Is Physical Death the Death of our Individual Personhood?

When the finite body dies, is that the end of our person, or do we continue on? Yes and no.

“The death of our physical form is not the death of our individual personhood. Our personhood remains alive and well, ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (to use Paul’s beautiful phrase in Colossians 3:3) and here and now we can draw strength from it (and [Christ]) to live our temporal lives with all the fullness of eternity.”

-Cynthia Bourgeault, from today’s CAC daily meditation, 5/3/2019

I love many of the things Cynthia Bourgeault teaches, and she has great insight and deep wisdom. But I respectfully disagree with the wording of this particular statement, and I would like to share a different interpretation of Christian mysticism.

The End of Ego

I do believe the death of our physical form, our biological body, is the death of our individual personhood, personality, selfhood, separate self, ego-self, psychological self. That “individual person” does not remain alive anywhere, in my view, and I think those theories may lead to unfortunate supernaturalism, superstition, and pseudoscience. We begin to think that there is a place where all the departed persons go to continue living, which I don’t think is accurate. I perceive that’s not the true Self that is eternal and lives on.

The true Self is beyond ALL individual separate personhood, and is rather the collective oneness of all being, the Whole, the One, the Singularity, Life itself, God. That is what remains alive and well, and is our deepest and truest Self. “You” have died, and your true Life is hidden in this One, this Whole, this universal Christ in God (Col. 3:3). That’s not personhood, it seems to me, but Christhood. It is nondual oneness or at-one-ment, not the dualistic individual.

My thoughts are perhaps more similar to another Christian mystic, Thomas Merton, as he expressed in his singular book New Seeds of Contemplation:

“There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. We must remember that this superficial ‘I’ is not our real self. It is our ‘individuality’ and our ’empirical self’ but it is not truly the hidden and mysterious person [sic] in whom we subsist before the eyes of God. The ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself is not the true ‘I’ that has been united to God in Christ. It is at best the vesture, the mask, the disguise of that mysterious and unknown ‘self’ whom most of us never discover until we are dead. Our external, superficial self is not eternal, not spiritual. Far from it. This self is doomed to disappear as completely as smoke from a chimney. It is utterly frail and evanescent. Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really ‘not I’ and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself.”

-Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, emphasis added.

Self-Transcendence

So we are called to move beyond this individual “I,” this superficial empirical “I” that we usually think we are. We are called to transcend this “self,” the psychological self, allowing it to “die” in self-transcendence (see Gal. 2:20), to see beyond it to the deeper transcendent self, often capitalized as “Self,” to the transpersonal, which is One in God or Ultimate Reality. Consciousness realizes a deeper ground which is the basis of itself and all things, and is not merely this particular finite body-mind. Its identity is not solely in the individual person, but reaches to the bottom of all things, and identifies itself with That which includes all persons. It knows itself as having emerged from this deeper ground, this foundational Source, as an expression of that Source, an emanation of this Ground, a creation of the One, in the One. And just as a ray of sunshine doesn’t exist independently of the sun, so does our true Self not exist independently of this Ground, but is this Ground emerging from this Ground, it is this Sun shining in the world, the Light of the cosmos (Matt. 5:14).

When we transcend this small self, and realize our identity in the greater Self of the One, the Cosmos, Ultimate Reality, God, then we have realized “eternal life.” Because even when this individual body-mind dies, this particular manifestation of the One, yet the greater Self continues and lives on indefinitely, arising or “resurrecting” or “reincarnating” in innumerable new manifestations or forms or finite “selves.” I think this is what Bourgeault is getting at later in the same daily meditation quoted above, and which resonates with me:

Nor has that intimacy subsided in two thousand years—at least according to the testimony of a long lineage of Christian mystics, who in a single voice proclaim that our whole universe is profoundly permeated with the presence of Christ. He [sic] surrounds, fills, holds together from top to bottom this human sphere in which we dwell. The entire cosmos has become his [sic] body, so to speak, and the blood flowing through it is his [sic] love. These are not statements that can be scientifically corroborated, but they do seem to ring true to the mystically attuned heart.

Ego Fears It

Of course, this self-transcendence is a scary thing for the ego, for this finite self which wants to live forever and be as the Gods (Isa. 14:14). The ego does not want to be transcended, it does not want to dissolve, it does not want to give itself up, to surrender itself to greater being, to say “not my will but Thine be done.” The ego-self will stop at nothing to make it seem that it is eternal, that it continues on living, that it doesn’t “surely die.” But these are perhaps all evasions, delusions, illusions, lies of that same ego.

The ego has even often taken over many spiritual traditions, and inserted itself into their theologies, claiming its own eternal existence in a heaven or hell. The ego immortalizes itself, the personal individual separate self, glorifying itself as God, instead of surrendering itself in humility before the deeper Self of God, the true Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha-nature, the Atman, the al-Insān al-Kāmil, the Tao. I perceive that the spiritual journey is in overcoming the ego identity to know our true Self (see Rev. 3:5, 21).

Loved Ones?

It also seems sad, since we often think we will see our loved ones again in an afterlife, that our individual egos will continue on living after we die, and we will live with them again. But again, I think this is perhaps an error of the ego-self, and is a sadness in the ego. I perceive that the ego does not go on living anywhere after death, but it comes to an end. Our true Life, our true Self, the true Spirit of God in us is not the individual constructed ego. It is a wholeness, a oneness, an infinite Love within which all apparently separate beings are held and included.

And this Love includes all the Love which has ever been expressed by anyone for anyone, ever. It is all included in this Love, this Oneness, which binds the universe together as a Uni-Verse (“One Song“), birthed from a Singularity, and may even still be in that Singularity. When we realize this infinite Love as One with our true Self, the Christ, we realize a Love for all beings, all existence, all of reality, the whole cosmos, which pours itself out indefinitely in all directions and includes all people within its Self. The realization of this Self is the real “afterlife,” the true heaven, in which we know this Love again, the Love of all beings, including those we have loved during our life. We realize them in our Self! It is the realization of Life after the ego’s life; it is the finding of Life after we have lost our life (Matthew 10:39, 16:25). And this is the greatest joy of all, and the greatest Love too.

Summary

So is physical death the death of our individual personhood, our separate self? Yes, I think so. But it is not the death of our true Self as One in God or Ultimate Reality. When we know our true Self, our real Identity and divine Name in God, then the death of the individual person will have no sting, for we will know who we really are. This involves a kind of “dying before you die,” allowing the separate self we usually think we are to subside or fall away from consciousness, through contemplative practices or other means, meditation leading to pure contemplation when the mind becomes still, which unveils the true Self, true Being, the Divine nature within us and all beings, the One. The Christ!

What do you think? Do you think that physical death is the death of the individual person? Or do you think it continues on somehow? What is your interpretation? It is ok if we disagree. It is in the crossroads of this dialectic that I think we may grow to greater awareness and truth. Please share your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook.


The painting at the top of the post is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, oil on canvas. If the tradition is true, then perhaps Socrates was an example one who overcame his individual personhood, and accepted his death calmly, a “final lesson for his pupils.”


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