Let me start out by saying that I have a friend who is struggling with mortality. I have several friends, actually. One thing we all have in common is that we are getting older, and as we get older we are growing more aware of the Dark Gate just over the horizon. Once you realize that your sand won’t ever go back up the hour glass, some serious reckoning is in order. This happens to be terrifying my friend at the moment.
If I can’t make new friends as I go along, my present company will slide intractably down the gradient of entropy and eventually there will be none of us left. Perhaps some day in the still more distant future someone will stroll by my gravestone, or a descendant might stumble across my name while researching our family tree. Where will I be at that time?
Long, long ago an answer to this question was that I somehow carry on in a shadowland of departed souls. Importantly, “soul” back then didn’t refer to a resident ghost that inhabited a body for a time but afterward continued to live apart from it. Soul was more like an animating force – fluid, dynamic, breath-like – than a nonphysical entity.
We can only imagine what went through the minds of primal human beings (perhaps our hominid ancestors) as they gathered around the corpse of a friend or family member. What had just hours before been breathing and talking and living like the rest of us, is now ashen and rigid. Where did that center of affect and agency – that unique personality we knew and loved – go?
The primitive practice of burial was probably motivated out of concern for sanitation, odor control, and hiding remains from scavenging animals, but there may have been an element of reverence as well. The mystery surrounding this once-living personality was not to be casually dismissed. Some kind of subterranean extension of the burial hole was envisioned, where all deceased members of the community somehow “live on.” As far as the archaeological record suggests, this seems to have been an acceptable (and widespread) belief, sufficient to allow the folks above ground to carry on with the demands of daily life.
Fast-forward many centuries, and now the postmortem status of the departed personality might be one of three possibilities depending on how important, virtuous, or depraved a person was during earthly life. Good people were taken up into heaven for their reward, bad people were condemned and thrown into hell, while the average and “undecided” cases persisted in something like the old shadowland, but understood as a transitory waiting room, not a final destination. Of course, to be “taken up,” “thrown down,” or tabled for later discussion presumes the existence of someone who executes this action, which is what we eventually find in the pantheon of deities throughout the higher cultures.
We really need to explore what could be called the “archaeology of human psychology” to understand the mechanism responsible for this rather dramatic shift in theories of postmortem existence. What we see over the intervening centuries (10,000-1,500 BCE) is the gradual but steady rise of ego consciousness – the ascent out of tribal sympathies of a separate sense of oneself as an individual. This important separation of the individual ego from the group continued on an earlier separation of the group from the earth, as the maintenance of society began to require more human energy and attention. Specifically what it did with respect to the topic at hand is encourage a notion that I (ego) am separate from my body.
Death of the body, at this later stage of development, didn’t pull a personality into the shadowland (as in primitive thought), but was increasingly regarded as a “disencumbrance” of mortality – getting rid of or being set free from the bag of meat that snags us in time and would otherwise drag us to a dreadful end.
As religion began to reconstruct itself around the death anxiety of the ego, traditional commitments of keeping communal life in rhythm with the cycles of nature were given up in favor of a program for saving the soul from the ravages of time – safe forever with god and other believers in heaven. This program not surprisingly included strong sanctions against “carnal” desire and the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake; such was the way of woman and the devil. The soul – which by now had become essentially synonymous with the ego personality – must be kept pure or “cleansed” of its attachment to the body through repression and ascetic practices.
Consequently we have inherited these two horns of my friend’s dilemma: Either we blink, wake up in heaven and are happy ever after, or we rot in the ground with the worms. Which one do you want? Religion is betting on (and abetting) your fantasy of living forever.
But this dilemma does not exhaust our choices. In actuality there is no choice. I will die, and so will you. All evidence strongly suggests that your last day on earth is your last day, period. So is this a vote for the worms? When my body starts to lose its peripheral functions, the decline has begun; when its rudimentary functions fizzle out, I’m done. Is accepting this an act of existential resignation? If my death is the end of me, does it mean that nothing matters and there’s no point in caring about anything?
My admittedly over-simplified tour through ten thousand years of religion’s changing opinion on this question of mortality and the afterlife was for the purpose of showing that the escalating anxiety around death is actually a product (or more precisely a by-product) of religion’s steady hijacking by the neurotically insecure (separate, exposed, estranged, trapped and “fallen”) ego. The seduction was slow, but over time ego became the orthodox impostor of the soul, now immortalized and destined for disembodied bliss (or perdition unless you get your act together) somewhere else.
Because it is so obvious that ego consciousness came about and was not there in the opening millenniums of our evolutionary history as a species should encourage a healthy skepticism regarding the glorious fantasies of meaning, identity, salvation and immortality that have since been spun like a web around its nervous and wonderfully conceited existence. You just have to give the assignment of creating their own religion to a group of self-conscious and inwardly tormented adolescents, and soon enough you’ll have something that looks strikingly similar to a number of world religions today.
The truth is that we are human beings, evolving creatures of this magnificent and possibly exceptional planet, outwardly oriented in the turning complexity of our physical universe and (at least potentially) oriented inwardly to the creative source of our own spiritual life. The ground of your being is provident and gracious and deeply mysterious, beyond words and much deeper than who you think you are (ego). This inward path and resting place in the present mystery of reality is named soul, and what your soul wants more than anything is to relax into being – surrender, loosen up, and unwind completely into Oneness.
Death will be our last chance to fully relax and let it all go. Now is the time to practice …