Some Thoughts About Life After Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

Illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”

—Atheist, “Piece of Time”

I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.

Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.

Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it[1], and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.

While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.

In his own critique of the book[2], Mark Martin wraps up by writing:

“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”

After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:

“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”

What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.

“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”[3]

It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.

If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.

Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.

Notes

[1] “Science on the Brink of Death” by Sam Harris 

[2] “Dr. Eben Alexander’s so-called afterlife” by Mark Martin

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

Atheism, Autism, and the Abstract Mind

By Jin-yeong Yi

Richard Feynman

From my notebooks:

Vox Day once wrote that atheism would be harmless if limited to an “abstract-minded elite.”[1] (He also claims that there is a correlation between atheism and autism[2], but I won’t go into that here.) I find this statement interesting, because it seems to imply that abstract-minded people tend to be atheists, or at least that there are many abstract-minded people who are atheists.

Indeed, a cursory survey of many great abstract-minded intellectuals throughout history appears to confirm this notion, or, rather, something close to it. I suspect that the most brilliant mathematical minds either believed in an impersonal God or no God at all. Descartes was a deist, or was at least accused of being one by Pascal[3]. Spinoza was a pantheist. Gauss was a deist. Leibniz was a theist, but apparently not far from deism (as he did not believe in miracles). One suspects the same of Newton. Pierre-Simon Laplace was an agnostic. Max Planck was a deist. Henri Poincaré, Alfred Tarski, Bertrand Russell, and W. V. Quine were atheists. Richard Feynman[4] was also an atheist, apparently a positive atheist at that. William James Sidis was supposedly an atheist from the age of 6. Albert Einstein has been called just about everything from an agnostic to a deist to a pantheist to an agnostic theist, but whatever he believed in, I think it’s probable that it was something without personhood. Stephen Hawking is an atheist, as is John Forbes Nash, Jr., Marvin Minsky, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker. I’m sure many more examples can be named, such as Isaac Asimov (atheist), Mario Bunge (atheist), Ted Kaczynski (atheist), Daniel C. Dennett (atheist), and Christopher Langan (deist).

Even if it were false that the most brilliant mathematical minds were nontheists, the prevalence of this viewpoint seems significant enough to suggest a possible correlation between it and this type of intellectual makeup.

Notes

[1] See “The illogically optimistic atheist.”

[2] See “The socially autistic atheist.”

[3] From Pensées: “I cannot forgive [René] Descartes; in all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.”

[4] From the divorce complaint of Feynman’s second wife: “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”

Discovering the World Within

By Jin-yeong Yi

“While I am clearly a creature who lives in a specific time and who occupies a particular place, I am not like the plants of the field or the beasts of the forest. I am not bound in the same way that they are bound by either time or space. With my mind I can move back into the past and forward into the future. I can even transport myself to places different from the one I presently occupy. So I experience something about my life that is both limitless and timeless.”

—John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision

“Each Star must go on its own orbit.”

—Aleister Crowley

In everyday life, I not infrequently step back from my current situation and surroundings and examine them. I am almost never satisfied with the picture I see. I find it natural to ask myself, Is this the only existence, the only world I will ever know?

I actually don’t think that I despise this world, even if it may look like I despise it. Besides giving me life, this world made my standards, and provided me with all of the inspiration I have.

That said, I consider this world to be a cradle. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a richer and grander existence than that of grinding away as a cog in the machine of civilization, forever a slave to financial and social obligations. I can imagine a more sublime and poetic existence than that of long commutes through the concrete desert, of paying bills, of dealing with human dysfunction, of reading about the latest horrors in the news. Above all, I can imagine a freer existence than that of having my desires restrained and restricted by the laws of nature. I can imagine a bigger world, a more beautiful world. It’s not difficult to imagine how humankind came up with the idea of supernatural realms, of an afterlife.

I’m not calling for a revolution here. As I have stated before, I am of the opinion that no human efforts can redeem the prison of the real. If anything, I am suggesting the obvious: that we can make the best of our term of incarceration. We can’t redeem prison, but we can redeem our time in prison, or at least try. What that entails will differ for each individual, given the variation of predilections among us. However, there are certain methods that most of us can use, in similar ways, to our advantage.

One of these methods is creativity. To my mind, there are few greater ways to redeem the time than taking the imagination and translating it into something concrete, whether it be a painting, a song, or a poem.

If you aren’t content with this world but don’t believe that you’ll ever be given another, then consider creating your own. Let’s face it: how likely is it that the countless factors directing the course of history will swing in your favor? Will the world you desire eventually come about if you work hard enough, or just wait long enough? Probably not. It seems clear that you’re going to have to take matters into your own hands, in the here and now.

One of the greatest saving graces of being human, in my view, is the ability to dream up places other than the one we inhabit. Though these parallel universes don’t exist outside of our minds, they are real enough for us to live in, thanks to another saving grace of being human: the ability to mentally transport ourselves beyond the boundaries of space and time. That is why we can find so much value in the creations of a J. R. R. Tolkien, a Henry Darger, or an H. P. Lovecraft.

I encourage you to never fall into the trap of thinking that this mundane world is all you have. Recognize that you can fashion your own world and live in it–even in the midst of the daily grind. If you haven’t already, why not start today by answering this question for yourself: If you could, at this moment, leave this world for your own world, what would your world be like, and what would life there be like?

The Most Precious Pearl of Them All

By Jin-yeong Yi

“‘The person has two states: this one and the state of the other world. The third, intermediate, state is that of dreaming sleep. When he rests in the intermediate state, he sees both states: this one and the state of the other world. When he has gone by whatever way it is that one gains the state of the other world, he sees both evils and joys. When he falls asleep, he takes with him the material of this all-containing world, himself breaks it up, himself re-makes it. He sleeps by his own radiance, his own light. Here the person becomes lit by his own light.
‘There are no chariots, nor chariot-horses, nor roads there, but he creates chariots, chariot-horses and roads. There are no pleasures, nor enjoyments, nor delights there, but he creates pleasures, enjoyments and delights. There are no ponds, nor lotus-pools, nor rivers there, but he creates ponds, lotus-pools and rivers. For he is a maker.’”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

—The Bible, Matthew 6:19-21 (King James Version)

“The self is dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than any other thing, and deeper within. If someone were speaking of something other than the self as dear, and one were to say of him, ‘He will weep for what is dear to him’, one would very likely be right. One should worship only the self as dear: then what is dear to one is not perishable.”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“You are walking on the earth as in a dream. Our world is a dream within a dream; you must realize that to find God is the only goal, the only purpose, for which you are here. For Him alone you exist. Him you must find.”

—Paramahansa Yogananda

Here is a riddle for you: What is infinite in size, yet lighter than a feather; greater than all of the wealth in the world, but does not require a safe or a vault for safekeeping?

Do you want to know what it is? More importantly, do you want it for yourself? I will tell you where you can find it.

You do not need to gather any money for it, because it’s not for sale. If it were, not all the gold in the world would be able to buy it, because it is infinite in value. You do not need to risk your life on a long, arduous, and perilous quest for it. It is already within your possession. It is invisible to the naked eye, but it can be easily located. You’re sitting on it. Or, rather, it’s sitting on you. Or, rather, it’s sitting within you. Or better still, it’s a part of you. It has always been a part of you, because you were born with it, by virtue of being human.

It’s your mind.

Am I merely engaging in cheap rhetoric, playing with words, performing verbal card tricks? Let us take some time to examine it, and then you can decide for yourself.

Your knowledge, your thoughts, your memories, your emotions, your desires, your hopes, your dreams–all of these treasures are stored inside of the vault of your mind. Are there many things in this world that you would trade these away for?

Your mind is also a sanctuary. It is your only real refuge from the incessant noise of the so-called “real world.” You can’t find absolute stillness in even the most luxurious vacation resorts, but you can find it in the penetralia of your mind when you go to bed each night. It is the only place in the world that you truly have to yourself.

Your mind is a palace, a palace of the most majestic kind. All the royal edifices that have been created by human hands, as beautiful as they are, look like tawdry playhouses by comparison. The palace that is your mind is not merely vast–it is boundless, fathomless. If you have the necessary knowledge, your palace can be whatever you wish it to be, for you have the power to mold it according to your will. If you do not know how to use your power, you can learn. When you are within your palace, seated upon your throne, fully in control of your native powers, the greatest kings and emperors look like pitiful paupers by comparison. For you are nothing less than a God.

More than anything else, your mind is a universe. It’s your universe, and it is for you to rule, and yet how much larger it is than you! How mysterious it is, how much there is to discover! You will never finish exploring it, not even after billions of years. Its riches and marvels will never be exhausted. It is the only place where all of your wishes are granted, the only place where all of your dreams come true, the only place where your life is a fairy tale.

Perhaps best of all, this treasure of treasures is always with you, no matter where you happen to be on the three-dimensional plane of reality. “Home is where the heart is,” because your mind is your home. You will never need to fret about losing it, because it will exist and be yours for as long as you live.

So why obsess about attaining wealth? You already have the greatest wealth.

Why obsess about attaining power? You already have the greatest power.

Why obsess about attaining a home? You already have the greatest home.

All you need to do is unlock them from the treasure-house that is your mind.

The Sandbox of the Gods

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The brain is wider than the sky, / For, put them side by side, / The one the other will contain / With ease, and you beside.”

—Emily Dickinson

A Japanese translation of the title of American Unitarian Universalist writer Robert Fulghum’s widely parodied collection of essays, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, reads, “Jinsei ni Hitsuyou na Chie wa Subete Youchien no Sunaba de Mananda,” which may be translated as “All the wisdom I need in life I learned in the sandbox in kindergarten.” The key word here is the word that was added to the original: sandbox.

This sentence helped me to realize what I really want to do in life: play! Unlike most activities, play is not engaged in for the sake of something else, but for its own sake. Here the line between goal and accomplishment is blurred.

In some schools of Hindu thought, the cosmos and all events within it are said to be the product of creative play (lila) by Brahman, or God. I can think of no grander mode of existence. It’s as pure as it is unrestricted. And it turns out that a humble pastime of small children, and not the worldly ambitions of adults, bears the closest resemblance to life as a God.

Hence my near-obsession with the dream world–it is a limitless sandbox in which one can, in theory, do just about anything that one can imagine oneself doing. In the universe that exists within the depths of one’s mind, no barrier exists between imagination and realization. In the dream world, to imagine something is to make it real.