Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Just One of The (Many) Things I Don't Know

Some people don’t like it when I say I don’t know what happens after death. Every time I post something on Facebook about being okay with not knowing what happens next, I get a flood of emails expressing everything from sympathy to outrage. How can I be a “spiritual” person and not espouse a belief about what happens after death?

The “how” of this is really pretty simple: I really don’t know what happens next. I concede that all of the posited scenarios are possible: perhaps I will become a being-without-a-body in some other world or dimension; maybe what happens next is very much shaped and determined by what I do here now; it is possible that some essential and non-material aspect of myself will be (and has been) reborn in other lives. In fact, in my early shamanic training I did some “past life regressions.” What interested me most wasn’t whether what I experienced was evidence of past lives, (perhaps I was drawing on my own or the collective unconscious) but why those particular stories came and what insights they offered about living my life now.

I have great respect for others’ beliefs, and I can see how having a belief about what happens after death could, for some, make bearing the challenges of this life easier. If I had experienced the excruciating pain of losing a child or a beloved spouse to death, a belief in an afterlife where a future reunion was possible might be the only way to continue and bear the sorrow of such a loss.

But right now, this is what I’ve got:

I experience a Presence within and around me that is both what I essentially am and yet larger than myself. And my experience of this Presence is always one of Love. Because of this, because that Presence I was taught as a child to call God (and now sometimes call the Great Mystery, the Sacred Wholeness, the Divine, or Awareness) holds me with tenderness and mercy, I am not afraid of what happens next. Whatever it is, I have faith that it’ll be okay.

When I’ve viewed the body of a loved one after they’ve died, it has seemed to me that something- something essential to who they were- was “gone.” We could call it soul or spirit. It is certainly energy. And because we know that energy is not “lost” but simply changes form I assume that whatever is “gone” is now somewhere else, in some other form (although terms like “somewhere” and “form” may be completely irrelevant for what actually happens.)

To be human is, by definition, to be an embodied soul. What and where then is disembodied soul when the body is no more? Perhaps, when we die, some or all of the animating energy that makes us who and what we are as humans, merges with a vast, undifferentiated field of energy when the embodied aspect of being dies and disintegrates, returning to the earth. Or perhaps energy/soul/spirit flows into the forms- the trees and earth and people- in the immediate vicinity and beyond. Some form of these two scenarios make as much sense to me as heaven or multiple lives.

Here’s the problem: we tend to be understandably attached to the idea that some identifiable experience of an individuated self survives death. And maybe it does. But we can posit other possibilities that involve no such retention of personal identity. The energy that I identify as “me” will “go” somewhere- but whether or not it will retain any experience or awareness that feels like “me”. . . well, I don’t know. But. . . . I suspect if it doesn’t. . . . it will truly be okay.

On the other hand, all I have been and done, given and received has energetically made some impression or contribution to the field of energy that exists. So, perhaps, in that sense something of a particular life does remain and echo infinitely into the field of consciousness. This would be consistent with my own wonderful experience of communicating with what seemed to me to be my deceased grandfather.

Of course, if you consider the size of the universe and our relatively miniscule and brief existence as individual humans. . . . well, it puts that potential effect into perspective. Still, we do know that it is at least mathematically possible that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the globe can set up a wind pattern that results in a hurricane on the other side of the world- so perhaps we should not underestimate the impact one life may have on the total field of being into eternity.

My best guess is that anything we come up with from our current limited and necessarily at least somewhat attached perspective is. . . . well, just our best guess. I don’t know. And I am okay with not knowing. I am also okay with other folks believing deeply in a particular scenario, although I wince a little when those beliefs are offered as “knowledge” presumed to be shared by all “spiritual” people.

I’m okay with differing beliefs if those beliefs do not foster a lack of compassion for or actual hostility toward those who do not share them. Because that’s where the spiritual rubber hits the road for me: How does what you believe- about what happens after death or anything else- help you live a more compassionate life that contributes to the alleviation of suffering- for yourself, for others and in the world?

For me, choosing to stay with not knowing helps me be more compassionate with the losses we experience in our human lives.

So I’m okay with not knowing.

~ Oriah (c) 2012


  1. Brilliant and comforting, Oriah.

  2. Thanks for a beautiful post, written from your usual place of speaking it as it is.

    For myself, I feel the need to believe in existence beyond death (I imagine a formless afterlife for myself, with some element of self continuing) because this lifetime is so tough and painful that I want to feel that it is part of a bigger journey. To consider that this is the only life would be too tragic and brings me to tears. My understanding that this is one step enables me to keep going and to remain hopeful.

    Right now I trust in Grandmother Earth to hold me and sustain me, whatever happens. Perhaps I need to find a deeper trust in Great Spirit in order for the possibility of a nothingness beyond death to feel fine.

  3. Dear Ruby, please do not take my not-knowing as some kind of "higher" or "more developed" state than belief in a particular outcome. Perhaps one day I will feel a strong sense of clarity about a particular belief- or not. This not knowing is the truth for me right now. I think the hardest part is to think of not continuing with some sense of me-ness, but I really mean it when I say that if that is what happens my sense is it will truly be okay- will not be painful. But then again, I am guessing :-) The real question is - what helps you be more compassionate and present now. Right now not knowing does this for me- and your beliefs may well do that for you. Blessings, Oriah

    1. Dear Oriah
      I hadn't taken your belief on as mine, nor thought either yours or mine more 'correct'. I imagined (tried on) believing your belief and found that that brought pain that made me feel a sense of hope that it isn't like that because then now is everything (instead of now is everything and this pain will cease upon death and the return to pure, loving spiritual realm) and if this is everything, then it is too depressing, a joke too cruel.

      And the fact that considering the possibility brings such emotion indicates that what you believe is not really so far from what I believe. Sorry, I can't put it into words. It feels like the plane of infinity where here is there and there is here, even though they appear to be in different places. Don't know if that makes any sense whatsoever!!!!

    2. Ruby, I think I understand what you are saying- and I really get how the believe in after-life possibilities can make current challenges more bearable. And yes, perhaps here is there and there is here :-)

  4. I also say "I don't know". There are things that feels more preferable, but why I prefer something is much due to experiences in my life, my personality etc, so I think I have to leave the question open, unanswered. I have thought a lot about death though, because for such a large part of my life I have found life (almost) unbearable, can I even live and if I would end my life (I never thought of it as an easy way out, but...long story, say no more of that, not the issue here) what happens? In moments, when death is really like an option, for all sorts of reasons I so much want death to be and to give me a second chance. Also I want death to give me the possibility to help people "left" on earth. Also, when we consider that it is possible in life to choose death (rather: not to live here), what does that say about death? I don't know, but it says something.
    As I see it the moment of death is like a gate, what is beyond I don't know. But when I for instance talk about my father, who died some years ago as an old and very christian man, I find it natural to say that he is now with God, in heaven, that he has come "home". I am not a christian, don't "have" that belief, but I choose to use words about after death that is "in line" with a persons belief in life (it's like respecting their belief).
    Thanks for writing about this, I find your words soft, compassionate actually.

    1. When I was younger I would not use terms I didn't "agree with" or "understand." Now, like you, I am fine with using the terms that bring comfort to the person who appears closer to that final reality of this human go-'round. I guess age helps us realize that love is more important than agreement and being with someone means being with how they are right now. :-)

  5. Wow - exquisitely and lovingly put - purring right along here... Such a wonderful heart opener for me - that no matter what my ideas, beliefs, stories and assumptions are about *anything*, that's all they are - and they fall away as well... Kind of keeps everything in perspective - keeps me open to more discoveries and more heart openings along the way...

    With Gratitude - Christine

  6. Well said! Hostility, animosity and hatred must give way to the superior way of love, compassion, and humility.

    Cause and effect; What goes around comes around or
    Karma. However one chooses to name it. Results don't lie.

    Thank you for your perspective. Deanna

  7. I think it's much better and much more honest to say "I don't know" than to pretend that we have eaten wisdom with the golden spoon. Because in truth we simply CAN'T know for sure what happens when we die as we are still here (even if I have read tons of books about near-death experiences etc). I feel the older I get the more relaxed I get with saying "I don't know, so what?" Do I have to know everything? And then what? What if I knew everything? What if I had this golden wisdom spoon? I guess I would be bored to tears with myself because then I would not discover anything new. And: I guess I have read trillions of books from all kinds of people who said they knew it all. What I read was in truth the opinions of all kinds of people but does that mean it's true? Not necessarily, it was THEIR opinion, that's all. But I digress LOL
    Welcome to the club, Oriah, of "I-don't-know-and-I'm-fine-with-its" :-) God, thank you, it feels soooo good to NOT know.
    xox Sabine

    1. LOL- Sabine, I've had a life-time membership in this club for many years :-) Oriah

  8. As always, Oriah, I'm 100% in tune with what you say. Thank you again for your wisdom, truth, honesty. Yes, it's a relief, isn't it, to say 'I don't know. This is only a belief/opinion/projection...' Please don't take time out to reply. I just wanted to acknowledge your words with gratitude and a sense of companionship. Roselle x