The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Smiling at Death

I don’t know what happens after death. I have two friends who have died and lived again to report. One says there was nothing, another had a classic near death experience. After reading a lot of case studies, I’m inclined to believe that reincarnation is fairly common (why everyone should have the same post-death experience is beyond me), but certainly it could be that death is the END, or one goes to the happy hunting grounds, or any of a number of any other possibilities.

What I do know is that when you die, you have to leave a lot behind. Everything you’ve owned, your physical body, and all the people, though perhaps some will rejoin you later. I rather suspect that, if oblivion isn’t what happens, that on losing the physical body you will also undergo some significant changes to personality, memory, and perception. (One advanced spiritual teacher told me that when you die, your physical life seems like a dream. I don’t know if they were full of it or not.)

But forget all the stuff about what may or may not happen. For sure, we’ll be leaving a ton of things behind.

When I was in my 20s, I spent three months in the hospital, and then a few years recovering. The hospital stay was so awful, including days of screaming, more dry vomiting than I can count, and complete inability to move for almost a month, that after I got out I swore that I’d never let it happen again.

I was very close to death for a few weeks while in that hospital, and the doctors actually didn’t think I’d make it. I had plenty of time to contemplate it, and when I came out I had no fear of death, because I knew that truly awful things happen in life.

Something changes when you face your mortality, not for an instant, but over a period time. I had to do it again later when I had heart problems (serious enough that I couldn’t catch my breath sitting down), and so I’ve done this more than once.

Add in my meditation training and something odd happened: I find the thought of death soothing. When I think something bad will happen or something bad does happen, I remind myself that, like Socrates, I’m human and therefore mortal, and I’m going to die one day. If I lose something, odds are it was something I was going to lose anyway.

And then I ask myself, “Am I scared of death?” and the inevitable reply is a chuckle, because the idea is absurd to me. Maybe there are hells and worse things can happen, but I know for sure that really, really bad things happen here.

And then, perhaps, I think back. The happiest year or two of my life were when I was around five, living on the beach with my grandmother and mother. I had virtually nothing then except clothes and a place to sleep: no possessions I cared about except a tiny heart-shaped booked my grandmother gave me in which she had written a story.

Happiness requires very little; remove misery, and happiness should bloom.

So when I’m anxious or scared, I move on to the ultimate anxiety or fear, and I find it empty, and then perhaps I keep it in mind for a time, and, for me, that is a near sure cure for anxiety.

Death can be your friend and your teacher. You’re going to have to face it one day; perhaps if you face it now, and ask yourself if you can be okay with losing all the things it takes, it can help you be free and happy.



Spring of Down, Chapters VII-IX, By Stirling Newberry


Open Thread


  1. Willy

    If you really think about it, consciousness is the weirdest thing. Your body is basically a collection of cells that acts more like a city than a single entity. Good guys, bad guys, workers, cops, and even illegal immigrants.

    How is that a single consciousness results? So many cells doing all their little jobs, always hoping that Mr. Big is gonna make the right decisions. Yet is Mr. Big just a sack of chemical reactions reacting to other sacks of chemical reactions?

    No wonder there are things like philosophy degrees. One can go on forever obsessing over this.

    Anyhow, I’d be open to some kind of “watcher” that operates on a higher dimensional level that transcends spacetime. Or then, maybe it’s actually spooky action at a distance, with some other brain doing all my controlling and I only think I’m in charge.

    Until somebody comes back who’s able to prove they’ve gone somewhere else, I think a philosophy degree is the best we’ve got.

  2. Joan

    Ian, could you clarify this: “So when I’m anxious or scared, I move on to the ultimate anxiety or fear, and I find it empty, and then perhaps I keep it in mind for a time and for me that is a near sure cure for anxiety.”

    I ask because I too don’t think I fear death, but rather suffering wanting death. You can be in so much pain that you’d rather die, such as terrible medical situations. I fear that. A permanent injury that gives you decades of pain or something.

    So for me, if my ultimate anxiety were death I frankly wouldn’t be anxious, but rather it is ruthless suffering.

  3. Ian Welsh


    Yes, once you’ve suffered a lot, death becomes not scary. Dying can be awful, death can be a relief.

    I don’t think death meditation/contemplation is a cure for severe suffering, the sort where you’re in agony, but I find it is for anxiety and lesser suffering/pain. Not sure if that quite answers it.

  4. Trinity

    I always liked the idea that when we die we rejoin the collective, converting back to the stardust we came from. That’s the physical side. From the spiritual side for collectivist societies, after living a much more meaningful life, it’s assumed that your spirit remains to be remembered and revered for a time, until your name is forgotten and you eventually end up lumped into “the ancestors” collective.

    I’ve been suffering for quite some time now, non-stop since I moved to this godforsaken state. My job is okay, my health is okay, I have no physical pain, just an endless and dreary existence right now. I’ve thought often about death recently in a detached kind of way (not suicidal), and I am also okay with it as a welcome release from a lot of emotional pain, but I still have some hope, too. I’m using this (presumed) interregnum to clean my mental house as best I can, and increase my physical strength as best I can.

    One day I will leave behind my son, and I hope I have taught him what really matters. I will also leave behind some published papers, a book chapter I am very proud of, a thesis, and a dissertation. All of them are my little/limited way of speaking to the future, so I chose my research topics with that in mind because I could, because I felt I should.

    That’s one of the most important things missing from our psychotic “leaders”, isn’t it? The world would be a much better place if we had been living and planning not just for ourselves but also for the next ten generations, wouldn’t it? There would probably be more than enough easily accessible oil still in the ground instead of the sky.

    Ian, it would be great if you would physically publish, too, if you haven’t already. You could probably publish a series of collections of selected posts. Well, it’s easy for me to say this. I haven’t worked on my own book for years. But it would be nice.

  5. anonone

    The 14th Dalai Lama once said (paraphrasing), “Life would not be bearable if not for the promise of death.”

  6. Dan Lynch

    I think about death a lot. And I do genealogy, which is sort of a voyeuristic way of looking at people’s lives and their deaths, and how people are remembered after their death.

    When you are alive, most people view you, men in particular, through the lens of how much money you make, how high a rank you hold, or even at a redneck level, how big of a male deer you have hanging on your wall. But when you are dead, all people remember about you is how you treated them, and how they made you feel.

    I have an (evolving) list of things I want to do before I die. It helps me focus on what’s important, and stay constructive.

    In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” — which is sort of about facing death — there is a plaque on the wall in the bank. If you blink, you’ll miss the plaque.
    It says “All you can take with you is that which you have given away.” I think about that a lot.

  7. Ché Pasa

    Thoughts on death and dying….

    I first encountered dying and death as a real thing as opposed to a performance in a movie or on teevee when I was 14. It was July. I was doing yard work in front of my house when a man I’d never seen before collapsed while walking in the street. I went to see what was wrong. He appeared to be unconscious, barely breathing but alive at that point. I went into the house to call for help. There was no 911 in those days. You dialed the operator or if you could find it, the number for the fire department or police. I dialed the operator. There was no answer. I tried again and again and again for at least 10 minutes, maybe 15. Frustrated, I went out to check on the man. He was no longer breathing. I didn’t know CPR. I tried neighbors to see if there was anyone who could help. No one was home. I went back in my house and called again, again, and yet again. I don’t know how many times I dialed the operator before someone finally picked up and I asked for an ambulance. I waited with the man in the street until they came, not too long afterwards, but way too late. They were unable to revive him in the street and trundled him into the ambulance and drove away. I was in shock.

    When it hit me what had happened, what I had witnessed, what I had been part of, I had a kind of epiphany about death and dying: the man who collapsed in the street in front of my house did not seem to suffer at all. I assume he had a heart attack, and it was probably no fun from his point of view, but he was not apparently conscious or struggling in any way. All the struggle, fury and frustration at the inability to help or prevent the death of this man was on me and those who eventually showed up — we, the living if you will — while the man in the street lay dying yet relatively at peace.

    A few days later, the man’s brother, a neighbor, came to my house with a thank you card, thanking me for trying to help — I was still frustrated by my inability to do anything or even reach anybody who could help. His brother said I’d done what I could. That was enough. I’d tried. He told me his brother was visiting from Reno, had gone for a walk and when he didn’t come back they got worried. It was a day or so before they found him and found out what happened. I remember he said he was glad his brother didn’t die alone…

    Since then I’ve had a number of experiences with people passing from the world of the living. For a time, when I was in excruciating pain, I was close to wishing for my own end It’s never easy, and yet…

    I think about the recent death of Thich Nhat Hanh in Vietnam after a long period of partial recovery following a major brain hemorrhage/stroke. Those who were around him in his final years said that his teaching never stopped, that caring for him was a constant source of enlightenment and inspiration, and that his death at the age of 95 was his liberation.

    It was that way, too, with Ms. Ché’s mother who I cared for during her final months. It was perhaps the most rewarding period of my life, and her ultimate passing was her liberation from the tired old body that had kept her bound to the earth. She had such a smile on her face when the end finally came. I will never forget it…

  8. Raad

    Thanks man, good post 🙂

  9. Astrid

    One of my earliest memories is running towards the ocean and being pulled into the water and feeling exhilarated. I didn’t know how to swim as a little kid and my mom, who still doesn’t know how to swim, said she almost drowned pulling me out of the water. I imagine the instance of death, in whatever form it comes for me, to feel like that. A rush of adrenaline and sensory fragments, then increasing darkness and quiet, then silence. I don’t remember being pulled out of the water or anything after, just the running to and getting pulled under.

    Personal death never bothered me. I was raised an atheist and never feared nonexistence, though I went through weeks of existential dread anyways at the idea of mass death and end of civilization. I remember riding school buses and looking outside at suburbia, and imagining it all in ruins. I didn’t fully made peace with it until I started to understand, in my thirties, that life is suffering and illusions. The more happy and successful a life, the greater the load of illusions and self deception. Yet, the only things I still really value are moments of connection with people or nature or art, aren’t those moments illusions too?

    Alsoba successful government attorney suing polluters but was suffering severe burnout at the world, told me years ago that she took solace in geological time and rollercoasters. Now I too take solace in geological time and (pre-covid) rollercoasters.

    I definitely have no interest in returning to another individual organism life. I have, by any objective standards, a very good life. But I am so so tired from living in this world. I don’t think I would have the will to live on but for my parents and husband, whose will to live on and on is so vigorous and alien to me. My husband would joyfully wants to live forever if he could. The horror!

  10. StewartM

    It’s been a truism in philosophy since Descartes that we can’t imagine our own non-existence–even when we try, we’re there as an observer (or in mute darkness, but we’re still there ‘thinking’). Maybe that’s why the idea of some afterlife persists.

    Our modern lives are not constructed to produce happiness, at least in the materialistic sense. I have been reasonably fortunate and successful, and I know that, but still I have a lingering dissatisfaction. It seems to me that when I was young and had energy and ability, my life was heavily controlled and constrained by powerful individuals and institutions, and I lacked financial independence, and by the time you finally wrest a measure of control over your life back you’ve lost youth and with it much of your ability. I say this even though I know that many of the decisions I might have made might not have been the best, but then again, even knowing in hindsight if I had to do it all over again that still doesn’t mean I’d not make mistakes, and possibly worse mistakes than I did.

    So I just get tired. Not suicidal, mind you, but as Bob Dylan said “once you think you can’t lose something else, you find you’re wrong”. We’ve extended lifespan without correspondingly extending functionality, so increasing age just means continued existence with less and less independence and functions. At some point you quit caring if you live longer if “living” means a very limited existence, and death becomes something you at least don’t fear, if it comes quickly and without too much discomfort.

    I will also add that you become concerned about your legacy. Did you make the world a better place? Is at least someone or some people better off because you were there? I had a German friend who spoke of afterlife not in terms of metaphysics, but in the physical sense, that your life creates “ripples” that spread out in a pond and impacts others in a positive or negative sense. You want those “ripples” to be positive effects.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén