Category Archives: Fear of Death

A little oil for our lamps

Once again I must express my gratitude to Alicia Hamberg, whose thoughts from a perspective that is often critical of anthroposophy, have from time to time provoked me into writing posts on this blog.

The proximate cause of what follows is something that Alicia wrote as a reply to my post of April 6th 2015, “The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death”. Here is part of what she said:

“You may very well be right that your approach — or illusion — is ‘rational’ in some ways, regardless of whether it conforms to truth. But it only works as long as you’re able to tell yourself that it is at least likely to be true! The second you start to doubt it — at least if this doubt is more than just a fleeting thought — its ability to comfort diminishes, because if there’s serious doubt, you can’t lay the worries entirely to rest! (As a side-note, what happens after death according to anthroposophy is not necessarily a comforting thought — it is quite daunting.)”

I mentioned in that posting that I’m someone who is certain that life continues after death and therefore I have no fear of dying (although I am of course afraid of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness). But there is another aspect of death that I do find daunting and that is the possibility that one could be caught in a kind of limbo, unable to return to earth but either terrified or completely unaware of the possibility of moving on into the spiritual world.

As it happens, I’ve known some people with clairvoyant and healing abilities who are able to do what is called rescue work with souls who “get stuck” in the astral plane after death. This very unfortunate state can happen to people who during their earth lives have no belief in reincarnation or life after death, or who for whatever reason are very earth-bound – and it can last for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is these stuck souls who are sometimes perceived as ‘ghosts’. What seems to occur is that their very strong non-belief that life continues in a different form after death (or their shock, in the case of those who have died a violent death) prevents them from becoming aware of the higher frequency spiritual beings who have come to help them make the transition. This is where clairvoyants with a particular gift for this kind of rescue work can help, because their own “vibrations” are low enough (because they are still attached to their physical bodies) so that souls trapped in the astral plane can actually perceive these earthly helpers, and may begin to listen to their advice about how to move on.

According to a lecture given by Steiner in May 1913, “the earth is neither a mere transitional stage, nor a vale of despair, but it exists so that on it a spiritual knowledge can be developed which can then be carried upwards into the spiritual worlds.” More than this, he says that it is only on the earth that such knowledge can be acquired – it’s usually too late once you’ve died: “This is due to the fact that the content of earthly theosophy can only be acquired on earth within a physical body. It can then be made use of in the spiritual world but it must be attained within a physical body….” Steiner gave quite a few lectures in 1912 and 1913 on what life is like between death and re-birth. You can read them, if you’re interested, in the invaluable online RS Archive.

Steiner’s message in the quotation above (you can tell by the reference to theosophy that it was given at a time when he was still the general secretary of the German section of the Theosophical Society) is the same as the message of Jesus Christ’s parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The parable does not criticise the foolish virgins for sleeping, because the wise ones also fall asleep – but instead it takes them to task for being unprepared, for not having the oil for their lamps. The oil we all need, so that our lamps can light us into the spiritual world when the time comes, is the knowledge of what to do when we die. It’s pretty astonishing that there is so little preparation for death – after all, we have the National Childbirth Trust and pregnancy classes for the beginning of physical incarnation but when it comes to excarnation, we have few equivalents for the final stages of life – although the soul midwifery movement is doing excellent work in this field.

Rescue workers say that the basics are not that complicated – all we need to do is recognise our deceased family members and friends and go with them, or sometimes just look for a beckoning light and then follow it. I do think that atheists in particular should be prepared to be open to such possibilities when they die, even if they despise themselves for entertaining such ideas – the alternative of getting stuck for centuries is too terrible to contemplate.

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Fear of Death

What will survive of us is…

Death and mortality have been much on my mind lately.  You may have noticed this in the last two postings on this blog. Recent events have reinforced this theme; for example, I’ve just been to the Isle of Wight with cousins to scatter the ashes of my late aunt Gwen, while on the same day my wife went to a memorial gathering for Nick Thomas, a scientist, researcher and a former general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain, who died in April.

On the Isle of Wight, my cousins and I had a simple and dignified final leave-taking of Gwen; a poem was read, and the ashes were consigned to the sea, their traces marked by flowers which floated on the water, moving onwards and outwards with the patterns of the tide. Afterwards, we went for lunch in the pub where Gwen had once worked behind the bar, in the village where both Gwen and my parents had lived.

flowers on the sea

My relatives, two of whom had flown from the USA to say their farewells, wanted to take a last look at the house where Gwen had lived and also to look at my late parents’ home, where they had often been welcomed. So after lunch, we strolled the few yards to my parents’ house. We could scarcely recognise it, such was the extent of the changes made to the house by the new owners. Where was the tall hedge? Where was the climbing rose? Most of the front lawn had been covered over by a concrete driveway. The front door had now retreated behind a glass-filled porch. There was no longer any connection between this house and my parents.

We then walked slowly up the village street to see the house where Gwen had lived. This house, too, had been transformed by its new owner – instead of the white-painted brickwork we remembered, the entire surface of the house, even up to the top of the chimney-stack, had been pebble-dashed. This was a clear visual indication that this house, too, had changed and Gwen was not to be found there.

What can be said in the face of such finality? My parents, my aunt, Nick Thomas – all are gone. They, who seemed so alive, so present, are no longer in physical existence. And yet one still feels so connected, can hear their voices, can bring their faces and characters to mind. Surely they are still real, even though not physically with us. An atheist would say that I am being absurd, that consciousness dies with the physical body; we have just one life, that it comes out of nothingness and randomness, and at death there is complete extinction.

Nick Thomas

Nick Thomas

When I got home from the island, my wife told me about the memorial gathering at Rudolf Steiner House in London for Nick Thomas, at which many people had spoken about him. One of the most moving contributions came from 17-year old Flora Kaye, a student from the Kings Langley Steiner school, who got up to deliver a tribute she had written. A few days before Nick died, he had gone to the school, where he taught philosophy to the older classes, to say goodbye to the students. He had told them he would soon be leaving his body and was looking forward to the next stage. Flora felt that, perhaps unlike in lessons, she was now hearing Nick properly and this is what she had to say about it:

“To a man of great wisdom and inspiration.

Hello,

I hear you ended this form of living. I hear you no longer see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your brain. I hear you now. I hear you loudest now your silence becomes eternal, and I feel a pang of grief for not listening sooner. But this path leads me closest to learning more about you and more about myself and for that I am gratefully standing here.

I was told of your journey, your great mind and your warm heart. I then heard your voice and I still wasn’t ready to listen. My ears still developing, I only heard an echo of what you said, still searching within myself for the words you spoke to the world. The words you had been searching for long before my noise, my breath began.

And then I heard you loud. I watched your strength take you by your hand and lift you up. I saw you speaking out with all your heart, where others were too afraid to wonder.

I heard something extraordinary. I heard what I had been seeking.

I heard an embrace of love, of exquisite acceptance of the parting of breath. And most magically displayed, for all youth to witness. You stunned me, in awe I sat, having just experienced such raw expression, with open finality. Most of all I heard a man standing tall and mighty, at the doors, leaving the room with such love for that which you are departing from, and equal love for the next room you are entering.I heard today you stood up once more. I heard you departed with your breath. I heard so strongly your embrace of life, so alive were you.

So full of life are you.

Being witness to your death of life, I see that through dancing with death, you have become closer to life. And now you live on through another realm we call death, more loudly than ever do I hear you alive.

In memory of Nick Thomas.”

My wife said that one could have heard a pin drop after this contribution. It was as though Flora had introduced a note of holy truth, of what is truly real, into the gathering.

Philip Larkin, himself either an agnostic or an atheist and not known for his charitable feelings towards others, was nevertheless a true poet; and as a true poet, from time to time he was able to get in touch with a reality greater than his curmudgeonly persona would normally admit to. One of his best-known poems is An Arundel Tomb, inspired by the 14th century tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral. Above the tomb lie the carved statues of the Earl and his wife, as if asleep in bed:

The tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral (photo via E-Verse Radio)

The tomb of the Earl and Countess of Arundel in Chichester Cathedral
(photo via E-Verse Radio)

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends could see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Larkin’s poem is sometimes seen as ironical (eg the earl and countess lie in stone, with the word ‘lie’ to be taken in the sense of telling a lie – the stone tomb is a public statement that wouldn’t have corresponded to the actual human reality of the marriage) yet the last stanza of the poem, despite the “almost-instinct almost true”, seems to contradict his cynical pessimism. And indeed, it is true – what remains, what will survive of us after everything else has gone, is love.

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Filed under Atheism, Atheists & Atheism, Fear of Death, Mortality

The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death

When I was in my teenage years, I called myself an atheist. In my twenties, although still professing atheism if anyone asked about religious beliefs, I modified my stance to agnosticism. In my next decade, in 1984 when I was thirty three, I experienced an epiphany, which decisively changed my spiritual outlook. Since then, I’ve had other experiences which have made me certain that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the atheist’s philosophy.

Today, atheism seems to me to be an adolescent phase of belief that some people get stuck in all their lives, either through a failure of imagination, a kind of anger with “God” or a rigidity of thinking. Nevertheless, many people persist with it and find it decidedly infra dig to hold any kind of view other than atheistic materialism.

If I’d been able to move in the literary and artistic circles to which I was most drawn when I was younger, I would like to have known successful writers such as Julian Barnes and Jenny Diski. If I’d ever got to meet them, I wouldn’t have had the intellectual self-confidence to say that I didn’t share their atheism, which to my mind has to some extent limited their capacity to be truly great writers; but I can still read their works with interest and enjoyment and the sympathy that comes from being of a similar generation. So when tragedy has struck them, as it has in recent years, and they have written about it, because that’s what writers do, my heart goes out to them as if they were long-standing friends whom I would help if I could.

Julian Barnes wrote a book about his fear of death called Nothing to be Frightened Of. With terrible irony this was published six months before his beloved wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She died in October 2008, just thirty-seven days after the diagnosis. They had been married since 1979. In Levels of Life, published in 2013, he writes about his grief: “I was 32 when we met, 62 when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart.” He contemplates suicide and goes so far as to work out how he will do it; but then he realises that he is his wife’s chief rememberer, and if he kills himself he will be killing her too.

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice - photo via the Daily Telegraph

Pat Kavanagh & Julian Barnes in Venice – photo via the Daily Telegraph

I feel that I know Jenny Diski well, even though we have never met, because I used to know people who could have been her; and she writes wonderfully well about herself. She had a pretty grim childhood and spent some of it as in- or outpatient at various psychiatric institutions. A natural rebel and a child of the ’60s, with all that that implies, she was taken into the Mornington Crescent home of the novelist Doris Lessing, whose son had told her about Jenny’s difficult family life. Eventually, Jenny was able to resume her education; and by the early 1970s was training as a teacher, starting a free school, and later publishing her first book. In September 2014, Jenny revealed in an article in the London Review of Books that she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Since then, she has published several moving articles about her thoughts, feelings and experiences while facing death from cancer. In the 9th April 2015 issue, she expresses her views as an atheist about the nature of life and death by quoting both Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov

“I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.”

From an Abandoned Work (Beckett)

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” Speak, Memory (Nabokov)

Jenny Diski - photo via The Guardian

Jenny Diski – photo via The Guardian

Neither Beckett nor Nabokov are writers I would go to for reassurance when facing death but Jenny finds some solace in the thought that we have but one life between nothingness:

“This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns’. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been. I whisper it to myself, like a mantra or a lullaby.”

As someone who is certain that life continues after physical death, I can say that I have no fear of dying, although I do have fear of a painful death or a long drawn-out disabling illness. But for atheists it must be far worse. Here is what Julian Baggini, philosopher and author of “Atheism: A Very Short Introduction” has to say:

“I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. Appropriating the label “heathen” is part of this. Heathens are unredeemed outcasts from heaven who roam the planet without hope of surviving the deaths of their bodies. They may have values but they are not secured by any divine source. Yet we embrace this because we think it represents the truth. And so we don’t just get on and enjoy life, we embark on our own intellectual pilgrimages, trying to make some progress in a universe on which no meaning has been writ. The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly. But there is no other way, and anyone who urges you to follow a path that they promise leads to a bright future is either gravely mistaken or a charlatan.”

So as someone who could be gravely mistaken but hopes he is not a charlatan, is there anything comforting I could say to Julian Barnes or Jenny Diski? I apologise to them in advance for this assumption that I can address them as familiars. Julian Barnes has written in Flaubert’s Parrot: “Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?” Well, Julian, we pay good money to buy your books, which seem to take us some way into your life, and so we like to imagine that we know, and can say things, to you.

I don’t think it would be any good for me to try to reason, since you will undoubtedly regard my standpoint as irrational (although I might ask in passing: how do you suppose that life can come from lifeless matter and randomness? It’s like saying that a corpse is the true being of Man).

Nor do I think that it would cut any ice with you if I were to refer to anthroposophy, as you would only roll your eyes at my gauche attempt to introduce something so foreign to intellectual good manners. From your perspective, it would require an unfeasibly large amount of disbelief-suspension to take on board Rudolf Steiner’s cosmology: etheric and astral bodies, planetary evolutions, elemental beings, Lucifer, Ahriman, asuras and the rest. It would be like Alice in Wonderland with the White Queen:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

But an even worse hurdle than getting past the jargon and the strange concepts, is that anthroposophy claims to be a science of the spirit, which implies that the results will be reproducible by anyone who masters the same necessary tools of cognition as Rudolf Steiner. Atheists find this claim particularly challenging in a way that they would not if anthroposophy called itself a religion. And this is a pity, because anthroposophy has great insights and indeed, comfort and reassurance for anyone who is scared of death.

One of the most important ways in which anthroposophy can help with this fear is by increasing understanding of the cosmic laws of karma and reincarnation that govern all our lives. The atheist’s key premise, of course, is that life and consciousness are inconceivable without a physical body – the existence of a living being without a physical counterpart is simply not possible and death extinguishes individual existence completely. Through anthroposophy we learn that this notion of one single life lived between not-being and extinction is simply wrong – a cruel illusion that can only increase the terror of death.

Anthroposophy tells us that the true reality of being human is that we are spiritual beings currently having human experiences in physical bodies. That is the true nature of what it means to be a human being – we come from the spirit and we will return to the spirit and this cycle continues over many lifetimes. And although this posting is about death, we should never forget that there is also life before birth, and indeed before conception. Steiner called this “unbornness” and said that the human soul’s will to incarnate exists before conception takes place.

If in former times we had been candidates for initiation, we might have experienced the reality of life beyond the physical body through what was called the “temple sleep”. After various trials, the priest or hierophant would have put us to sleep, then caused our etheric bodies to leave the physical bodies for three and a half days. During this time our etheric and astral bodies would have journeyed in the spiritual world. When our etheric bodies were brought back into the physical, we would have awakened and known with absolute certainty, through direct experience, of the reality of the spiritual world.

Human physical and metaphysical evolution has moved on and the temple sleep initiation ritual is no longer performed. Nowadays, comparable experiences can sometimes be had via shamanism. But in our present era, which extends from the 15th to the 35th century and is often called by anthroposophists the age of the consciousness soul, the spiritual world has largely withdrawn from the physical world for necessary reasons of human evolution. In Owen Barfield’s words, “Living in the consciousness soul man experiences isolation, loneliness, materialism, loss of faith in the spiritual world, above all, uncertainty. The soul has to make up its mind and to act in a positive way on its own unsupported initiative. And it finds great difficulty in doing so. For it is too much in the dark to be able to see any clear reason why it should, and it no longer feels the old (instinctive) promptings of the spirit within.”

But I suspect that anthroposophy is way beyond anything you want to hear at this stage, so perhaps you would prefer to know what a scientist has to say about these matters. I was interested to see reports in the press in 2013 of some comments made by a British doctor called Sam Parnia who is head of intensive care at the university hospital in New York and who specialises in what you might call resurrection, because he is an expert in resuscitation techniques for people who have suffered cardiac arrest. Dr. Parnia is also a researcher into near death experiences and what he calls actual death experiences. He has talked to many people about what they recall experiencing while they were dead in his intensive care unit. About half claim to have clear recollections, many of which involve looking down on the surgical team at work on their body or the familiar image of a bright threshold or a tunnel of light into which they were being drawn.   And when he was asked what conclusions he has drawn, he said this:

“When I first got interested in these mind/body questions, I was astonished to find that no-one had even begun to put forward a theory about exactly how neurons in the brain can generate thoughts. We always assume that all scientists believe the brain produces the mind, but in fact there are plenty who are not certain of that. Even prominent neuroscientists such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity. All I can say is what I have observed from my work. It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts, I mean your individual self – persists for at least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which you might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self but it may not be the source or originator of it… I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind – I’m not saying it is magic or anything like that –is not neuronal.”

Dr Sam Parnia - photo via Stonybrook University

Dr Sam Parnia – photo via Stonybrook University

Well, there you have it – an eminent doctor and scientist who says that the mind and memory do not reside in the brain. Like you, Jenny and Julian, he does not have any religious faith, but he does observe that consciousness continues after “death”.

Is it possible that given a little more time and further research doctors might one day come to the conclusion that memory actually resides in something called the etheric body? We shall see! As Steiner said, “it is well to remember that, in the last analysis, there is nothing else in the universe beside consciousnesses…Thus beings in various states of consciousness are the only reality in the world.”

Let us leave the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, to my mind a surer and wiser guide to the nature of reality than either Beckett or Nabokov:

“It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange

to see all that was once in place, floating

so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,

and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels

a little eternity…”

Rainer Maria Rilke – part of the first elegy from the Duino Elegies

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Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Dr Sam Parnia, Fear of Death, Jenny Diski, Julian Barnes