INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
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Gary StogsdillSince 1990 Gary Stogsdill has been a faculty member at Prescott College where he currently teaches courses in humanistic mathematics, science appreciation, and wisdom studies. He has a blog called "Pursuing Wisdom Now", which features articles on contemporary spirituality.


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The Most Important Question

Do We Survive Death?

Gary Stogsdill

The perennial appeal of most religions and spiritual systems is due, in no small part, to the assurance that we do in fact survive death and that our experience may be better after death. For example, Ken Wilber writes on the Integral Life website:

There is a timeless nature about the soul that becomes perfectly obvious and unmistakable: one actually begins to “taste” the immortality of the soul, to intuit that the soul is to some extent above time, above history, above life and death. In this way one becomes gradually convinced that the soul does not die with the body or the mind, that the soul has existed before and will exist again.[1]

Some scientists, on the other hand, try to persuade us that death is the end and that the physical reality we perceive is all there is. I recall viewing a documentary years ago where the Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg assured us of just that and then bravely added that we need to endure the tragedy of this fact. I respect Weinberg's courage, but I think it's a misuse of science to pass judgment on matters that are outside the domain of science, which is how I view the subject of an afterlife.

I have always believed that there's more going on than meets the eye in life.

I have always believed that there's more going on than meets the eye in life. I don't know how I originally acquired or maintained this view given that I grew up in an atheistic household. Perhaps it was the seemingly endless woods that bordered my childhood yard and that provided my daily adventure. Something about being immersed in nature, alone, as a young child cultivated a mystical mindset in me. That remains to this day, hopefully balanced by deep appreciation for science and for the rational mind. But I believe we do have an essence that survives death, and I want to share some of my personal experience that supports this belief.

Two months ago I lost my 90-year-old mother. Having an independent spirit, she continued living alone in her home after the passing of my stepfather. I would make the 35-minute drive to her home a few times a week to bring her groceries and take care of things. She was in remarkably good health for her age and took no medications. One recent day I brought her groceries and spent much of the afternoon with her, then called her that evening and found her in good spirits. Later that evening I was relaxing by watching a television documentary when suddenly I was overcome with a sense of euphoria that made me feel as though everything is just perfect. This lasted several minutes and continued to a lesser degree through the night as I drifted in and out of sleep.

Next morning I called my mom first thing and didn't get her. Because I had work obligations through the morning, I continued to call every hour with no success. As soon as I was free, I drove to her house and found that she had fallen and died. I could tell by the position of her body that she had died either instantly when she fell or very quickly thereafter without moving at all. My mom was a creature of habit, and I could pinpoint the almost exact time when she had fallen by the circumstances of her house. Every night at 9:00 she would tell her companion dog to go outside before bed, and she would then change into her night clothes and prepare her bed; when the dog returned she would go out to the back porch to close the dog door for the night. Her bed was prepared, she was in her night clothes, and she had just opened the sliding door to the back porch to go close the open dog door when she fell and died. This was exactly the time when I was overcome with euphoria.

I have experienced that very same feeling of euphoria only two prior times in my life. One was many years ago when my older brother died (for more detail see my previous essay Perennialism and the Myth of Narcissus). I was with him during his passing, so at that time I considered that the euphoria might be a natural brain-mind response to the trauma of seeing a close loved one die, although it's clearly opposite of the grief response one would expect.

The second time I experienced this same euphoria was also many years ago when I was 27 and had my own near-death experience. I will elaborate on this experience because it is still vivid in my memory almost 40 years later, being the single most influential experience of my life so far.

I had just finished a year of teaching kindergarten at a private school in southern Arizona, and was living alone out in the middle of the desert without a phone. My plan was to travel for the entire summer, so no one was expecting me to be around. However, the day after school ended I woke up sick and kept feeling worse day after day. In those younger years I could be exceptionally stubborn, and I didn't believe in going to doctors then so I just kept resting and waiting to feel better. I would later learn that I had a severe case of valley fever, an illness that can be fatal if not treated.

Arizona desert

After almost two weeks, when I began feeling dangerously ill and knew that I needed to do something, I decided to make a medicinal tea out of desert marigold that I had collected and cured earlier in the spring. In my condition I failed to notice that this herb had not cured properly and was completely covered with mold. As soon as I drank the tea, my entire body went into panic mode. I heard a roaring sound like a train inside my head as my body convulsed, and I passed out on my bed.

My last thought was wondering if I was dying. But then I woke up to a heightened state of awareness without my physical body. I realized that I must have died, and it felt unbelievably good: the same euphoria that I've described above. With me was a spirit being who guided me through the process of reviewing everything that had happened in my life, from very early childhood right up to that present moment. It seemed that my life memories formed a circle around me, like being inside a panorama. I relived my entire life, even long forgotten and seemingly insignificant memories.

But now, with help from the spirit being, I had a sense of the larger picture that enabled me to see how my actions affected others and why certain things happened to me. There was no sadness or regret; rather, everything seemed absolutely perfect, just the way it all needed to be. I understood that things happen for reasons we seldom know at the time, and that our choices in even little everyday situations may be important. I also understood that it was not my time to die now because I had much yet to learn and experience. Actually, what the spirit being said to me was, “You haven't really learned anything yet.” Then I lost consciousness again.

I awakened with a jolt and with the knowing that I was healed. I was still quite weak, but my whole body told me I was no longer ill. I looked at the clock and saw that it was 9:30 at night. I figured I had been unconscious for a few hours because I drank the tea in mid-afternoon. Later I would learn that it was actually the night of the next day; I had been unconscious for 30 hours. I don't know if this was a spiritual healing or if I may have synchronistically treated myself because the mold in my desert marigold tea could have been the perfect antibiotic for valley fever. Either way seems equally meaningful to me.

Every day of my life since then has been different. Now, in addition to my ever-present array of flaws, I live with a deeper appreciation of the gift of human life, I am more aware of and more thankful for the moments of each day, I view others including nonhuman beings with more respect and awe, I am more conscientious about my interactions with others, I find more humor in life, and I live without fear of my own death.

I should also mention that this near-death experience happened in 1980 before I had ever read anyone else's account of a near-death experience. Could most of this experience have been my own brain-mind playing a trick on me? Yes, of course it could have been that, but I find it more plausible that at least some of my experience was ontologically real and depicts what actually happens when we die, especially given the unique euphoria that accompanied my experience and that I have felt on only two other occasions, both involving death.

The fact that my recent experience of this euphoria occurred at the precise time of my mom's death without knowledge of her death suggests one of two causes. Either I psychically knew of her passing without conscious awareness and my brain-mind entered the opposite response from the alarm and/or grief that would be expected, or my mom bestowed that gift after passing as a way of showing her appreciation for me. Both of these possibilities point toward an afterlife because psychic knowledge opens the door to a deeper level of existence.

It's a bit maddening that we live in a world where we can't for sure answer the most important questions of life. Soon enough, though, each one of us will experientially answer the question of whether we survive death. Meanwhile, I find my earthly life immeasurably enriched by believing the answer is yes.

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Death, Rebirth and Meditation", www.integrallife.com, July 5, 2011




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