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This is the first time I have attempted to pull together the many pieces I have learned about death in order to provide a point of view. The culmination of what my experiences, teachings, research and more, was simply that there is meaning to life. The sum of the data points collected supported this conclusion. It was sufficient for me since anything else would be conjecture or just my point of view. Even listening to the many accounts of near-death experiencers were their individual interpretations. So often you would hear them say that words do not suffice to explain their experience. I investigated many religions and asked their view of death. There were many different interpretations of what death is. However, what I realized is that beneath all of the opinions and beliefs, there were common denominators. This is what shaped my POV.
To understand death should begin with first addressing why are we here, specific to our life experience here on Earth. This is the subject of this podcast. This will hopefully make more sense as you read through this and hear my conclusions.
Why are we here on Earth? Is it a mistake, a coincidence, all leading to a black void when we die? Is there meaning and purpose to life here? Is only one religion right? Although I grew up in a religious household, my experience of pain, trauma and torture resulted in an agnostic view. How could the concept of a God, as I was taught to believe in the concept of God in Sunday school, allow for all this pain and suffering? I was skeptical of religion realizing that it was a political force for many centuries that resulted in wars, death to non-believers, and a haven for hypocrites. Each one touted that it was The One! My own experience with religion turned me off since their was no solstice there, only dogma in which I was expected to believe and without any questions. I witnessed and experienced too many negative events to believe that religion was the answer.
I resurrected my involvement in religions during my early thirties while I was searching for the meaning of life. It was a pivotal moment one Sunday when the preacher (I forgot what denomination this was) spoke to me following the service. I would ask questions with each religion I visited, which typically was not received well. But this minister or whatever he was replied to my questions, “I have come to respect God more and man’s interpretation of God less.” WTF. This was music to my ears since this related to my own views, and this was coming from a quote, man of God. I followed with, “how do I come to learn more about God?” He said, “It is beyond any teachings, yet it is a part of all teachings. The concept of God is way beyond what we mortals can understand. You must look deep within self to find your answers.” I had a million questions, but they all came back to these two points. What I gathered from this is that deep within us is a link to God, or as he said, is God, in which we will find our answers. The answer was not doing anything, but instead nothing and keeping an open mind. But how does one go within I thought.
This was deeply meaningful to me and the first response within religion that made sense to me. I had a plan now to create a path, a journey, that would lead me to my answers within. I left a great job in Corporate America for a backpack and to volunteer all over the world. Surely the answers would be out there. But how do I begin? A series of what I would now say were synchronistic events (BTW, I define synchronicity as “God’s way of being anonymous), opened the doors for me. My friend had called stating that there was a great deal on tickets to Europe and off I went. From there I discovered how to travel on the cheap using hostels and guides to find my way around. People, events and places would fall into place leading me to different parts of the world. My path was that of a modern-day vision quest, where I would backpack and volunteer around the world. My experience is best captured by Michael Crichton in his book, Travels. He stated…
“Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes — with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”Michael Crichton, Travels
Even though this path was external to me, not the journey within that I learned from the minister, this journey is what I needed to create such a stir within me to better understand my question, what is the meaning of life. Volunteering in some of the most challenging areas of the world opened my eyes to the pain and suffering so many experienced everywhere. It was a world of the haves and have nots. The haves had the earthly power and ruled over the have nots. My interest was involving myself with the have nots in a multitude of ways of volunteering. It was amongst these groups that there were the most amazing people, those that were helping those less fortunate. They had no fancy titles, jobs or large bank accounts, but they did have a heart of gold and a willingness to help others. These to me are the real life heroes who get little or no attention, and they are fine with that for recognition was not their motivation.
Wherever I travelled I would seek out opportunities to volunteer. It was amazing since I was able to learn so much more about life in this region and what their culture was really like. Mostly, it was a chance to give back. However, I would come to realize that in these situations I was actually the student and those around me the teachers, teaching me about life. I spent countless hours in conversation learning about their beliefs, aspirations, and way of life.
The impact of these adventures was just as Michael Crichton described, being “forced into direct experience.” My eyes were opened to the reality and dichotomy of life. There was such beauty and wonder in nature around me, but such strife, pain and suffering for so much of humanity. One experience while in South Africa epitomizes this. I volunteered in a township just north of Capetown. It was a sea of tin shacks, poverty, disease and crime. It was gut-wrenching to hear the day-in-the-life stories of some inhabitants. I returned to the hostel each day and others there were interested in what I was doing. I explained and four wanted to join me. I cleared this and off we went.
We toured the township and talked with the locals. They were the most wonderful people who would give the shirt on their backs, but in a terrible set of conditions. The stories referred to starvation, lack of food and water, crime, disease, etc. My compadres were very quiet for the most part as we listened. It was a very quiet ride back home since no one wanted to talk. Later that evening I ran into my guests who did not know what to say. For four days straight all they did was to consume large amounts of alcohol. They were clearly impacted and paid the price for having their eyes opened.
Upon a few years of “volun-traveling” I returned home where I became reclusive. Others wanted to know the highlights as it related to the sights I saw, food I ate, but not the pain and suffering I was exposed to. I was alone with my thoughts which amazingly began the journey within. I found a part time job and volunteered in hospice care, with a children’s oncology camp, and as an EMT on a volunteer ambulance core. I found so much more meaning in volunteering than in any other aspect of my life. These experiences all had death in common. I was right where I needed to be now. The inner journey began.
Reflecting on my worldly experiences I came to the conclusion that pain and suffering is so much of our experience here on Earth, knowing no boundaries. But it was not the negative experience that I had associated and personally experienced with pain and suffering, it was instead a primary means of growth. There is the expression, “no pain, no gain” which represented the positive view of pain and suffering. Pain, suffering, resulting in our negative emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, depression, etc.) all represent aspects of our life no one wants to experience. This in itself provides the motivation for a choice. Do we succumb to the negativity or use this as an opportunity to grow from the experience.
Touching only on the tip of the iceberg related to my experiences and learnings from my modern-day vision quest, the pain that I experienced in life and now witnessed across the world, helped me to transform my attitudes and beliefs. It was apparent that there was a purpose to life here on Earth. I had discovered my quest to understand the meaning of life, simply that there was meaning to life, and for now that was a major milestone in my own life.
Coming to this realization helped to prepare me for my next quest which was to understand death. Knowing that there was meaning to life, suggested that there had to be meaning to death.
My next post/podcast will zoom in on the outcomes from my encounters with death and dying. Many of these experiences were reviewed in Part 2 in this series on Death. My focus will be the conclusions I made.
Michael is an award winning author, speaker, facilitator and coach on the topics of Personal Growth, Self-Discovery and Enlightenment. Visit my website for more information (growhumanpotential.com).