Saturday, October 13, 2012

the bring-down

"New Atheist" and neuroscientist Sam Harris has written an interesting and cogent rebuttal to Dr. Eben Alexander's account of experiencing heaven while comatose from an attack of meningitis. Harris derides the embarrassingly illogical and unscientific nature of Alexander's account, noting that Alexander seems blissfully unaware that the experiences he describes are similar, at the level of fine detail, to those of other folks who have taken psychedelics like ketamine or DMT (especially DMT).

I'm sure Dr. Alexander will be raking in the dough from his book about his extra-corporeal experiences, pace Sam Harris. People want and need reassurance that the story doesn't end at the threshold of death; this need is ancient and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Personally, I don't hold to the idea of an afterlife, although I do think that echoes of ourselves continue onward through space-time in the form of our loved ones' memories and the brute physical effects of our earthly actions. Our material selves also continue on after death as our atoms and molecules disperse and reenter the great cosmic swirl of the Tao. But clouds and angels or a lake of fire? I seriously doubt that.

Humanity needs to find a way to live without the promise of heaven. Ethically speaking, heaven is a poor motivator, anyway: it prompts people to act morally for ultimately selfish reasons. A big clue to the widespread nature of this selfish belief is the well-known folkloric phrase "gone to his reward."

Is heaven a prize? Is ethical conduct a means to winning a race? Are we in some sort of benevolent competition, each of us trying to "out-good" the other? I say phooey. An ethical sensibility that is mindfully oriented toward the present moment strikes me as the superior path: you put your ego aside and open yourself to your surroundings, reacting to those surroundings in consonance with the dictates of your original nature. You wouldn't be wrong to think I'm waxing philosophical Taoist or Zen Buddhist in saying this. But as the parable tells us: with one eye fixed on the goal, we have but one eye left to find the way. Don't seek heaven: it's enough to notice-- really notice-- what's there at the end of your nose.


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