“None of us is getting out of here alive…”
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Loss, that sharply personal experience that shoves its way uninvited in to every life sooner or later, was the trigger for this book. My partner Rob had just died from a hereditary form of dementia, it’s relentless unfolding traumatic and arduous for those that loved him. His illness was cast to him at the moment of conception, the essential enzyme that breaks down toxic proteins in the brain missing. A happy life in the country surrounded by dogs and horses was brutally unravelled as slowly and remorselessly he was robbed of balance, motor skills and speech, followed by cognitive and personality changes, eventually being reduced to a state where he recognized no-one. His loss knocked me sideways, and little guidance was offered by my own society increasingly silent as to the meaning of life or death, the latter vaguely unmentionable, hovering in the wings of every life but something to avert one’s eyes and thoughts from. I was growing older and suddenly alone with no faith to offer solace, just like so many millions of others. As Michael Pollan commented in How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics “Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an ‘experience of the numinous’ to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.” That insight is valuable, but for many at my stage of life from my kind of culture experiences of the numinous are thin on the ground and organized religion offers little or no help.
Life brings unforeseen joys and sorrows to everyone, and forces and events beyond our control push their way in, be they earthquake, illness, accident or school shooting. Meaning is easy to find in the people we love, and what brings us joy in the brief time we inhabit this planet, it’s the painful things that are so hard to make any sense of. Getting older, as friends had began to die and others sicken with terminal illnesses, death and dying were no longer over an invisible horizon but present and insistent. As an agnostic of no particular belief in an increasingly secular, materialistic society I was poorly equipped to deal with the brutal realities of loss and mortality inevitable whatever one’s background, circumstances, beliefs or lack of them. As eleventh century Tibetan Buddhist poet, teacher and mystic Milarepa put it: “All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births in death. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping up …and set about realizing the Truth …Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain…”
Rob’s illness and death forced me to confront those truths and the absence of a path to navigate a way through them. So my journey was born, a search to discover if there were spiritual ideas that could shed light on not just Rob’s illness and death, but the suffering and death that comes to everyone. It became simultaneously an internal journey, a journey through ideas from cultures outside of my own, an exploration of the relationship between spirituality, religion and consciousness, and a physical journey through Nepal, Bali, Cambodia and India. I began my travels over the following year perched on the agnostic fence, unable to choose between an empty accidental universe without purpose or meaning on one side, and competing religious explanations all claiming to be right and riddled with cultural baggage, on the other. It felt like an impossible choice but I could no longer wash my hands of asking the questions. Rob’s suffering and death could not be theorized from a distance, they were lived realities and so must be understanding of them. Death and suffering will not go away by ignoring them, they are inevitable regardless of creed, culture and circumstances, and our existence on this small fragile planet remains as mysterious as it has always been. Those are the matters with which spirituality deals, so perhaps it could still have meaning in the world of today, even if separating the proverbial sheep of what is worth keeping from the goats of that which is best discarded, is a seemingly impossible task.
I found myself drawn to ideas discovered in an earlier part of my life from the spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that were born in India. They became a catalyst to immerse myself in cultures where it is taken for granted that the material world is a stage for our lives in a cycle of repeated lives, deaths and rebirths known as samsara in Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of India. Could those ideas be of any relevance to someone like me who was an agnostic non-believer? Could they offer meaningful understanding of birth and death to people outside of the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism? At the very least the ideas of samsara seemed worth investigating. That inevitably led to broader questions beyond just the spiritual traditions of India. Could spirituality be embraced without taking on religion and was there any evidence for the existence of spiritual dimensions and the continuation of consciousness after death from sources outside religion such as science, parapsychology, mysticism or psychedelic experiences? Did spirituality of any kind have value in a twenty first century world and what role might it play?
Rob’s memorial gathering celebrated the life of a much loved man. He was atheist, or at least strongly agnostic, so it was also secular. A kind Christian chaplain co-ordinated the gathering but she didn’t say much. Love is the great blessing life offers in the midst of the sorrows of impermanence and death, and the great healer of the awful grief those bring, so we tried to focus on that. Religions frequently describe God as love, but it is not easy to reconcile a God of love with the suffering life deals out to good people, as it did to Rob. Buddhism dispenses with God altogether, being non-theistic, but death and suffering remain equally puzzling and painful. Without any framework of faith it was hard to know how to farewell him but to make no reference of any kind to a spiritual dimension felt like something vital was missing, so reading from the Upanishads, ancient Indian texts sacred to Hinduism composed between approximately 800 to 500 BCE, was a response to that.
We had read them together and been greatly moved despite our lack of religious belief. They are surprisingly clear of doctrinal or ritual clutter and state that clinging to the outward forms of religion does not provide a solution to being awash on the “sea of samsara.” In the words of the Mundaka Upanishad:
“… rituals are unsafe rafts for crossing
The sea of samsara of birth and death.
Doomed to shipwreck are those who try to cross
The sea of samsara on these poor rafts.”
My grown up children looked at me earnestly while I read from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad their love a beacon of comfort for deep grief not just for his passing but for the way death came to him.
“The world is the wheel of God, turning round
And round with all living creatures upon its rim
The world is the river of God
Flowing from him and flowing back to him.
On this ever-revolving wheel of being
The individual self goes round and round
Through life after life, believing itself
To be a separate creature, until
It sees its identity with the Lord of Love.
And attains immortality in the indivisible whole.”
Much of the travels that were to come over the following year retraced paths taken at an earlier time with Rob, or from a previous part of his life. As his daughter discussed his cremation she quietly asked if some of his ashes could be scattered in Nepal where I would be going first. It was a fitting idea. Rob loved the country taking many beautiful photographs there when young, beautiful and free, no shadows of what was to come in a new century in Australia, a long way from his English youth. As 11th century Tibetan Buddhist mystic, Milarepa, wrote “Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning? Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death, until it arrives like thunder?” The office worker at the funeral home passed over all that was left of Rob’s physical form, fine grey ash neatly labelled in plastic boxes carefully placed in an attractively decorated paper bag. I mumbled “dust to dust ashes to ashes” while carrying the bag towards the door. She replied ‘yes, that’s right’ and how much it scared her as she followed me through the foyer and out in to the weak late winter sunshine.
We stood next to the building in which the trade of death takes place hidden deep inside, completely obscured by attractive office spaces and public gathering places designed to make death neat, organized, and as remote and unthreatening as possible. The inside walls were adorned with paintings of idyllic rural scenes and gentle sounds of rainforest birds and tinkling waterfalls looped endlessly from small speakers on the ceiling. Soft lighting, computers humming and artificial flowers created an air of efficient politeness, rendering what happens there strangely surreal. The kind office worker enquired why a small separate container of ashes was required. When I explained they were going to Nepal she produced an official letter overcoming prohibitions on carrying human remains, a shocking reminder of the reality that the neat little box and its contents somehow drew a veil over. We talked for a while and she asked if sky burials, where scavenger birds consume the flesh and ground up bones of a corpse, are practiced in Nepal. I confirmed yes, that continues in Himalayan areas bordering Tibet. Despite her job working in a funeral home she was as puzzled by mortality as anyone else.
Modern secular cultures such as Australia have little to say about death which is hidden and sanitized, impermanence and aging denied, the cult of youth, consumption, and a materialist explanations for the world, all reigning supreme. Australia is ordered and prosperous, in many respects ‘the lucky country’ as sometimes described. Dogs are confined in their back yards away from streets patrolled by council funded officers, no sacred cows wander the streets, almost no garbage is strewn in the gutters, the sight of a begging child, or a mange ridden, starving, street dog covered in weeping sores, unthinkable. Perhaps it is partly the relative order and prosperity of secular Western societies that obscures frames of reference outside of material reality thus rendering those societies increasingly silent in the face of death. European colonialism, with its values of conquest, materialism, private property, competition, individualism and Christianity, shattered apart the indigenous cultures it arrived in and gave birth to societies like mine, rich in material blessings but sterile in dimensions of the spirit. Australia rose like a phoenix from the squalor and misery of industrial Britain, where those convicted of crimes mostly driven by poverty, or political offenses, were shipped off to an isolated continent “discovered” by Europeans. British colonization was a tale of dispossession and tragedy for Australia’s indigenous people who for more than 50,000 years were its sole possessors. Aboriginal spirituality is a profound and ancient tradition premised on non-duality, not separating the natural world from the human world, the sacred from the secular, the body from the spirit, and non-aboriginal Australians such as me have much to learn from it.
My strong desire to be somewhere else following Rob’s death was not because somewhere else was better but because it was different. Asia, with its cocktail of the confronting, inspiring and fascinating, along with a rich spirituality, displays the raw realities of life and death not hidden, not sanitized, not denied as they are where I come from. It increasingly defies easy conclusions and is changing fast: the subways or huge office towers of Bangkok, the super clean, ordered sterility of Singapore, or high tech communities of Bangalore, are different worlds from the other Asia, and not where I sought to be. Nepal, then Bali, Cambodia and India, each in turn revealed that other Asia where the numinous, suffering and death are present and obvious rather than veiled as they tend to be in the comfortable blandness of the modern West. They are all predominantly Hindu or Buddhist, or in the case of Nepal both, so would reveal the spiritual traditions born in India as they are lived and practiced. Perhaps they might offer clues to the questions that many of us in the West have forgotten how to ask. What is this life, and the death that will inevitably follow for all of us, about? Samsara is one response to those questions and is taken for granted by just about everyone in the cultures we visited, offering a startling contrast and a very different perspective to that of my own world.
Travelling alone was a daunting prospect so I was extremely fortunate that a friend Marck from Brazil was keen to accompany me. He was already in Asia and agreed we would meet in Kathmandu later in the year. Apart from enjoying an adventure he was extremely knowledgeable about spiritual matters and a seeker, making him a perfect person to travel with. Despite the endless variety of cultures and circumstances all people are united in experiencing impermanence, suffering and death. My explorations of samsara, religion and spirituality, and the experiences offered by the rich cultures we travelled to, became a journey in to a rabbit hole of astounding possibilities, bringing many more questions than answers, deepening awareness what incredible mysteries our world, our life, and our consciousness of those, are.
 Michael Pollan How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, Penguin Books, 2019
 Milarepa quoted in WY Evans-Wentz Tibet’s Great Yogi: Milarepa, Oxford University Press, 1951