Episode 58: What Happens When You Die?

Hilma af Klint The Dove, No. 13, 1915

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What happens when you die? Can you remember the first time you asked yourself this question? Maybe it was the first time someone you knew passed away. Or maybe it was when someone famous died. Or, if you grew up with a religion that taught about life after death, a good or bad afterlife as a reward or punishment for how you behaved in this one.

At college, your professors might have argued that there’s no evidence for anything after death; that when we die it’s like a light switching off forever. A lot of eastern cultures believe in reincarnation. And there are TV shows and movies and books play with this idea too, like Groundhog Day or Russian Doll or Reincarnation Blues.

Some of us shrink away from thinking about death at all, trying to enjoy our life and not get down and out about the inevitability of its end.

The Tibetan Buddhist system has one of the most precise accounts of death that I’ve ever heard, though it’s not as much a description of what happens after you die, as much as a description of what happens as you die. If you are able to die peacefully and with some preparation, they say this process might for many people not even be painful, but even feel joyful. They describe this kind of death as a progressive adventure through various profound visions as our senses dissolve, that culminates in blissful feelings as we relax the grip on our ego.

This meditation on the dissolution process of death is, like the other meditations we’ve done together, a thought experiment that doesn’t demand any belief. But the meditation invites you to explore for a few minutes the possibility of your subtle dissolution into something beautiful and mysterious and open that might possibly transcend your body. So consider taking on this strangely precise journey that great Buddhist masters claim actually happens when we die.

A small caution, though, to anyone with serious discomfort talking or thinking about death, or if you’re dealing with trauma or other mental health issues; this may not be the right meditation for you today and you should skip this episode or consult a mental health professional before undertaking any meditation practice like this. But if you have a relatively healthy mind and the curiosity and a little bit of courage to explore this topic, then please keep listening and see what we discover together.

Some Buddhists even do this meditation several times a day, going through eight stages of dissolving their body and consciousness into subtler and subtler forms. The reason we do this practice isn’t only to prepare for our eventual death, but to transform and develop our mind right now so that we can make the most of our life and be of the greatest benefit to the people and the world around us.

It’s also said that we don’t just experience these dissolutions when we die, but that we also experience them at other times: when we fall asleep, when we have an orgasm, and even when we sneeze! If you’ve heard the phrase “the little death” or in French, la petite mort, you can see that Western culture too has also recognized the connection between the experience of orgasm and death. But not yet between sneezing and death.

By training to recognize these visions, they say it’s possible to also become more aware of these other moments when our consciousness dissolves, particularly in the moment of sleep, when we can calmly and peacefully watch our awareness without distraction as it moves into subtler states. 

So let’s go on this adventure together with openness and curiosity. You don’t have to believe this is what really happens when you die. But enjoy this meditation like you would a good movie or book and see what it does for your mind later. Your life can be transformed by stories, so for a moment see what it feels like to consider death as an adventure, one to explore in our imagination with curiosity and wonder. Let’s see if we can see death not as oblivion, but as a profound mystery awaiting us at the end of our life.

Death Absorption Meditation

Start off this meditation by imagining that you are lying on your deathbed, after a long life, passing away gradually and without pain from natural causes. If you like, you can even lie down right now as you do the meditation. Imagine that you feel contented and calm at this moment at the end of your life, even curious.

Earth dissolution

As you die, your body stops being a support for consciousness. Though you are still breathing and your heart is beating, the body becomes very heavy, as if it’s sinking into the ground.

Your visual sense is the first to fade, and your surroundings begin to shimmer like a mirage. Slowly the mirage grows stronger, and the visual forms from your senses cease. Your awareness becomes a mirage-like shimmering sea, and there is no self apart from this mirage-like awareness.

Water dissolution

You then feel the liquids of the mouth and the eyes drying up. Your ability to experience the objects of the senses and mind as pleasant or unpleasant or neutral dissolves. What might that mean? What is there beyond pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral? The sounds around you become distant as your auditory sense fades. And your awareness becomes pervaded by a vision of a luminous fog of infinite depth, like smoke lit from within. There is no self apart from your consciousness appearing as this infinite glowing fog.

Fire dissolution

The heat of the body starts dissipating from the extremities of the fingers and toes, withdrawing to the center of your chest, the last spot where you remain warm. Your perception dissolves, you are no longer able to discern the boundaries between objects, no longer able to differentiate between friend, enemy, and stranger. There are no longer precise labeled objects of any sort. Your sense of smell fades. And your awareness is pervaded by dancing, shimmering sparks of light like fireflies, receding into infinite space on all sides: a vast space of awareness where there are moving droplets of light. And you do not feel separate from this experience. Your consciousness is this experience.

Air dissolution

And then you exhale for the last time. Your sense of taste stops. All of the myriad mental factors that drive you to action cease. There is no volition, no drive to achieve or escape, you are no longer able to do good or harm in the world. Your consciousness is pervaded by a dim light like the glow of a candle flame on a dark wall. And you are not separate from this dim light awareness.

Inner dissolution

From the view of science you are now clinically dead. But from this Buddhist view, you now enter a subtler series of inner dissolutions. Your awareness remains in your body that’s no longer breathing, but that’s still a support for subtle life.

Though detached from the gross body, you are still within it as a white drop of light associated with your father from the time of conception that is at the crown of your head. This drop of white light starts moving downward, melting downward. There is no longer a feeling of having a body from which consciousness has completely withdrawn. Memories from this life withdraw. Emotions cease to function. As this drop moves down toward our heart, we experience a blissful space of white light, like a countryside covered by snow during a full moon. You are only this space of awareness pervaded by white light. You are not separate from it.

When this drop reaches the center of your chest, a glowing red drop of light at the base of your lower body starts moving up toward the heart. As this happens, your vast space of awareness becomes even more subtle, spacious, and blissful. Your consciousness is pervaded by orange, reddish light like the sky at sunset. And you experience no self separate from this orange-red blissful awareness.

When the two drops meet at the heart, consciousness becomes trapped between them. Your clear and knowing nature of awareness becomes a dark space, like when you stare at the sky on a cloudy, moonless night deep in the wilderness. There’s a feeling of spaciousness. But you don’t see anything. There’s no light. This experience is even more blissful than before, spacious yet in total darkness, and more subtle that the prior vision. And I am not separate from that subtle consciousness manifesting as blissful total darkness.

Then darkness opens up to a bright, luminous space as vast as the sky, with no center and no periphery. Your consciousness seems to be everywhere in the nature of light, blissful. There’s no conception in there, no thought, no memory, no sense of I; just a vast blissful, non-conceptual space. The mind seems to be everywhere. It has no limit. This is our most subtle awareness, the clear light of death. A subtleness of being that doesn’t need thoughts.

Rest in that space for a moment.

The dissolutions in reverse

And then that most subtle clear light consciousness that is everywhere gives way to complete darkness again; a darkness that is also blissful, slightly less subtle.

You become aware of consciousness contained by a white and red drop above and below it.

And then the red drop detaches and descends to the lower part of the body with a consciousness pervaded by the orange-red of sunset.

The white drop floats up to the crown of the head within an awareness pervaded by a vast white light like the moon reflected in snow.

You take in a breath and your consciousness changes to a space of awareness filled with the dim light of a candle reflected on a dark wall, but vast and spacious. Taste begins to function again, and elements of will and volition resume in your awareness.

The vast space of your consciousness transforms into dancing points of light filling all of space, and your awareness is not separate from this space. Your ability to discern objects of the senses and mind returns along with your sense of smell. Heat warms the core of your body and begins to spread outward.

Your awareness transforms to an infinite space of glowing smoke. And you begin to hear sounds, from a distance and then closer. You begin once again to perceive pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral in your mental and sensory experiences. And your eyes and mouth become moist again.

Awareness now becomes mirage-like as your visual sense returns, gradually revealing form and movement around you. You feel the weight of your body, at first heavy, and then lightening, quickening, as the body becomes a support for consciousness again.

And now open your eyes and return to where we began.

Dedication

Maybe that is what happens when we die. Or maybe it isn’t. We don’t know what happens when we die. But what does probing this adventure of death in detail like we just did do for our mind? Does it lessen our fear of death? Does it increase our curiosity or our wish to make the most of this day and this life? Maybe thinking about death can be brought into our meditation as just another aspect of existence that can be worked with and transformed into a path of development.

Could the dying process really be the same one we go through when we fall asleep or sneeze or have an orgasm? With curiosity, see if you can become aware of these subtler transitions in your awareness when they later occur.

We can dedicate whatever positive neural imprints we’ve made from taking this subtle journey into our own consciousness to further deepening our engagement with life and increasing our comfort and curiosity with death; to be more ready for our own eventual death, and to help others through that journey at the end of life with love, compassion, and wonder.

Credits

Written and hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Edited & mastered by Russell Marsden
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Episode art “The Dove, No. 13, 1915,” by Hilma af Klint via Wikimedia

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