What if death wasn't the death we expected?


Alan Watts was a British philosopher, writer and speaker who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for Western audiences.

The author of 20 books, Watts espoused a view of life that helped me let go of many anxiety-causing beliefs, none so upsetting as the finality of death.

Who knows for sure what happens when we die? As a cancer survivor who could easily swell on the probability of a recurrence (I also have a cancer-disposing genetic mutation), Watt’s view of death goes far toward allaying my anxiety.

I’ve always surmised that death is not what it is commonly believed to be, but neither is life. My business card had a quote on it that says, “Be confident, for the stars are the same stuff as you.” This is not fiction. Ask a scientist, and he will tell you that whatever energy was present at creation is around now, occupying the same space as the body you live in.

Watts believed that the universe is eternal (some scientists have abandoned the Big Bang theory in favor of this idea). This is a difficult concept until we consider that many of us already think of God as eternal. But Watts, like many Buddhists, also didn’t believe in God. Instead, he believed we create God (although he would not have used that label) as we go about our lives. God (or whatever label you want to use) is in everyone, and is eternal.

Consequently, Watts didn’t believe in a beginning or an ending to life. He believed that the body dies, but that the energy survives as part of energy everywhere, minus the consciousness of having lived. This happens because your energy has always been and always will be. 

Again, you can look to science for verification. According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy doesn’t disappear. It just changes form.

You might call Watt’s idea “reincarnation,” except that Watts also believed that the “self” doesn’t exist. 

As co-creators of the universe, our consciousness creates the life that we think of as our “own,” but our thoughts are just that — thoughts. They do not correctly describe reality.

There is no “self” to let go of. After death, we may again have a consciousness, only a different one.

If this stretches your credulity, consider how much we might not know about reality. Four hundred years ago, we thought the world was flat. Two hundred years ago, New Englanders thought that putting holes into the skulls of living people exorcised evil spirits.

What will people say 200 years from now about what we now believe is true? How many beliefs will prove to be so much poppycock?

As Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Consider, as Watts did, that if we don’t die, maybe death isn’t a cause for sorrow. Maybe death is a time to say things you haven’t said that you’d like to say.

Maybe it’s a time to cherish memories. Isn’t it a good thing to turn over what you owned to loved ones who can use them? Most importantly, do we really want to live forever?

If we continued to age and degenerate for all time, would we want to be alive for most of that? I think not. There are other reasons that death makes sense. If no one died, the planet would quickly become vastly overpopulated. We have children to pass on the torch to, who see things in a fresher way and can see the magic in the world after many of us have stopped seeing it.

Many people who come close to death report a strange feeling that everything is just as it should be. Instead of wanting to live forever, we might view death as a natural and proper end to one form that energy took, before it took another.

There is another reason to change one’s view of death. Author and speaker Katie Byron teaches that beliefs that cause you pain are just beliefs, and can be changed. She asks that people doing the program “The Work” consider this question when confronted with a pain-causing belief: What would your life be like without the thought? Anguished patients often experience considerable relief when they see that a particular belief is just a belief.

Ask yourself what your life would be like without the idea that you will die — never to live again — and you may feel a giant burden lifted.

Valerie Kaufman,