Death in the Eyes of the Beholder

“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. — spoken by Augustus McCrae” Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In the spirit of the season of spring and Easter, when many of us contemplate ideas of resurrection and rebirth, I thought it appropriate to write on this topic. I hope you find these thoughts in the spirit of humility and surrender as I intended when I wrote them.

Before we can even think about resurrection, we must think about death.

I died once. It’s a tragic story that maybe I’ll have the courage to write about and share one day. You’d think I’d be curious about the afterlife, and you’d be right, but I do remain agnostic about what happens when we die. I know I got close, but I’m still here, so I really don’t know what happens after more than a few minutes of being dead. But I do have a few beliefs that I’d like to share.

When we are alive, our bodies are awash in information. I think human consciousness is built up from all of the information being passed around in our body. Our brains send signals to all of the extremities of the body, and our extremities and everything in between send signals back to the brain. These signals are electro-chemical (as in, neurons and neural networks) as well as biochemical (as in, hormones, ion pumps, DNA, etc). Our unique human perspective is the sum of all parts of this massive information processing system (as in, our human body).

Enteric Nervous System by Natale, Gianfranco, Larisa Ryskalin, Gabriele Morucci, Gloria Lazzeri, Alessandro Frati, and Francesco Fornai is licensed under CC BY 4.0 — This diagram stood out to me because of it’s focus on the communication between the brain > gut > microbiome of other organisms living in and with us. They share entirely different genomes, yet we “talk” to them constantly. Plus, I wanted to highlight my position as being from the relatively new psycho/philosophical tradition of embodied cognition, which looks to the complex communicative organism that we are to find the secrets of our minds and existence. We literally think with our “guts”. They have the second highest concentration of nerve endings, terminals, networks and such, comparable to the brain, which is found nowhere else in the body outside of the central nervous system.

Modern cognitive, neurological, and biological systems science, I believe, has told us quite a bit about how and why our human experience exists in the way it does. We see colors because we have cone photoreceptors that activate under certain wavelengths of light and our brains process that information in a certain way. If any piece of that system is missing or altered, the individual will experience color blindness.

We learn valuable lessons when things break.

However, all of this science cannot tell us anything about the observer, that basic “unit” of consciousness. I put “unit” in quotes, because that word doesn’t quite pin down what I’m trying to say, but it’s as good of a starting point as any other. I think we know quite a bit about the human conscious experience and have many more wonderful discoveries ahead. But I also believe that we’re still in the dark on the observer, that thing that’s experiencing all of this humanity.

We’re in the dark on this topic, because literally the observer is “in the dark”. It’s behind the screen. It exists in a realm where there is no light or darkness. These are concepts presented to the observer and can’t possibly be qualities of the observer.

What do we know about anything that exists as neither light nor dark, neither tall nor short, neither before or after… Everything we know exists in these spectrum and concepts. We know nothing about anything prior to concepts and thought. Yet that is where the observer lay observing.

We don’t know anything about it because we can’t know. It is not to be known. It is before knowing. It is that which knows.

Photo by Geoffrey Moffett on Unsplash

Meanwhile, back at that the ranch. We’re alive in these bodies and we seem to think we know and experience things. We take the observer part of our self for granted. It’s always been there. It’s who we are. It will always be there… until we die. Can that possibly be it? The end?

Many assume consciousness is centered in the brain. It makes intuitive sense, but I don’t really think that’s the whole story. Certainly, many aspects of our consciousness are created by certain regions of the brain. For instance, entire regions of our cortex are devoted to vision, hearing, emotion, recognition, language, and on and on. So when these regions are damaged and/or stop sending and receiving signals, then obviously those parts of consciousness do shut down. Or rather, we are no longer conscious of those aspects of experience.

But many a brain damage patient are still alive and functioning, and presumably conscious. So those things are not necessary for consciousness to exist.

When I died, or got close, there was no oxygen getting to my brain. Things in my brain probably started failing in ways that I can’t even fathom. I bet there are very few doctors or scientists who could say with any certainty or validity that they know precisely how a body fails when it’s no longer breathing. But we can certainly make educated guesses, and I’m positive that my guesses are far worse than a doctor’s or biologist’s.

I would think that before the signals between the body and brain shut down entirely, they’d probably go haywire a little bit. At first there would probably be a lot of alarm signals such as pain and the equivalent to a scuba tank saying “Oxygen levels low”. Hold your breath for over a minute and you’ll feel that signal with distinct clarity. I had suffered head trauma and was knocked out. My body was probably sending the signals, but they weren’t making it to the observer. I don’t remember any of it.

But then again, memory isn’t necessary for consciousness either. It’s just one more aspect of our experience, but still not the observer.

Eventually as the cellular processes begin failing due to lack of oxygen, the signals are likely to degrade, akin to corrupt data from a bad file transfer. If the observer is still kicking somewhere in that brain, these signals probably start to look incredibly weird and strange, otherworldly. That would be because the very framework and foundation of conscious embodied experience is collapsing. Of course, those of us who have gotten to that stage of cellular collapse have no words to describe it. Our capacity for words is no longer functioning “correctly” in that severely degraded state.

I believe that science will eventually be able to say with relative certainty that certain “hallucinatory experiences” correspond to this or that brain/body region being overly or under stimulated while other brain/body regions are still “online” or some story to that effect.

What if it’s the process of attempting to “remember” and make sense of those experiences after they happened that creates the “hallucination”? What if the recovered brain is doing the best it can to interpret “corrupt data”?

Ever try to open up a non-text file in Notepad and see all of the weird, nonsensical characters that it displays? That’s because Notepad doesn’t know what to do with the data that it’s trying to read. So it displays nonsense. I think something similar happens when our brain shuts down and then comes back “online” again. It doesn’t know what to do with the “weird data” that was imprinted in our neural networks and chemical signals when things weren’t functioning quite right.

Screenshot taken by author. What happened when I opened up the previous photograph in Notepad instead of a program suitable to read jpg files. File created by Geoffrey Moffett on Unsplash

But does that somehow take away from or discredit those that have had and remember those experiences? I don’t think so. I think there are still valuable lessons to be learned from those experiences, even if they could be “explained away” by science.

Where is the observer in all of this assumption and conjecture? Almost forgot about it didn’t you? It’s a slippery subject after all (pun very much intended). I have no idea. Like I said above, I don’t think we CAN know. But here’s what I do know. When the brain is no longer sending/receiving signals;

It is no longer in pain.
It is no longer suffering.
It no longer wants or desires anything.
It is no longer striving to be and do.
It no longer hopes and dreams.
It is no longer disappointed.
It is no longer afraid.
It can finally just be at peace.
It can finally just be what it is without trying to be anything else.

The overwhelming majority of those of us who have been close to death report a feeling of peace and love and joy. Some didn’t want to return because those feelings are so foreign to their waking, living life. How many have made that choice and didn’t return to tell the tale?

Could it be that in the absence of all of this living, fearing, desiring, and striving, we find something that looks a lot like heaven? Could it be that hell is a lot like living? Do we have to wait to die to find out?

Therein lies the lesson. We don’t have to wait. We can let go of our fears and desires. We can let go of our striving to be something that we aren’t. We can just be what we are and do what we do and change into whatever we’re becoming. We can find that peace, we can be in heaven, right here and right now.

Living doesn’t have to look like hell. We can tell different stories. We can stop wanting what isn’t good for us. We don’t have to play the games that we don’t want to play. We can play our own games, the ones we want to play.

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

We can joyfully collide with reality like a leaf in the wind rather than like a car crash. We can just flow and not desire to be an obstacle that others crash into. We don’t have to be right or certain about anything. You don’t have to desperately hold onto the branch or rope. You can let go and allow the flood of life take you and change you, as you were meant to.

When those of us who have been forced to “let go” due to our bodily functions failing have repeatedly reported that this was a positive and loving experience, why don’t we believe them? Or why do we think we have to wait to experience what they’ve experienced?

That’s just another story that we tell ourselves and each other. There’s lots of stories that haven’t been told. They’re just waiting on us to tell them. We don’t have to believe any of them, but we do have to live until we’re not living anymore. Since we’re here, why not tell different stories that don’t make our lives or someone else’s lives a living hell?

This is the essence of what I think of when I contemplate rebirth and resurrection. We are reborn a million times every moment of our lives, but we keep holding onto and believing the same old things that cause us pain and suffering when we don’t have to do that.

Rebirth is a choice, but first we have to die. Dying is essentially being forced to let go. Why not make the choice to let go while you still have a choice? To let go without physically dying or getting precariously close. If you do, then you just might understand what it means and feels like to be reborn and resurrected.

Now where did that observer run off to…?

Photo by Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash

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