By Deepak Chopra, MD
Questions of life and death, including the existence of life after death, seem to resist any firm conclusion. Most people tell pollsters that they believe in God, the soul, and the afterlife, but for all practical purposes we live in a secular society. The reassurances of organized religion no longer persuade millions of modern people, while on the other hand, there is a sharp rise in skepticism, doubt, and atheism.
Living as if we are mortal is the choice most people now make—for practical purposes, they live as if nothing existed before birth and nothing is likely to exist after death. Yet there is another choice rarely discussed, which one might call practical immortality. It rests upon a simple but life-changing decision anyone can make, the decision to identify with consciousness.
Right now everyone’s allegiance is split. We identify with our bodies some of the time and with our minds the rest of the time. If you run a marathon, go to the doctor for a checkup, feel attracted to someone else physically, or drag through the day for lack of sleep, you are identifying with your body. When you feel sad, have a bright idea, or argue about politics, you identify with your mind.
These may seem like obvious things, but it is due to split allegiances that death poses so much fear. If you think that life ends when the physical body ends, the prospect is rarely pleasant, and no matter how much spiritual literature you read, a mental conviction that physical death isn’t the end won’t resolve your fear. Everyone seems to agree that nothing can be known about the existence of the afterlife until we get there—or not.
By the same token, going beyond our divided allegiance offers a solution that dispels all doubt and fear, through the simple step of seeing consciousness as the foundation of life. In such a framework, here are the basic points:
- We live in a universe where consciousness has always existed. This point is easy to accept because science has never found, and never will find, the process by which atoms and molecules learned to think.
- The brain allows consciousness to function throughout the bodymind system (including thoughts and feelings along with monitoring and regulating every bodily process), but the brain doesn’t create consciousness. This follows from the fact stated above that atoms and molecules don’t think.
- Mind is intimately linked to matter, but can neither be created nor destroyed. Since physics already holds that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, there is no reason not to say the same about consciousness.
- Consciousness is constantly changing according to whether a process if physical or mental. This too is in line with the standard rule in physics that matter and energy are ever-changing.
- The modes that consciousness takes give color, dimensions, shape, the five senses, and any other way of knowing the world. We experience our lives through the qualities, or qualia, of the five senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell deliver the primary qualia, but all mental activity depends on experience, which only occurs in consciousness.
- In itself, consciousness doesn’t need any specific quality. Water is innately wet, fire is innately hot, but at its source, consciousness is the wellspring of qualia; therefore, there are infinite possibilities for combining and recombining the ingredients of experience.
- In different states of consciousness, qualia come and go. Smelling a rose when you are awake is different from smelling a rose when you are dreaming. In deep, dreamless sleep qualia subside, and there is only pure undisturbed consciousness.
- At no point can you show that consciousness ceases to exist. Non-existence is a human concept, not a natural fact. For non-existence to be a fact, consciousness would have to be and not be at the same time. Since we know that consciousness is here with us all the time, the “not be” option makes no sense.
- If consciousness has no non-existence, neither do we. During sleep all kinds of qualia, including memories, feelings, thoughts, and plans, get rearranged. When you wake up in the morning, this rearrangement allows you to be renewed for the new day. You don’t automatically follow a pre-set program.
- Likewise, death is a re-arrangement of qualia. The eternal transformation of consciousness, which we live with on a practical basis every day, simply enters a new phase.
It’s not necessary to dwell on the details of every point on the list. The gist of practical immortality is actually quite simple. If consciousness exists—and we know it does—living with it as a permanent feature of life is the most logical way to live. We don’t fear going to sleep at night, because the continuity of consciousness has been part and parcel of every life without exception. It would defy everything we know—and experience—about consciousness for it simply to cease because the physical body comes to an end. Everything about creation and destruction has been regulated by consciousness, and it will never cease doing this in a timeless way.