Once upon a time I went to church. I tried to be a good Christian. From somewhere I had learned that God was like Santa, seeing me when I was waking or sleeping and knowing even my most secret thoughts.
I worked hard to police my mind, attempted to have the right beliefs which would, eventually, mean that I would pass the entrance test and be accepted into heaven.
I was always uncomfortable with the idea of hell. It didn’t feel right, somehow, it felt too human. I didn’t want to believe in a God who would punish people for eternity. That didn’t seem very god-like, or merciful, or forgiving. I struggled to believe in this God who you could piss off potentially without knowing why; it felt two-faced, like mean girls in the classroom, one minute your friend and the next giving you the cold shoulder.
Aged thirty-five my health took a turn for the worse and I was told I’d had a stroke. The realisation of mortality hit me, a reality hangover. I am mortal. I had always been one to look ahead, to make plans. That tendency seemed foolish now. My brain was tricksy and false, it could, at any moment, decide to suffocate itself, and that would be that.
The immediacy of living day by day came into sharp focus.
It was around this time that I finally gave up on hell. Later I would learn that hell is a Platonic idea, growing out of the Hellenic world of first century Christianity. It seemed odd that I had believed a borrowed idea for so long.
Life wound on, I continued to believe in the idea of an independent existence of the consciousness after death. I had been brought up to believe this, and it brought a degree of comfort.
In my early forties another major life shift came with a further health breakdown and the news of my mum’s terminal illness. I felt my death again, whispering of endings, sitting gothically in the corner holding an hour glass, or tapping its watch meaningfully. I was up against it! Time to get on with life dammit! Life is for living, decide, right this instant what you want to do and get on with it, create something meaningful, achieve something spectacular, this instant, no time to waste!
I stopped going to church and began working with earth-based spiritual practices. I learned about the Summerland and ideas of reincarnation, that the soul lives on, existing in a new form after physical death. I wanted to believe in these ideas, I knew many people who did, many I respected and whose teachings I valued. I tried to bend my mind the right way, and then gave up and tried to have the kind of faith which simply “knew” a teaching to be true. I felt confused, so many options, I felt that I was moving towards some form of end-of-life test, that I had to work out which option I believed in, immortality multiple choice, before I got there. That I was facing an after-life entrance exam and had no way to know what the topics would be. As mum’s life drew to a close I felt cut adrift, floating in a void, none of my former beliefs remaining to anchor me, none of my newer ways of working providing answers.
In the moments after my mum’s death I had a vision of her on a sandy beach in a tropical climate. She was young again, perhaps in her twenties, and waving at me. I had a strong sense that she was safe and happy. I don’t know what this experience was, whether some kind of wishful thinking or a channelled message from an ethereal beyond. In any case it brought me comfort.
In the year since her death I have pondered often on loss and longing. I can no longer see her physically but I feel that our relationship continues, not as some kind of ghostly presence, but in the person she taught me to be, in her legacy; the best way to roast potatoes, how to organise a kitchen cupboard, putting on a bit of perfume or a favourite pair of earrings to cheer yourself up, coping with low moods but setting yourself small tasks, caring for plants, loving cats, looking after family.
This week the buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn passed away. Thay taught that although the physical body ends, the departed one “continues”. He wrote that although one day he would die, he would continue; in his books, his disciples, his teachings. That despite the end of one form of being the energy which had been his living form would transform and continue.
I find this teaching helpful. At this point in my life I do not believe that my individual consciousness will continue after physical death. But the essence of me will continue. The atoms which form this body will be transformed and become part of the universe, dancing in the air, wriggling in the earth. Each interaction I have shared with another being will remain, whether consciously recalled or not, each word spoken, each thought exchanged. I will live on in my children, and maybe one day in their children. I will live on in each person I have ever taught. In words I have written. In seeds planted.
This gives me focus for my life now. What legacy do I want to create? Do I want to leave harsh words behind or the energy of friendship and kindness? Do I want to build up a large bank account or spend time helping in my community? It isn’t always a plain cut choice, I am no saint, but this beautiful thought of continuation gives me a sense of peace and possibility.
I never wanted to die, I love the earth too much to leave. I always felt that it would be a great sadness to be taken from this beautiful home to some heavenly temple where (according to one church I attended) I would have to sing hymns all day (I didn’t like singing hymns!).
Now I know that I won’t need to. I believe in a very concrete sense the earth is my mother. I am made from the same elements which make up the earth, I am one step in a long line of creatures living on this planet, evolving and adapting generation by generation. The earth is my first and final home. I will remain here, returning to the mother’s embrace, and become reborn by her craft, woven anew into the fabric of space and time. Eternal life is now. Continuing. Timeless.