in Mystical Experiences

Souls, Selves, and Afterlife Contradictions

Afterlife, Keoni Cabral, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Afterlife, Keoni Cabral, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

More powerful than beliefs in Gods, our notions of the afterlife shape our self-consciousness. What we think of death drives our desires and actions in the here-and-now.

My quest for self-realization–of life after death–was pursued in decades-long practice of yoga meditation. Paramahansa Yogananda taught the disciples that when yoga meditation was properly practiced it led to voluntary death of the ego and body.

“Many yogis in India can say with St. Paul, ‘Verily, I protest by our rejoicing which I have in Christ, I die daily.’ Yogananda goes on to say, “Death may be either an involuntary or a voluntary switching off of the life current from the bulb of flesh, Yogis who know how to operate the switch of the heart, and to control their heartbeats, can quit the body quickly and at will; or stay in it as long as they wish. [See also my posts Can Yogis Stop Their Heart? and The Evidence Against Breathlessness and Samadhi]

Given the primacy of afterlife beliefs in shaping human consciousness and activities, it is vitally important to examine notions of life after death.

Our post here continues these afterlife explorations with eight quotations from the highly recommended book Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal.

The democratic West is based upon the internal experience of self-consciousness and the conviction that this individual self-reflection is the basis and definition of a unique, even a transcendent self. It valorizes that personal experience as transcendent, saying the examined life transcends our short span of years. p 714

Modern America, Christian or not, has ineluctably retreated to the position of the pagan philosophers of late antiquity: Our souls are immortal by nature; all will be saved…that it is really self-realization that guarantees our salvation. p 715

It was Plato’s doctrine of immortality of the soul that allowed us to focus on our conscious experiences, that valorized those experiences and eventually made the “self” the center of philosophical interest in the West, that made the “self” as well as God, a transcendent value in Western thought. p 716

In traditional religious parlance, notions of the transcendent self are not universal. In many kinds of Buddhism the concept of the “self” is itself a fundamental mistake; for many Buddhist intellectuals there is, in truth, no continuous self. Realizing that we are not ultimate is the better part of reaching enlightenment. p 718

In the great Asian religions, transcendence is often signified by inscrutability: the Tao (way) that can be uttered is not the real Tao, say the Tao te Ching in its first statement. Confucianism believes it cannot be fully understood by any one person or in any single instantiation. One cannot reach Moksha (liberation) merely by trying to understand it with the discursive mind but must meditate on it. By claiming that the mind cannot understand or comprehend a value, these systems are affirming transcendence in the values named as “inscrutable”. p 722

People who live with faith today, whether in the majority or minority, are living in a world that does not need the hypotheses of religion to explain the universe. We can live perfectly complete lives without it if we want. But few do. p 730

It is the afterlife that provides the answer to every unbalanced equation. Every injustice can be righted there, every disability can be made whole, every individual, rich or poor, can find solace from personal trials and tribulations. p 697

The sureties provided by the afterlife normally demand that it be a socially shared phenomenon. That confirmation is normally provided by powerful, religious institutions in society. p697

Perhaps even more powerful than beliefs in Gods are socially shared notions of the afterlife. Our beliefs in what may happen after death shape our self-consciousness and actions in the here-and-now.

My own quest for self-realization led me to decades-long practice of yoga meditation under the tutelage of an Indian guru, Paramahansa Yogananda. Yogis and devotees claim that consciousness survives death. Yet, for many Buddhist intellectuals there is no continuation of the self.

Amidst the contradictions, why are so many people confident humans have a soul, a transcendent self, or a life after death?

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