By Ken Trainor
What happens after you die? A surprise. You descend, but not to hell. To heaven — though not exactly what you had in mind.
When we die, we're like a flowering plant whose life filters back into the metaphorical bulb from which it sprang.
A better image is traveling down the deep well of our unconscious — that murky realm to which we are so mysteriously connected and from which our dreams and the world's mythologies arise.
But this well has no bottom. We drop through, emerging from the containment walls of our "self" and rejoining an ocean of consciousness, unlimited, existing outside time and space, to which we — and perhaps all other life forms that ever lived or will later live in any and all universes — have been connected all along. Carl Jung called it the "collective unconscious."
This is where God resides.
Maybe this is God.
Our individuality, we quickly realize, was an illusion, as many suspected and which we now shed with remarkable ease, not that we have a choice. If enlightenment in this world can be characterized as transcending our narrow, shallow, limited egos, then death is a fuller enlightenment, the ultimate transcendence of self.
My afterlife theory was inspired by Chapter XI (Life After Death) of Jung's book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, dictated to an assistant before he died in 1962.
I mention all this because Tom Holmes, who writes our Spirituality, Ethics and Religion Blog, recently posed a question to readers: What happens after you die? (See OakPark.com/Blogs for other responses)
Being your standard-issue, optimistically morbid Irish American, I find this topic irresistible and have developed numerous theories. The one above is my latest — and, I think, the most promising. There's more to it, of course, but I don't have space enough for a full elaboration.
Will the afterglow of life on Earth be blissful and exhilarating or disorienting and painful? Depends — perhaps, on how tightly we hold onto our "selves" and how stubborn our certainty about what we will encounter. Our intuitive notions about post-mortem pain (limbo, purgatory, hell) may have more to do with the difficulty some of us experience "letting go."
Will we undergo an intensive "life review"? Will long-lost loved ones greet us? Will we meet "God" face to "face"? Perhaps, but probably not in the way we imagine.
Will we be purged, cleansed, sanctified, become a more highly evolved spiritual entity? Will our long-festering questions gush forth and be "answered" or will everything fit together and suddenly seem obvious? Do we surrender our identity as a separate "self," except when summoned into someone's dream? Will we be reincarnated as a new self in order to complete unfinished business?
All part of the mystery that awaits us — presuming anything awaits us.
If we're able to reflect back on our recently ended journey, living will likely seem excruciatingly poignant, an emotion unlike any we experienced in life. Our desire to convey some message to the living-loved may be fierce at first — but soon seem unnecessary. Will regrets — and an urgent need to make amends — follow us into the hereafter? Perhaps, like a rapidly fading echo.
We can't help wondering what it might be like. Even if you "believe" what your faith community professes, you may privately imagine something else.
The guy who likely has the record for afterlife imaginings is David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who in 2009 published SUM – Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Here's an excerpt from one of his 40 scenarios:
"It turns out that only the people you remember are here. So the woman with whom you shared a glance in the elevator may or may not be included. Your second-grade teacher is here, with most of the class. Your parents, your cousins, and your spectrum of friends through the years. All your old lovers. Your boss, your grandmothers, and the waitress who served your food each day at lunch. Those you dated, those you almost dated, those you longed for. It is a blissful opportunity to spend quality time with your one thousand connections, to renew fading ties, to catch up with those you let slip away.
"It is only after several weeks of this that you begin to feel forlorn. …"
What happens after we die? Some say nothing happens, so they banish the question and life becomes simpler, more focused on the here and now. But do they genuinely not believe or do they merely wish to not believe — in which case, they must spend time convincing themselves that nothing ensues, complicating life in a different way.
Maybe it's better to finalize a favored scenario and be done with it. But that can be a problem if you develop such certainty about what you imagine that you can't bear to have it not be true.
I don't have a full-blown belief in my scenario. As Jung put it, there are "reasons to believe" in an afterlife and reason to believe it involves the collective unconscious.
The way I live my life is not dependent on that near-belief. During my life, I needed to experience certain things, first and foremost falling deeply in love. I wanted to be good at certain sports, see some of the world, and become a writer. All that has happened to some extent. I still want to live a long life and share whatever wisdom I've accrued. We'll see.
Certain experiences weren't high on my life list — marriage, for instance — but it led to fatherhood and I'm thankful for that.
I have more to do, but I don't expect to finish. When I die — or as I die — I will likely wish for more time. I expect to feel deep pangs of love for a few. And I hope to be astonished by what happens after my breathing stops.
But not just yet.