In the ancient Indian epic, Mahābhārata, the Lord of Death asks, “What is the most wondrous thing in the world?”, and his son answers, “It is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t believe it can happen to us.” This refusal to face the inevitability of death is especially prevalent in modern Western societies. We look to science to tell us how things are but biomedicine and neuroscience divest death of any personal significance by presenting it as just the breakdown of the body and the cessation of consciousness. The Tibetan Buddhist perspective stands in sharp contrast to this modern scientific notion of death. This tradition conceives dying not as the mere termination of living processes within the body, but as a rite of passage and transformation of consciousness. Physical death, in this tradition, initiates a transition from one of the six bardos (“in-between states”) of consciousness to an opportunity for total enlightenment.
In Dying: What Happens When We Die?, Evan Thompson establishes a middle ground between the depersonalized, scientific account of death and the highly ritualized notion of death found in Tibetan Buddhism. Thompson’s depiction of death and dying offers an insightful neurobiological analysis while also delving into the phenomenology of death, examining the psychological and spiritual effects of dying on human consciousness.
In a trenchant critique of the near-death experience literature, he shows that these experiences do not provide evidence for the continuation of consciousness after death, but also that they must be understood phenomenologically and not in purely neuroscience terms. We must learn to tolerate the “ultimate ungraspability of death” by bearing witness to dying and death instead of turning away from them. We can learn to face the experience of dying through meditative practice, and to view the final moments of life not as a frightening inevitability to be shunned or ignored, but as a deeply personal experience to be accepted and even embraced.
Evan Thompson is professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind and Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception; coauthor of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience; and coeditor of Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions and The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness.
View Here Evan’s previous book on Waking, Dreaming, Being :Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy
The Embodied Self: Evan Thompson in Discussion with Krista Tippett
The New York Academy of Sciences – December 7, 2010
To Be or Not To Be: The Self as Illusion
Philosopher Evan Thompson explains how mindfulness techniques can assist neuroscientists in studying different states of consciousness, and the importance of the notion of an embodied self.
This is an excerpt from the first in a six-part series, Perspectives on the Self, which brings together experts from the sciences and the humanities for conversations on the evolving meaning and experience of the Self.