Episode 56: Birth, Death, and Infinity

1970s red clock with flipping numbers transitions to fetus then andromeda galaxy

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Today, I want to tell you a story about birth and death and infinity. We’re all born and we’re all going to die, but I don’t know how many of you have ever felt a connection to infinity. I want to tell you about the time in my life when I felt this connection to infinity every day. And I also want to tell you about how I lost it, and whether it’s possible to get it back again.

Anyone who’s had children knows that they wake up early. Too early. And raring to go. I was that kind of kid. And I clearly remember waking up, day after day, overcome with this feeling of joy. It wasn’t the simple joy of being alive or the joy of a special occasion like Christmas or my birthday. It was a special kind of joy in my absolute certainty that I had lived forever and that I would continue to live on forever. It was a feeling of my connection to infinity.

I wasn’t able to put this feeling into words or even images back then, the way that I can today. But this joyful sense of infinity is my earliest memory, and it’s one that I still struggle to express. It’s a feeling that’s at once microscopic and massive and that slips away whenever I try to pin it down.

This vision of infinity gave me the rocket fuel that propelled me to leap out of bed and rush downstairs to wake up my parents and share my joy. They quickly put an end to this by installing one of those accordion fences at the top of our stairs, the ones that are illegal now because they crush kids’ fingers.

As I got older, my parents removed the finger-crushing fence and bought me a bedside clock instead that was supposed to serve the same purpose. It was one of those clocks from the seventies that has the minutes and hours printed on split cards like a Swiss train station sign. The clock had this way of making time material; because whenever a minute advanced, its card flipped down and made a little click. To set the time, you twisted a little knob on the side of the clock, and the numbers flipped forward, like shuffling a deck of cards. Something I noticed right away was that you couldn’t flip the numbers back in reverse. Just like in real life, time could only go forward.

My parents told me not to get out of bed until the numbers on the clock read seven zero zero. Before the clock, I was only aware of three times: now, never, and forever. And even though this new clock stamped numbers on moments of time, it didn’t change how I felt about time. So the 7 or 23 or 52 minutes that I had to wait before getting out of bed all felt the same, they all felt like forever. It drove me crazy having to sit in bed like that day after day, waiting for seven zero zero.

One morning, waiting to share my excitement became so unbearable that I was literally shaking in bed. And I got the idea that it didn’t have to be this way. A solution was right there in front of me: I could simply reach out to the little knob on the side of the clock and flip forward one card. And so I did, from 6:32 to 6:33. When that extra minute vanished, my body stopped jittering and my anxiety dissolved.

I didn’t think what I was doing was cheating. I wasn’t trying to trick my parents. I genuinely believed that by flipping a card forward I was advancing time itself.

I’d only change the clock a minute or two each day. But gradually it started to feel like I didn’t have to wait much at all in the morning. Soon seven zero zero arrived right as I opened my eyes. I didn’t have to let go of my joy. I could carry it with me into the day, maintaining the presence of the infinite in every moment, with a voice whispering in my head, You have lived forever, you will live forever. The thought sometimes made me dizzy or scared, but it also brought a smile to my face. And it was a secret that I kept to myself.


If you’re religious, maybe you’ve felt this connection to the infinite too. When I was growing up, my parents converted to Christian Science. Some people call Christian Science a dying religion, with a kind of dark humor, because its followers generally don’t go to doctors or take medicine. When Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Church in 1879, doctors were giving you arsenic for anemia and leeches for earaches, so Christian Scientists’ beliefs probably made more sense than they do today.

Instead of trusting leech-toting doctors, Christian Scientists put their faith in infinity. Scientists, as they’re called for short, use the word God to relate to infinity. But to them, God isn’t an impatient old man in Heaven, but an idea or ideas—some of the best ideas in the world—like Mind, Life, Truth, and Love.

The word “infinite” appears a lot in Christian Science. There’s a line from its most famous prayer, the “Scientific Statement of Being,” that says, God is infinite mind in its infinite manifestation. As a kid, I liked these words a lot, and I couldn’t get enough of Sunday school. I begged my parents to take me to Sunday school. But since they often stayed up late on Saturday nights, dancing to Saturday Night Fever or making sculptures out of Plexiglas, they’d usually sleep in on Sundays, so we only made it to church a few times a year.

On one of these rare visits to the Christian Science Church, I told my Sunday school teacher how much I wished I could come more often to talk about all these big ideas. My teacher gave me her phone number and said that I could call any time to talk about infinity or love or any other spiritual matters.

When I told my mother that my Sunday school teacher had given me her phone number, I could see that she was kind of jealous.

“How old is she?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, next time you talk to her, ask,” my other said, and then she turned up the disco music and went back to work polishing Plexiglas.

At the time I didn’t know it was rude to ask a woman’s age. But when I called my Sunday school teacher one evening and asked how old she was, I realized right away that I’d said something wrong. There was a long pause on the line. Then she said, “I’m as old as God.”

I was supremely satisfied with my teacher’s answer, which confirmed that feeling of infinity I had in the mornings. I knew she must have it too. I ran to tell my mother that my teacher had said she was as old as God, and my mother said, “I’m gonna steal that line.”

My mother was only 31 at the time. She was a beautiful woman. But looking back, I now realize that she had already become self-conscious about her age. And to this day whenever someone asks how old she is, my mother still says, “I’m as old as God.”


My mother had a terrible experience in the hospital when she gave birth to me. She felt that her body had been violated: bruised, cut up, and drugged by the doctors. This is what drove her to give up medicine for good and become a Christian Scientist.

So when my mother gave birth again two years later, this time she was at home with only my father there to help. My dad was at the laundromat when my mother’s water broke. She called him on a payphone, and he rushed home to help, leaving all the laundry there still spinning. So my parents didn’t even have sheets and towels for the birth, just a bare mattress.

I was two, and I had to wait outside the bedroom door alone while my brother was being delivered. Through the door I heard moaning and screaming. But despite their intensity, my mother’s screams didn’t sound scary. There was something joyful and excited in her screams. My dad later told me that delivering my brother was like taking a great acid trip, a totally present mind-altering experience. He called it “fun.” My mother is proud of giving birth to my brother at home. But I don’t think I ever heard her say it was fun.

Eventually, after many hours, the moans and screams on the other side of the door stopped. After a while, the door opened. My father stepped out with a little bundle wrapped in a Moody Blues t-shirt.

My father said, “You have a brother.” And he brought the bundle down to my level to place a baby in my arms.

I felt the deepest sense of love for this new being. Where had he come from? Not when he was inside my mother, but before. Holding my brother, watching is fussy mouth and scrunching eyes, a feeling of joy washed over me, the same one I had waking up in the morning, and I knew that my brother had come from infinity.


It wasn’t until I was older that I got a look our connection to the infinite in the other direction, through the mysterious transition of death.

My grandfather was an architect with a joy for life that was similar to the one I had as a kid. He was in love with his work in that heroic era of giant male egos of the 1960s. He lived in New York City and he designed fortress-like embassies, sleek houses, and a welcoming hospital with trees planted inside. He was also an alcoholic, an abusive husband, and a father.

Once they grew up, my father and uncle stopped talking to Grandpa, so my brother and I ended up taking care of him in the last years of his life. Every once in a while, I’d give my uncle an update on Grandpa, and all my uncle would say was, “Oh, is Dad still alive?”

Grandpa quit drinking after his sons grew up, and his temper faded to the occasional angry letter to the editor and loud restaurant arguments where he seemed to really enjoy being overheard. My brother and I never knew the violent Grandpa, only the funny, opinionated, inspiring old man with giant eyebrows who knew every building and half the artists in New York City.

Grandpa was a communist and an atheist and he often told me, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Then he’d stare at me hard, daring me to contradict him, knowing that my family did have a religion, that we did believe in life beyond birth and death. But Grandpa was certain that he came from nowhere and that he was going back to nowhere when he died.

Though Grandpa didn’t believe in life after death, he did believe in science. He had all the paperwork in place to donate his body to science, which is a nice way of saying letting medical students cut you up to learn how your body worked and then didn’t. Grandpa had also signed the end-of-life paperwork to be declared “D-N-R” or “do not resuscitate,” if his heart stopped.

One day Grandpa collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital. The doctors called me in California to say Grandpa had only a day left to live. I flew across the country and through his hospital room, I saw Grandpa asleep, propped up in his bed with a glowing plastic clip on his finger that measured his oxygen intake. The machine the clip was connected to kept beeping, indicating that wasn’t getting enough.

When I tried to step into his hospital room, a doctor pulled me aside and asked what my grandfather wanted if his heart stopped.

“Oh,” I said, “Grandpa’s been very clear about that. Just let him die peacefully. I have all the paperwork.” And I pulled it out to show him.

The doctor still looked skeptical. “Do you mind if we ask him?”

“Sure,” I said. “Grandpa’s never had a problem talking about death.” And we went in to ask.

“Grandpa,” I said. Grandpa slowly turned to me, cracked a big smile and raised those huge bushy eyebrows.

“Yes, Scotty,” he said. Grandpa was the only one who was still allowed to call me Scotty.

“Grandpa,” I said, “What should we do—” I looked at the doctor, who nodded like someone playing a doctor. “What should we do if your heart stops beating?”

Grandpa’s eyes opened wide, his eyebrows raised even further, and his smile vanished.

“You know, if you stop breathing?” I said, in case that hadn’t been clear.

Grandpa clenched his fists so tightly that the sensor on his fingertip snapped off, and oxygen alarms began to wail. With this high-pitched screeching in the background, Grandpa yelled, “Keep me alive at all costs!”

So much for “do not resuscitate.”


Grandpa eventually recovered enough for me to move him out to a nursing home in San Francisco right near where I lived.

The stroke that had brought him close to death had altered his brain, and in many ways for the better. He was kinder and gentler and, most surprising, he wasn’t complaining about religion being the opiate of the masses any more. My brother had even convinced Grandpa to go see the Dalai Lama with him. And now I sometimes found Grandpa the atheist, in bed reading from the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness or Ethics for a New Millennium, with his huge eyebrows wiggling in what I interpreted as approval.

Someone at the nursing home had even given Grandpa a Bible that sat beside his bed. I peeked inside it once while Grandpa was napping to see which part he was reading; and in the margins, I even found notes in his all-caps architect’s script, where each letter looked like a little modern building. His notes were mostly HELL NO’s. But still, I was impressed with Grandpa’s newfound openness to even opening a Bible.

Once Grandpa pointed out the window of his room to the palm trees on Potrero Hill and said, “I love living on this island.” I didn’t correct him, letting him believe he’d retired to a tropical island instead of the murky eastern shore of San Francisco.

Then Grandpa said, “You know, it went just like that.” And he snapped his fingers. “My whole life.”


It was hard taking care of Grandpa as he got older and older, but I still hoped he wouldn’t die for a long time. I had started learning about the Tibetan Buddhist view of death, and I was feeling prepared, and even a little bit excited, to see death through with him. I wanted to be there at his bedside at the very moment he passed away.

I’d been taught by my Buddhist teachers that the dying process can be a gateway to a kind of accelerated enlightenment if you’re prepared for it; that the process of dying peacefully can be pleasurable, even blissful. There are specific visualizations and prayers and practices that you can perform and that are supposed to help someone through what’s called the in-between state after they’ve stopped breathing.

I told the nursing home to call me if Grandpa seemed close to death and that I’d come right away. I also asked them to please not touch or disturb his body, which was another instruction from my Buddhist teachers. According to them, our consciousness lingers even after the heart and breath have stopped. The best thing to do is wait patiently, allowing awareness to leave the body at its own pace, until you see certain signs of its departure.

A few days before Grandpa’s ninety-first birthday, the nursing home called me to say it was time. I rushed over, but by the time I arrived it was too late. Despite my requests, the nursing home had called in EMTs in accordance with grandpa’s new “keep me alive at all costs” policy, and they’d violently tried to shock him back to life.

By the time I got to his room, though, there was no evidence of the violence done to him. And his body was covered with a crisp white sheet. His unmoving head with the chiseled features of a Shakespearean king was propped up onto a pillow, and his giant eyebrows swept back above his closed eyelids.

Though the color had gone from his creased face and the absolute stillness of his body attested to his death, I had the unshakeable feeling that Grandpa was still there.

My Buddhist teachers had advised me not to show anguish at Grandpa’s deathbed; that I should work through any apologies or confessions earlier—say goodbye and make peace—so that I could be calm in the moment when his consciousness was evolving toward whatever comes next.

I took out the prayers that my teachers had recommended and began to recite The Avatamsaka Sutra at his bedside, a far-out vision of infinite space and time from two thousand years ago that reads like a psychedelic mash-up of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Björk.

I read aloud for a long time until I felt something with nearly the force of an earthquake. It wasn’t physical movement, though, but a warm tsunami of energy that passed through me, emanating from my Grandfather’s skull. This wave of energy brought an involuntary smile to my face; a feeling of goodness; a shockwave of love. I felt that same joy I’d had as a boy waking up. I felt my connection to infinity.

Then the wave and the feeling vanished, having passed through me, and I knew that Grandpa was gone.


   

Long before my grandfather’s passing, I had lost my connection to infinity. It was the day that I stopped going to church. Christian Science hadn’t made logical sense to me since middle school: people don’t cure themselves through prayer, and everyone gets sick and dies. But despite that, I still felt at home in Sunday school. It was the one place I could talk about infinity. However, when you turn twenty-one, the Christian Science church kicks you out of Sunday school, and then you have to sit through the regular church services. In those services I sat by myself in an empty pew listening to lectures that had been written a hundred years ago. I missed the interactivity of Sunday school where we could debate, make jokes, and discuss our spiritual homework. Without Sunday school, church was just another lecture, so I stopped going. I unplugged from infinity.

A few years later, my brother helped plug me back in. My brother had married a Chinese-American woman and on their honeymoon on the Tibetan plateau, he’d had a brush with death brought on by rancid yak-butter tea. This near-death experience led him to connect with Buddhism. My brother started sending me books by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. And he later took me to see the Dalai Lama in Los Angeles at a basketball arena. I was so moved by The Dalai Lama’s example that I took basic Buddhist vows right there and a few days later found a Tibetan teacher back home in San Francisco.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings were formal and difficult to understand, not to mention delivered in Tibetan. And now that I had lost my connection to infinity, I was also put off by what seemed to be a supernatural belief in past and future lives. In the way that geometry says that a line can be infinitely extended in either direction, Buddhism seemed to say that our lives were also infinite, and unlike that kid who’d been in touch with infinity, I now found infinite life hard to accept. But then I remembered from college: there was a professor that had explained to us that there’s no proof for the mathematical truth of the infinite line either, and yet we accept it anyway. Even mathematics, it turns out, contains statements that are true but can’t be proven.

What really helped me stick with Buddhism, though, was my teacher’s insistence that I must not take his statements, or even the statements of the Buddha himself, on faith alone. What my teacher said was simply to give them a try: meditate and see what you discover about yourself as you extend your line of consciousness before birth and beyond death. See what this thought experiment does to your mind.

One meditation my teacher guided us through walks you backward, at first day by day, then by months and then years until you’re finally sucked back into your mother’s womb. You shrink yourself down to a fetus, then a cell, and then even further back to the moment when your father’s sperm and your mother’s egg split apart. The egg floats back up to your mother’s ovary, the sperm swims back to dad. Where did you come from before the moment of your conception? The meditation asks this question without giving an answer. You approach it with an open mind. With imagination, curiosity, and wonder, you step across the divide into infinity.

At first this meditation seemed contrived. I saw myself in a previous life as an old Japanese man doing origami in a room with paper walls. It seemed like I wasn’t married. Maybe I was a monk? Or maybe this was just my imagination building on a love of origami as a kid and a wish to have been holier in a previous life. But when I let this meditation soften, becoming vaguer, without trying so hard to conjure the specifics of prior lives, I had a more powerful experience. I could sense the continuity of mind as awareness, of a self that’s subtler than my personality and my opinions—something that might carry back before this body formed from the union of my parents’ cells.

My teacher also shared another meditation with us that guides you through the eight stages of subtler and subtler consciousness that we’re supposed to experience when we die. Unlike the continuity of consciousness meditation, from the beginning, this meditation on death felt entirely comfortable to me, even familiar. And, to my surprise, meditating on death soon became one of my favorite pastimes.

Eventually, I realized why the death dissolution meditation felt familiar. I remembered those mornings as a boy, flipping down the numbers on my clock, trying to advance time so I could jump out of bed with that joyful feeling of my connection to infinity.

When I do the death absorption meditation now, I feel a familiar reunion with infinity; probing what I might be beneath my personality, beneath my accomplishments, without my body, and even beyond this life. I don’t know what happened before I was born, but I know for sure that I’m going to die. And this meditation brings a peace and even a curiosity about death that I find comforting.

The visions described in the death meditation may not be precisely what happens to us when we die. But people wiser than me practice this meditation every day, including the Dalai Lama. I’ve heard he does this practice six times a day, and he even says that he’s excited for his eventual death, hopefully a long time from now, to put into action what he’s been practicing all his life.

In the next two episodes, I’m going to guide you through these two meditations. I don’t want to pretend that these are definitive accounts of where we came from before our conception or where we’re going after we die. But I’ve found that the effort of making this journey of the imagination, beyond the fixed endpoints of human life, can help to make the most of this one; to put our time on earth in a greater context; to contemplate the magic of the moment of our conception, to probe the unknown of what we were before; and to become comfortable with death, even intrigued by it, to approach the end of life with curiosity rather than fear.

This episode was produced by Stephen Butler, with story editing by Tara Anderson, music by Bradley Parsons and Steven Frailey, and marketing by Jason Waterman. If you’d like to support our podcast with a donation, follow us on social media, join our newsletter, or share what you thought about this episode, you can find us at skepticspath.org.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Story Editing by Tara Anderson
Music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio and Steven Frailey

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