Reflections on The Path – Part 9

-landscapes of transcendence
-five positions regarding transcendence
-the changeable nature of our positions regarding death

If you believe that your life does not end with death, you must bring into agreement what you think with what you feel and what you do.  All must advance toward coherence, toward unity. 

What does it mean that I believe my life ends, or that it does not end? I’m not asking myself what is true but what does it imply when to say: “I believe when my biology stops that’s it”, or on the contrary to affirm that there is some form of transcendence. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask is it true, or not, that there’s no meaning if everything ends with death. I might even feel I know the answer to that greatest mystery. Perhaps I’d even bet money on who’s right, those who believe in transcendence or those who don’t. You may remember how Pascal dealt with that uncertainty. Basically, he suggested the best strategy is to wager on their being an afterlife. After all there’s no downside if you are wrong and perhaps…  Well, many find Pascal’s answer is clever but far from satisfying. 


In any case what I’m trying to understand at the moment isn’t the truth but the consequence of one of belief or another. That is, we know that practical consequences can accompany believing one thing or another. As we’ve seen earlier, the vision I have of the future powerfully impacts my present – just as an optimist and a pessimist in the same situation experience their present moment in very different ways. And if I can be made happy right now by my belief that tomorrow I’m going to get that raise, or that promotion, or that kiss, or that second chance, how much more weight does my mortality or immortality have on today. But is there more to it than this binary situation of: hopeful, or depressed; believer, or nonbeliever and so on.


I mentioned earlier Silo’s insistence that one’s attitude in front of death is directly connected to one’s attitude in front of life. So, for the moment let’s assume that the particular form to which the registers are translated is unimportant, whether heaven/hell, Nirvana, Valhalla, Hades, the Blessed Isles, or what have you. The landscape of transcendence, the problem of spiritual geography, is not the point. 

But the deeper I dig into this, the more I’m puzzled. For example, I can say I believe everything ends with death and also maintain that this is true for each of us but since we are not all dead, meaning continues. In other words, that meaning is not a characteristic of individuals but of something larger eg: my family, society, humanity, or perhaps life as a whole. For a moment I’m satisfied with that but then I reflect that, while possibly true, it’s a truth that doesn’t actually seem to resolve my problem, my life being bereft of meaning. And that is a loss, which as I’ve noted before, doesn’t start at the moment of my death but unravels from that moment back to my first understandings as a child that living things die, my pets will die, my parents will die, my loved ones will die, my friends will die, I will die. So, I find myself back here with my loss, my hopes and my fears — or more frequently my forgetting, my fugue, and my existential anesthesia.

In trying to find my way through this labyrinth of facts, ideas, hopes, fears and beliefs, I find it useful to consider the five states associated with the problem of death and transcendence to which Silo draws our attention. He said that at any moment each of us can be found in one of these states. He points out, without defining or justifying the idea of transcendence, that a person might feel — not because of teachings, faith or tradition — that they have discovered in themselves what they feel is indisputable evidence of transcendence. He said, in the same 1980 interchange in Mexico City mentioned earlier, that: “For such people, it is completely clear that life is only a transition and death the merest accident.” He then described four other states. For example, there are people who believe that there is a state (or a place??) that transcends death, but they hold such beliefs as a consequence of their education and their surroundings, not from their own internal experience. 

Of course, they are unlikely to accept or even understand this distinction. It can be very hard to differentiate what is one’s own experience, and what is the experience of a belief resulting from a teaching which, for that person at least, has no rooting in experience. It’s not just “believers” who might have difficulty with the claims of experience (of transcendence, not experience of belief in transcendence) since we all have problems grasping experiences we haven’t had or have had in a muted or partial way. It’s a problem Silo touched on in another context: “…and how do you explain an experience? How do you explain to someone what something sweet tastes like? How do you explain what a color looks like to someone who’s never seen colors? For example, what is the color red or the color blue for someone who’s never seen them? But if someone has seen the color blue, then when you talk with them, they say “Sure, I know what you’re talking about.” But how do you explain an experience the other person hasn’t had?”

In any case, he noted a third position with respect to meaning in life, that of those people who might say they want to have an experience of faith or certainty of meaning. It’s not an unusual thing to hear. People say things like, “I wish I could believe in god” or perhaps less explicitly, “I wish I could believe in something.” I suppose it is because they see or intuit that it would be useful for their lives to have that kind of certainty, that kind of faith that could keep them going when things are tough. 

He also noted that there are also those who while never experiencing something they’d recognize as transcendental or even wishing to have that experience or faith, nonetheless, perhaps out of a sort of intellectual rigour, accept the idea that there could be some sort of transcendence. That, of course, doesn’t mean they accept a particular landscape of transcendence. For example, you may believe that transcendence of death requires a soul, but you know that there are many (Buddhists, for example) who reject the idea of a soul (anatta) but register, or have faith, or believe that something continues. 
Finally, he considered a fifth state, which corresponds to those who deny any possibility of transcendence. 


So we end up with a continuum that goes from those who assert they have what is for them indisputable evidence of transcendence, those who have faith because of their upbringing (and who may not understand that they do not have that experience), and also those who don’t but wish they did have that faith, or that experience. On this spectrum are also those who admit the possibility intellectually but don’t see its importance, or any way to advance towards it without embracing a whole bunch of unprovable assumptions, and finally, those who deny that any form of transcendence is possible. 

At the risk of stating the obvious I should add that any of those positions can be held with greater or lesser intensity as well as greater or lesser internal honesty. I remember when my wife Donna would tell people about the film she was making on spiritualism. More than one or two people said things like, “Well, I don’t believe in things like life after death, but my dead aunt leaves me messages.” I know that may sound ridiculous but the contradiction between the ideas someone holds, or between their ideas and their feelings, for example, shouldn’t really surprise us. And while our own cognitive dissonance might be better disguised, or our own contradictions more subtle, there’s no doubt our positions on this (and most other matters) are not fixed or clear cut. That’s not to mention the fact that all of these certainties and beliefs are held with varying degrees of intensity. And that also shifts with time and circumstance. I don’t believe in such things… so why do I feel uncomfortable walking through a cemetery late at night? 

No, of course you don’t have this kind of confusion, but you can understand there are those who do.