Is There Life After Death? The World’s Top Scientific and Spiritual Experts Share Their Insights
BY DAVID JAY BROWN, M.A.
It’s anybody’s guess whether or not there is life after death, but one thing is for sure, there’s a whole lot of evidence emerging from physics and parapsychology research that indeed there is.
What awaits us after the physical demise of our bodies? What will happen to you and me after we die? What happens to consciousness after the physical death of any living organism? From where does consciousness arise? Is consciousness an emergent property of complex information-processing systems, like brains, nervous systems, and possibly computers, or can it exist independent of a physical structure? Is everything conscious, as many mystics believe? This is one of the most ancient of all philosophical debates, and the question of what happens to consciousness after death is a recurring theme in my interviews.
To this day I’m continuously surprised by encounters with dogmatic scientists and religious believers who are convinced that they know for sure what happens after death. I don’t think that anyone alive knows for sure if there is life after death—not our smartest neuroscientists or our most highly achieved Buddhist lamas— although many of us certainly have our suspicions, some based on religious beliefs, and some on personal experiences with near-death states of consciousness, meditation, or psychedelics.
Although the postbiological fate of human consciousness is a truly magnificent mystery, beliefs about what happens to consciousness after death generally fall into four traditional categories: reincarnation, eternal Heaven or Hell, union with God, or complete nonexistence. This limited range of possibilities for life after death is likely due to our strong fear of death, which creates a powerful emotional charge and makes playful speculation on this topic difficult for most people.
The Consciousness Experts Weigh in on What Happens After Death
But if our fears of the afterlife can be suspended or transcended, and we can set our hopes and expectations aside, how might we explore this mystery and come up with alternative possibilities for life after death? Is it possible, as some people claim, that altered or mystical states of consciousness can give us insight into what happens after death? I think so.
Ram Dass, Psy.D
Spiritual Teacher, Former Harvard Professor & LSD Research Pioneer
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass told me that he once asked Emmanuel, an entity that supposedly speaks through a woman named Pat Roderghas, what to tell people about dying, and he said, “Tell them it’s absolutely safe. . . . Death is like taking off a tight shoe.” So I asked Ram Dass what he thought happens to consciousness and life after death. He replied:
I think it jumps into a body of some kind, on some plane of existence, and it goes on doing that until it is with God. From a Hindu point of view, consciousness keeps going through reincarnations, which are learning experiences for the soul. I think what happens after you die is a function of the level of evolution of the individual. I think that if you have finished your work and you’re just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the body ends it’s like selling your Ford—it’s no big deal. I suspect that some beings go unconscious. They go into what Christians call purgatory.
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Those beings are awake enough for them to be collaborators in the appreciation of the gestalt in which their incarnations are flowing. They sort of see where they’re coming from and where they’re going. They are all part of the design of things. So, when you say, did you choose to incarnate? At the level at which you are free, you did choose. At the level at which you are not, you didn’t. Then there are beings who are so free that when they go through death they may still have separateness. They may have taken the bodhisattva vow which says, “I agree to not give up separateness until everybody is free,” and they’re left with that thought. They don’t have anything else. Then the next incarnation will be out of the intention to save all beings and not out of personal karma. That one bit of personal karma is what keeps it moving. To me, since nothing happened anyway, it’s all an illusion—reincarnation and everything—but within the relative reality in which that’s real, I think it’s quite real.
Visionary Artist & Harvard Consciousness Researcher
When I asked visionary artist Alex Grey what he thought happens to consciousness after death he replied:
I accept the near-death research and Tibetan Bardo explanations.
Soon after physical death, when the senses shut down, you enter into the realms of light and archetypal beings. You have the potential to realize the clear light, our deepest and truest identity, if you recognize it as the true nature of your mind and are not freaked out.
If you don’t, you may contact other less appealing dimensions. No one can know, of course, until they get there. Some people have had experiences which give them certainty, but consciousness is the ultimate mystery. I’d like to surrender to the process on its deepest level when death occurs, but I will probably fail, and be back to interview you in the next lifetime.
Peter Russell, M.A., D.C.S.
Mathematician, Theoretical Physicist
Physicist Peter Russell, author of The Global Brain, answered my question “What do you think happens to consciousness after death?” by saying:
I have no idea what happens to life after death. I’ve studied the near-death experience a bit, and it fascinates me. It would seem that one way of understanding it is that the individual consciousness is dissolving back into the infinite consciousness.
The consciousness that I experience has this individual limitation because it is functioning in the world through my body, through my nervous system, through my eyes and ears. That’s where our sense of being a unique individual comes from. When we begin to die and let go of our attachment to the body, consciousness lets go of that identity which it gained from its worldly functioning, and reconnects with a greater infinite identity. Those who’ve had near-death experiences often report there seems to be this dissolving of the senses, and a moving into light. Everything becomes light after death.
There’s this sense of deep peace and infinite love. Then they come to a threshold after death, beyond which there is no return. But we don’t know what happens beyond there, if there is indeed life after death, because the people who come back haven’t gone beyond it. When I think of my consciousness, when I think of “me-ness,” it seems to be something that is created during this life through this interaction with the world, but doesn’t exist as an independent thing. I think that a lot of our concerns about life after death come from wanting to know what is going to happen to this “me” consciousness. Is “me” going to survive? I believe that this thing we call “me” is not going to survive. It’s a temporary working model that consciousness uses, but in the end it’s going to dissolve. A lot of our fear of death is that we fear this loss of “me-ness,” this loss of a sense of a separate unique identity. It’s interesting that people who’ve been through the near-death experiences and experienced this dissolving of the ego and realized that everything is okay when that happens, generally lose their fear of death. They feel incredible liberation in life.
Bernie Siegel, M.D.
I asked physician Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles, what he thought happens to consciousness after death. He said:
What I am sure happens to consciousness after death is that it continues on. I don’t see it in a sense of saying, “Oh, I’m going to be reincarnated.” No, your body is gone, but what you have experienced and are aware of will go on in the life after death. So somebody will be born with your consciousness, and it will affect the life they live.
I know people who see life’s difficulties as a burden and say, “Why is God punishing me?” and “Why am I going through this?” Maybe these people ought to be asking “What am I here to learn, experience, and change?” Rather than sitting there whining and complaining. “What can I do?” and “What am I here to learn?” Now, I don’t criticize these people because I remember Elisabeth Kübler-Ross saying that if you’re in high school you don’t get mad at somebody in first grade. So I think we’re at different levels of consciousness based upon our experience and what we are born with. But I personally believe from my experience, for instance, that one of the reasons I’m a surgeon in this life is because I did a lot of destruction with a sword in a past life—killing people and animals. This is not conscious, like the answers I gave you earlier, but at a deeper level I chose to use a knife in this life to cure and heal with rather than kill with. I often say to people, “Think about things that affect you emotionally, that you have no explanation for. This may be due to some past-life experience, and that is why you’re acting the way you’re acting.” Now, whether I’m right or wrong, I have to say that, as long as it’s therapeutic that’s what I’m interested in. But on a personal level, I believe that consciousness is nonlocal, and it can be carried on and picked up by people and so I believe in life after death. I think this shows in animals too. There’s a certain wisdom that they have.
Larry Dossey, M.D.
Doctor & Consciousness Researcher
When I asked physician Larry Dossey, author of Healing Words: The Power of Prayer, what he thought about this timeless mystery of life after death, he said:
If we acknowledge that consciousness is nonlocal—that it’s infinite in space and time—then this really opens up all sorts of possibilities for the survival of consciousness following physical death, that is, for experiencing life after death. If you reason through this and follow the implications of these studies, you begin to realize that consciousness that’s nonlocal and unrestricted in time is immortal. It’s eternal. This is as hopeful as the current view of the fate of consciousness is dismal. This totally reverses things. So we are led to a position, I think, where we see that even though the body will certainly die, the most essential part of who we are can’t die, even if it tried—because it’s nonlocally distributed through time and space. Our grim vision of the finality of death is revised. Death is no longer viewed as a gruesome annihilation or the total destruction of all that we are. So there are tremendous spiritual implications that flow from these considerations, in addition to the implications for health.
In fact, I believe that the implications for health are the least of it. A lot of people who encounter this area take a practical, bare-bones, utilitarian approach to it. They say, “Wow, now we’ve got a nifty new item in our black bag—a new trick to help people become healthier. Certainly these studies do suggest that this is a proper use of healing intentions and prayer, and I’m all for that, but the thing that really gets my juices flowing is the implication of this research for immortality. For me, that’s the most exciting contribution of this entire field. The fear of death and whether there is life after death has caused more pain and suffering for human beings throughout history than all the physical diseases combined. The fear of death is the big unmentionable—and this view of consciousness is a cure for that disease, that fear of death.
Rick Strassman, M.D.
Doctor, Developmental Biologist & Psychedelics Researcher
Medical researcher Rick Strassman’s book DMT: The Spirit Molecule makes a convincing case for the possibility that endogenous DMT in our brains helps to usher our souls in and out of our bodies. So I was especially interested in hearing what he thought happens to consciousness after death. He said:
I think life continues after death, but in some unknown form. I think a lot depends upon the nature of our consciousness during our lives— how attached to various levels of consensus reality it is. My late/former Zen teacher used to use the analogy of a lightbulb, with electric current passing through it. The lightbulb goes out, but the current continues, “changed” in a way, for its experience in the bulb. He also referred to like gravitating toward like in terms of the idea of the need for certain aspects of consciousness to develop further, before it can return to its source. That is, doglike aspects of our consciousness end up in a dog in a life after death, humanlike aspects get worked through in another human, plantlike aspects into plants, and so on.
Dean Radin, Psy.D.
Parapsychologist, Consciousness Researcher
When I asked psychologist Dean Radin, author of Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities, who has done groundbreaking research into psychic phenomena, what he thought happens after we die, he said:
I expect that what we think of as ourselves—which is primarily personality, personal history, personality traits, and that sort of thing—goes away, because most of that information is probably contained in some way in the body itself. But as to some kind of a primal awareness—life after death—I think it probably continues, because it’s not clear to me that that’s produced by the body. In fact, I think that elementary awareness may be prior to matter. So when you go into a deep meditation and you lose your sense of personality, that may be similar to what it might be like to be dead. On the other hand, if you’re not practiced at being in that deep state, or don’t know how to pay attention to subtle variations in what might at first appear to be nothingness, it’s not clear that your consciousness would stay around very long. In other words, you might have a momentary time when you have this sense of awareness, and then it just dissolves. It goes back and becomes part of the rest of everything. So it’s like a drop that settles into the ocean and disappears into it. On the other hand, some people who either spend a lifetime preparing in meditation, or who are naturally adept, may be able to sustain being a drop. They may be able to settle into that ocean of life after death and still have a sense of their “dropness,” even though they’re also now part of the ocean. Then maybe one’s sense of awareness would expand dramatically, and yet still have a sense of unity. I imagine that all this probably occurs in a state that is not bound by space and time as we normally think about it. So, presumably, you would have access to everything, everywhere. I imagine that something like that is the reason why ideas of reincarnation have come about, because people remember something about it. They may even remember something about the process of coming out of this ocean into a drop in the life after death, into a particular incarnation, because a drop is embodied in a sense. . . . If there’s anything that psychology teaches it’s that people are different. So I imagine that there may be as many ways of experiencing after-death as there are people to experience it. And no one explanation is the “correct” one.
Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D.
Biochemist, Cell Biologist, Parapsychologist
When I asked biologist Rupert Sheldrake, author of A New Science of Life, what he thought about this timeless mystery of life after death, he said:
For me the best starting point for this question of whether or not there is life after death, is experience.
We all have the experience of a kind of alternative body when we dream. Everyone in their dreams has the experience of doing things that their physical body is not doing. When I dream I might be walking around, talking to people, even flying, yet these activities in my dreams, which happen in a body, are happening in my dream body. They’re not happening in my physical body, because my physical body’s lying down asleep in bed. So we all have a kind of parallel body in our dreams. Now, where exactly that’s happening, what kind of space our dreams are happening in, is another question. It’s obviously a space to do with the mind or consciousness, but we can’t take for granted that that space is confined to the inside of the head. Normally people assume it must be, but they assume that all our consciousness is in our heads, and I don’t agree with that assumption. I think our minds extend beyond our brains in every act of vision, something I discuss in my book The Sense of Being Stared At, and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.
So I think this idea of life after death, then, relates to out-of-the-body experiences, where people feel themselves floating out of their body and see themselves from outside, or lucid dreams, where people in their dreams become aware they’re dreaming and can will themselves to go to particular places by gaining control of their dream. These are, as it were, extensions of the dream body.
Now, when we die, it’s possible, to my way of thinking, that it may be rather like being in a dream from which we can’t wake up.
This realm of consciousness that we experience in our dreams may exist independent of the brain, because it’s not really a physical realm. It’s a realm of possibility or imagination. It’s a realm of the mind. It’s possible that we could go on living in a kind of dream world, changing and developing in that world, in a way that’s not confined to the physical body. Now, whether that happens or not is another question, but it seems to me possible. The out-of-body experiences and the near-death experiences may suggest that’s indeed what’s going to happen to us when we die. But the fact is that we’re not really going to find out until we do die, and what happens then may indeed depend on our expectations. It may be that materialists and atheists who think that life after death will just be a blank would actually experience a blank. It may be that their expectations will affect what actually happens. It may be that people who think they’ll go to a heavenly realm of palm oases and almond-eyed dancing girls really will. It may be that the afterlife is heavily conditioned by our expectations and beliefs, just as our dreams are.
Sheldrake’s response rings true for me, because it seems like so much of what we experience in life is deeply influenced by our beliefs. Why would life after death be any different?
This piece on life after death and what happens when we die is excerpted with permission from The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality by David Jay Brown © 2015 Park Street Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
About The Author
David Jay Brown holds a master’s degree in psychobiology from New York University. A former neuroscience researcher at the University of Southern California, he has written for Wired, Discover, and Scientific American, and his news stories have appeared on the Huffington Post and CBS News. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including The New Science of Psychedelics. He lives in Ben Lomond, California. Visit his website at MavericksoftheMind.com