Can Relationships Improve After Death?
The Gentling of Souls In This Life and the Next
What Happens after We Die?
Maria: My grandmother died a month ago. Last night she visited me in a dream, telling me she was all right.
Jose: That is impossible. After people die they do not exist anymore. Their brains become energy that is found in the rest of the universe, but as persons they cease to exist.
Maria: But she spoke to me; I don't think I was just talking to myself.
Jose: That is impossible. If her brain was no longer functioning, she does not exist anymore.
Maria: How do you know?
Jose: I know because that's what science tells me.
Maria: Science tells you that a person's consciousness is precisely identical with his or her brain?
Jose: Well, not exactly. It tells me that there is a correlation between brain states and conscious states.
Maria: Yes, that seems right to me. But my point is that consciousness can be more than the brain, too, and that a person's journey can continue after death.
Jose: Are you talking about out of body experiences and the remembering of past lives, and apparitions and mind-to-mind connections that are not mediated by molecules and atoms?
Maria: Yes, I am talking about things like that.
Jose: But I think people who talk about things like that are kind of looney.
Maria: There's actually more evidence for these kinds of things than people like to admit.
Jose: Can you point in the direction of a book that presents this evidence.
Maria: Yes, I recommend a book by the philosopher of religion, David Ray Griffin called Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality (State University of New York Press). It is very dense, but you can work through it. It brings together a lot of the evidence in a rational way that can appeal to skeptics.
Jose: Well, are you sure he isn't some kind of kook who just wants to believe in those kinds of things because they are comforting?
Maria: He's really not like that at all. He tells us that he began his own studies as a skeptic, and in his book he bends over backwards to consider counter-arguments. He's as a rational as they come.
Jose: Why does he call it a "postmodern" exploration?
Maria: Because he thinks that perspectives like yours, which see the brain and mind as absolutely identical, and which dismiss the possibility of a continuing journey after death without even considering evidence, are overly shaped by modern, western points of view which now, in a more global context, seem short-sighted and unscientific.
Jose: You mean that he thinks it is unscientific not to believe in life after death?
Maria: Yes, he thinks that science appeals to evidence, not preference, and that the evidence points toward a differentiation of consciousness and the brain.
Jose: So Griffin thinks that consciousness and the brain not the same?
Maria: Griffin thinks that there is a two-way relationship between consciousness and brain activity. Our consciousness influences our brain activity and our brain activity influences consciousness.
Jose: What do you mean by consciousness?
Maria: I mean what others mean by the mind or the soul. It is not a supernatural entity; it is the ongoing process of experiencing, from a first-person point of view.
Jose: Is this mind or soul always conscious?
Maria: Great question. If by consciousness you mean clear and distinct awareness, much of it is not. The word consciousness has different meanings in different contexts. Sometimes it means the mind and sometimes it means clear and distinct awareness. When I have said "consciousness" above, I have meant the mind or soul.
Jose: Does this "mind" or "soul" endure unchanged over time?
Maria: No, it is different at every moment, and at each moment in its ongoing history, it receives influences from the brain and the surrounding world and also responds to those influences, precipitating responses.
Jose: Is it self-contained, like a billiard ball?
Maria: No, it is not self-contained at all. It is partly composed of its relations with other things.
Jose: But still it has agency of its own?
Maria: Yes, it has agency of its own. For example, as you wave your hand your mind is causing the waving. Your stream of experiences is making decisions all the time, and you are this stream. Your stream is a stream of decisions.
Jose: And you think that this stream of experiences can survive the death of the brain?
Maria: Yes, Griffin's work shows that there's lots of evidence for this.
Jose: So you think that your grandmother was really talking to you?
Maria: I think she was trying to make things all right between us before she travelled to the next phase of her journey.
Jose: What do you think the end of her journey is?
Maria: I don't know. Buddhists tell us that we live in a multi-planed universe and that we journey through various planes of existence until our consciousness becomes so wide that we are enlightened. I find this a hopeful idea.
Jose: Are you sure?
Maria: I am not sure about anything. How about you?
Jose: I am not sure, either.
Maria: Then we are in the same situation. But it seems to me that, at the very least, you should consider the evidence marshaled in Griffin's book and think for yourself.
Jose: I'm ordering it now.
Recently I ran into a friend in the grocery store whose husband had died. Her marriage had been a good one; the death was not easy for her. But she also felt she was being guided by him even after his departure and that, in some ways, their relationship had grown even closer. "We have grown even more intimate," she said. "I feel his guidance and friendship all the time. We are no longer separated by the flesh."
She reminded me of something I should have already known. Relationships do not end with death. They continue, at least on our side and perhaps on both sides.
For my part, I find that, when people whom I love die, I become more gentle, less judgmental. I remember what I loved about them and set aside what troubled me. Their death is an opportunity for soul-gentling.
By soul-gentling I mean a widening of the heart and mind. As our soul gentles,
1. We find greater freedom from greed, hatred, and confusion.
2. We grow wider in our capacities for empathy with others, sharing in their subjective states and perspectives in a spirit of understanding.
3. We awaken to how deeply interconnected all things truly are.
Wide, Awake and Free. I think that's another name for heaven. We can hope that heaven is the destiny of all souls: human souls, animal souls, plant souls, spirit souls, angel souls.
Fallen angel souls, too. Even the devils among us. Orthodox Christians say that, when our hearts are truly wide, we pray even for the devil, whom God also loves with a tender care. God doesn't give on on anybody, ever. That's how wide God's love is. And how awake and free, too.
In any case the soul that becomes gentle is not a substance that endures unchanged over time, but a living stream of experiences, different at every moment, each of which is here-and-now as it occurs.
In process theology, God is the gentlest of souls. This means that God is wider than anything we can imagine, like a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
Of course the Gentleness is not all powerful. There are many things that happen in the world that the Gentleness does not and cannot prevent. Witness the violence; witness the sadness; witness the tragedy; witness the meanness.
But the Gentleness is continuously at work as an inwardly felt lure toward creative transformation.
I think of a friend of mine who suffered terribly from an addiction to anger, and who caused many people to suffer along the way. I hope that, as his journey continues, he gains freedom from the anger and perhaps also a freedom to understand the harm he caused.
At first, I am sure that this understanding will be painful for him: a kind of hell that he will undergo. For him, at least at first, hell will be empathy, because he will feel the feelings and share in the sufferings of those he harmed. But it will be purgative not permanent.
This is my prayer for him. Not that he go to hell, but that he grow in love, learning to become part of the feelings of all people, including those he harmed.
It hurts to grow wide, especially when we have to realize how narrow we've been and how our narrowness as been so harmful. I suspect that I'll have a bit of hell to pay myself. Growth into love is never easy, not for any of us. Prayer is needed.
Perhaps prayer, then, is one way relationships can continue after death. Relationships can continue when we pray for people who have died and when they pray for us, too. We hear their prayers every time we feel beckoned to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Oddness of Modernity
I know it sounds odd to say that the dead pray for us. It would not seem odd to Tibetan Buddhists or Native Americans, to classical Chinese or indigenous Africans, to biblical Christians or traditional Muslims. They may have had different images of the place from which the memory occurs, but they all believed that in a continuing journey of one sort or another.
What is truly odd, from a historical perspective, is the rejection of the idea of such a journey by modern, western academics.
Modern western academics somehow got it in their mind that it is intellectually irresponsible and unscientific to so believe. This is where the work of David Ray Griffin is so helpful.
Until Wholeness is Realized
In any case, it seems to me that one life isn't enough for most people to find the wholeness for which their hearts yearn.
For my part, I hope that people continue after death until they can taste the wholeness for which they learn, after which they can be absorbed into the divine ocean. My hope for them is not for everlasting life but for a continuation of life until wholeness is known.
Until then, let us remember the dead, not with monuments of stone but with monuments of love.
A monument of love is an activity, not a building. It is an act of adding goodness to the world in small ways, and thus memorializing those who have departed.
The stones fade away in time, as do all things, but an act of love becomes infinite as soon as it occurs. It becomes the presence of God on earth.
Nevertheless, on our side of thing, the memory fades and we move on with our lives.
Sometimes we feel guilty about this, but it's hard to keep remembering. Indeed, in all likelihood, those who have left us may not be able to keep remembering either. For every time there is a season. Still there is a Savoring, not human but divine.
Patricia Adams Farmer speaks to this in her beautiful article: The Art of Savoring. She invites us to trust in One whose memory doesn't fade at all, and that what was most beautiful in them is remembered as if it was yesterday.
In process theology God is a deep Memory who always and forever memorializes those who have passed away. Even as we might forget, God remembers.
We are made in God's image. This means we are made to savor the beauty of every life, as best we can, living or dead, and also to accept the fact that, for new life to emerge on earth, old life must pass away.
Death is a way of making space for new life and, so Maria trusts, making way for a continuing journey, until we melt into the Gentleness, from which we emerge in the first place, one savorable moment at a time.
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