It’s said that newborn babies lack object permanence so when something is gone it’s gone from their minds as well. Maybe we all lack object permanence because we recognize only the most obvious portion of the continuum of life. We see birth and death as the beginning and end. Beyond that, we may have strong beliefs, vague wondering, suspicions or speculations, but most of us see death as an ending to life, maybe even the opposite of life. And we may be like toddlers furious that the party is over, not able to imagine that whatever comes next could just as likely be another aspect of the continuum of being, an infinite loop of life nourishing and regenerating itself.
It could be anything! If we are being honest with ourselves, seeing through the patterns of all our fears and wishes, we don’t know what, if anything, there is beyond our ability to observe it with our physical senses.
And that’s okay. Accepting that we don’t know may be one of life’s great challenges, but the ‘I don’t know’ mind is also one of life’s greatest gifts. It keeps us open, flexible, grateful and joyous as life keeps us in a state of ‘Wow!’
I certainly don’t know. But that doesn’t keep my patterns of thoughts from devising interesting and at times compelling ideas about what ‘lies beyond’ and whether the wall between life and death is permeable. Just like everyone else’s, my mental patterns are by nature untrustworthy, but if I hold them lightly they provide me with intriguing thoughts. The other day I remembered a dream I had after my brother died two years ago. Released from the pain of his wracked body, he was joyfully traveling (by bus!) all over the country seeing all the sights. That dream came back to me recently when my husband and I were deliberating whether to take a major trip. All the planning and expense of transporting, feeding, clothing and sleeping necessary to allow me to experience a different place just seemed overwhelming. And I had the thought that this would all be a lot easier to do later on when I don’t have a body to tend to!
Whoa! or Wow! or Whatever!
(Having such a thought doesn’t mean I’m in any hurry to discard this body that serves me well. And if you are in such a hurry, please seek help from the suicide hotline immediately.)
Because I’m a practitioner and teacher of the Buddha’s concepts, as they’ve been handed down over the millennia, you might assume I’m a believer in reincarnation. But the Buddha’s focus was in this moment and how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. He encouraged his followers to see for themselves what is true. Well, how can we see the truth of what lies beyond the cessation of our breath until that happens to us? Until then thinking about it is a distraction and useless speculation, because we just don’t know.
So let’s be here now. Let’s value all beings in this life just as it is. Let’s take care of ourselves, our communities and our planet, and increase our understanding of how best to do that. And let’s relax around the compulsive need to know what lies beyond this precious experience of life here and now. Because we can’t know. We don’t have existential object permanence.