What happens to us after we die? Human beings have been asking that great, big matzo ball of an existential question since we stood upright and stopped dragging our knuckles in the primordial goo.
Do we fade into the nothingness of nonexistence? Do we re-awaken as crying, newly born infants (or animals) in a karmic cycle of reincarnation? Or maybe there's that white light that we hear so much about on Larry King and Oprah with its warm glow and the welcoming smiles of long-dead relatives. Perhaps we'll see St. Peter as a celestial maitre de checking to see if we've got our reservations for the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever one's individual beliefs are, it seems that human beings are positively obsessed with the question of what happens when the screen fades to black.
But why is this? Why does the question of what happens after we die, well, haunt us so much? In my new book How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save your Life, I discuss the notion that human beings are uniquely able to contemplate that question because we're the only species that can use our minds to travel through time and project into the future. And what do we find in said future? Our inevitable death. And that scares the hell out of us (or, some might argue, that scares the heaven and hell into us!)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Becker had written in his seminal work The Denial of Death that, in essence, the sum of all human endeavor-our art, our architecture, our religions, our procreation-are all just desperate attempts to deny our own mortality and thus soothe our terror (what psychologists call thanatos anxiety) over the possibility that there's nothing more beyond the physical realm.
And the popular wisdom seems to be that we'll never really know what happens post-mortem because no one has ever come back to tell the tale.
But that might not be entirely true.
Beyond the stories of people who have had near death experiences (NDEs) that have been documented by psychologists like Dr. Raymond Moody (Life After Life, 1977) and Dr. Kenneth Ring (Mindsight, 1999), there are also the well documented and rigorously researched cases of children who, without the benefit of an NDE or the aid of hypnotic regression, spontaneously-and vividly-recall past lives.
In these cases, we're not talking about kids remembering being Cleopatra or Napoleon; no, we're talking about children having veridical (documentable as accurate) specific memories of people that were fairly recently deceased (from several months to several years). Oftentimes these memories include names of relatives, including parents and siblings; names of villages or districts where they had lived; memories of their prior occupations and, most compellingly, very precise and accurate descriptions of the causes of their prior death.
Most startling of all are the cases where there are actual birthmarks and/or congenital birth defects on the child that correlate to the cause of death (of an oftentimes traumatic nature) in the earlier incarnation. As difficult as this is for many to believe, these cases-over three thousand of them-have been exhaustively documented. Indeed, what most people don't know is that this academically rigorous reincarnation research has been going on at a major U.S. university for over 40 years!
At the Division of Perceptual Studies (formerly the Division of Personality Studies), a unit of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia, Dr. Jim B. Tucker has carried on the work that his predecessor Dr. Ian Stevenson began in 1967 and carried on until his death in 2007. Incredibly, Stevenson spent almost 40 years travelling all over the world with his research team to methodically interview, photograph and document these amazing cases.
In his books Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (1974) and Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect (1997) he details the painstaking lengths that he and his team went through to authenticate and verify the accuracy of the children's past-life memories. In cases that he felt were compromised (i.e. the child had been exposed to information of the prior life), he would reject them as inconclusive; only cases where no other possible explanations could account for the children's memories were accepted as being "suggestive" of reincarnation.
Does that "prove" that there's life after death? I'll let you draw your own conclusions. I'm admittedly biased. As I chronicle in my book, I had an NDE when my heart had stopped and I wound up in coma over 10 years ago. I didn't have the much ballyhooed white light experience (most NDE survivors don't), but I felt somehow different when I woke up. That led me on a ten year quest to better understand the nature of life, death and consciousness. My conclusion? There's more to life than this biological container we call a body.
I discovered that there was actually an incredible amount of research that indicates that consciousness can manifest independent of the body. This included what's known as DMILS (Distant Mental Influence on Living Systems) research conducted by my friend and mentor psychologist Dr. William Braud. His experiments, detailed in his book Distant Mental Influences (2003) yielded statistically significant data regarding people's abilities to mentally influence, among other things, the hemolysis (death by osmotic stress) in human red-blood cells that were in a Petri dish as well as being able to cause changes in people's sympathetic, autonomic nervous system (as measured by galvanic skin responses).
In addition, there have been controlled double-blind experiments that have shown that intercessory prayer (healing prayer at a distance) yields positive recovery outcomes for both coronary and oncology patients. And then there's the "mental influence" work of William Tiller and his team at Stanford. In that research, Tiller had conducted repeatable experiments wherein properties of a material object (in this case, the pH level of a sample of water) were impacted (the pH level was either raised or lowered) by focused meditative thought.
The skeptic may say, so what? Even if I grant that those experiments are sound, what does the pH level of water getting lowered or raised by meditative thought have to do with the question of life after death? Well, if any part of this voluminous research that I've cited is accurate-any part at all-then we would have to conclude that the mechanistic, materialist paradigm by which we understand our universe-a paradigm that precludes any metaphysical (beyond physical) reality such as thoughts influencing the hemolysis of red blood cells or consciousness surviving biological death-is a faulty paradigm.
Any valid theory has to explain all the available data-even outlier phenomena like the ones I've cited. If the mechanistic, material paradigm indeed has a crack in it, then that crack can open up the door for other more satisfying non-mechanistic paradigms that can allow for such documented metaphysical realities. Indeed, in the alternative non-mechanistic, non-material perspectives offered to us by today's theoretical physicists, we have strange new worlds of quantum, string and, more recently, holographic theories of the universe.
Or, as I do in my book How Plato and Pythagoras Can Save your Life, we can even go back to ancient Greecee for a metaphysical "Realm of Ideal Forms" paradigm that presages quantum, string and holographic theories and offers us a more paradoxical and abstract universe where death is a form of rebirth and consciousness--not matter--is the causal source of universal existence.
And boy, did the Greeks really got into death; from harvest and fertility festivals and mythology, to death-recreating Orphic mystery rites, the Greeks were very into the whole death thing.
Why? Why the morbid fascination with the underworld? Indeed, why was even philosophy itself called by Plato a form of "death before dying"? Answer: Plato and Pythagoras believed that in realizing our ephemeral physical nature, we would better apprehend our transcendent and eternal soul/form. Thus the Greeks believed that via the mind/body/soul "purification" of metaphysical philosophy, a person could get beyond the illusion of the material world and experience what some have called "Ultimate Reality".
This journey in which one faced one's own death and darkness-one's own shadow side-was part of a transformative and integrating "hero's journey", to use Joseph Campbell's language, in which one could, as Plato said, "die before dying". For the ancients, this was achieved by a rigorous mind/body contemplative philosophical lifestyle that culminated in a ritual known as an "incubation". During this transformative ritual, a person was suppsoed to lay totally still in a dark cave for hours, even days. Through this process, if a person had been properly trained and prepared, they could experience an amazing transformation wherein there was a sense of shedding the physical body as a snake sheds its skin.
This process of transfiguration was the human alchemy that Carl Jung wrote extensively about--and that the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians had discovered thousands of years earlier.
Perhaps the real key to the transformation-the magic, if you will-that seems to accompany actual near-death experiences lays with the dissolution of the self and the glimpse into the infinite. In a sense, death can be seen as a release or expansion of the individual egoic level of consciousness into the larger expanse. As the walls of the self are torn down, what's left? Nothing? Or is that nothing perhaps everything-the "allness" of Ultimate Reality?
So what does happen to a person after they die? Maybe a whole new awakening.
And, if you adhere to the teachings Plato and Pythagoras, you don't even have to physically die to experience that life-changing and reality-rocking awakening.