ELDER MUSIC: Chip Taylor
A TGB READER STORY: Embrace the Challenges


On last week's post about Mary Oliver's poem, When Death Comes, my friend Darlene Costner, who is 93, left this comment:

”The more I ponder death and read what others think, the less I know how I feel. I was so sure that there is no afterlife, much as I wish I would be continuing on another planet or in another form here on earth.

“Now I am experiencing confusion about what to believe. None of us will know what happens until it happens; that much I know. I only know that I DO want to go gently into the good night. I agree with the last stanza of the poem.”

My psilocyben (magic mushroom) session, which took place five weeks ago now, continues to provoke new feelings and thoughts or, if not entirely new, has opened my mind to a re-examination of beliefs that, like Darlene, I assumed I had settled long ago.

Including afterlife.

I can give you all kinds of reasons to explain why I believe there is no such thing but that has not, over a lifetime, prevented me from enjoying speculation about what an afterlife might be. If there were one, of course.

One example: what if this, what we are living now, is the afterlife? What a (horrible) joke that would be.

In recent years, my favorite examination of afterlife possibilities is a 10-year-old book I've written about before, Sum, by neuroscientist, David Eagleman, subtitled Forty Tales From the Afterlives.

The description from the cover of a recent paperback edition explains its enormous charm and extraordinary creativity:

”In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people's dreams.

“Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.”

As many reviewers of this worldwide best-selling and award-winning book have noted, the book is “teeming, writhing with imagination.”

And so it is. I don't believe a word of the book; I don't believe in an afterlife. But it is still a delight to read and ponder.

During and after my magic mushroom session, I came to see that death is something like the other side of life; they are equal parts of the continuum, inseparable, each impossible without the other.

As inadequate as that and my previous attempts to describe the magnitude of the experience and related realizations are, one of the things I came away with is an important change: that I don't need to believe in an afterlife to entertain the idea of an afterlife. Both can exist simultaneously.

When I say that now, it seems so obvious that it shouldn't need stating. But there you are – sometimes it takes a lifetime to learn the simplest things.

Now it's your turn to take on the afterlife.


"I don't need to believe in an afterlife to entertain the idea of an afterlife. Both can exist simultaneously."

Your sentence is Talmudic where discussions/debates/hypotheticals/flights of fancy/extreme logic/arguments on explicating Halakhah... Jewish law sometimes veer off into seemingly unrelated topics. A breathtaking experience especially for learners who can follow the twists and turns. You, Ronni, I believe could follow if you would want to :)

* Correction in CAPS: "sometimes veer off into seemingly unrelated topics AND CONTRADICTIONS."

With each death of someone close to me, I find myself mulling once again the possibility and wish for an afterlife. I guess that's not surprising. I don't really "believe" in an afterlife, but don't disbelieve either. To explain some mysteries as simply brain chemistry I think does them a disservice. One strong case is the work by Ian Stevenson with children who are able to describe their past lives, which then seem to be shown accurate. My brother, at age 4, would point out , when we drove past a certain area, that "this is where my family lives". He no longer remembers that but I do. As Hamlet said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

After or pre lives have been an interesting study for me for many years. I'm not religious, so that is not my reason, but many years ago I experienced "past life regression" sessions. I chalked those up to mere thought experiments. Then one of the weird and improbable landscape formations appeared in a Monument Valley visit. So now I have an open mind. It really does not matter because we will discover the answer eventually. If consciousness does not survive bodily death, we won't know or care. And if it does we are designed to "forget" anyway. So it is mostly an entertaining speculation in philosophy.

The experience has eliminated my concerns about death.

Thank you for bringing this to our discussion.

I consider myself an atheist and was raised without religion. I also happen to have a rare and life threatening chronic illness. Not that any of this matters, really.

I never entertained a thought about an afterlife, not even when, 40 years ago, I married into a very loving Catholic family.

But shortly after my mother died almost 20 years ago (she was a scientist and an atheist and never had anything to do with religion, she donated her body to scientific research), I started seeing her. Not as herself but in birds that came to watch me - or so it feels. My mother was also a keen and very knowledgable bird watcher. The birds still pop up, a jay would sit on a branch outside my kitchen window and look at me after a sleepless night, a young hawk would try to swoop down on me as I cycle home through a forest, yesterday a blue tit knocked on my bedroom window where I was recovering from a week of fever.

In life, we didn't get on, my mother and I. But I love the birds more than anything.

As a child it was heaven and hell awaiting. In college it was nothing, whatever that means. Now, the field widens..........I don't really know. Though I do know something very intense and beautiful and real was going on in those two near death experiences some years ago. With more knowledge of the vastness, mind blowing vastness of the universe, and the connection to it, it sort of feels like some kind of intellectual hubris to hold a boxed in belief of any kind about the afterlife. Isn't that just another way of trying to stay in control? So, at this point, I'm staying open to any and all possibilities, hoping to be aware and present.

My death will be like my sleep except sans dreams or the possibility of awakening.

I have never pondered the afterlife much, but I have pondered what if there was a before life. How did that impact how I lucked into this one compared to where I must have been? A last and dreamless sleep is how I view the after whatever.

I have come to think that a belief in reincarnation is useful. Not that it truly is the reality, for who knows? Instead, I see it more as a tool, an impetus, a mindset, to keep chugging along in this life. By doing things that are skillful and useful, and continuing to learn and engage, I perhaps gain some advantage for the next life to come.

There's 3D (physical) and non-3D (non-physical). "At death you merely cease to construct the physical image. There is no great mystery here....What you call death is merely the transformation of your own energy onto a sphere that cannot be perceived by the outer senses."

While there is an order to it, the world/universe is mental and therefore subjective, not objective, so there is no singular "afterlife" (a misnomer really since it is ALL life, just not physical). The closest comparison for now, for most would be our sleeping and dreaming world.

I think reincarnation is my leading theory but with a chance to break the cycle like the Buddhists believe is possible through insight and extinguishing desire, also, in other words, dying in the right frame of mind. I can loosely plug in the Christian quote "The wages of sin is death" which might mean, if you don't live right, you are doomed to repeating this earthly drama, over and over--the "R" word if Christianity, reincarnation which was wiped from the books long ago--probably because of it being closer to the truth than clerics of the time were willing to tolerate. Isn't religion wonderful as it allows any average Joe to expound on all of these eternity questions endlessly where nobody can prove or disprove, one's theory because "dead men don't talk". On that note, I think the rules are strictly enforced--no dead people are to give away the secret by communicating with the living and ruining "the game of life" and all of it's intentional mystery--loose ghostly lips will sink the plan, and life's stage causing people not to fully participate if they really know what's next. Thank You for listening. I've been wanting to get these theories off my chest for some time now.

I'm pretty sure you've heard of the latest tech/theory that we're all living in a computer simulation?! I delved into some research on that, and found it...strange and yet, basically, quite intriguing/thought-provoking.

I'm an agnostic: just a way of keeping an open mind. Because we will only solve that when we are, in fact, deceased. But I have personally had a couple episodes of hallucinations -- severe lack of sleep once, and bad reaction to morphine when in the hospital. The most extraordinary part of one of those hallucinations was that I could "see" inanimate objects moving, seemingly alive with energy; I could "hear" the most beautiful music (which I've never been able to identify or hear in the real world); and a few other incredible things.

The brain is an amazing, mysterious part of us -- so who knows if there's more beyond our physical existence?

My dear friend Joleen believed in the afterlife. She told me to talk to her often, and she would answer. I didn't really believe her, but when she died I had the most moving experience.

After I was told she had died in the night, I walked the block to the beach. Why, I don't know, and I took my camera. It was a chill day, and there were great clouds overhead. Suddenly a long string of kites in wonderful happy colors flew over my head. They followed me as I walked down the surf line, and once almost flew into the top of my head. After a short while I began to believe it was Jo talking to me.

Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn't. But in my great sadness, I believed it was her...and still believe all these years later.

I'd love to read what you've written about your monitored magic mushroom experience, Ronni, because I'd like to do that someday if I can find a guide. I searched your site but nothing turned up. I loved your "What if this..." comment.

After my ex-husband died I smelled his cigarettes around for about an hour (although we'd been separated for years). I talked to him; it was nice. My friend Annette and I decided that we would love a heaven full of our beloved dogs and cats. We could do without the people.

Love your post on this topic and the comments that have come up. I find it wonderful, in some ways, that this is a question that cannot be answered.

I have a friend who was a hospice care nurse and she told me two things about what she learned from her job: The first is that death is birth in reverse, coming out of something and going into something; the second was that very much what people believed was how they died. So if one were a christian, one would see a figure and associate it with Christ. If one had no belief, dying was met with a lot of angst and fear, etc.

My mother-in-law was a non-believer and did not believe in an after life. But in the couple of months before she died, she would have these visions of "a youth, filled with light, beckoning to her to cross the river." We would ask her if she recognized the youth, but she was not able to (she also had dementia).

I have actually communicated with people close to me who have died. My mother, my husband, my father. All differently. In my mother's case, there were two very direct communications.

I will share one on this page. My parents had lived in Morocco for 24 years after my father retired. My mother had three or four kaftans. My older sister took them all. When I asked her why she hadn't thought to ask me if I wanted one, she replied, "They wouldn't fit you. You are much smaller than Mom was or I am."
Shortly thereafter, I was in my parents' home and I "heard" my mother. She told me that there was another kaftan in her closet. So I went upstairs to the closet and opened it. There were no kaftans that I could see. She told me to go into the closet and look down towards the back of the closet and sure enough, there was a kaftan, a beautiful hand-made silk kaftan, which I wore at my wedding reception.
My father died a few years later. No communication from him. He died in August. But then at Thanksgiving, all of us, all his children (we were not, any of us in the same vicinity) shared that we had felt an overwhelming embrace of love which we, without exception, attributed as coming from him.

As for my husband, he was a techie. I was not. When he died, I was confronted with his computer, that mystery of mysteries. I was trying to locate some names of people so I could inform them of his death and I did not know how I could do this since I had no idea what date he had last been in communication with them. I was feeling frustrated and desperate and finally went to bed.

The next day, when I opened the computer, somehow, the emails (there is a button, i found out, where you can change search to alphabet rather than date, but I did not know this then) had been categorized by alphabet and it was very easy for me to locate the names I was trying to find.

And my husband remained with me for about three months after his death, trying to guide this dummkopf through the labyrinth of computer and then one day I received a communication from him telling me he had to move on in his journey.

My niece tells me that her daughter, born six years after my mother-in-law passed away and who has very much the personality of her great-grandmother, when listening to a tape of Yiddish music, always asks my niece to play one particular song, which, it turns out was Minkie's favorite song.

Ah, but who knows, who knows, who knows. As quoted above from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Since I was in my late teens, I've been an atheist, unable to believe in a god or an afterlife. But one of your comments is very helpful to me. You wrote that "I don't need to believe in an afterlife to entertain the idea of an afterlife. Both can exist simultaneously."

Even though an afterlife seems highly unlikely to me, apparently I believe in ghosts. Since my husband died 10 years ago, I've talked to him almost every day. I do it while I'm taking my daily shower: I tell him what's going on in my life, good and bad, and often discuss problems. This is very useful, whether he's actually there or not--sometimes I don't know what I'm thinking or that my logic is flawed until I hear what I say out loud. Occasionally when I'm describing a problem, the solution pops into my head--and I know it's what he would have suggested.

But the day I heard myself apologizing--telling him I hoped he didn't mind that I'd allowed my grandson to use the shower--I did wonder about my own sanity.

My husband was a highly energetic, ever curious, peripatetic person--he loved to travel-- not someone who would allow himself to be trapped in anyone's shower. But somehow he's there for me.

For myself, I wouldn't mind an afterlife spent haunting somebody I love.

Perhaps, when death is imminent, I'll begin having thoughts like those above. But for now, as an atheist, I believe death is the end, after which there is nothing. I will be dust, scattered in the mountains I love. And eventually that dust will return to being Sagan's "star stuff" or Tyson's "star dust."

When my dad died, I wished mightily to be a believer, to have the comfort of knowing I'd see him again in some kind of afterlife. But eventually I decided he was and is still with me and always will be -- in my heart, in the person I am, in the beliefs I hold. And when I need guidance, there's always WWJD -- what would Jack do? Or WWDD, what would Daddy do.

Until we figure out what consciousness is, and what the mind is, the idea of an afterlife is just speculation. I certainly wouldn't like the Mormon idea of the afterlife in which your whole family is present just as they were in life. The idea of having our beloved animal companions with us after death sounds wonderful to me. But to have the peace that comes with the death of self would also be welcome. I do wonder about reincarnation. On the whole, though, I would be happy to be buried somewhere and have a tree planted over me, the first step in the process of becoming star dust.

Interesting thought. I'm not religious and don't believe in an afterlife, but. . .who knows? I like Sagan's "star stuff", too.

So many thought-provoking and interesting comments here already. I share at least some parts of several. Experiences that I have had, along with others told to me by friends , following the death of loved ones strongly suggest at least some sort of presence or awareness of those who have passed from life, but how can anyone know?

This past weekend, my mother passed away. The past few weeks she had spent much time in bed, often staring at the ceiling as though she could see something that the rest of us could not. And she smiled more during those days than she had in a long while. I cannot assume that this was due to any sort of other-worldly experience she may have been having, but what ever it was, I am deeply grateful that she seemed the most peaceful, comfortable and content that she has in more than a year, and even more so that it was without any medication of any kind. I think the fact that she was physically comforted and told on a daily basis that she was deeply loved might have had something to do with it.

When I shared the news of her passing, on Facebook earlier today, one of my friends commented that I should take comfort in the fact that dementia does not follow us to Heaven, and that we are our very best in the presence of GOD. I found those to be some of the most comforting words shared with me today. They assume nothing about God or the afterlife, only that we leave behind the suffering we may experience here, what ever its form, and that what ever God may be -- something or nothing -- it will be okay. This I do choose to believe.

To me, God and the afterlife and the power of prayer are all human constructs. This does not make them worthless; on the contrary, one cannot understand anything about how humans live in this world, without those ideas. Is there really any way for my consciousness to go on existing without a body? No.

But model switching is good. You can't enjoy science fiction or fantasy without being able to handle "okay, but what if?" premises. I don't mind imagining what it would be like if...

I liked your thought about the afterlife. Sort of like believing in a god. God does not care if you believe - he/she is there anyway.

If you find out and can get to a computer let us know... ;-)

Afterlife?? In discussions about this with friends I am always reminded of the line from Thomas Carlyle, likely doing his stand-up comic routine after wine in some monastery ... "An unfathomable Somewhat, which is not we"...or conversely ...Who knows?

I don't KNOW if one's beliefs make any difference at all as I approach 82 yrs of trying to figure it out. Yet there are hard times in life, when it is all I have left to offer. I believe it is a wise wager. Of course my "faith" cannot be proved, yet what harm will come to me if I gamble on its truth and it proves false? If I gain, I gain; if I'm wrong, I lose nothing. So here I am, at least knowing that I haven't missed what may be my only opportunity, and choose as kindly and wisely as possible in all areas of life.

To be clear; by belief or faith, I don't mean prayer in the classic sense, but allowing quiet time daily of awareness, attention, and above all 'listening' to what comes to mind seemingly uninvited and new thoughts or solutions.

Full disclosure here :-) There was NO religion in the home I left at 17. Now I am a 'recovering' Methodist, then humanistic agnostic or borderline atheist, then on to whatever this is now !!:-) I had read Blaise Pascal's writings, the 17 century French mathematician and physicist in my 40's. A course of doable action made sense to me...finally. Maybe I am merely a wanna-be Buddhist, at least on their "path of kindness" thinking.

Thank you to all taking the time to share your thoughts here. Interesting and inspiring.
Charlene...still learning apparently. :-)

My big imagination wants me to believe there is another life ahead.

But, what if this is it?

What if this thing we call life is just a test? A game? A big joke?

Now imagine what if this life is only the beginning?

What if we get to choose a whole new adventure?

If so,

Well then,

You already know my plan, Ronni.

I'll bring the Montreal smoke meat and some fine poutine.

Pura Vida, my friend!

There are two things that make me believe in an afterlife. One is more of a question like Really? Is this it? This fascinating and seemingly intelligent universe only has this relatively short shot at doing something? What about all the people who never had a chance? or whose life was cut short? The second is the law of the universe. Energy (spirit) cannot be destroyed. It goes somewhere else. It's simple physics. I manifest in another place possibly or another dimension. That would make more sense to me.

And let me take this moment to thank you for sharing with me. I
appreciated your offerings.

I still like the thought of being stardust. Perhaps Mother Nature was the first to recycle.

I imagine us like constellations, only there's a new universe every minute and we blink into different shapes again and different and again. When we die - our light has shone, the energy has radiated, maybe so we are still felt by others, maybe we are still even felt by our own consciousness, in some other way, a fading impact.

My older brother had lost his wife, and his own health was precarious. He was in a wheelchair, on oxygen and dependent on the meds we both take to control the symptoms of the inherited illness we share. He called me on a Tuesday morning to say he'd had a friend take his 15 and 16-year-old dogs to the vet to be put down, and that he had discontinued his meds. "You'll die without your meds," I told him. "Exactly," he replied. "I miss Thelma, I'm tired of the pain, of the constant fight to breathe. I'm ready to go. I just called to say goodbye and tell you I love you."

Thursday at noon my niece called. He'd died at 11:00. We cried together, but I had a full afternoon of clients booked, so I pushed my grief down and went back to work.

At 5:30 I went out on the balcony of our 5th floor condo. It had a long uninterrupted southern view, and in June this far north twilight was six hours away. The sky was cloudless as far as the eye could see. Gazing out over the horizon tears began to flow unchecked. I noticed a dark cloud in the east, small to begin with it grew rapidly in size, leading me to think a storm was approaching. It continued to grow filling the eastern and southern horizons, but not coming overhead. The clouds to the south were pink, as if lit by the setting sun, though the sun was still high in the sky.

Suddenly a pair of brilliant rainbows appeared above the cloud and two pink cloud "arms" extended out and wrapped me inside a luminous "fog" or mist. Holding out my arms and hands they were surrounded by a layer of this mist. There were no words, but I could feel the presence of my brother and sister-in-law, and their joy was overwhelming.

Gradually the fog faded, and I was standing there - in the dark - I went inside and looked at the clock and it was 11:30. My husband and sons had eaten dinner, gone about the evening, and gone to bed, apparently without missing me.

I don't believe in Heaven/Hell, my philosophy is more along the lines of Zen, heavily influenced by my Native Culture, who believes part of your spirit goes back to Creator, and part stays here to be reincarnated into your earthly family. At any rate I've had enough experiences with those beyond the curtain to have no fear of death.

If we get a choice I would kind of like an old-fashioned biblical death with angels and harps.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments above. It's nice that we can believe anything we want to..... I believe that the laws of the universe, of which we understand very little, are supreme. We choose whatever we need to believe when it's helpful to us. Reincarnation fits best with me, at the moment - otherwise I can't explain how undeservedly blessed I have been in my life so far.

I was rather surprised at the lack of Christian comments on this post so I will try to fill part of the gap. As a Christian, I take heart from my Savior's words In the book of John. "In my Father's house are many rooms, if it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you I will come again and welcome you into my presence so that you may be with me also.

John 14 is a powerful reading about the afterlife and how to get there.

It begins with these words: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God;a believe in Me as well."

I purposely did not quote the entire passage, figuring that if folk are intrigued they will look it up. I wish you well in your journey. I have never regretted mine. I have a friend my age who is going quietly into that Good Night, thankfully, but his trust is also in Jesus and he goes out hanging on to hope.

I absolutely believe in another plane of existence which would probably not be recognized by most any traditional religion. I have forgotten now who said that the actual afterlife turns out to be whatever it was we imagined in life so I like to be creative in my imaginings

With this earthly mind and heart I cannot know about the afterlife or remember the before life.

I remember reading a story -- wished I had written down the name/author -- when I was young that was very influential for me. It was about a guy who dies and his afterlife was pretty much an incorporeal version of his life, and the "forbidden pleasures" he was allowed in the afterlife quickly paled because they were no longer forbidden. The punch line was "Well, this is Paradise, after all -- you get what you wanted. And how to know what you wanted except by looking at the way you lived your life? You get Here what you told us you wanted There by the way you lived."

Pascal's wager is that you should live as if God existed because you could be right and the payoff is so huge and the penalty so dire if you don't, and besides, it's an OK way to live.

I think I have incorporated that wager idea and revised it based on the story -- I think we must live as if we will get for eternity what we had here, so it better be meaningful and fulfilling (not merely pleasurable) or else.

I have studied reincarnation off and on for over 50 years. It answers many questions for me although I have never had an experience I can attribute to it. I believe we go to another life once we die in this one, after a period of rest and learning. It gives me peace to believe it.

I found your blog by surfing around in the area of elder blogs and I would like to say I throughly enjoy your honesty and the wonderful way you express your life journey. However, I have been hesitant to make any comments because as a Christian I know we have very different views of especially the afterlife. But, I know as a cancer patient we will make that discovery probably sooner than later. Your thoughts and the thoughts of your readers kept bringing some familiar words to me but I couldn’ t quite remember where they came from. Scripture or from some other source. Well, thanks to google, I found the source and I would like to share. It is from The Confessions of Saint Augustine of Hippo:

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold! Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee. Thou wast with me when I was not with Thee. Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness. Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. For Thyself Thou hast made us, and restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease. Late have I loved Thee, Thou beauty ever old and ever new.

All of us are at least a bit narcissistic, so when we think of an afterlife, or hanging around in the ether after we have died, we are thinking of ourselves alone. But of course that makes no sense. If we continue to hang out, then so do the billions upon billions who preceded us in death. What a cacophony that would be, how crowded, how confusing!

For myself, the last thing I want is to linger in any form after I’m dead. Since there is no logical possibility of a so-called heaven or any form of consciousness after death, I’m not too concerned about that happening. When it’s over, it’s over. All I really want is to be remembered by my children and perhaps even my grandchildren—who will probably have too much to do just to survive in a world made more difficult by eco-disaster to spend much time thinking about me.

For that reason, I am leaving the only thing I can leave of myself—my reasonably true memoirs—comprised of very short stories that touch down on as many of the phases of my life as I have had time to write about before I die. Of course I have no assurances that any of my survivors will read the stories, but I can hope up to the very end and take some comfort in that hope. Much better than any hope of heaven. For me.

Years ago I watched a Japanese movie, I think it was called Life After Life, that portrayed the afterlife as a building, sort of like a hospital, where you were helped to discover the happiest moment of your life. After that was accomplished, you'd see that moment acted out on a stage. Then you vanished to spent the rest of eternity in that moment. I don't know if there is an afterlife, but that movie did help me identify that moment. I've carried it with me ever since.
When I was a child, for a few years my family rented a cottage near Traverse City, Michigan. Every day we'd spend most of the day on the beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. My mother set up a little grill on the sand where she'd cook hotdogs. My father roamed within view up and down the beach with our little black cocker spaniel who loved to bark at the waves. My younger sister and I would put on life jackets and spend hours bobbing down a little creek close by that opened into Lake Michigan. In those moments I had everything I needed.

Late to this, but here goes. I'm a Christian; I affirm that the life and death of that itinerant Jewish prophet was/is somehow paradigmatic and saving for all humanity. Like us, his followers speculated about an afterlife -- this was very much in the Jewish culture of that time and place. So there's a picture of an afterlife embedded in Christianity whose centrality waxes and wanes depending circumstances. (For example, I'm currently reading a life of Luther and fear of Hell drove that monk near crazy.)

For myself, I'm agnostic about the notion of "afterlife." I relate to the idea as I try to do with all that I believe is unknowable: by letting it lie so as not to distract me from what is knowable, what I can see before me if I just look.

BTW -- I loved the book Sum, though felt a little overwhelmed among his many imaginative flights of fancy.

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