On Death and Consciousness

Here are some remarks on death and consciousness.  I am a big fan of Erwin Schrodinger so he gets the limelight, but he says nothing different from the others.  The joy of mysticism is that everybody agrees on the main points.  This is the benefit of empiricism as compared with speculation. Anyway, perhaps these words give us some reason to be cheerful, and even as a sceptic we might hope that there is some truth in them.


“How does the idea of plurality (so emphatically opposed by the Upanishad writers) arise at all? Consciousness finds itself intimately connected with, and dependent on, the physical state of a limited region of matter, the body… Now, there is a great plurality of similar bodies. Hence the pluralisation of consciousness or minds seems a very suggestive hypothesis. Probably all simple ingenious people, as well as the great majority of western philosophers, have accepted it.

It leads almost immediately to the invention of souls, as many as there are bodies, and to the question whether they are mortal as the body is or whether they are immortal and capable of existing by themselves. The former alternative is distasteful, while the latter frankly forgets, ignores, or disowns the facts upon which the plurality hypothesis rests. Much sillier questions have been asked: Do animals also have souls? It has even been questioned whether women, or only men, have souls.

Such consequences, even if only tentative, must make us suspicious of the plurality hypothesis, which is common to all official western creeds. Are we not inclining to much greater nonsense if in discarding their gross superstitions, we retain their naïve idea of plurality of souls, but “remedy” it be declaring the souls to be perishable, to be annihilated with the respective bodies?

The only possible alternative is simply to keep the immediate experience that consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown; that there is only one thing and that, what seems to be a plurality, is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception (the Indian MAYA); the same illusion is produced in a gallery of mirrors, and in the same way Gaurisankar and Mt. Everest turned out to be the same peak, seen from different valleys.

“Yet each of us has the undisputable impression that the sum total of his own experience and memory forms a unit, quite distinct from that of any other person. He refers to it as “I”. What is this “I”?

If you analyse it closely, you will, I think, find that it is just a little bit more than a collection of single data (experiences and memories), namely, the canvas upon which they are collected. And you will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by “I,” is that ground-stuff on which they are collected. You may come to a distant country, lose sight of all your friends, may all but forget them; you acquire new friends, you share life with them as intensely as you ever did with your old ones. Less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. “The youth that I was,” you may come to speak of him in the third person; indeed, the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intensely alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate break, no death. And even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out entirely all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore.

Nor will there ever be.”

Erwin Schrödinger, The I That Is God 

 “To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage. Our body is like the cage, and the spirit like the bird. We see that without the cage this bird flies in the world of sleep; therefore, if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist. Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased.”

Adu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions

 “The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us how our end will be.” Jesus said, “Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death.”

Gospel of Thomas, V18

“He who has come to understand this world shall discover (only) a corpse, and whoever has discovered a corpse shall transcend this world.”

Jesus, Gospel of Thomas, V. 56

 “Cast off completely your head and skin. Thoroughly withdraw from distinctions of light and shadow. Where the ten thousand changes do not reach is the foundation that even a thousand sages cannot transmit”

Zen Master Hongzhi, Cultivating the Empty Field

 “From the point of view of a mystic, however, what left the body was the person. This body was not the person. This body was a mask which covered that person. When this mask is cast off, that visible person becomes invisible. Not he, himself, but only the mask has been thrown away. He is what he already was. If death comes, it is the removing of the mask.

From The Message through Inayat Khan, adapted from talks given in the early 1900’s, http://www.spiritual-learning.com/mysticism-1.html

 “Samsara – our conditioned existence in the perpetual cycle of habitual tendencies – and nirvana – genuine freedom from such an existence – are nothing but different manifestations of a basic continuum. So this continuity of consciousness is always present.”

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama, The Little Book of Buddhism, Compiled and edited Renuka Singh

 “The path of those behind the veil is not to communicate with fairies nor even with God; it is to communicate with one’s deepest innermost self, as if one were blowing one’s inner spark into a divine fire. But one does not stop there, he goes still further. He then remains in a state of repose, and that repose can be brought about by a certain way of sitting and breathing and also by a certain attitude of mind. Then he begins to become conscious of that part of his being which is not the physical body, but which is above it. The more he becomes conscious of this, the more he begins to realize the truth of the life hereafter. Then it is no longer a matter of his imagination or of his belief; it is his actual realization of the experience that is independent of physical life.”

From The Message through Inayat Khan, Adapted from talks given in the early 1900’s. http://www.spiritual-learning.com/mysticism-1.html

 “The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence – would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking, and more important than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.”

R. M. Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness: a study in the evolution of human Mind (1901)

“Jesus said this: “Today, when you look upon your appearance, you rejoice. However, when you shall look upon your image, which came into being at your origin, which neither dies, nor does it now appear, how will you bear up under it then?”

Gospel of Thomas, V. 88

 “Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense, the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one single glance. This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula which is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, this is you. Or, again, in such words as “I am in the east and the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world.”

Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable, as she – indeed, a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely, “some day”: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once, but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you a thousand times over. For eternally and always there is only one now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

Erwin Schrödinger, The Mystic Vision, In Ken Wilbur, Quantum Questions

 “Oh boy! Oh boy!” cried the monk-on-probation who had just cracked the Zen Master’s favourite (and valuable) drinking cup.

The frightened youngster went to the Zen Master and asked, “Why must there be death?” The Master answered, “Death is natural. It comes to all persons and things. We should not greet it with fear or meet death with anger. Why do you ask?” “Because, Master, death has come upon your cup.”

Zen Fables For Today

“For this is my word of promise, that he who loves me shall not perish.”

Krishna, Bhagavad Gita

 “We actually do not die. At death, we are merely kept inert for some time, just as during sleep. At night we sleep, and all our activities stop, but as soon as we arise, our memory immediately returns, and we think, “Oh, where am I? What do I have to do?” This is called suptotthita-nyãya. Suppose we die. “Die” means that we become inert for some time and then again begin our activities. This takes place life after life, according to our karma, or activities, and svabhãva, or nature by association. Now, in the human life, if we prepare ourselves by beginning the activity of our spiritual life, we return to our real life and attain perfection. Otherwise, according to our karma, svabhãva, prakriti and so on, our varieties of life and activity continue, and so also do our birth and death.

…The (Krisna) consciousness movement wants to stop koti-janma, repeated birth and death. In one birth, one should rectify everything and come to permanent life. This is Krisna consciousness.

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupãda, Purports – Srimad Bhaghavatam, Tenth Canto, Part Three

“Never suppose that it is useless to prepare yourself to die at any time. For even if we live for many more years, we can never be totally ready to confront this passage. However, it is otherwise with fully awakened beings.”

The Dalai Lama, Reflections from the Journey of Life

“Ibrahim ibn Adham was seated on his throne in the Great Hall of his palace. Gathered around him were his ministers and slaves. Suddenly a fearsome figure strode into the hall, straight up to the throne.

‘What do you want?’ demanded Ibrahim ibn Adham.

‘I have just arrived at this caravanserai [caravan inn],’ replied the man.

You must be mad,’ shouted Ibrahim. ‘This is not a caravanserai. It’s my palace.’

‘And who owned this palace before you did?’ asked the man.

‘My father.’

‘And before him?’

‘My grandfather.’

‘And before him?’


‘And before him?’

‘So-and-so’s father.’

‘And where are they all now?’

‘They are all gone,’ relied Ibrahim. ‘They are dead.’

‘Then is this not a caravanserai, where people come and go?’

As soon as the stranger had said these words he vanished. Ibrahim realized he had received a visit from Kidhir, the immortal guide of the Sufis.

John Baldock, The Essence of Sufism

 “The reason why our sentient, percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere within our scientific world picture can be easily indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as part of it. But of course, here we knock against the arithmetical paradox; there appears to be a great multitude of these conscious egos, the world, however, is only one. This comes from the fashion in which the world-concept produces itself. The several domains of “private” consciousness overlap. The region common to us all where they all overlap is the construct of the “real world around us.” With all that an uncomfortable feeling remains, prompting such questions as; is my world really the same as yours? Is there one real world to be distinguished from its pictures introjected by way of perception into every one of us? And if so, are these pictures like unto the real world or is the latter, the world “in itself,” perhaps very different from the one we perceive?

Such questions are ingenious, but, in my opinion, very apt to confuse the issue. They have no adequate answers. They are all, or lead to, antimonies springing from the one source, which I called the arithmetical paradox; the many conscious egos from whose mental experiences the one world is concocted.

… There are two way out of the number paradox, both appearing rather lunatic from the point of view of present scientific thought (based on ancient Greek thought and thus thoroughly “Western”). One way out is the multiplication of the world in Leibnitz’s fearful doctrine of monads: every monad to be a world by itself, no communication between them; the monad “has no windows,” it is “incommunicado.” That they all agree with each other is called “pre-established harmony”.

… There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousnesses. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth, there is only one mind. This is the doctrine of the Upanishads. And not only the Upanishads. The mystically experienced union with God regularly entails this attitude unless it is opposed by strong existing prejudices;…”

 Erwin Schrödinger, The Oneness of Mind

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7 Responses to On Death and Consciousness

  1. johsh says:

    sufism is more mystic, it kind of falls between western prayer approach and pure eastern approach (buddhist and advaita which itself heavily influenced by buddhism.). Eastern approach is not mystic in that sense.

    Let me elaborate. Its easier if we think from Tat Tvam Asi point of view. Everything is you, you everything. Sufi mystics kind of seem to say the same, but they define/explain it as some kind of experience/mystic. It is not an experience or mystic, because there is no separate “you”. Its all you.

    I like what erwin says, more so than sufi mystics sayings. Buddha lays it all out like a practical program to follow for lay people, he is a master of Upaya. Mysticism is how superstitions form, and from there, religions -> dogmas.

    • PeterJ says:

      Thanks Josh. Again, I would not use the words in this way, but no matter. I think you’re seeing divisions that aren’t there.

      • johsh says:

        mystic, mystery, mysterious arent all these implying some kind of alien (mystery) not innate/natural/real ?

        There is a reason why buddha hesitated to use mysticism or its concepts. Because, different people at different points of their journey, understand “mysticism” in different ways. Often, as something out of reach (mysterious). It is not. It is what it is. The goal is not to stop with the “knowledge” that ultimately everything is mystic, or “its just universal consciousness” or what ever, but to translate that into real meaning. Which is the 4 noble truths, and 8 fold path. A practical, continuous journey, to TRANSFORM one’s self, to eventually become the ultimate (or indistinguishable, everything is you). Make it fully involuntary (like reacting to a fire). Be able to be it every instant. Not admiring as something as mystic , or to pray to it as its something beyond., but to really and totally become it.

  2. dondeg says:

    Hi Pete

    Love that Schrödinger quote: “Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground…” Ever since I read that years I ago I’ve been a fan of the man.

    Leibniz also had interesting ideas about death and consciousness. He considered it a kind of “diminishing”. Since he saw everything as one interconnected fractal, he saw death as the monad losing its outer shells of matter, if you will, and shrinking down into some microworld for a time, until it again built up matter around it and became macroscopic again.

    Alan Watts also had interesting ideas along the same lines. He too focused on the fact that everything is interconnected and so was just one thing. When a piece of it disappeared, some new piece arose. So, Watts’ view was quite impersonal. He saw the personality as just a transient aspect of the body existence. What was common was the general “being” that manifests in infinite forms. Watts’ thinking was a modern combination of Hindu and Zen.

    Anyway, nice piece!

    Take care,


    • PeterJ says:

      Thanks Don. Interesting thoughts.

      Schrodinger hated Leibnitz’s terrifying idea and so do I. It may be most depressing idea ever,. Watts is good though. The view presented here would be consistent with Watts, being a synthesis of Hinduism and Zen, Taoism and Christianity, Sufism and Theosophy, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Kabbalism and a few other isms.

      Leibnitz seems to have seen death as the loss of extension and therefore the loss of manifestation, but some would see this as an expansion rather than a diminishing. The way I see it, Leibnitz seems to have reified the ego and thus had to preserve it at death in the form of monads. Schrodinger just gets rid of the ego for the more positive view characteristic of the perennial philosophy. The ego would be, in Dennett’s useful metaphor, a bower-bird’s nest, while the bower-bird would be glad to be free of it.

  3. dondeg says:

    Huh. That’s a different take on Leibniz. I’ve read him and not gotten that impression. Where did you see Schrödinger comment on Leibniz? I’d like to read that, if you would be so kind to pass on the info. Thanks.

    Leibniz reified the soul, but reading his stuff, he didn’t seem to distinguish psychological categories like we do today, so I haven’t seen anything he wrote that explicitly connects to ego. I’ve spend a decent amount of time trying to understand what he meant by “monad” and I’ve written a bit about it on my blog. He was very concerned with the scholastic idea of “contingent vs. necessary” and tried to reconcile these in the monad. The monad, as he described it, seemed to contain all possible contingencies yet what it expressed was “the necessary”.

    Also, because he was a firm believer in the continuum, I don’t think it was a loss of extension per se that he used to characterize death (after all, worlds within worlds: shrinking to a different scale didn’t mean loss of extension). It was a loss of richness in perception and action. Having a “big” body made for rich experiences. Loss of the body temporarily reduced the monad to less rich experience because it did not have access to the machinery of a “surrounding coat” of other monads. I get the impression he was trying to be optimistic because he was trying to explain how the soul is immortal.

    Finally, have you looked at my 9 part series on Experience?


    Although it doesn’t explicitly address death, it does so implicitly. The overarching theme is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The idea being that the state of seeing the shadows is more akin to death, as opposed to being in the state where one sees the source of the shadows.

    On the surface, the pieces appears pessimistic, but that is because it keeps elaborating on the nature of the shadow world, and our place in it. The fact of death features prominently in the logic, but this doesn’t come out explicitly until part 7.

    Anyway, would very much like to hear your impressions. I respect what you have to say and it would be helpful to get your feedback for refining the ideas therein. Plus, there is quite a bit of going on about infinity, which is either fun or irritating depending on one’s intellectual position!

    Nice to chat with you again, Pete. Thanks so much.

    Best wishes,


    • PeterJ says:

      Okay Don,, I’ll read your series and come back to you. Sounds interesting. It may not be today. Meanwhile, I found a quote from Schrodinger and have appended it to the post above.

      I’m a fan of Leibnitz but do not know him well. One thing that impresses me is his recognition that extension cannot be fundamental. What doesn’t impress me is monads.

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