It’s anybody’s guess whether or not there is life after death, but one thing is for sure, there’s a whole lot of evidence emerging from physics and parapsychology research that indeed there is.
What awaits us after the physical demise of our bodies? What will happen to you and me after we die? What happens to consciousness after the physical death of any living organism? From where does consciousness arise? Is consciousness an emergent property of complex information-processing systems, like brains, nervous systems, and possibly computers, or can it exist independent of a physical structure? Is everything conscious, as many mystics believe? This is one of the most ancient of all philosophical debates, and the question of what happens to consciousness after death is a recurring theme in my interviews.
To this day I’m continuously surprised by encounters with dogmatic scientists and religious believers who are convinced that they know for sure what happens after death. I don’t think that anyone alive knows for sure if there is life after death—not our smartest neuroscientists or our most highly achieved Buddhist lamas— although many of us certainly have our suspicions, some based on religious beliefs, and some on personal experiences with near-death states of consciousness, meditation, or psychedelics.
Death—what Terence McKenna called the black hole of biology— is, perhaps, the greatest mystery known to human beings. While there is compelling evidence that there is life after death and that consciousness survives death, there is also compelling evidence that it does not and the truth is no one knows for sure what happens when we die. I would be highly suspect of anyone who tells you otherwise.
Although the postbiological fate of human consciousness is a truly magnificent mystery, beliefs about what happens to consciousness after death generally fall into four traditional categories: reincarnation, eternal Heaven or Hell, union with God, or complete nonexistence. This limited range of possibilities for life after death is likely due to our strong fear of death, which creates a powerful emotional charge and makes playful speculation on this topic difficult for most people.
The Consciousness Experts Weigh in on What Happens After Death
But if our fears of the afterlife can be suspended or transcended, and we can set our hopes and expectations aside, how might we explore this mystery and come up with alternative possibilities for life after death? Is it possible, as some people claim, that altered or mystical states of consciousness can give us insight into what happens after death? I think so.
Ram Dass, Psy.D
Spiritual Teacher, Former Harvard Professor & LSD Research Pioneer
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass told me that he once asked Emmanuel, an entity that supposedly speaks through a woman named Pat Roderghas, what to tell people about dying, and he said, “Tell them it’s absolutely safe. . . . Death is like taking off a tight shoe.” So I asked Ram Dass what he thought happens to consciousness and life after death. He replied:
I think it jumps into a body of some kind, on some plane of existence, and it goes on doing that until it is with God. From a Hindu point of view, consciousness keeps going through reincarnations, which are learning experiences for the soul. I think what happens after you die is a function of the level of evolution of the individual. I think that if you have finished your work and you’re just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the body ends it’s like selling your Ford—it’s no big deal. I suspect that some beings go unconscious. They go into what Christians call purgatory.
They go to sleep during that process before they project into the next form. Others I think go through and are aware they are going through it, but are still caught. All the Bardos in the Tibetan Book of the Dead are about how to avoid getting caught in the afterlife.
Those beings are awake enough for them to be collaborators in the appreciation of the gestalt in which their incarnations are flowing. They sort of see where they’re coming from and where they’re going. They are all part of the design of things. So, when you say, did you choose to incarnate? At the level at which you are free, you did choose. At the level at which you are not, you didn’t. Then there are beings who are so free that when they go through death they may still have separateness. They may have taken the bodhisattva vow which says, “I agree to not give up separateness until everybody is free,” and they’re left with that thought. They don’t have anything else. Then the next incarnation will be out of the intention to save all beings and not out of personal karma. That one bit of personal karma is what keeps it moving. To me, since nothing happened anyway, it’s all an illusion—reincarnation and everything—but within the relative reality in which that’s real, I think it’s quite real.
The death of a family member can impact us in real and measurable ways. While it’s clear that one feels the pain and sadness caused by this loss, it’s now indisputable that loss affects us deeply and permanently.