What Are You When You Are No More?
If you’re someone who feels uncomfortable when thinking about death, then a glimpse into your eternal nature might put you at ease.
I want you to take a second and think about what it’s like to be alive. Right now you exist, and someday you won’t. But what’s left of you when you die?
You’re able to experience things — to think and to feel. Isn’t that cool? The whole universe in all its randomness and complexity conspired to produce you and give you life… and inevitably death. But what’ll be left of you once you’re gone?
The obvious answer is a corpse. But even that won’t exist forever. Your body will decay and eventually your legacy will fade to the erosion of time. Think farther ahead, and think deeper about what it means to be you. Or more specifically, what it means to be a you.
You are a thing that isn’t just a thing, you’re a you. You are a being that is aware of itself. You’re also conscious. You’re a Self. As far as we know, things with your degree of consciousness are surprisingly rare. A rock doesn’t know it exists (or so it seems). Even other animals don’t seem to have a full awareness of their life and the strange circumstances underlying their existence. You are a thing that realized it’s a thing. And you also realized that someday you will no longer be a thing.
So what’s left of you when you’re gone? You’ll be gone, but the universe will still be around. Matter will still exist and the cosmos will keep on doing its thing. The laws of physics and fundamental axioms of logical possibility will continue to exist.
“So what?” You might ask. You’re still dead and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything left of you. At least, nothing left of your physical existence and personal sense of self. But what underlies your sense of self? You are created from reality, which means there are physical laws and processes of nature that work to produce the thing that you are. And once you’re gone, these physical laws and processes of nature will still exist.
Where are you, exactly? Are you your brain? Your heart? Your hands and your feet? Are you that which moves your body? Or are you that which is moved? And what’s different about your movement than the movement of the cosmos and forces of physics?
In the words of Alan Watts, “If I am my foot, I am the sun. Only we’ve got this little partial view. We’ve got the idea that ‘No, I’m something IN this body.”
If what you are can be reduced to the processes of the cosmos and mechanisms of reality, then it seems that the deepest sense of what you are will continue to exist beyond your bodily death. Although your body is temporary, the structure and the physics of your consciousness are eternal. Your life will end, but that which gives you life will survive after your death. The thing that makes you a “you” will exist long after your death, and has existed long before your birth.
When considering the eternity that is “you”, or more accurately, that which underlies “youness”, there’s another thought by Alan Watts that I find illuminating. He says, “Imagine what it will be like to fall asleep and never wake up. Among other things, this will pose another question: what was it like to have woken up after having never gone to sleep?”
That which makes you, you, is built into the fabric of reality. Although you will die, it will remain. The laws of physics, along with the operations of cosmos and consciousness, are eternal — predating your birth and continuing after your death. What makes you conscious, predates you. What makes you conscious, is you. And what makes you conscious will persist after your death. This is what’s left of you after you’re gone, and perhaps in some deeper sense, this is what you always were; only you’ve forgotten your true nature.