Contemplating Death (to Understand Life)

In my understanding, the phrase “Ignorance is bliss” is somewhat accurate in the sense that one cannot be troubled by problems one is not aware of, but it is inaccurate in the sense that one cannot be delighted in not having to deal with problems outside of one’s awareness either. When it comes to our understandings of our experiences, we can only really contemplate that which we can be cognizant of. If you are unaware of something you are facing, you will not understand it or factor it into any other understanding which you have. Having said this, we have all heard that one day we will die, and that after this moment of death, we shall cease to be who and, possibly, what we are. However, this is largely based on assumptions of experiences like death. Even if someone could be in a condition that would be medically pronounced dead, then resuscitated back to life, they aren’t still dead afterwards. And it seems odd to think that though we are mostly unable to accurately describe, let alone remember, most of our dreams from past nights, we would be able to accurately remember and describe the experiences that follow death with our conceptualizations based on our life experiences. Experiences so profoundly different from our living standards are ineffable for the novelty and intensity of the difference in their experiencing, so what makes us think that we would be able to describe or understand what it’s like to not exist?

What does it mean to be out of one’s body, as if the form you were bound to wasn’t something your were bound to at all, but something like a house or a vessel that you were simply occupying space within while believing it was your own form? Can experience really end? What does it mean to “cease to be”, assuming experience continues, in a way that the continuity of experience does not change but the entire nature of identity and reality changes? Assuming that the continuity of experience doesn’t change, what actually ceases and what doesn’t? Though dreaming is something fairly mysterious to most people, I think it holds the answers to a lot of our questions about death and changes of the Self.

Have you ever realized you were waking up from a dream as it happened? Or realized immediately as you woke up that what you were just then experiencing — and now remembering — was something only tangentially related to what you are now experiencing in “waking life”? If death is the cessation of experience, then there is literally nothing to be done or to happen past the point of death. But, if death is not the cessation of experience, but rather the cessation of a personal experience, like how the ending of a dream is simply the cessation of that dreaming experience, then dying and living with regards to experience can be seen as analogous to waking consciousness and that moment of unconsciousness before the dream of sleep but after the closed-ignorance of the “waking” reality.

I don’t mean to question here whether or not this physical, waking reality we experience is the base, fundamental reality; instead, I offer a proposition: Whatever the continuity of experience may lead us to, death is only the end of Self-conscious identity.

It is true that once a person of a certain name dies, that this person, identified by that name, ceases to experience, but this does not mean the end of experience all together. After all, if one person dies, we do not all cease to experience, so consciousness as some thing which exists is still operative just as the waves and current of the ocean would still flow if a small amount of water were to be removed. The consciousness which supplied the deceased person’s mind with information no longer functions, but our consciousness still functions normally. And normal, functioning consciousness is not unaffected by, but unbound to a personal identity.

Advancements in psychology have shown that the ego, the self-conscious identity and conceptualizing/logical part of mind, is a construction of the mind that serves as a representative rather than the core of the psyche, and much like political representatives, the ego is revised, refined, and redefined to better fit its role as a certain instrumental aspect of the mind as a whole. Any change at all to egoic formation can be seen as the death of one ego and the installment of another, regardless of the potentially radical or subtle nature of the change. With every experience gained, with every shift in consciousness/unconsciousness, and with every claim of identification, the ego changes, relinquishing its former selves like snake skins, but maintaining the idea that it is still the same thing, that it is identical to what was before it, hence the consistency of self-identification. Part of its purpose is to suppose identical relationship to the essence of its existence — its being a construction of the mind is contrary to its being the Self representative — but what exactly is this essence of existence?

A thing alone is not the same as that thing in its encompassing environment; all you have to do to understand this is to observe (the same) humans in various environments, and note that external changes are necessarily coupled with internal changes in tandem. But what is that internal thing? What is actually the core of our existence? Is it our minds? That may not seem to be the case because our minds seem so varied and non-uniform in content, but even the same thing will change depending on its environment, and your body and individual being is just as much a part of your environment as it is your “self”. Is the core of being consciousness? That may be the case considering that within experience there is always conscious awareness, but then do we die every time we fall unconscious, or fall through unconsciousness to sleep? Could it be that experience of life itself is just the processing of change until the entire psychological system gets shut down and rebooted? … Maybe.

It is not uncommon for people who have made radical changes to their personalities, for better or worse, to say that the old them “is dead and gone”. Let’s not confuse the death of our body with the death of our selves. Our body dies only once, but your ego dies at least on a daily basis. It can be facilitated by certain practices, induced by certain chemical substances, or it could happen simply as a consequence of the information the mind processes and its perceived relationship to that information. If you are facing a life of turmoil, it’s possible that your ego could “die” and be remade into something stronger and more capable of facing existence as it is without the same limitations or boundaries that the old ego held. Life is an experience of continuity, of time passing as forms change and “things” happen, but we have never really experienced the end. Aside from the logical absurdity of the fear of death, there really isn’t much we can definitively say about the phenomenon. Even our understandings of physical death are primarily ideas we hold with added assumptions that the core of our being is somehow tied to physicality. We may in these lives be tied to physical experience, but we have very few, scientifically reliable means of exploring immateriality and the meaning of existence that does not rely on three-dimensional construction. However, we can think about it. We can contemplate what experiences we do have and question the nature of our existence. Thinking about death as transformation can offer a very comprehensive view of personal change, enabling one to find fulfillment and meaning in life when they feel stuck or are in deep depressions. So, for the sake of achieving what we wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and also for the love of knowledge, wisdom, and the intricacy of our existence and experience, I invite you to think about what it means to be and what it means to not, without having an explicit goal other than to do so. If you’re inclined to explore or if you like new ideas, you may find something interesting along the way.

Featured Photo by Renato Danyi from Pexels

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