To what extent are our lives determined by our beliefs around death? I’m curious. And (it won’t surprise you to hear) I have some thoughts…

In my upcoming book, The Ocean in a Drop, I write about the implications of attitudes to death on our consumer habits. Research (here and here) suggests that fear of death makes us less happy and more materialistic.

So it follows that adopting a different belief around death could enable us to opt out of what I call the existential death spiral, in which climate change (or any other existential threat) makes us anxious, so to divert ourselves and/or to create a reassuring external representation of permanence and immortality we go shopping, which exacerbates the very problem that made us anxious in the first place, leading to still greater anxiety, and more retail therapy, and so on.

As philosopher Bernardo Kastrup points out, a materialistic philosophy – in the sense that matter is primary – leads to materialistic behaviours, in the sense that we value material wealth:

“…the implications of materialism lie directly behind the Western love affair with things. It is our often-’subconscious’ belief that only matter truly exists that drives our urge to achieve material success. After all, if there is only matter, what other goal can there conceivably be in life other than the accumulation of material goods?”

If death lost its sting, in other words, we might be more chilled out, feel less compulsion to buy stuff we don’t need, and improve the long-term prospects of our species.

But, the more scientifically-oriented of you might be thinking, I simply don’t believe in life after death.

And that’s fine. You’re entitled to believe whatever you want to believe, so long as it doesn’t impinge on my freedom to believe what I want to believe. But here are a couple of ideas I’d like to run past you.


A False Dichotomy

First, in the Venn diagram of “scientific” and “spiritual”, many people feel they have to choose one or the other. This is a false dichotomy, and it’s unfortunate.

Spirituality is often used as a bucket term for what we don’t understand yet, the god of the gaps. But research into the brain and the so-called hard problem of consciousness is starting to tiptoe into what used to be regarded as spirituality, or at least metaphysics.

We find what we expect to find, and we don’t find what we’re not looking for, so while science dismisses disembodied consciousness as a superstitious impossibility, it confirms its own bias by failing to research what it has already decided doesn’t exist.

Yet good science should aim to explore and explain the anomalies. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs, which lead to paradigm shifts. Ignoring anomalies keeps us trapped where we are. There are just enough anecdotes about people knowing stuff they have no right to know, including young children able to speak far-distant languages and recount in detail stories of other civilisations, that we should keep an open mind. (See An End to Upside Down Thinking, by Mark Gober, for an extensive collection of anecdotal evidence.)

It would be great to see credible experiments and appropriate measuring devices to further explore the fundamental substrate of reality.


A Thinning of the Veil

Secondly – and this is more personal – last Sunday was a crazy and mind-blowing day for me, with several conversations and correspondences that thinned the veil between the living and the dead. I’d regarded life and death as being a pretty binary situation, and in relation to the physical body, I still do.

But in relation to the individual consciousness that we call a human being, it now seems to me that the line between the living and the dead is more blurred than I had thought. In two quite separate conversations, two friends appeared to be connecting with Barry’s essence (Barry being my dear friend and neighbour who took his life last week) in a way that made him feel very present. A third acquaintance reported a conversation that she had with him on the other side of the veil. I knew she had this ability, and had asked her if she could check in with him. What she shared with me helped me make more sense of his suicide.

Again, the sceptical among you may say that I am just believing what I want to believe.

Yup. I am. And your problem is…?

In the absence of a convincing scientific explanation of the relationship between the physical body and our subjective awareness of being alive, we still get to choose what we believe. I would rather choose a supportive story than one that makes me sad. I would rather believe that Barry is in a more peaceful place, and that he knows how much he is loved and missed. You are welcome to believe whatever works for you – and I think there are compelling reasons for adopting a belief in an eternal essence.


If, as cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman suggests in The Case Against Reality, death is no more than stepping out of the earthly interface or, as the Dalai Lama has put it, simply a change of clothes, this would have major impacts on the story that most non-religious people tell themselves about the finality of death, with all the anxiety that brings.

We have bought into the story of our own smallness, our vulnerability, our mortality, our individualism, our aloneness in the universe. What if we believed there is no such thing as death – only transformation?

“Just as when we come into the world, when we die we are afraid of the unknown. But the fear is something from within us that has nothing to do with reality. Dying is like being born: just a change.”
― Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits



P.S. Gloria wrote to me via my website contact form last week to ask if she could share my post. I tried to reply to say yes, absolutely, but my reply bounced back due to an incorrect email address. Gloria, I hope you see this, and do please share away! Happy for you to pass my words along to anybody who would find them helpful. 

Featured photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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