Mailbag: Fear of a Christian Afterlife (a.k.a. Going to Hell)
One of the major obstructions of my development (or simply my well-being) is a feeling that there is a significant chance of Christian afterlife and therefore punishment. I’m not a believer for a long time so I don’t understand why is this superstition here. Do you think, can I do something with this?
To understand why such beliefs and fears still persist despite abandoning your Christian faith a long time ago, you must first understand imprint vulnerability and just how vulnerable children are to having beliefs imprinted upon them, especially between ages 0–7 years. During this time a child will basically absorb all cues from their environment indiscriminately, causing changes in neurology and physiology that are functionally permanent and therefore unable to be altered except with the finest, most high-resolution, and most skilful use of the meditative arts. Psychedelics such as LSD can probably also help a lot, but these require a strict map and guidance for the reimprinting process in order to be successful, such as Timothy Leary’s LSD reimprinting programmes – otherwise the trip could proceed chaotically and end up absorbing random or unplanned beliefs or perceptual changes. I have also heard good things about shamanic plant ceremonies, which functionally work the same way. As I have no experience with either of these programmes, I will continue by looking at this issue through the lens of meditation.
Between ages 0–7 a child will absorb information about the environment that determines his strategies for the rest of his life. This is known as imprinting. The most useful model I have come across to describe human imprinting is Timothy Leary’s wonderful Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness, later expanded upon by Robert Anton Wilson in a number of books, most notably Prometheus Rising. I will use Wilson’s labelling for the circuits going forward.
The most pressing information an infant will absorb is relative safety or hostility of the environment, and relative abundance or scarcity of resources (Circuit I: The Oral Bio-Survival Circuit).
The next run of imprinting comes straight from social input. The child determines his position in the pecking order of the tribe (Circuit II: The Emotional–Territorial Circuit) via his own power plays and by mimicking the submissive or dominant behaviours of his parents. Next he absorbs the language and symbols of the culture (Circuit III: The Semantic Time-Binding Circuit). Then he learns the socio-sexual rules of the culture – what is allowed, and what is taboo – via those symbols (Circuit IV: The Socio-Sexual Circuit).
Moral maps and cultural rules – of which religion is often a kind of master encapsulation or super-structure – run on Circuit IV, which is essentially a system of Circuit III symbols pointing to responses on the lowest two circuits. So, the symbol of “sin” points to a potential lowering in the pecking order (Circuit II downgrade), and potential ostracism from the tribe (a huge threat to Circuit I bio-survival).
The symbol of “Hell” points to an unending Circuit I bio-survival crisis which is the greatest fear imaginable since even death cannot end it. The Hell concept has been intentionally crafted that way to promote maximum compliance with the Circuit IV moral system.
Children are so vulnerable to imprinting between the ages of 0–7 that there is a well-known quote attributed to a number of sources including Aristotle, St. Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola:
Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.
The concept of Hell has been deliberately imprinted upon you during your most vulnerable time in order to promote your continued adherence to tribal rules of conduct without the need for an external watcher (since the watcher has now been established internally).
The Way Out
Any pattern that repeats within awareness (such as the “Hell→retreat” pattern) has at its core a seed, known in Buddhism as a formation. A formation is like a holographic “experience program”, able to project itself into awareness through any combination of the six sense doors (sight, smell, sound, taste, feel and thought). However, a formation itself has no inherent content, and must therefore warp the present moment in order to manifest physically. For example, the formation of the woman who is always beaten by her boyfriends manifests in reality by illuminating violent men in her surroundings as attractive so she selects them as mates.
The “Hell” formation illuminates certain people, things and behaviours as gateways to bio-survival crisis and the mind converts those elements to fearful archetypes as guardians of those gateways to repel you from them, hence “the demon drink” (alcohol), “serpent” or “siren” (promiscuous woman) and “the Devil’s hobby” (masturbation). Since many of these objects are ever-present in daily human life, the result can be an ongoing backdrop of fear, or regular rumination on a torturous afterlife.
Formations can be passed between humans. The most obvious transmission is from parent to child. On a recent Skype chat my student explained how he never got his mother’s approval and thus strove for perfection in everything. I explained how she probably never got approval from her mother, how her mother probably never gave her approval, and how he might too now fail to give approval to others or to his own children. The formation may have been passed down through many generations in this way. This is karma, and is just one way you can inherit karma.
That formations can be passed down through families makes them similar to genes. However, in Buddhism, which is a nondual system (making no fundamental distinction between mind and matter), a gene itself is a formation. The genetic imperative to eat for example is a powerful formation. Could it be that yogis such as Prahlad Jani, the man who claimed not to have eaten for 70 years, has simply annihilated the formation requiring him to eat? As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m open to believing just about anything, especially if it is packaged in a Buddhist or yogic worldview, so I am inclined to take his claim seriously.
Parents are not the only source of formations. Societies and cultures themselves are formation photocopiers and have special roles trained (such as “priest” and “teacher”) to install certain kinds of formation into young minds in efficient ways. Formations are present in nature as animal instincts and habits of the cosmos, and also form the backdrop of human experience as the collective unconscious. Finally, you create your own formations through your own experiences and actions, and these also become capable of being passed to others.
In normal waking life formations are only perceivable by the content they create. A keen eye trained through personal development may be able to spot patterns of repeating content as coming from the same formation, which may then be labelled as a “habit”, “character trait”, or “life script”.
In deep samatha states however, a formation can be perceived in its unmanifested state as a disturbance in the object of meditation. So, if you are practising concentration on the breath, in lighter states the formation will appear as a physical block in the flow of the breath (with pranayama breathing being a good preventative measure). In deeper, more refined states, the formation will appear as a ripple in the otherwise uniform flow of the breath.
In energy practice, in less absorbed states the formation will appear as a gross block in the energy channel preventing energy from flowing freely (and this is where “opening chakras” comes in). In deeper states where energy flow is consistent and uniform, the formation will appear as a pattern of ultra-fine particles or sensations which create turbulence in that energy stream.
Ability to perceive formations at finer and finer levels is one of the main purposes of a meditation object. By filling more and more of your awareness with the object, there is less room for formations to manifest in grosser ways such as thoughts or imagery. Therefore you are able to get a closer look at the seed in the centre of such thoughts (the formation). Meditation states such as the Formless Realms however are so deep that your awareness moves beyond the object and into the space around it, or into an even subtler strata of awareness such as consciousness itself or the perception of nothingness. In these states the formation appears as a vibration – a kind of waveform, or a pattern of ultra-fine particles. (Such visuals can be seen even by the layperson while on LSD, which may explain its ability to help even those with no meditation training overcome their addictions or other habits.)
In states of meditative absorption, the clear-seeing of the formation is often enough to wipe it out completely – a process which I call annihilation, and also known as “burning the seed” in the Yoga Sutras. I discussed some aspects of this process in the following post: Mailbag: Formations and Their Annihilation. The annihilation of a formation, in my experience, is always accompanied by a sense of cool healing energy, deep equanimity, and a feeling of massive weight being lifted from your shoulders (more accurately, from your whole being). Once annihilated, that formation will never manifest in the six sense doors again – meaning you will never have thoughts, imagery, or feelings arising in awareness from that formation again. It is done – finished.
I refer to formations in their manifested forms (thoughts, images and feelings which result in patterns of behaviour) as content. The content is the sort of thing you discuss with a psychiatrist, counsellor, hypnotist, or other kind of therapist. It usually involves narratives about specific situations, such as, “People are always taking advantage of me”, or, “Whenever X happens, I feel Y”. A skilled therapist will be able to see that certain situations are linked via a theme. The specifics of the situation change (new people, new locations – new content) but the theme stays the same. At the centre of that theme is a formation.
States of light meditative absorption such as general mindfulness of breath will regularly pull up content – unpleasant or distracting thoughts and painful emotions about the same sorts of problems each time – which can be difficult to sit through while returning to the breath. However, by barrelling through and doing the work, returning to the breath each time content arises, you are actively pruning back the content. This can give immediate feelings of relief giving way to mental calm, and often a time window of a few hours all the way up to a few months will open up wherein the content does not arise in awareness so much and, when it does, does not bother you nearly as much.
Depending on regularity of practice and how far you go with it each time, the theme of the content itself can recede and appear to have stopped recurring for a while. This brings much-welcomed breathing room away from that problem. However, if you fail to “burn the seed” of that theme, it will regrow and bloom into new content at some point in the future. One of the purposes of extremely refined meditation states such as jhana in Buddhism and samadhi in yoga is therefore to reach the seed at the centre of the content – the formation – and see it clearly, which robs it of its power and causes it to stop manifesting as content in one’s life from that point forward.
One of the ways out of Hell is therefore to continue practising meditation. Start exactly at the skill level you are at, for no less than 30 minutes a day. Make a point of noticing whether thoughts and fears about Hell are diminished in the hours or days after a session in order to build confidence in your practice. When you are comfortable sitting mindfully for 30 minutes a day, begin attempting to gradually refine the state by improving your concentration upon your object. Eventually your perception will become so clear that both the nature of the problem and the solution will become self-evident.
Most humans find death a terrifying and unacceptable object of inquiry and many are happy to receive a pre-packaged religious edict (despite its limitations) in order to avoid their own investigation. Rejection of one philosophy (e.g. the Christian afterlife) however tends to necessitate the establishment of another, as the linear intellect requires a start and end point to life (and indeed any cycle) in order to maintain a sense of time in which to work. You cannot just slot in another religion or culture’s conceptualization of death however, as the intellect that rejected the old philosophy will reject the new in kind on the same grounds: lack of some evidential or experiential element that is enough to “convince” the intellect to allow the new belief to be established. Sometimes, it is enough that the intellect simply believes the new philosophy to be its own idea.
To truly escape the conditioning of your previous death philosophy, you must therefore replace it with a new philosophy that runs counter to the old, and which gets past the intellect’s filter via experiential, evidential or persuasive means.
Buddhism is one place to start. You would begin by learning the philosophy of The Three Marks of Existence as laid out by the Buddha, which each in themselves obviate the Heaven/Hell paradigm:
- Impermanence. All events are completely transient, not even lasting for a second. All physical and mental events come into being and dissolve. This means no permanent state of Heaven or Hell can persist indefinitely.
- No-Self/emptiness. There is no self who suffers, just transient events that make up an illusion of a self. This means there is no soul that can travel to Heaven or Hell; rather, such realms are states arising within the volume of awareness.
- Unsatisfactoriness/suffering. There is no event than can inherently satisfy because all events are impermanent and there is no self that can be satisfied. This renders Heaven unobtainable because even within bliss there is a longing for the permanence of that bliss (which is suffering). Since suffering is omnipresent within the illusion of a separate self, Hell is already functionally present here on Earth. Interestingly, the Buddha travelled to the deva realms to teach the gods the dharma because even their Heaven was impermanent and imperfect, and enlightenment / emptiness / the dissolution of a separate self is the only true release from suffering. (Read more about Buddhist afterlife.)
After absorbing these ideas on an intellectual level, the Three Marks of Existence can then be directly witnessed via insight meditation, forming the practical and evidential part of the integration of the new philosophy. Buddhist meditation practice also has the benefit of revealing and allowing the dissolution of the formations discussed in the previous section.
Another way to reconceptualize death is to read the death philosophies of many world cultures, then keep one ear open and let reality tell you which ones to look at further. For example, you might read about Hindu reincarnation then come across someone who can reliably show they have experienced past lives.
This process is in no way objective, nor does it necessarily point to any kind of truth (other than the truth of the entire chain of causality that steers your investigation). Your attention is driven towards the “clues” that arise in your reality through deep unconscious desires and fears about what is acceptable or desirable for awareness after death. It usually takes a lot of suffering in life to become comfortable with the idea of total nothingness or void upon death.
The philosophy of death one arrives at has huge ramifications for behaviour, life choices and priorities, as it determines the context in which you live your life. Here are some about common beliefs and their repercussions:
- If you hold the belief in a Heaven/Hell afterlife, you have to spend life with an OCD-like monitoring of behaviour because, if you make a mistake, you are really done for. There is so much scope to screw this up that this philosophy is best abandoned at the earliest recognition of its harmfulness for psychological well-being.
- If you believe that after you die you might have to return to this Earth as a new life form, you’d better make damn sure you create the best Earth you can in this life, with the most sentient and joyful life forms, because the prospect of reincarnating to a stagnant or declining consciousness over and over again is, in many ways, worse than total nothingness after death.
- If you believe in total nothingness after death (usually stemming from a materialist worldview) then you must be aware that this typically leads to hedonism and no sense of purpose beyond “trying to have a nice time”. The moral decline of the West is almost certainly due at least in part to the turning away from the God-given morality of Christianity and towards atheistic materialism.
As a result of my own investigation I have arrived at a few possible outcomes for what happens after death (if anything). I may write a post about them at some point.
For now though, my goal is to achieve Awakening and to teach others how to be Awakened. Since bringing the human passions under control would render all political and economical issues obsolete, and since removal of suffering would let us experience our planet as a fairy-tale paradise, it is possible that I will see Heaven here on Earth within my lifetime. If I do have to reincarnate, at least I would have somewhere worth reincarnating to.
A cessation, also known as Fruition if it occurs at the end of an insight path, is an event that usually occurs during insight practice. However, it can occur at any time and is even known to have been experienced by non-meditators. Cessations have also been reported by users of LSD, DMT and other psychedelics.
During a cessation, reality “blinks out” for a moment, forming a total discontinuity in the timeline. During this gap in awareness, no perception occurs whatsoever, and the gap is only detectable by reality “rebooting” on the other side of the gap. During the cessation, awareness returns to the void, the infinite nothingness, zero, God, the Source of all experience whence all things come and all things return. Shinzen Young talks in depth about this experience and ways it can manifest here:
I have included the cessation in this post because, for me, it was a very important part of coming to terms with death in an experiential way. I have had dozens of cessations in my practice and they have ranged from:
- a blissful, flowing dissolution into nothingness, so gentle I only noticed it when I returned on the other side, to
- a total hellish clinging on for dear life right up until the moment I let go and disappeared.
The latter occurred during my kundalini awakening and I spent maybe an hour circling the cessation feeling like literally I was about to die and never exist again. It was only when I finally let go, disappeared, then reappeared on the other side, that my fear of death took a serious hit. Successive cessations in that session were far easier. The result was that I stopped believing in a universe without my awareness, as experience had showed me that each time I disappear, I reappear. Whether this is factually true or not is irrelevant – the process re-engineered my concept of death on an experiential level.
The cessation experience is always accompanied by a total letting go of all suffering, as the illusory “self who suffers” dissolves. This moment of transcendence is all too fleeting, but the self who is reborn from the Source now has the knowledge of absolute rest, which is an insight unable to be explained in words.
I believe that life itself will end with a cessation followed by the rebirth of awareness in a new form, as the Source is not yet done experiencing itself.