Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pining in Pasadena

I am this evening mourning my lost pine trees. There aren't many of them in the canyon where I live, and I was fortunate to have two on my property, at the back, on the far side of the pool. They were sixty or seventy feet tall, with ogived arms and needles as fine as salt spray; nests to robins, blackbirds, hawks and the occasional owl. But a few years ago, bark boring beetles made their way through Southern California, and my twin pines were infested with them. They fought for two summers, and I thought last year that they had won. But it wasn't until the fire department left me a notice ordering me to remove them that I realized they were gone.

I took estimates from several companies and found one that offered to cut them down for half of what the others wanted. I happened to be at home the day it was done, and so I watched occasionally from the windows as my pines were dismembered and topped and chainsawed down and the pieces carted away. Now there is a gap at the back of my yard, a bare space thick with fragrant sawdust, revealing a mashed fence and the Spanish tile roof of my neighbor's house below me.

It would be easy, I suppose, to make maudlin comparisons between the loss of my pines and the human condition, bored through with mortality as we are, fighting a losing battle against destruction. But I prefer to think of those two trees as family who have passed on. They join with those whom I had previously lost: my parents, my grandparents, a baby sister, uncles and aunts I never knew and of whose existence I only recently learned, teachers, old friends, two cats and a golden retriever.

I never mourned until recently, because, I suppose, of my Catholic school training, during which, as an altar boy serving wakes, I stood at candlelit attention over two dead bodies every week for six years religiously. I often remark that I saw more cadavers as a child than most medical students do. And that continual exposure to death inured me to its sting, so that even when my mother came home in tears from the maternity hospital, and when she herself died suddenly, and when my father, after long years trying, finally drank himself to death, I scarcely reacted, because I thought my religion and my Anglo-Saxon duty forbade me from doing so.

But I have felt these latest deaths, and any death and every death that comes close by me these days with a keenness seasoned by years of what I can only call enforced stolidity. I was told it was a sign of strength, but the fact is that the longer we remain impassive before mortality, the more vulnerable, not the stronger we become. Since silence is our destiny, we gain nothing by practicing it in life. I sometimes envy those African women I saw when I was a volunteer in the Congo, standing by the roadside at night and wailing out their souls for lost loves. I think now that they were wiser and healthier than me in their howling public grief.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rethinking Rebirth

The longer I think about the question of an afterlife, the more am I inclined to think that the only possibility which makes sense of both life and death is reincarnation. Now, I have said in my essay on religion and spirituality that I believe that consciousness can survive death, but only for a short while. But what then happens to it? Does it merely dissipate, dissolve into some eternal ether, as the Cal Tech professor said to me? But Dr. Thurman in the preface to his translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead points out that there is absolutely no precedent in nature or human experience for such a thing occurring. Physics tells us that energy cannot be destroyed, but only may be converted into something else. But is consciousness not a form of energy? Is it not made up of years, of decades, of a lifetime of experience and effort, of struggle and suffering, of joy and wonder and imagining? And do all those not require the expenditure or investment of energy? And so, if consciousness is energy, how can it then just disappear?

No, if I am correct on these two points, namely, that consciousness can survive death, and that, as a form of energy it cannot be destroyed but merely converted, then does not the idea of 'the transmigration of the soul' as it is called, make sense? It would explain not only what becomes of postmortem consciousness, but also the meaning and importance of consciousness itself; that is, that consciousness evolves and progresses and expands and deepens with each experience of corporeal life. I have written that my instinct tells me that human consciousness, as an expression of spirit, has a destiny, and that it moves forward despite death to attain to that destiny. Rebirth, then, would explain how this is so.

It was Plato who said that learning is remembering. Rebirth would validate this idea, in that each successive regeneration would possess, either actually or potentially, the residue of previous conscious lives, and therefore offer the possibility of building on those lives to expand and deepen consciousness. And while I do not find that the idea of rebirth in some form of life other than human makes much sense, it does seem to me now that the conservation of spirit and the persistence of consciousness through recurrence in corporeal being makes eminently good sense.

Putting these ideas together, I found myself wondering today whether, after that brief postmortem sojourn during which it retains integrity, consciousness may not transfer itself (or be transferred) to another body, there to continue its movement toward the fulfillment of its destiny according to the dictates of the spirit which animates it. Now, all this is rather ethereal and vague, I realize, but I do not think that it is fanciful. Rather, it seems to me the only way to explain both the meaning of life and the movement of humanity toward something like a transcendent destiny.

I believe that it was Somerset Maugham who remarked that the only form of belief that provided an adequate explanation for suffering, and offered some consolation in death, was reincarnation. I would go a step father and suggest that only the idea of the continual rebirth of consciousness offers hope for the investiture of life with meaning. I have said elsewhere here that if nothing happens after death, then nothing of any significance happens before it. By this I mean, as Tolstoy suggested, that death has the power to strip life of meaning. "There is nothing but death," Ivan Ilyich reflected, "and death ought not to exist." If a human being has only one life, as the Christian faiths contend, and during the course of that life he fails and suffers and experiences joy and hope and love, and then those things are extinguished in death, what was the purpose of that life? Was it not merely a form of self-indulgence, of self-immolation, a kind of cruel joke played on man by an omniscient God who knew all along how the game would play out?

This is one of the many points at which I part company with the Catholic and Christian faiths. By ascribing to man but a single, death-bound life, it offers no solution to the puzzle of meaning. Now, I know that Christianity posits an afterlife, but what sort of afterlife? It is quite vague on the subject. It posits eternal punishment or reward in places called heaven and hell, but, really, this is nonsense. At a time when the human race conceived of a flat earth surmounted by an endless sky, then the idea of a heaven above and a hell below may have been tenable. But these concepts did not survive the advance of science, or ought not to have done so. We do not go to a 'place' after death, for no such place can possibly exist, and to believe this is to entertain a child's fantasy.

And what of meaning? The Christian faiths say that it consists in this reward for good behavior, or in punishment for malignity. But if death is the fate of every person, then everyone is punished, whether good or evil. If death comes to us all despite the quality of our lives, then how is there reward? 'In the afterlife,' the Christians say, but that afterlife is nothing but an archaic myth. (I need not even mention here the concept of the resurrection of the dead at the last judgment, since it is such a patently ludicrous idea that bodies that have lain and rotted in the earth for centuries will suddenly be restored. Restored to what? Their age at death, or some arbitrary middle age, as Aquinas argued. And where will they go? To a sort of country club in the sky? How can anyone believe in such foolishness, let alone take comfort in it?) No, the Christian concept of afterlife is simply not a serious answer to the question of the meaning of life, and the destiny of consciousness and the soul.

Now, all of Christianity is posited on the idea that Jesus conquered death, and in so doing, that he freed his followers from death. This, too, is nonsense. We all still die, Christians and non-Christians alike. And so we are thrown back once again upon the notion that the afterlife in heaven and hell is the ultimate solution for the problem of death. But as I have said, it is no solution at all, but rather a childish fairy tale of some ecstatic sanitarium of the spirit, or of some demonic torture chamber the throes of which are never extinguished.

To my mind, none of this offers either meaning or consolation. But the idea that consciousness survives death long enough to be transferred to another corporeal form, just as had been done in our conceptions and births, does offer both of these. It tells us that there is a point to living and learning and changing, namely, that we are called to a spiritual destiny through the very experience of life, and that each life is an opportunity to expand and deepen consciousness toward some transcendent state. And it also tells us that this life is not the be-all and end-all of existence; not the alpha and omega of consciousness. Rather, consciousness persists and may be cultivated by our own efforts toward the achievement of something that outlasts time and space and any single life, and that links us as sentient beings to that spiritual origin from which we and our natures first emerged.