Expectations of Immortality
A Sermon to Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist
May 28, 2017
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
As Above, So Below
Years ago when explaining an unusual point of eastern philosophy to my late first wife, she said, “You know, there are many strange things in the world.” Then she looked me in the eye and said, “How come you know about most of them.”
The answer is that, like most Unitarian Universalist clergy, I read widely. As myprofessional world encompasses religion, theology (which is not the same thing as religion), hypnosis, medicine and psychology, my reading list is quite varied and more than a little strange.
Today I begin with a saying that some of you may have encountered before (and it’s a strange one). It is the saying, “As Above, So Below.”
Some of you may be familiar with this saying as it is popular in modern spiritual literature. As I understand it, the saying comes from medieval alchemy and supposedly is a quote from a book called The Emerald Tablet, said to have been written by a man in ancient Greece who modestly called himself “Hermes, the Three Times Great.”
The notion is that things that happen here on earth have an effect on things that happen in the wider universe, and vice versa. That’s why astrologers quote it in support of their claim that what the planets and stars are doing influences what happens here on earth.
I don’t know about that (I am a Virgo, and we Virgos don’t believe in astrology), but science has now discovered something called evolving symmetry. That is, that similar substances display similar properties, regardless of size. They are often illustrated by geometric designs called “fractals.” It turns out that “As Above, So Below” sort of works in the sense that the same physical forces that affect very small things, also affect very large things in the same way.
For example, the same geometries that control how your cream swirls when you pour it into your coffee, also controls how vast clouds of interstellar gas swirl as they pass near distant galaxies. By studying the math about how your cream swirls in a coffee cup, allows astronomers to understand some of what they see with their telescopes. So the saying, “As Above, So Below” isn’t entirely without merit and it frames my topic today.
Because my work as a Consulting Hypnotist with a medical specialty brings me in contact with people who are very ill, I’ve had to think about the phenomena of death, illness and other dark topics.
One of the rules in my profession is that you have to work out your own issues around scary stuff before you can successfully help another person deal with that material. Today I’m sharing my personal view and the reason I expect an immortality after I pass from this world. To explain why, I’m going to be considering information from neurophysiology and cellular biology, not faith or scripture. There is nothing wrong with faith or scripture, but today I want to put a different spin on the discussion.
This Memorial Day Weekend, where we pause to remember all those who have died in the service of our country, and more widely, remember all who we have lost, I felt it was an appropriate time to speculate and explain why I expect some form of happy immortality. Let me stipulate I speak with no authority on this beyond my personal experience and the research cited. Your mileage may vary.
A Society of Cells
When I want to learn about a subject my first response is to look at what science has to say about it, especially if there is a parallel within the human body. I believe we can learn a lot about what our universe is like by looking at the things that shape our physical selves. As Above, So Below. As Below, So Above. This is certainly true when considering the issue of death and immortality.
Each of us began as a single cell. Our bodies are a society of cells. Each cell is independently alive but works together with other cells to make up our physical form. We are actually a great living system made up of living parts. Those parts are created though cell division. They grow, die and pass away, to be replaced by newly divided cells.
So we can grow new skin to cover a wound. It’s why bones can heal. It’s even why chemotherapy works.
The Four Fates Of The Cell
When a cell dies, one of four things happens. The first thing that can happen, and it’s nasty, is called necrosis. A damaged cell that should perish, instead fights to survive. When it inevitably loses that battle, it breaks open and suddenly spills its contents into the body’s fluids. This can make us feel sick.
The second thing that can happen to a cell is autophagy. A cell becomes aware that it is too damaged to repair itself, and it turns itself off suddenly. This goes on all the time and mostly we are not aware of it. But if a lot of it is happening at one time it can make us feel weak and fatigued.
There is a third thing that can happen to a cell, and it’s a very bad thing. Some cells, for reasons we don’t understand become immortalized. They are sick cells and should die, but for some reason they don’t. We call this cancer. I personally think calling these cells immortal is misleading. They are actually zombie cells and no one wants to have them.
The fourth and final thing in the life of a cell is called apoptosis, from a Greek word which I’m told is used to describe falling leaves. It’s vital for life.
When a cell realizes that it is at the end of its life, it gradually turns itself down, and finally turns itself off. The process is slow, it doesn’t trigger the immune system and doesn’t cause any problems at all. We’re not even aware of it except that we feel healthy and if we’ve been sick. We feel like we are getting stronger.
The best thing for our bodies is that when our cells reach the end of their lives they quietly turn themselves off, either quickly as with autophagy or slowly as with apoptosis. The process is peaceful. The passing away of the cells at the appropriate time allows our body to thrive.
Simply, we want the cells in our body to “die well” and be replaced and renewed. When that happens we flourish. The strategy our healthy cells use to project themselves into the future isn’t to try to live forever. Reproduction is simpler than eternal maintenance.
Thinking about the ancient saying, “As Above, So Below” I wonder if there is a human equivalent for the processes that go on with our cells as they die. Does the way cells pass away and are renewed tell us anything about what happens when we—a great living system of cells—pass away?
When my time comes, I want it to be like the cells that realize they’ve had a good run but that it’s time to find a graceful end. But then what? What happens after death? If there is anything our cells tell us about what comes after death.
I think there is. Cells that are healthy but have not yet reached apoptosis do not die when the body does. Instead, the do something very special.
Believe it or not comedian Woody Allen once reflected on immortality and he wrote:
“I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
Our cells tell us this desire is a mistake. It’s not good to become physically immortalized. Like I said, when a cell does that, it becomes cancer. Nature’s way for all healthy life is that we arise, flourish and pass away. But that does not mean that death is the end. I personally expect a non-physical immortality.
My reason for expecting this has something to do with motorcycles.
Some of you know that in my youth I rode with a MC, or a motorcycle club. Despite the bad rep such clubs have, it was a completely good experience for me. To this day I continue to dress the part and wear biker jewelry as a way of reminding myself of the positive lessons of those years.
Sadly, I don’t ride anymore. When Lindsay and I got together almost 40 years ago she extracted a promise that I would not get back on a motorcycle. She required this because my last motorcycle accident almost killed me, and she didn’t want me to be in danger again.
I’ve honored my promise to her, although I’ve kept my motorcycle license. A household joke is that if she ever leaves me I’ll be stopping at the Harley-Davidson dealership on my way to see the attorney; and if she dies before I do, I’ll be riding a motorcycle to her funeral.
The last accident I had was in my last year of college and it almost killed me. It wasn’t my fault. People who drive cars often don’t look for motorcycles and another driver just smashed right into me. Luckily I was wearing full leather and a good helmet, and managed to fall between the lanes of traffic instead of into one.
As I lay on the road I had what people now call and “out of body” experience. I was unconscious, but I remember finding myself looking down at my unconscious body.
I watched people try to take off my helmet, and not knowing how to do that ended up hurting me more. I watched the ambulance driver steal my watch, and he did. All the while, I was laying unconscious on the road, eyes closed.
This was one of the most important experiences of my lifetime because it convinced me that the mind and the body—while tightly linked—were actually separate. My mind was not confined by the limitations of my body. And if that was true, what else might be? Could my mind survive my death?
I was a Philosophy major and my plan had been to go on for a Ph.D and seek a job as a Philosophy Professor. I was at the time a materialist. I believed that our minds are nothing more than the activity of our brain, and that there is no reality to anything that was not physical.
That changed on the rainy road in my senior year. If the mind could function, and even sense things, independently of the body, what other metaphysical realities might exist? I felt my call to a spiritual life to explore that. I changed my career plans, and that’s how I ended up here. My call to ministry came as a part of a motorcycle wreck.
I stayed at the University of Connecticut to take a terminal Master’s Degree in Philosophy before coming to Chicago to seek my doctoral degree in ministry. During that last year in Philosophy I turned my attention to the Philosophy of the Mind, and there I learned about a more severe parallel to my “out of body experience” called the “near death experience.”
I was helped by the fact that there was an actual International Associationfor Near Death Studies at the University of Connecticut, under the leadership of a Professor of Psychology named Dr. Kenneth Ring, the author of the reading I shared earlier.
I believe he is up five books on the subject now and they are available on amazon.com if you are interested. I didn’t have the pleasure of studying with him personally as I was in a different graduate division, but the information was available and it was fascinating. Keep in mind his statement that these experiences “demonstrate that the appearance of death is not at all like the experience of death. What death looks like is not what it feels like. Indeed, what it feels like is in many ways the opposite of what it appears to be to someone witnessing the onset of death in another.”
I will not belabor what near death experiences are like, but simply these are the accounts of people who were clinically dead, but were revived at the last instant. The cells of our body can live on even after the heart has ceased, and with the right combination of drugs and electric shock, sometimes the heart can be restarted.
These are people at the imminent edge of biological death who experience a pattern of feeling and images that include a sense of profound well being, the experience of being separate from their bodies and sometimes able to see their bodies from the side or from above, just as I was able to do. They often are profoundly changed by the experience. Many also experience themselves passing through a tunnel of some sort.
Almost all of the recorded and studied experiences, and there are now many thousands, conform to at least some part of what I have described. Dr. Ring estimates that one out of every three persons who come close to death will have a “near death” experience.
It doesn’t matter what you believe. Atheists have just as many of these experiences as religious persons. The main features are: (1) a sense of profound well-being, (2) the experience of being separate from your body, (3) a feeling that one is on the cusp of some wonderful new experience, and (4) typically being profoundly changed by the experience into a more optimistic and compassionate person.
There are many explanations offered for this phenomenon. Some feel it results from activity in the temporoparietal junction of the brain caused by the electrical activity as the brain dies. It’s even possible to simulate that in a laboratory. But the “near death experience” appears to be a very organized and structured experience that is nothing like the chaotic activity we can see in a brain that is actually dying.
There are also Freudian explanations about reliving birth, except the passage down the birth canal is tight and confining. People who have had “near death experiences” typically describe them as spacious and liberating.
There are biochemical explanations about the experience being a side effect of the drugs (such as ketamine) given during resuscitation, and theories that chalk the whole thing up to hallucination. The fact is, nobody knows for sure and there is tension in the scientific community between those who insist that the “near death experience” is a purely physical phenomena that is basically a hallucination, and those who believe it is exactly what it seems like to the person having the experience—a door opening to a new way of being aware—that there is something that is supposed to come next.
What I know is that when I was lying on a road next to the wreck of my beloved motorcycle, my brain was not dying, there were no drugs used to revive me (I regained awareness naturally in the ambulance). What I had was an “out of the body experience” not a “near death experience,” but it had some of the same features. As I looked down at my unconscious body I found it convincing.
Is Death Really the End?
It turns out that our cells offer an additional clue. When the heart stops, breathing ceases and the brain flatlines, some of our cells continue to be alive. The research is limited but this appears to be a universal phenomena. There is a period, now called “Twilight Death,” between the end of clinical life and the actual death of our cells. During this period not only do some living cells continue to live, but cells which had been dormant switch themselves on to create a unique state in the body.
In a 2013 University of Michigan study, it was discovered that just after we die there appears to be an enormous spike in brain activity as cells that have been idle suddenly activate. (You can learn more about that here and here).
As doing this sort of research on dying people would be unethical, the research has only been done on mice, but it appears to be generally true. The pattern of activation seems to be exactly what we would expect to see in a creature that was alert, focused and concentrating. Literally, it was what we would see in a creature that has just woken up.
As we die, it appears that the cells of our brain suddenly give us a huge burst of awareness, and it appears near certain that our journey into death begins with a brief state of expanded consciousness. You will be most aware you have ever been at the very moment of your death. Perhaps this is why his biographer tells us that the last words of Steven Jobs, the founder of Apple, seconds before he died were, “Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow!”
Coincidence? I don’t think so. A sign that something special is about to happen? That sounds more plausible to me.
Certainly this is not proof that there is something for us beyond death, I personally find it strongly suggestive that death is not the end. I doubt anyone marches through a literal pearly gate, but everything science tells us about what happens when we die, suggests that death is not a dissolution into chaos. Instead, our cells do something very special, and that appears to be more like waking up, than going to sleep.
And that is why I expect an immortality. And that’s my sermon.