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WHERE DO WE GO AFTER WE DIE?

One of the main reasons that any religion or spiritual tradition exists is to reassure us about dying. Fear of dying is universal but hidden from view in daily life. Religion and spirituality offer hope that this fear is baseless. Something happens after death— this is the primary message—and this something is good, or at least it is better than nothing.

Despite all of its advances, science has stripped away any reassurances about life after death, and most people in the modern world accept the scientific model. In doing so it logically follows that when the physical body dies, in all likelihood the immaterial aspects of being human— mind soul, memory personality, thoughts, feelings, etc.—are extinguished at the same time.

What this set of beliefs doesn’t offer is proof, in the form of facts, data, information, and so on. In place of religious certainty, modern people face death, not only with fear, doubt, dread, and foreboding but without a shred of empirical evidence about what happens after death. The reason that we casually believe that life ends with nothing isn’t because that’s true. Nothing is simply the absence of facts. When facts end, science has nothing to say.

If you follow this train of thought, both worldviews, the religious/spiritual and the scientific, amount to stories built around assumptions that can’t be proven. When you ask, “Where do we go after we die?” the two main stories—we go to heaven/hell or we vanish into a cloud of atoms and energy waves—are hollow. They confront a mystery that refuses to reveal its secrets.

Where this leaves us is really where we begin, with the individual knowing that death is inevitable but leading a life dedicated to avoiding that fact. Fear of death isn’t necessary. At worst, we go to sleep just as we do every night, and going to sleep isn’t fearful. “I’ll know what happens when it happens” is a good working attitude, but let’s see if there is a better way.

A better way is hinted at in T.S. Eliot’s famous line of poetry, “In my end is my beginning.” This isn’t a religious or mystical statement, although Eliot was deeply religious. What these words mean is true for everyone, atheists and believers alike.

You can’t know how things end until you know how they began. This looks like a simple statement of cause and effect. If you observe that putting a jar upside down over a candle makes the flame go out, you cannot explain this until you know the laws of chemistry, which reveals that fire needs oxygen to keep going. Use up the oxygen, and the flame goes out.

But there’s a deeper meaning to “You can’t know how things end until you know how they began.” What really matters about death is the survival of consciousness. We observe the flame (the physical body) go out (die), but the mystery revolves around what happens to the non-physical part of ourselves. The things previously listed— mind soul, memory, personality, thoughts, feelings, etc.—are all experiences in consciousness.

No matter how unique anyone’s life is, consciousness brings every human being together in the same place. Life is experienced in consciousness. Therefore, if we know how consciousness begins, we know how it ends. The opposite is also true. If we don’t know how consciousness begins, we can’t possibly know how (or if) it ends.

Suddenly there is an opening for a true revelation. If consciousness has no beginning, then it has no end. In other words, the cause-and-effect model doesn’t work when it comes to consciousness. It can only be explained as existing on its own, independent of everything that does obey the rule of cause and effect.

Can anything really be outside the realm of cause and effect? Absolutely. The universe sprang from a state preceding the Big Bang that offers no clue about matter, energy, space, or time. Without those things, there is no cause and effect. At the smallest scale of nature, the quantum field creates the physical universe through ripples of potential that emerge as subatomic particles and energy waves. There is no cause for this to happen; it just does. Existence has no cause, an obvious fact once you think about it.

The New Age phrase, “Be here now,” isn’t a goal. You cannot help but be here now, since that’s the definition of existence. There are more controversial examples of things that have no cause. Many of your thoughts aren’t caused by the thoughts that preceded them. Thoughts spring up unpredictably from a state that isn’t a thought. It is a silent domain of possibilities.

Here we are at the crux of the answer. If you don’t know how thoughts arise from total silence, you can’t possibly know how or if thoughts end. You already rely on the domain of silent, invisible possibilities all the time. You fetch memories from this domain, along with your vocabulary, your next desire, and your identity, which is nothing more than a constant process of filing away the experiences you identify with, calling them “me.”

THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY THE AUTHOR ARE PERSONAL

Deepak Chopra The writer is MD, FACP, FRCP founder of the Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global

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