I just finished reading a very thoughtful book – Sum, by a brilliant and original neuroscientist David Eagleman. In each essay he writes about different possible scenarios for the afterlife. In the first essay, also entitled Sum, the afterlife is a place where you relive your life experiences but grouped together by activity.
So, for example, you experience all your physical pain at once, all your moments of driving at once, etc. He writes:
You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower.
Reading through the two pages listing activity after activity taken in chunks gave me a sense of what our days and lives really are made of. It was quite unsettling. It also made me wonder about which activities I have prioritized in this life which would therefore take up the most of my time in the afterlife.
But what struck me as most unnerving was the idea of being stuck in any one activity for so long. There is a teaching by the Buddha, the Fire Sutra, that Eagleson’s essay helped me to understand a little more clearly. In the Fire Sutra, the Buddha teaches that our sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc) and everything coming in through them (sights, sounds, smells, etc) are “burning.” This is because our human nature makes us love, hate or mis-interpret what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think. And when we cling to our sensual pleasures, push away pain, or get confused about what we are experiencing, we always create suffering for ourselves.
Staying in a 200 day shower, our skin would start to literally burn and shrivel up. Our eyes would burn from the water, our nose from the chlorine smell, and our thoughts would be making us go crazy. The instructions given by the Buddha are to detach from our sense experiences in order to be free from their burning nature. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t enjoy pleasant experiences, just to see them for what they are. While they may bring us momentary pleasure, they are not able to be a permanent source of our happiness.
Reading Sum, I could feel the burning nature of our senses. Think about the moment you step into a warm shower after a long day skiing, after a run or sweaty yoga class, or after digging in the garden for hours. Ahh… Then think about being forced to stay in the same hot shower for 200 days. The joy of the shower is lost. Why? Because our joy doesn’t really come from our senses, it comes from impermanence, the constantly changing nature of our reality.
We tend to think of impermanence as a negative aspect of life, but Thich Nhat Hanh has an expression, “Long Live Impermanence!“ When we practice mindfulness, we begin to realize how wonderful impermanence really is. Without impermanence, we would not be here — nothing would grow or transform. We would be stuck in our burning sensations forever.
Our tendency is to resist impermanence, and think, If only I could stay in this shower forever, I would be so happy. Or, If only I could be with this person forever, I would be happy. Or, If only I were stronger, thinner, healthier, …. , I would be happy.
At the end of his essay, Eagleman describes how impermanence keeps us from being burnt up:
In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.
Once we really see that our senses are on fire, then we start to accept and even appreciate impermanence. We can celebrate the impermanence that creates chaos in our lives when our computer crashes, we get sick, and even when we lose a loved one. Rather than seeing impermanence as a negative force in our lives, we can see that our suffering actually comes from our clinging to something that we think will create lasting happiness, but won’t. Imagining the alternative, like a 200 day shower, helps us gain that insight.