My title is from the Beatles’ song called “She Said, She Said”: a couple of the lyric lines are relevant to my topic. When I attempted to describe to my friend Gary G. the change in my experience that I will attempt to describe to you now, he immediately recalled the song.“She said, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.'”
Back in May, I decided to tell my relatively new acquaintance, John C., too, about this significant change in my life. I’ll use some of what I wrote to John to help me introduce it here.
Not long ago, something “clicked,” and suddenly I understood the ineluctable reality of evolution as a soulless and self-contained process. From then on, I have awakened many mornings in a kind of near-death experience, a strong intuition of what it means to really not exist at all. That experience returns to me a few times during each day as well. As a result, my felt sense of the world has changed, and I have more compassion now about people’s desire to remove the fear of the unknown. Another positive result seems to be that I no longer fear the dark so much, metaphorically speaking. But I understand first-hand now how dangerous that experience can be, because time is telescoped and, in a real sense, I already do not exist. I seem to have more respect for and yet less fear of death now. Maybe one function of religion has been to protect us from such knowledge — to serve as a kind of socially-inculcated defense mechanism?
That last sentence raises some interesting issues, but I’ll leave them for future musings. Today I want to focus on the experience.
I remember reading many years ago a Zen dialogue (which, if I haven’t imagined it, I may be able to locate later). In the story, a monk is challenged with something like this: “You can conceive of nonexistence, but can you conceive of the nonexistence of nonexistence?” The question itself is subject to a variety of interpretations. For example, one may read it as implying that nonexistence does not exist, that there is no such thing. Well, yes, nonexistence is not a thing. One could even go on to say that the Zen master must be teaching that nothing ever ceases to exist. But I don’t think that the master was teaching that: Buddhism attributes only conditional reality, if that, to things. My reading of the question was more like this: do you understand what it means, in terms of your life, that “nonexistence” not only is not a thing, but also is a characteristic that cannot be predicated of any thing? My answer then was, “Yes, but I’ll need to think about that.”
Thinking more about it didn’t give me a useful understanding then, but now the ongoing intuition of nonexistence is helping me to think (and feel) differently. No thing can be said not to exist, I see now. I cannot not exist: not because I am eternal, but because nonexistence is not a characteristic of any real — existing — thing, and I am such a thing. (“Existing” as a thought in someone’s mind is not the existence I require for myself.) There is no time when I will not exist, and yet there will be a time when others can rightly say of me, “He no longer exists.” Contemplating that paradox, I begin to understand “the nonexistence of nonexistence.”
And the reality of death. I might say that death is unconsciousness that never ends, but only with the proviso that no one is unconscious — and that unconsciousness can be predicated only of an existing being. Analogies can’t be of much help here. But this I can say: there are dead bodies, for a time, but no dead persons. I will die, but I will never be dead.
“And she’s making me feel like I’ve never been born.”
And yet, in a sense I am dead now, because to intuit nonexistence is to feel past and future in the present. As I told John, time is now telescoped. Seeing beyond existence allows me to feel the timeboundness and momentariness of our existence. Knowing now the eternal reality of nonexistence and the relentless relativity of time, I begin to understand that already I do not exist. And I see, too, that, from the perspective of eternity, I have never been born.
I’m reminded of a kind of prelude experience that I had in 1990, on the day that my adult family’s first pet dog died. Below is a paragraph from the entry I wrote that day in my journal. (Click here for the entire entry. At the time, I was thinking of Zen Master Bankei‘s notion of “the Unborn,” thus my reference to “Mind” in that entry, but my experience now is different, beyond the reach of doctrine — as, for all I know, Bankei’s was, too.)
A line seems to have an origin and an end, but I come from nowhere and go nowhere. I am an imaginary series of points between two deaths. Each point is drawn on the plane of emptiness; each point of life is a point of death. In perfect stillness I pass through them all. If I could enter that stillness, I would know peace. I would know death in life and life in death; I would no longer want to deny what I am. I would live, at last, as a free man.
I now know death in life. And, because of that, I am learning to know life in death. It may be that freedom is at hand.
[Follow-up post: “Wrestling with Nothingness“]