[This is an initial draft of some interesting thoughts relative to the question of postmortem survival. Raises more questions than it answers….]
One of my central research interests as a parapsychologist has been the question of postmortem survival. Does some essential aspect of a person survive physical death? If I had to summarize a century of research in a few words, I’d say (1) the evidence is good enough to argue that some people might survive death in some form, (2) the issue is of vital importance in determining the course of one’s life, and so (3) we should devote a lot of research effort to getting clearer answers. But my personal assessment of the evidence is I would not say some kind of survival is proven, there are a lot of sophisticated and subtle questions around it. Meanwhile as I approach the end of my own life I find it more interesting and stimulating to think that I and others may survive in some form than to assume the brain dies and mind is all over. If you take the latter, materialistic view, there’s not much to do but prolong life and health as long as possible and not worry about questions of meaning, purpose, etc. To speak like physicists often do, taking the approach that some kind of survival might occur leads to all sorts of interesting questions, whereas simple material annihilation simply ends thinking….
One of those interesting questions to think about is, given some kind of survival, what’s it like? Do “spirits” or whatever we want to call them, live some kind of active, ongoing life, e.g., or, say in the case of someone a medium apparently contacts many years after their death, have they (whatever their essence is) simply been in some kind of “storage,” a “program” or ap that’s been stored “on disk” for a long time without being run? Am “I” passively stored as an ap until needed and then reconstructed/reactivated, or am I doing something meanwhile?
Personality as Process:
When I think about my personality or self in an ordinary sense, I think about a relatively predictable process (not a fixed thing) that repeatedly manifests under the ordinary conditions of my life. It’s a largely predictable process in that one moment is seldom ever identical to another, but it may be very similar and so predictable. I wake in the morning, e.g., usually remembering some fragment of a dream but forgetting it quickly, noticing my familiar body sensations, like a full bladder, getting up from my side of the bed, going to my bathroom, preparing a cup of coffee the way I like it, taking my medications, usually planning to do the kinds of things typically important to me, etc. At the end of the day I go to bed, let my mind start to drift with little intention that any particular directions of thoughts is any more valuable or desirable than any other, and so I fall asleep, I disappear, until the next waking.
Although I know it is a dynamic process, not a solid, fixed thing, I clearly tend to implicitly think of it in thing-like ways. Here are these personality traits and habits, at least partially physically embodied in neural ensembles, linked to each other in fairly strong ways. “If it is morning and my bladder is empty, elevate the fixing of coffee to a high priority,” etc. One of the genius insights of Buddhism is to remind us that we are ongoing, changeable, dynamic processes, and that our habit of concretizing them, dealing with them as if they were fixed, unchangeable things, creates a lot of difficulties. We get attached to a particular outcome of these processes, we concretize it, and then are upset when it changes.
So you might say my macro-incarnation, the overall manifested pattern of years in my physical life, is a highly predictable process. It’s not certain I’ll want coffee after urinating in the morning, but it’s highly likely. I go to sleep, that big macro-incarnation goes into abeyance (ignore possible intrusions of or into dream life for now), my macro-incarnation gets activated again when I wake in the morning, the macro-ap gets booted.
I experience shorter “incarnations,” concatenations, patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, skills, etc. that may last from seconds to minutes. Again I’m sure the Buddhists are correct, these are dynamic, interdependent patterns of mind, not fixed, unchanging things, but it’s easy to implicitly think of them as thing-like programs that are in pre-assembled, static storage until activated, then get called up and powered on.
What has been interesting lately has been several observations, both in the course of more formal “meditations” or just in life, of how incredibly fast and dynamic these mini-incarnations can be. I’ll have to make up an example rather than describe a clear memory, as one common aspect of them is how they fade within seconds.
Let’s say I’m doing something and the idea of putting in a remote controlled light fixture up at my country cabin, the “ranch” as my wife Judy and I romantically call it, comes to mind. It comes so fast it’s hard to catch the development, but almost instantly I have a vivid visual image in my mind of just where this fixture could go. Not so vivid it blots out ordinary visual perception if my eyes are open, but vivid enough to catch me up. Surrounding imagery of the sort that would go there in the location’s actual reality appears – a pattern of sunlight on the wall of the building, e.g., perhaps the warmth of the sun reflecting from the wall, a subtle “auditory” background quality of what sounds – typical ranch sounds like a distant tractor, e.g. – are like when they are reflected off a metal wall, some subtle tactile sensations of what my body would feel like if I’m in some awkward position installing this light and sensor, and a background set of visual image information on the breaker panel in the building and where the nearest electrical cables would be that I could tap into. All this takes a second or less, and there’s a sense in which I’m actually “there,” experiencing things from a perspective that fits reality well. My current physical reality has faded, I’m there, at the ranch. I don’t have to consciously “work” to draw up and tie all this information together, it all just comes to me. In a moment I “incarnate” at the ranch.
My thoughts about how to do this go on, they hit a snag, such-and-such would be a problem, and poof! The whole sensory/intellectual scene disappears, as does any memory of it unless I make a specific effort to put it in my memory because it has some useful information in it that I may want to use later. And it’s all gone, that mini-incarnation no longer exists….. “I” was born, lived, died.” Amazing! So fast, so “real,” so usually unnoticed, as I do this sort of thing all the time with no realization of what an amazing process it is!
I’m using mini-incarnation for these experiences that only go on for a few seconds, they are indeed mini compared to the whole span of my life. I’m postulating micro-incarnations too, as it seems likely there are many such processes that are even shorter, that happen so fast it’s unlikely I’ll consciously notice them, although they may well have (after)effects on my life. I put the “(re)” in front of “incarnations” as they have probably happened innumerable times and will continue to happen innumerable times as long as I’m alive. From this perspective, the Buddhist emphasis on the unreality of “self,” that there is no permanent, unchanging core of self (something to be known deeply, of course, not just as an intellectual concept) gets much clearer. In this one lifetime I’ve already been (re)incarnated zillions of times and almost all of those incarnations have “died,” passed away, some with no lasting effects at all, others probably with important (after)affects.
It’s the speed, comprehensiveness, depth and integration of this micro- or mini-(re)incarnations that impresses me so. One moment there is nothing. A few moments later “I” exist in a way that feels, from its inside, as a complete, functional personality. No fumbling to put the parts together, Shazam! I’m there.
Afterlife and Open Ending…..
So maybe a “spirit” or “soul” is hanging around in some non-physical space, functioning from moment to moment, living an “afterlife?” And/or maybe it is dormant, unconnected, scattered processes, and then the intentions and current structure/process of a medium’s mind creates a focus and the needed aspects “incarnate” to produce an impressive incarnation? That seems to itself to be real at the time of its functioning?
Consciousness research, especially on highly developed meditative skills, is obviously going to be of great relevance to the survival question. What is consciousness actually like during our physical life, our macro-incarnation? Are there gaps? Is something happening in these gaps? Is one’s physical body creating an “intention” or “focus” that attracts needed things (skills, memories, perceptions, etc.) moment by moment?
For lots of future consideration: Semi-stable life of my physical body as a container for macro-incarnation
And so ultimately “I” am??????
Buddhism puts much emphasis on learning to observe the rising, duration, and falling off of thoughts and sensations. In my usual vipassana style meditation, as learned from Shinzen Young originally and practiced in ways modified by me, I do this in a “leisurely” way, typically observing a rising every second or two, staying with it as best I can with concentration, clarity and equanimity for a second or two, occasionally consciously being aware of its passing. I understand from Ingram that if I could observe risings and fallings at 10 or more per second, the meditation process might change greatly, but I am far from that skill level and not sure I want to develop it, but I might see the mini-incarnations come together in more detail if I got that fast.