Like a lot of people today, I don’t believe in a god. This leaves Sundays nice and free, but provides limited consolation when death comes to call. After our 21-year-old son Jack was killed crossing a road in Italy, I felt I needed to know all I might about my nemesis; how ancestors had approached death, what insights artists and philosophers have offered, and how our contemporaries view mortality, especially those who have had a very close brush with their own demise. These investigations set me to wonder: if death is the end of life, what exactly is life? The biosciences and physics give us some tantalizing clues and in following these I – and the book – are led to some very surprising conclusions.
Sample extracts from The English Book of the Dead
In The Prelude, William Wordsworth writes of a sense he has that everything is alive
To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower, Even the loose stones that cover the highway, I gave a moral life: I saw them feel
It seems reasonable that if something is alive, it might have some kind of feelings, but when it comes to gravel Wordsworth seems to have gone too far for most of us; perhaps he should have stopped at daffodils. And even there, he believes, ‘every flower enjoys the air it breathes.’ It’s tempting just to think, ‘What a prat.’ But to be fair to Wordsworth, this is how he feels: that all of planet earth is alive.
It’s likely there’s no pain greater than the pain of losing someone you have always loved. It is absolute. This is an imperfect world; we look for perfection while knowing that it’s a fool’s errand. The perfect job, perfect partner, perfect holiday destination, perfect home. Yet suddenly here it was: perfection. Free of all impurity, distilled to its absolute essence, 100 per cent perfect pain. It had an almost beautiful simplicity. Agony, unadulterated, unlimited, remorseless, inescapable.
In the first half of the 20th century Einstein’s best estimate was that we know less than ‘one thousandth of one percent of what nature has revealed to us.
’ It’s reassuring that we know almost nothing. We can keep an open mind, while being careful not to assume that every mysterious light in the sky comes from a flying saucer piloted by the tooth fairy.
With its combined toll of sorrow, pain and despair, grief is like the deepest depression, with one surprising exception: while the truly depressed person never laughs, the bereaved’s sense of humour remains intact. I’ll give a personal example: my sweet sister Elizabeth took her own life by jumping from a cliff. On the day we got the terrible news, neighbours from two doors down knocked at my parents’ door to offer condolences. This couple had never had any conversation with my mum and dad that went further than, ‘Nice day again,’ or ‘Cold for the time of year’, but they were very keen to come in. They sat on the sofa while we sat looking at our hands, our feet, the floor. No-one had a word to say. What was there to say? Time crawled on, and still the neighbours sat there, uninvited and all but invisible to us. Eventually, the husband, Mr Neighbour, could contain himself no longer: ‘So, she just flung herself off, did she?’, he asked, with sham casualness, as if referring to a third type of weather. This cack-handed attempt to conceal naked prurience was, to me, hilarious black-humour theatre. Convulsed by suppressed laughter, I could just about stagger out the room.
All the time we are awake and going about our daily lives, we can’t know what our unconscious mind is thinking; we have to trust it has our own best interests at heart. A way to test if this is the case would be to get our unconscious mind to talk, and the only way to do this is to be hypnotised, affording our unconscious mind the opportunity to turn up and speak for itself. With this intention, the hypnotherapist Joe Keaton would often ask a deeply hypnotised volunteer what he or she felt about their daytime partner, the conscious mind. As it turns out, our unconscious mind doesn’t think too much to us. Andrew Selby, who witnessed Keaton’s hypnosis sessions, put it this way:
‘the person’s unconscious ranged from stating that it had little time for its own conscious mind, to all but being highly derogatory about it.‘
So basically, dear reader, our unconscious minds can be treacherous companions. An enemy within.
One person rated the bliss they experienced while clinically dead as 1,000 times greater than the best feeling one can get in this world. But when I put this figure to Gary, who had his own vivid near-death experience a few years ago, he firmly disagreed: ‘I’d say that’s a gross underestimate
,’ was his response.
2,400 years ago the Zen master Zhuangzi wrote, ‘Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly…Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man
.’ Most people would say, look you’re a man: butterflies can’t write.
to read more of the book, go to: www.englishbookofthedead.com/sample-chapter/