A topic that any sincere seeker of spiritual wisdom sooner or later encounters is that of the matter of death, and in particular, the possible continuity of consciousness beyond the demise of the body. The natural question is, ‘what, if anything, actually survives’? but for the practitioner of Advaita or Buddhist non-dualist principles, a more precise question might be ‘does birth or death have any absolute reality’?
A few years ago I made a trip back to eastern Canada, where I was born. (I live on the West coast of Canada, and for any not knowing this country, that means a long trip, as in a five hour flight). I was going to Ottawa, for two reasons: to give a talk and conduct a weekend seminar, and to visit my father, whom I had not seen in several years.
While there, my father and I decided to make the hundred mile drive to Montreal, the city of my birth. I had not been back there for over twenty years. While crossing the Champlain Bridge, from the island to the south shore, a strange feeling came over me. (‘Montreal’, from the French term ‘Mont Real’, or in English ‘Mount Royal’, is centered on a defunct volcano sitting on an isle in the St. Lawrence river). The south shore was the area I grew up in. As I came nearer to my childhood haunt, I suddenly became vividly aware of the ‘dual nature’ of identity—that is, of the ‘me’ that lived there before, and the ‘me’ that did not really connect with that memory at all. The same happened as we later drove downtown, and paid the requisite visit to Schwartz’s on St. Laurent street (a diner stuck in a 1950s time warp, with a constant thirty-minute long line-up outside, that serves the best smoked meat and French fries in North America, and possibly the World).
According to the personal memory, ‘I’ did indeed live there before. But what was equally true is that ‘I’ was no longer the same person that lived there before. Strictly speaking, it was tenable to say both that ‘I did live here before’, and ‘I did not live here before’. The latter is true because the ‘I’ that was returning, after some twenty-two years of absence, was not the same ‘I’ any more. Over two decades of experiences, learning, and accumulated memory had shaped my identity into a different person entirely.
And yet, according to my driver’s licence and birth certificate, that was not really true. I was apparently the same guy who was born and grew up there and chomped on Schwartz's smoked meat and fries a quarter century earlier. So what was going on? Why did I have the strange sense of having lived there before, and not having lived there before? Was I an alien from another planet who had commandeered the body I now seemed to live in? Or was it something in the smoked meat?
The matter boils down to two main factors: memory, and personality. Memory is notoriously unreliable, because it is so selective and so easily distorted by unconscious factors. For example, try recalling an old photograph of yourself, perhaps one that was taken in childhood (or even better, an old video)—one that you have not seen for many years. Recall the photo or video as best as you can. Then go and actually look at the photo or the video. What you’ll almost always find is that the actual photo or video you’re looking at is significantly different, in at least some details, from your memory of it. Almost never is it exactly as you recall it, and often it is so different as to only vaguely resemble your memory of it.
The second factor, that of personality, is even more significant, because the reason we do not feel like the person that we were twenty years ago is because the personality is lacking in any sort of intrinsic solidity, or permanence. It is malleable, always changing, based as it is on the constantly changing elements of our life. The personality is interactive with the body (itself changing) and the environment (which includes, naturally, the people in our life), all of which is in a perpetual state of flux as well. If everything around us, and our own body, is constantly changing, how could our personality possibly be consistent? It will be changing as well. Therefore, it cannot possibly experience a past memory as exactly ‘who I am now’, because it is not ‘who’ we were back then.
All of this is a reasonable metaphor for understanding the possibility of the continuity of consciousness beyond the demise of the physical body. If there is such a thing, we would never be able to actually claim that ‘I lived this past life’ because this ‘I’ is nothing but a transitioning reality dependent on so many other factors. It is constantly changing. It is no more the ‘I’ of ten minutes ago than it could be the ‘I’ of ten centuries ago.
Does that mean that ‘I’ have no actual past? No, it simply means that the ‘I’ that we typically take ourselves to be, is not the ‘I’ that we actually are. Our ‘work’, if you will, is to discover that ‘real I’, by examining the nature of consciousness. As we do so, we begin to see that something has been present always, something utterly unattached and un-invested in the desires and fears that comprise our personality.
None of which means that we can’t enjoy smoked meat anymore.