Can we know what it is like to die?

If we can believe Socrates, all life is a preparation for death. What can he have been thinking? Death is nothing, oblivion. This life is everything. It is all we have and all we can know.

But religious traditions from Buddhism to Christianity are with Socrates. Intimate familiarity with death is a royal path to happiness.

If there’s any wisdom at all in this, we in the 21st Century Western world have missed the boat completely. We have banished death from our thoughts and our experience.

Let us put our toes back in the water of the river Styx. Can we know what it is like to die? The best way is to ask people who have done it. Peter Fenwick is a neuroscientist, not a mystic. He has studied both the physiology of the brain and firsthand experiences of people who routinely attend to the dying. He ties this in with reports of thousands of people who have literally returned from the dead. What did they experience while there was no neural activity in their brains?

Is consciousness a product of the brain, or is there a transcendent reality that is filtered by the brain and rectified to materiality? Wilder Penfield devoted his life to developing a science of the brain by probing the brain with electrodes, and he concluded in the end that the “energy of mind” is a different dimension altogether from neural signaling.  The brain is enormously important, but it can’t explain consciousness.

Monica Renz has interviewed hundreds of dying cancer patients and their caregivers, and she reports commonalities in their experience, including

  • visits from intimate relatives who have predeceased the patient, who come and sit on his bed
  • sojourns to a spirit world and back, conversations with non-corporeal beings who may visit and abide just outside the window
  • light emanating from the room of the dying person, visible to visitors and attendants

Attachment is the source of all the pain in dying. Those who die need to let go of everything—of their possessions, their projects, their loved ones, and indeed everything to which they have devoted themselves while alive. This is the most difficult challenge of dying, and those who are able to let go make a smooth transition to an existence that is far lighter and happier than the one we are used to.


Matsuo Basho 松尾 芭蕉 (1644-1694) was a Japanese Zen poet, whose name we would know well, if we were Japanese.  He sensitizes us to the neglected beauty and interest of everyday life, and thereby reconciles us with our own circumstances.

Wabi-Sabi (侘寂) means satisfaction with the simple, appreciation of the imperfect.  It all started with tea.

Science of Happiness

What he doesn’t say is that sociology looks at the averages, and there is a great deal of individual variation around the averages.  Gilbert is fun and entertaining, but perhaps more useful is Haidt.

It’s about being in relationship and feeling you can make a difference in the lives of others.

In the I Ching, Lake=Joy

The lake is my adopted place of birth
Where easily can I renew naïve
Sensation, relishing what I perceive,
Appreciating living nature’s worth.

My pace is slow, but freer than on earth.
Viscosity and buoancy relieve
Enough of effort that I can believe
In joy that lasts, a self-sustaining mirth.

No need for any difference, no dearth,
No care for what I have or will receive;
I let my thoughts devolve on what I weave,
And drift from lake to river, thence to firth…

I’m confident the pow’r of my devotion
Transports me ever closer to the ocean. 

— Josh Mitteldorf
#58 from the I Ching Sonnet Project


Just Pretend You’re Someone Else

Self-analysis is notoriously difficult.  We lie about ourselves, to ourselves, and we believe our own lies.

Here’s a trick that can help with insight into yourself: Use the 3rd person in your diaries , in talking about your emotions and dreams and history.  Two hundred years ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge dubbed it illeism.

Training for Wisdom: The Illeist Diary Method
Aeon article by David Robson
Journal article preprint by Igor Grossmann

<p><em>The Mirror</em> (<em>c</em>1900) by William Merritt Chase. <em>Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum/Wikipedia</em></p>

Your calling

We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to classical economic theory, he must justify his right to exist. living.

— Bucky Fuller was born this day in 1905

The Things to do are: the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.