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The Big Unknown

How to Order by Jay Kinney
Home Despite the recent popularity of books detailing near-death experiences and the host of channeled entities who assure their listeners that life continues beyond the Big Divide, death is not something that most of us look forward to. And with good reason: testimonials aside, there is no way of knowing with certainty what awaits us when our time has come. Death is the ultimate Big Unknown, and most of our theories and beliefs regarding it amount to whistling in the dark.

The ruling cosmology of the modern era assumes that death is life's enemy - that we get one shot at life and when it ends, the party's over. This assumption fuels much of the anxiety of Western culture and underlies everything from free-floating existential despair to a preoccupation with antioxidants and life extension.

To make matters worse, AIDS has come along, causing friends and loved ones to waste away before our eyes. That some of the stricken rage against their fate is no surprise, but I've been most struck by the dignity of those who calmly look death in the eye and beckon to the rest of us to share their gaze. It is one of life's ironies (or is it death's?) that two of the most luminously transparent and saintly people I've ever had the privilege to know were a drag queen and a Satanist in the drawn-out final stages of AIDS. Death the leveler serves double time as a saintmaker as well.

In any case, if we can extract ourselves from the hurly-burly of the race against the clock long enough to survey the spiritual landscape, an interesting fact emerges. Nearly every religion, whether mono- or polytheistic, whether Eastern or Western, affirms the continuity of life after death. Of course the cynic will say that this is merely because every religion is engaged in selling pie in the sky and priests of every stripe know a good scam when they see one. However, I think this is too easy an answer.

True, reality is flexible enough to provide most every believer with evidence in support of his own beliefs, but the sheer redundancy of multiple pointers towards an afterlife should lead us to suspect that there may be some truth here.

But which truth? A succession of earthly lives? A progression through ever more rarefied dimensions? A cannon shot towards heaven or hell? Or perhaps the chummy continuity of ongoing family relations between the Seen and the Unseen?

The Sufis speak of dying before you die, an initially mysterious dictum that has at least two meanings. The first is a recipe for mystical attainment: "die" to the things of this world (that is, become nonattached) before death does the detaching for you! According to tradition, this discipline elevates the mystic's consciousness while living and assists his salvation after death.

The second meaning, however, is less apparent. It refers to one of the fruits of mystical attainment: the capacity to experience the continuity of consciousness beyond death. If one has experienced this "dying before you die," which has been likened to "the drop joining the ocean," death is no longer an unknown or a source of dread. One has participated in the awareness that extends into the unseen and needs no scientific proof to confirm that life offers a wider spectrum of being than is generally assumed. The mystic who has truly undergone this "death," without becoming mired in either his own delusions or the subtle realms, becomes truly alive.

So far, so good. But there is another common element among the teachings of various religions regarding death. This is the concept of a day of judgment (a la Christianity and Islam), or the weighing of the soul (as in ancient Egyptian religion), or a karmic reckoning (as posited in Hindu and Buddhist teachings). Even if death doesn't mean the end of life per se, it seems to represent a shift in our existence that is shaped by our deeds and frame of mind in this present life.

This is perhaps the real source of our wariness of death, for who doesn't suspect, deep down, that judged by objective standards of moral conduct, we will all come up short? The specter of an eternity of torment in hell can be profoundly discouraging, while the promise of a ticket to heaven may seem about as likely as winning the state lottery. Here too, esoteric teachings offer insights. The soul upon death is said to commence a journey through veils (or bardos or worlds) which prove beguiling in direct proportion to our earthly fixations. Thus the value of prayers for the dead, and the promise of liberation for those who maintain their connectedness with the Absolute.

All of which sounds rather rarified to most of us and still leaves us wondering as to what attitude to take towards our own impending death. Gleeful anticipation seems rather optimistic, yet morbid dread seems self-defeating. My own solution may be naive, but it is the best I have to offer at this point. And that is, unremarkably enough, simply do the best you can and leave the outcome to God's mercy. A life of good deeds that are performed with the intention of eternal felicity may rank no higher in the final estimate than a life of well-meaning mistakes that are sincerely undertaken with no grand goal in mind. I am of the school that assumes, perhaps heretically, that everyone is redeemed in the end - even Satan.

Some of the greatest mystics have taught this and I've come upon no reason to dispute their findings. But ultimately it is an open question. As far as our personal journey goes, the salient point to keep in mind may be the sobering fact that death can come unbidden at any moment. As such it remains a spur, not unlike a high-school "pop quiz," to keep our wits about us and maintain a link with the spiritual life. If death is not the final chapter, then it may just be one stage of a work in progress, and deserves better consideration than a mere fait accompli. We dedicate this issue to that possibility.

(c) copyright 1996 by Jay Kinney

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