What Happens When We Die?*

Everything in the universe exists in a continuous state of fluctuation, from extremely contracted to extremely expansive. Planets. Rocks. Galaxies. Humans too – our bodies and our minds.

I once heard a fascinating lecture by a neurobiologist who had suffered a stroke that left her temporarily unable to process visual and aural information rationally. She said it was like being on LSD. She talked about looking at her hand and not being able to distinguish between the fingers and the space between them. She said the experience helped her understand that the material world was an energy field where there are no rigid distinctions between observed phenomenon, between flesh and air, for example. She also said that it was not scary. It was, in fact, the opposite of scary. She said she felt an amazing calmness and openness as if her body were melting into the universe.

I remember thinking that this was an example of consciousness expanding beyond the normal bounds of experience. And that although her sensations could be dismissed as hallucinatory, they could also be seen as truer in some way than the “normal” experience of the world. After all, from an atomic (sub-atomic) perspective, the human body is not separate from its environment but connected to it, both in terms of proximity and composition. In other words, our bodies and the invisible space around us are essentially electronic impulses.

It could be argued that her experience was one in which the essential condition of existence was finally visible because her awareness of existential information was highlighted, while the screening process that rationalizes sensory input was diminished.

Of course, I could not help but relate it to the idea we are discussing here, the fundamental nature of everything as fluctuations between contraction/tightness and expansion/relaxation.

Listening to soft music or sitting on the beach while watching the waves is a relaxing experience. Fighting for your life in the white water is tense and contracting. But these two experiences, however emphatic, are not extreme. The most extreme feeling of contraction might be the level of conscious pain one feels the moment before one commits suicide. It is so intensely contracted that the pain is too great to endure. Death is preferable.

What, then, is death if it is preferable to this level of pain? It might be the ultimate experience of expansiveness.

We are talking about human consciousness now. Let’s put that aside for a moment and consider what happens to the human body after death. Almost immediately, there is a breaking down of the physical elements. Cells die by the billions. But they don’t become nothing. They decompose into more elemental things – into atomic structures that are no longer living in the conventional sense. They become dead matter and then they become dust.

But dust is not the end. Dust, too, is eventually (or quickly with some sort of sub-atomic event) reduced to a more ancient and more elemental state. It is reduced to energy.

Energy itself is never static. It always expanding and contracting. But what about energy generally – the sum total of energy in the universe? Is it expanding or contracting?

If you believe, as many scientists do, that the universe is expanding, you can define death as infinite expansion. If you believe that the current expansion of energy is just a stage, after which the energy will shrink into a black hole, you can define death as a temporary expansion before an eventual contraction.

Within the body, the struggle against death is largely a concentrated struggle. But after death, in decomposing, the material connectiveness loses its hold.

The conscious experience of dying can be either expansive or contracting, depending on the circumstances. If you are drowning or otherwise struggling against death, it is concentrated. If you are not struggling and not in pain, it can be expansive.

The dominant mode of human life – both in the materiality of the body and in the experience of consciousness – is one of contraction. And death is essentially the relaxation of that tightness and the letting go, the process of a cluster of concentrated energy losing its internal gravity and expanding out into the universal energetic flow.

This brings us back to our main thesis. Everything in the universe is in a state of energetic fluctuation, contracting and expanding at different speeds all the time. Stars explode and become black holes. Mountains are formed and then turn into rocks and gravel. Water is solid at one temperature, liquid in another, and gas in still another.

This is true of stars and mountains and rivers. But it is also true for us. Human existence and even human consciousness can be seen as an extreme (though fluctuating) concentration of energy.

The challenge in understanding our consciousness is the challenge of accepting the nature of energetic concentration and relaxation. A good life, it might be said, is one that makes the best use of these fluctuations.

* In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time — that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction and relaxation. And that such an understanding might be helpful in succeeding in life and accepting death.