The Weirdness of Nonduality #2: Can I Die?
A series of dialogues, arguments, expositions, and stories seeking to reveal the utter weirdness, as well as the possible truth, of nonduality. This is the second piece in this series.
“Inevitable to life is death and not inevitable to death is life.”
— Jamaica Kincaid
Is Kincaid right? Is death inevitable for those stamped with the gift of life?
For don’t we hold these truths about the human condition to be self-evident: that each of us is a human being; that each human being was born and shall die; that time in general and that each person’s time on this planet in particular is finite in nature; that most probably when the body perishes so too does consciousness; and that most probably there is nothing more to this sentient, intelligent life after the perishing of this body and the final darkening of this consciousness? We are enclosed by these truths, it seems.
Because of these apparently self-evident truths about the human condition, my death can hardly be anything but shockingly scary to me. Unless, that is, I seek consolation by some intellectual means or another.
Intellectual Strategy #1: The Assumption of a Self and the Bifurcation of Non-existence and Existence
To find a modicum of consolation, I may appeal to Epicurus who famously reasoned: “Why should I fear death? If I am, then death is not. If death is, then I am not.” The claim is that existence and non-existence are necessarily mutually exclusive, and the conclusion is that it makes no sense to care about non-existence that, by definition, cannot make room for any existence, including my own.
Supposing that this is so, cold comfort it gives to anyone terrified by the process by which he may die — be it sudden and gory or, as in Parkinson’s, as slow as the glacial melting away of identity. “It is not death,” this person says, “that frightens me; it is dying.” The disjunction between being and non-being says nothing about the relationship between becoming and unbecoming. “I fear,” this person goes on, “my unraveling.”
And I have said nothing yet about the main supposition — an enormously large one — that Epicurus makes: it is that I am a self, a self that exists. Yet who is it or what is it that is said to be when death is not? Is not Epicurus begging quite a big question?
Intellectual Strategy #2: Leaving No Unfinished Business
Or when faced with the future actuality of my own death, I may instead construe my life in terms of major projects that I strive to complete. And once these projects are complete, I think, I have every reason to conclude that I shall have lived a full, a complete life. My legacy, however fleeting it may be, has hereafter been bequeathed to the human species, which is now free to do with it as it sees fit. When death comes, I say to myself, I shall be ready to go. I shall do everything within my power, I tell myself, to ensure that it catches me at the right moment and never unawares.
Yet this talk too of having, or of wanting to have, no “unfinished business” is a dodge if ever there was one. A dodge? Why a dodge? Because it presupposes that I just am, metaphysically speaking, a human agent who is “done” with life just when or just after I have “done” whatever I have come here to do. I say that I have settled my accounts once this is so. But what if I am not, metaphysically speaking again, just a human agent acting on the world? What if interpreting myself as if I were just a human agent were, indeed, a way of evading something more existentially true about who I really am?
If that were true, then all the projects in the world, complete or otherwise, would not be enough to assuage an existential anxiety that, having gone unfaced and therefore unexamined, would leave me with an unmarked void in my heart, with a gnawing at and in the sinews of my being. Even should I leave no unfinished business, I may, nonetheless, have neglected something so deep, significant, and mysterious about existence as to shock me the very moment the slightest hint of death comes.
Intellectual Strategy #3: Betrayal
Or, as is more commonly the case today, I can simply refuse to take up death and reflect upon it. I call this an act of betrayal, one that marries delusion with active forgetfulness. For do I not need to constantly ignore and eschew my own mortality when I hear of the untimely death of my sister? Must I not refuse to regard each death I catch wind of with pathos and terror (here, an allusion to Aristotle’s view of tragedy) but instead with the most churlish, chilling indifference? It’s as if each day I wake up were to correspond with the forgetting that death may come at any time, that it may be growing within me just now. As I live out my betrayal, I presume continued life on my terms and, by so doing, I turn my back on the terror that cuts through the self-evident truths I have never stopped to examine. My Faustian bargain — living without remembering, without bringing this secret into my heart — may also entail dying without repentance.
Intellectual Strategy #4: Feeling Nothing
Lastly, I may feel, or say I feel anyway, nothing about death but, if so, then it can’t be denied that I have yet to confront the axioms listed above. A finite being whose existence — the only one he knows and doubtless the only one he is attached to — is set to expire and who takes it to be obvious that there is nothing more for him cannot but feel that the only thing he presumes to care most about — namely, his self and therefore its continued existence — could cease, finally, to be. Feeling nothing about my own death means I haven’t begun to cut a slice into what life may be about.
Confronting the Axioms Head-on
An odd approach comes as something of a joke: why not reject all the above truths we take to be self-evident and then see where this takes us? Against the grain of common sense, nonduality does just this, denying much of what we believe and feel to be so obvious about the human condition. It denies that I am, essentially, a person; denies that I was born and that I shall die; denies that I am measured by finitude; denies that I, Consciousness, perish when the body does; and denies that I, Consciousness, could ever be limited by the body or the finite mind. Succinctly put, nonduality holds that it is impossible for me — for anyone, really — to die.
What, indeed, is nonduality getting at?
‘Neither Birth Nor Death’
Consider, on this score, the Indian teacher Ramana Maharshi’s remarks about the illusion of birth and death in a dialogue (satsang) with a disciple (from “Talk 244” in Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi):
M. [Maharshi]: Why should one think of birth and death? Are you really born? The rising of the mind is called birth. After mind the body-thought arises and the body is seen; then the thought of birth, the state before birth, death, the state after death — all these are only of the mind. Whose is the birth?
D. [Student]: Am I not now born?
M.: So long as the body is considered, birth is real. But the body is not ‘I’. The Self is not born nor does it die. There is nothing new. The Sages see everything in and of the Self. There is no diversity in it. Therefore there is neither birth nor death. (p. 206)
No birth and no death — imagine that — but then such is truly unimaginable. The thesis is that who I fundamentally am is the big “S” Self, the only true reality, the source from which, in which, out of which, and as which every finite being arises. To be sure, I appear to myself to be a finite mind housed in a body, located in time and space, and subject to change. Yet about this could I be wrong? If so, how could I be so mistaken about something so elemental?
Maharshi insists that the body is a creation of the mind (see “The Weirdness of Nonduality #1: Who Are You?”). The mind constructs the body out of sensations, imaging, perception, and spatiotemporal localization. “These are sensations felt in my hand right here and right now. They occur in or on my body.”
Go backward from here. If the body is a creation of the mind (Maharshi: “The sense of body is a thought” [my italics]), then how does the mind arise? The ‘I-thought,’ Maharshi contends, precedes the birth of the mind (p. 205), the mind being what “rises after the ‘I-thought’” (p. 205). It’s as if “I” were to announce its presence, only to be confused with the mind, where the “I” is subsequently held captive. What is to be discovered through acts of introspection is the true nature of the “I.” Its true nature, Maharshi states, is to be identical with the Self, or ultimate reality.
If it could be seen directly that the “I” is not the body, then it would clearly follow that the destiny of the body is not also that of the “I.” Furthermore, if it could be understood, just as clearly, just as directly, that the “I” is not the mind, then the darkening of the mind would not entail the expiration of the “I.”
If, then, the “I” were neither the body nor the mind, our map of human reality would need to be torn up, a new one drawn. Only then could it be asked: “what, truly, is ‘the I’? Who, really, am I?” Such is the beginning of self-inquiry.
What If I Cannot Die?
Certain Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are seeking “super longevity”: to live indefinitely long as these particular body-minds. When his grandmother died, James Strole, then 11 and now 70, felt “a pain you can’t even describe, it’s so deep in your gut.” He is right about pain, also about suffering, yet he may be wrong about his commitment to life extensionsim.
The mistake Strole and others like him make is at once philosophical and mystical. It is philosophical in that they’ve yet to examine whether they just are these body-minds. And it is mystical in that they’ve failed to see whether it’s possible, by means of self-inquiry or meditation or contemplation, to dissolve the ego such that they could be identical with what Advaita calls “the Self,” what Buddhists call sunyata, what Daoists called “the Dao,” the unnamable life-force that Laozi thinks is the single, all-encompassing substance of all sentient life.
Enlightenment or Bust!
Until we examine the most basic axioms, those upon which our ordinary sense of ourselves as separate egos rests, we can’t help but evade the immanent destruction of the ego, or concoct intellectual strategies that fail to satisfy or signify, or else dream of living as long as we possibly can. Yet these intellectual strategies simply won’t do. Worse still, so long as we remain committed to the identification of the “I” with the body-mind, so long shall Western medicine continue to act in accordance with this inadequate understanding. Specifically, it will keep on identifying “the I” with the body and, in consequence, shall keep holding onto the body for as long as it possibly, or feasibly, can. Witness secularism’s endgame: a woman with Parkinson’s ‘living’ on life support for a decade. We all know other heartbreaking examples from personal experience.
However weird it may sound, asking whether I can die may be the beginning of one of the deepest introspective inquiries there is. And that such acts of introspection could end in lasting peace is, perhaps, one of the greatest mysteries there is.
This is the second in The Weirdness of Nonduality series. The next one? Possibly: “The Weirdness of Nonduality #3: What is Now?”