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

Where Greed is a Virtue

By Jin-yeong Yi

“For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”

—The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:7 (King James Version)

“Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can’t we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can’t we understand that with property we destroy our soul?

Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Though Solzhenitsyn’s advice seems at best impractical and at worst unworkable (because if one doesn’t take care of one’s own material needs, someone else will have to), his words do resonate with me, for at least two reasons. One is that I tend to value the nonmaterial over the material. I find that I desire knowledge, skills, and experiences more than I do luxuries such as fine cuisine, expensive clothes, and sports cars. The latter are merely symbols of wealth; the former is wealth, and wealth of the finest kind. Knowledge is purer than money, because the former can be shared without being divided. The love of the nonmaterial is not about being ascetic; on the contrary, it’s about being greedy, and greedy to the extreme–but for the intangibles rather than the tangibles. Furthermore, a person is not what he or she buys, but what he or she earns by living a purposeful life.

Another reason is that I’m well aware that I’m going to die someday. I have no idea when; it could be later tonight, for all I know. On the off chance that there is an eternal afterlife and death is the beginning of a new journey, I’m sure that what I store up in my head and heart will serve me better than what I store up in my home. And I like the idea of traveling lightly.      

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.

Just Another Day in Shawshank

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Liberty of the people is not my liberty!”

—Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own

“You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck you.’ I’m positive, in fact.”

—Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a sense of confinement on some level. Throughout each major phase of my life, that I was tied to an invisible leash was obvious enough. Like most people, I was introduced at an early age to the concept of having to be at a certain place at a certain time. First it was preschool and kindergarten. Then it was elementary school. Then it was junior high school and senior high school. Then came college. Then came my first job. Eventually it began to dawn on me that there would be no end to these impositions. But I still assumed that there was such a thing as freedom somewhere in the world, and I continued to cling onto the hope that I would somehow be able to attain it someday.

Then I had a revelation: that prison wasn’t limited to a particular place, that it interpenetrated every inch of the world around me, and extended far beyond what the eye could see. And just as quickly, it occurred to me that all political, religious, scientific, and artistic efforts to redeem the world were doomed to fail, because you just can’t redeem a prison. The only real redemption is escape.

Ever since I began to see the real world in its entirety as a vast prison, I’ve found it to be a tad easier to live in, at least in some ways. Human misery becomes comprehensible in this context. I no longer think of misfortune as something that “ought” not to occur, but as something that is all too normal and expected. It’s easier to get over a bad day when I consider that it was just another day in a metaphysical Shawshank.

Of course, some areas of this prison are far freer than others. On one end of the scale, you have the concentration camp, and on the other end, you have the Scandinavian prison/rehabilitation center. I was lucky enough to be born into an area much closer to the latter. Indeed, the title of this blog entry is somewhat misleading because where I live is a whole lot nicer than Shawshank State Penitentiary. Comparatively speaking, just being able to access the Internet and blog is in itself something that can be seen as an enviable privilege. Nevertheless, the fact remains that prison is prison, even if it boasts trimmed lawns, wide roads, supermarkets, wilderness parks, and a considerable number of personal liberties.

The tragic thing is that any sentence in this prison is necessarily a life sentence. This place is my cradle and it will most likely be my grave. There is no true freedom here, only transient illusions of it in the form of small consolations, like having a bottle of cold beer during a break from laboring on the prison rooftops under a scorching sun, or hearing The Marriage of Figaro streaming through the public address system during what was supposed to be just another dreary day of soul-killing routine.

Despite the overwhelming odds, I still have hope that I will be able to escape this prison one day. I have no idea how, considering that the walls and shackles are not physical things but an intrinsic aspect of the very mode of existence, but hope is its own justification. I hope to prove Holden wrong. I think he’d like that.

Rediscovering God in a Godless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God – but to create him.”

—Arthur C. Clarke

“If there is no God…if there is no thing called ‘God’…if He is nothing, can’t something come from Him?”

—Stephen Colbert, interview with Lawrence Krauss

I am an atheist, but I believe in God. Depending on your cultural background, this sentence may have made absolutely no sense to you. Not long ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either, because the only definition of “God” that I was really aware of was the omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent monotheistic, patriarchal deity of orthodox Christianity. My inquiries outside of the Christian mainstream; specifically in deism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Spinozism, as well as progressive Christianity; eventually cured me of this myopia. I came to realize that the word “God” could mean anything at all. Then finally, I realized that the word could mean something for me as well.

Seen in this light, the “One nation under God” controversy seems pointless, a complete waste of time, even. There have been myriad religions throughout the millennia that affirmed different and conflicting definitions of the word “God.” Depending on the definition, “God” can be something affirmable for everyone, even atheists. All that one needs to do is to refashion the word for one’s own purposes.

One of the people who helped open up the possibilities of this Word of words to me was the Dutch Christian pastor Klaas Hendrikse, a religious maverick who caused his share of controversy in the late 2000’s with his book, whose title is translated as Believing in a God Who Does Not Exist: Manifesto of an Atheist Pastor. He explained, “God is for me not a being but a word for what can happen between people.” His words never faded from my consciousness, and they continue to inspire me in my ongoing quest to find out what God means to me.

In the same way theists use the word to denote what they worship as the Most High, I use the word as a linguistic vessel that gives expression to my subjective emotional reaction to something I find to be particularly beautiful or sublime. In this sense, I may experience the presence of Godhead, in varying degrees, when looking at a work of art, listening to a piece of music, reading a book, watching a motion picture, gazing at natural scenery, or ruminating on the wonders of science and mathematics. If religious service is the contemplation and worship of everything that one holds to be holy and sacred, then daily life for me is, on some level, one continuous, unending religious service.

The word is also a source of daily inspiration in my life. For me, God is the impossible standard of absolute perfection. God cannot be reached; God can only be pursued, for God is infinite. We can move toward God, but we can never reach God. This is only natural, for God is infinitely above us. But as long as we move in the direction of God, we cannot help but grow and evolve through our efforts. To understand God is to recognize that growth and evolution have no end point any more than progress with a musical instrument has an end point–that there’s always, always room for betterment. Amen.