence? Reincarnation? Rebirth? It is all as real as ‘you’ are.
I’m not saying your ideas are wrong, and mine are right.
I’m saying these ideas are as real as you are.
Discover how real ‘you’ are first…
Death? Where is death right now? Surely right now, all you can find is aliveness, life, the present appearance of everything right here and right now. Where is death? Death is always a projection, a story about something that will ‘happen’ in the future. But that story only ever happens right now.
Death is your story of death, and it happens now. Even a moment before what we call physical death (when the body ceases to function), there is only this – this aliveness, this presence. And upon what we call death, what falls away is the story, the story about someone who is dying, the story about someone who could die at all. What falls away upon death is death itself. And what is left? You have no way of knowing. ‘You’ have no way of knowing. ‘I’ have no way of knowing. Why? Because there is nothing to know. Death is nothing.
What may happen of course, is fear of death. What may happen, of course, moments before death, is pain. Let’s not deny the realities of this bodily existence. But fear and physical pain are simply expressions of life. There may be fear of death, but there is no death. There may be pain leading up to death, but there is no death.
Upon death, the one who fears, and the one who is in pain – where do they go? They don’t ‘go’ anywhere, because they never existed. There is nowhere to ‘go’ for a non-existent entity!
The one who is dying – where does he or she go upon death? They don’t ‘go’ anywhere – death is not a destination. Death is a thought.
They don’t ‘go’ anywhere, because there is only here, there is only now, and there was never anybody here separate from life.
Imagine a wave, ‘moving through’ the ocean. It approaches the shore (its apparent destination) and crashes onto it. The wave doesn’t appear to be there any more. But has the wave ‘gone’ anywhere? Has the wave ‘disappeared’? No, there was never a separate wave to begin with. It was never ‘born’ so it cannot really ‘disappear’. There was only the ocean, appearing temporarily as a wave. The wave actually went… nowhere. There was no destination in the end, except the absence of the one who would ‘reach’ it. A non-existent wave cannot die…
So nobody dies. Nobody experiences death. What we experience is what we know. We experience what we know about death. But that which is beyond personal experience does not experience death. Discover what that is, and death becomes meaningless. Because all that’s left is this present livingness, with no concept of ‘that which is beyond life’. ‘That which beyond life’ is simply a concept appearing in life. As is ‘life’, by the way…
It will never be understood – and does not need to be. Why do you bother with death and reincarnation? Isn’t this present life enough for you? Why do you fear death? Why do you hope for reincarnation? Do you think the ‘next life’ will be better than this one? What if all of that is part of your seeking dream? What if it’s all just an excuse to ignore the gift of this present existence?
We are so busy fearing death and hoping for reincarnation, that we miss what is here. And here is the miracle to end all miracles. Here is the true death – death of the seeker, death of two. It is unconditional love, beyond the knowledge of it. It is not an event. It is intimacy, beyond time. It is there in the very foundations of your present experience. Outside of that, where is death?
And the strange thing is: when this – what is here – is seen for what it is, what is seen is that this – what is here – will be present upon death. And so death will not change anything, fundamentally. The body will cease to function, yes. But after that, there is nothing to know. What a relief. All that’s left – is to live. To really live this life. Because it’s all there is. And that’s the miracle.
Death is the seeing-through of the story, which happens now. All that reincarnates is a story, which also happens now. Death and reincarnation are essentially part of the same movement – a movement of thought. Beyond thought, there cannot be any death or reincarnation.
That which is present upon death, is present right now.
Discover that, and there is no death.
How do I know?
That’s why it is known.
More clearly than anything….
And so I make a cup of tea, dunk in a biscuit, and beyond death or lack of it, all that’s left is this Mystery… and cosmic gratitude for all of it.
I die as ‘someone drinking a cup of tea’ and reincarnate as ‘someone drinking a cup of tea’. What difference?
Where I came from, where I will go back to, I have no way of knowing for myself, and therefore no way of experiencing. Beyond all belief, and beyond lack of belief, there is this Mystery, appearing as total simplicity. There is enough grace in the experience of this cup of tea to last a thousand imaginary lifetimes.
Death? Reincarnation? Duality? Nonduality? Sweet, innocent fairy tales, nothing more. And the arms of the beloved embrace all such tales, in the end.
And all of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying something very, very simple indeed:
Can death just be a mystery?