Do you believe in life
Too often I find that the subject of death is addressed with goofy
speculation, close-minded stubbornness, or outright fear and avoidance. So
let's bypass the "Death for Dummies" approach and take a deeper
intellectual look at death to better understand the important role it
plays in our lives... and especially what it can teach us about how to
As far as our human bodies
are concerned, death eventually captures all of us. As far as I can tell,
no human being has yet managed to live forever. Even if we evolve new
silicon bodies for ourselves and find a way to transfer our minds into
them, there's no reason to believe those bodies will be immortal either
(even with frequent upgrades). We may be able to delay death, perhaps even
for a very long time, but eventually our physical existence will end at
some point. Forever is too long for us to last as physical beings. No
backup system is foolproof, especially when its opponent is the infinity
On average more than
150,000 people die every day on this planet. That's 2 people per second.
Over a million corpses a week. And this is "normal" for planet
earth. Does this fact help you get some perspective on the scope of
various tragedies? If 3000 people get wiped out in a single stroke, that's
still only 2% of one day's total... hardly significant from a cosmic point
And here's the worst part.
You don't even know when you'll die (unless you're reading this right
before committing suicide, in which case I'd better keep writing). But my
guess is that you don't have an item labeled "die" on your to do
list or in your tickler file.
So how comfortable do you
feel with the idea that today might be your last day alive?
For 150,000 people today,
that's about to become the reality, so if you happen to be among them,
you'll have plenty of company. I wonder how many of those people feel
prepared for what awaits them.
What do we really know
about what happens after death?
Instead of launching into
stories about near-death experiences and what various religions say, let's
try sneaking up on this problem from a different angle. Let's ask this
What can we reasonably say
does NOT happen after death?
"reasonable" will differ a bit from person to person based on
his/her context and beliefs, but I think most of us can agree on some
fairly basic observations.
First, you can't take it
with you. All your physical stuff stays here. Whenever someone dies, we
notice that their stuff remains in the physical world. It doesn't suddenly
Another thing we notice is
that our physical bodies stay here. That includes our heart, lungs, brain,
hemp tattoos, etc.
Also, it's fair to say that
because the physical stuff stays here, then any knowledge and skills
you've developed which are rooted in the physical world will become
obsolete when you die. Your knowledge of HTML probably won't be of much
use in the afterlife, unless of course there are dead computers in the
afterlife too, such as my old Atari 800. I hope you still know BASIC.
If we manage to retain
anything of ourselves after death, it seems reasonable to say that it
won't include any of our physical stuff or our physical bodies. And much
of our knowledge will be obsolete as well.
If we can take anything
with us after death then, it would have to be something non-physical in
nature. And the non-physical part of ourselves is our consciousness. You
can call it other names if you wish -- soul, spirit, etc. The exact term
you use doesn't really matter. I'll use the term consciousness.
So we have a couple
alternatives that seem reasonable to me:
1. After we die we retain
some part of our consciousness, but all the physical parts of our
existence are lost.
2. After we die we cease to
exist. Our consciousness gets wiped out along with the physical. Dead and
Life After Death
I can think of many other
options which are variations on these two. You can twist and reword these
basic ideas into different forms, and you can speculate endlessly about
what it would be like to experience option 1 (such as a precursor to
reincarnation), but I think this is what death basically boils down to.
Either we continue to exist in some non-physical state of consciousness,
or we don't.
Now which one of these
general options is most likely true and correct?
Certainly we can unearth
pieces of evidence that may favor one side or the other. We can look
externally and examine things like near-death experiences and those who
claim to channel dead people and so on. We can look to ancient texts and
other people (living or dead) for guidance. Or we can look within
ourselves and attempt to intuit the truth.
Personally I've done plenty
of both looking within and looking without, and so far it hasn't really
given me a satisfying answer. I found enough evidence to partially
convince me that option 1 is more likely correct than option 2, but there
are still a number of holes that leave me with doubt. Given what I know
about beliefs, I always have to wonder to what degree I may be finding
what I expect to find at any given time.
This uncertainty about
death presents a serious problem though. In order to live my life in a
manner I feel is intelligent, I'd really prefer a clear answer here. If I
know that option 1 is correct, I'm going to live my life very differently
than if I know option 2 is correct. I can't do both at the same time
because they seem incompatible. I'd set different goals on one side vs.
Living in a state of
uncertainty doesn't quite work either. Uncertainty in this particular area
gives me a poor basis for making intelligent lifelong decisions. It's fine
that I'm uncertain about what the weather will be like next week. But
uncertainty about death itself makes long-term planning nearly impossible
unless I lower my consciousness, watch a lot of TV, and subscribe to the
social context without thinking for myself. Think about it -- if you knew
with absolute and total certainty what will happen to you after death,
would it change how you're living your life today?
Remaining uncertain in this
area is a suboptimal choice -- it's better to decide one way or the other
and be wrong than it is to remain uncertain and do nothing. Too much doubt
in this area will produce the worst outcome of all. In order to
intelligently decide how to live, we need to have a reasonable
understanding of where we're headed. We can still live OK without this
certainty, but we couldn't really say that we're living intelligently,
since we'd have no basis for knowing if our decisions would ultimately
turn out to be smart or foolish in the long run.
This line of thinking
helped me realize that I needed to achieve certainty on whether I was
going to live in accordance with option 1 or option 2. Only then would I
really have the freedom and direction needed to live intelligently.
But looking at all the
evidence wasn't quite enough to convince me to intelligently choose one
side or the other. It leaned me towards option 1 but not enough to give me
total certainty. I could at least see that the approach of looking for
evidence wasn't going to work. It would continue to produce more data but
not more certainty.
That's when I decided to
come at this problem from a different perspective, as I mentioned in a
blog post called, A Scientific Method for Exploring Consciousness. Instead
of worrying about which option was correct, I decided to more immersively
explore both sides -- to treat each of these options as its own belief
system in order to experience them directly. I realized that I would never
have enough data to make a firm decision from the outside looking in. So I
chose to consider the inside looking out.
One perspective I took was
the perspective of being already dead. Under option 2 I would completely
cease to exist, so that was an easy perspective to consider. It was in
fact no perspective at all. I wouldn't be around to regret or praise
anything I did. So if option 2 ultimately turned out to be true and
correct, then in the long run it would make very little difference how I
lived, at least in the sense of getting anywhere in the future. About the
only meaningful conclusion I could draw from this (un)perspective was that
a life lived under option 2 should be lived with a strong focus on the
Then I considered the
perspective of option 1. That one had a lot more branches to explore, but
essentially they fell into two types. First, there's the possibility that
I can no longer really do anything with my consciousness after death.
Perhaps I enter some sort of eternal state of existence from which there's
no escape. Maybe it's a heaven or a hell of sorts. No more doing... just
being. So if I found my consciousness frozen in such a manner, where I was
still self-aware but unable to really do anything other than ponder my
celestial navel, there is a reasonable leap of logic I can make there. And
that is that if this happens, I think the most likely state in which my
consciousness would freeze would be related to the general state it's in
when I die. So my death would sort of be a continuation of my life, but
there would be no further development of my consciousness. I don't really
need to consider the situation where my consciousness is frozen in some
random state that's out of my control, since that doesn't give me any more
information about how to live and basically reverts to the same
conclusions as option 2.
The other branch of option
1 is that perhaps I will have some ability to continue to take action
after I die. So there's some type of postmortem doing in addition to just
being. But what would I do? If it wouldn't be anything physical, then the
only real doing would have to involve something for my consciousness to
experience. And this implies that I'd be able to continue developing and
growing as a conscious being even after death. Perhaps there will be a new
phase of existence similar to a human life but without any of the physical
elements. Then I could continue what I'm doing now and put together a soul
site called, "Personal Development for Dead People." The URL
could be www.StevePavlina.rip.
There was a lot more to
consider in exploring these options, but let's fast-forward to the part
where the results of that thinking all get smooshed together.
I've already mentioned that
option 2 doesn't provide much direction except to suggest it's best to
live fully in the present moment because there won't be any future beyond
death. The first branch of option 1 (where I end up frozen in a certain
state of being without the ability to do anything) suggests that I should
develop my consciousness during my physical lifetime as much as possible,
such that when I die, I'm at least frozen in a good and peaceful state if
my postmortem condition is based on how I develop my consciousness as a
human. It also suggests that I should take full advantage of my physical
existence in order to develop my own tools of consciousness, since perhaps
I'll still be able to use them after death. The second branch of option 1
(where I can continue to develop my consciousness after death and maybe
even interact with other conscious beings) suggests that any growth I
experience in my consciousness here on earth may have a chance of
continuing after I die. And since I'm going to spend a lot more time dead
than living as a human, it seems logical to hold as my highest priority
the development of my consciousness and the consciousness of others. And
in fact, that might very well be the entire purpose of human existence
from the point of view of non-physical conscious entities.
So ultimately, even if I
couldn't determine the truth to life after death from the outside looking
in, that actually doesn't seem to matter as much as I thought it would.
Option 2 provides so little info about how to live, but option 1 provides
quite a bit. So I can actually live congruently even without knowing the
complete truth in advance because even if it turns out I'm wrong, I'm
still pursuing an intelligent course of action.
I think the main reason I
found it so difficult to understand the possibilities beyond death is that
I was coming at it from the wrong perspective. I was trying to understand
certainty from the perspective of doubt and skepticism. And that turned
out to be a mistake because doubt cannot create certainty -- it can only
perpetuate doubt. So I had to change my perspective to experience these
options from the inside looking out. I considered the perspective of
option 1 looking at option 2 and vice versa. So I put myself into a state
of certainty looking at another state of certainty. As an another analogy,
you'll gain more information by looking at Catholicism from the
perspective of atheism (and vice versa) than you will by looking at both
of them from the perspective of agnosticism. Those side views are the key
to discovering what is true for your consciousness.
I should also address the
perspective of the humans left behind on earth after you die. I spent a
lot of time considering that viewpoint as well, but ultimately it doesn't
change anything. In fact, it only adds more fuel to the fire. The path of
developing your consciousness is precisely the path of service. Raising
your own consciousness will put you in the position of being able to help
others. Consider this web site for example. It is intended to be of
service to others, but it is also a medium through which I continue to
develop my own consciousness. The two outcomes are in perfect harmony with
each other. If you work to raise your own consciousness, you will
simultaneously raise the consciousness of others. And if you strive to
serve others, you will simultaneously raise your own level of
Ultimately, I realized that
the simple truth here was that of free will. Once I understood the
perspectives of both options 1 and 2, I had all the information I needed
to make a choice. But it wasn't really a choice between which option was
provably correct from an external point of view. None of the options were
externally provable because consciousness is not subject to the scientific
method. Consciousness works on an entirely different level. So at this
level, the real "truth" was to apply my own free will to decide
what I wanted to be true for me... what I wanted to make a part of my own
consciousness. Did I want to choose to live in accordance with option 1 or
option 2? There was no externally right or wrong answer. It was simply a
matter of choice.
So I chose option 1, the
branch which suggests that conscious action and growth continue even after
death. And part of the reason I chose this to be my own truth was that I
realized that it's the most intelligent choice I can make no matter what
the reality of death turns out to be. Even if we all go to oblivion when
we die, it's still the most intelligent choice to live with the belief
that we are immortal conscious beings. That belief will actually yield a
more intelligently lived life, one that is dedicated to the greatest good
of all. It will promote and enhance the survival of all humans. Where the
scientific method fails, choice must fill in the gap. And that choice can
be either certainty or doubt. But in order to understand this great
choice, we must experience both the certainty and the doubt to know what
we're really choosing. It is entirely up to us to choose a life of
greatness or to choose a life of nothingness. I think this is what Helen
Keller meant by the quote, "Life is either a daring adventure, or
nothing." It is our personal choice that makes it so. Choose doubt
and get nothing. Choose certainty and greatness results.
To sum it all up for you,
here's why holding the development of your own consciousness as your
highest priority in life makes sense:
1. Developing your
consciousness will give you the tools to understand life and death much
better, which will help you decide how to live as intelligently as
2. Developing your
consciousness will help you escape pain and create tremendous pleasure for
yourself, so if you ultimately go to oblivion, at least you'll fully enjoy
your life along the way. It will also help you transcend the fear of
3. If you die and find
yourself frozen in a certain state of consciousness, it probably won't be
so bad because you'll have developed your consciousness as much as
possible while you lived. You'll have done the best you can to prepare for
4. If you die and find that
you're able to continue developing your consciousness after death, then
your human existence will have given you a great head start. And if I get
there first, you'll immediately be able to subscribe to the feed for
"Personal Development for Dead People," and we'll continue
growing together as spirits in the ether. Won't that be fun?
5. Developing your
consciousness will ultimately cause you to live in such a manner that
raises the awareness of other people around you, helping to transform the
world into a better place for everyone. So this is in fact the best way to
live if you wish to be of service to all of humanity.
For these and other
reasons, I believe the most intelligent thing we can do with our human
lives is to pursue the development of our own consciousness. Now perhaps
we can't take our consciousness with us either, but at the very least,
it's the only thing that even has the potential to continue with us after
This is the manner in which
I live right now. It has produced some very powerful side effects. First,
there's no fear of death. I feel prepared to die at any time, whether it
be tomorrow or next year or 100 years from now. I'm totally at peace with
the realization that my human existence could come to an end at any given
moment, possibly without warning.
Secondly, I feel I'm living
fully in the present. I'm enjoying this life tremendously, but more as a
spiritual experience than a physical one. I expect that if I died today
and looked back on my human life, I'd feel really good about how I used
the time I had. I would feel I'd done my best.
Thirdly, I feel my life is
firmly rooted in what is permanent, not what is temporary. I see
everything physical as merely temporary. By itself physical stuff doesn't
hold much meaning for me. When I look around the physical world, I see
animated dust filled with consciousness. The dust is boring and lifeless,
but the consciousness is rich and exciting and alive. I see money and
other physical stuff as temporary tools to be used for the long-term
development of consciousness. Even my physical body is just a temporary
tool, mainly for communicating.
My highest priorities as a
human being are rooted in what I feel is permanent. If I'm able to
continue on after I die, my to do list would essentially remain the same.
I would only need to change the form of the most important items but not
the intention behind them. Whether I'm dead or alive, my purpose remains
the same: to grow and to help others grow in consciousness. Only the
manner in which that purpose manifests would change. To me the service of
the highest good is to devote my life to the service of consciousness
itself, regardless of whether I exist as a physical or an etheric being.
To me this is the highest
degree of personal productivity -- to adopt a context for living that even
makes sense from the perspective of beyond the grave, to live here on
earth as a timeless being instead of a mortal one. How many of your
current goals and dreams seem shallow and lifeless when viewed from this
perspective? Do you live for what is permanent or for what is ephemeral?
Is your human existence devoted to the servicing of dust or the
realization of destiny?
Copyright © Steve Pavlina
Personal Development for Smart People
Steve is intensely
growth-oriented. He trained in martial arts, ran the L.A. Marathon, and
graduated from college in three semesters with two degrees. He can juggle,
count cards at blackjack, and make damn good guacamole. Steve is also a
polyphasic sleeper, sleeping just 2-3 hours per day and only 20 minutes at
a time. So chances are good that he's awake right now.