Death & Eternal Oblivion

Sometimes, when I wake up after a deep, dreamless sleep, I think, “Thanks for the free sample of nothingness, asshole.”

I’m not sure who the “asshole” is directed toward. Old habits from my God worshiping days, perhaps. I miss God sometimes; God gives us something to scream at.

Thinking about eternal oblivion the second you wake up isn’t the most pleasant way to start the day, to say the least. To be in a deep, dreamless sleep… forever. No present, past, or future. No self, no lack of a self. No light or darkness, no being or non-being. Ha, sounds a lot like how Mahayanists describe the absolute truth, really. There might be something to that, but that’s not the direction I wanna go at the moment.

I want to talk about the ramifications of our afterlife views, since views shape moods and behavior.

There are a few possible reactions we can have to an eternal oblivion view. At one extreme, it can be a pointer to live life to fullest, drinking in and savoring each moment. It can encourage us to set aside arbitrary opinions and petty differences. It can help us live with gratitude, and—at the same time—be resilient to unpleasantness.

At the other end of spectrum, there’s nihilism and apathy. If there’s eternal nothingness when we die, then what’s the point of life? Health, happiness, and peace are just as meaningless as illness, sorrow, and confusion. If I’m just gonna forget everything, if I’m gonna merge with universal absence, then nothing really matters.

Most of us who have an eternal oblivion view probably sit somewhere between those two extremes, wobbling a bit back and forth depending on the circumstances. Hell, most of us don’t seem to think about it all that much in general until something terrible happens.

Because of my slight downtrodden factory preset, I tend to lean toward the nihilist extreme.

Even though I get a sample of oblivion each night, it’s incomprehensible in daylight. To not be for eternity, to not be to the extent that I never was to myself. The prospect isn’t unsettling because of loss—because there’ll be no perception of having lost anything—what unsettles me is the pure stupidity of the whole thing. It turns life into a fluke, a tiny flash of light in an infinite void.

Our actions do have consequences, and our memories live on in those who knew us, but not indefinitely. The whole universe is itself a small flash of light that’ll go out one day, taking the whole chain of cause and effect we participate in with it.

It’s a peaceful notion in some ways, because it neutralizes all of our problems, throwing everything into the fuck it bucket without exception. Depending on our temperament and upbringing, such a view can either make us apathetic, compassionate, or sadistic toward others. The compassion is kind of a condescending variety, though. “Oh, you poor thing, don’t you know oblivion takes us all? Why suffer when everything’s nothing?”

Death has been one of the central curiosities in my life since I was child. I took an interest in it at a young age, and understood its universality and finality quickly. To this day, it’s still not a settled issue for me.

Death isn’t just death, but it’s disappearance of any kind. It’s the end of a song, the last bite of a sandwich, changing seasons, nightfall, the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. We only call it death in relation to living beings. To really grok it, we have to open up our schemas and see it differently. One way to do that is to carry the being-centered language over to all things.

When I breathe in, that’s birth, the birth of the breath. As I inhale and exhale, that’s its life. When the exhale is done, that’s death. When I hear a train in the distance, that’s the birth of a sound. When it rumbles into silence, that’s the death of that sound.

At the same time, that inhale is the death of breathlessness. That train whistle drifting into silence is the birth of silence, and just as sunrise is the birth of a new day, it’s also the death of the night.

Looking at it like this, we can see that there’s birth, life, and death everywhere at all times. Looking at it like this, we can ask, “Who is it that dies?” That’s one of the fundamental questions that Buddhism addresses.

We’re assured that, when we “find” that answer, there’ll be no fear, no cynicism. There’ll be genuine compassion, joy, and wisdom.

Buddha considered eternal oblivion to be a Wrong View. He considered eternal existence a Wrong View too. He believed that we don’t cease to exist when we die, nor do we continue to exist. That’s tough to wrap your head around, isn’t it? That’s because we can’t use our heads to get it. Faith and logic will only ever give us one of the two extremes, or a mixture of them. That’s why Buddhism asks us to walk the Middle Way by going beyond faith and reason.

I for one can’t abide by eternal oblivion. Not because it’s unlikely—because it’s more likely to me than eternal paradise or damnation—but because it’s a useless view to me that can only cause harm in some way.

The statistical fact of the matter is that people who believe in an afterlife tend to live happier, longer, healthier, more compassionate lives than people who don’t for the very reason that eternal oblivion sucks all the life out of, well, life.

That said, believing in eternal being has its own pitfalls. It can also lead us to apathy, patronizing compassion, and harm. Even though murder is a sin in most religions, eternal being takes some of the weight out of the act. “What does it matter if I kill this guy, only his body dies; his soul lives forever.”

It can also turn life into a waiting room, a weird test we have to take before we get to where we’re going. Also, there’s literally no empirical evidence to back it up, not that that really matters when it comes to such things.

All I know is that I’d like to put the matter to rest once and for all. It’d be nice to wake up in the morning without thinking of death, of nothingness, of myself. Because that’s what it really comes down to. It’s not just oblivion, it’s my oblivion, oblivion for me, the end of my story.

Of course I don’t want that story to end. Of course I want this stream of consciousness to carry on. Because, despite life’s many pitfalls, at least there’s cheesecake.

But, what I want is irrelevant, and it ends up only causing pain and fear. What’s relevant is shoveling out my wants and comparisons so that I can make room for silently illuminated reality. If there’s a single this or that thought, if there’s one speck of clinging, that’s like a total solar eclipse.

One tiny crumb of dirt can block out the whole sun if we hold it close enough to our eyes. Of course that doesn’t hinder the sun at all, and even the shadows that dirt casts owe their shape to illumination.

To catch Buddha’s drift, we have to set aside our extreme views, and experience the viewless view that remains. Without relying on being or nothingness, without believing eternal life or eternal oblivion, who is it that’s reading these words?

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