I am receptive to the view that Vajrayana Buddhists have of what happens after death…that our consciousness enters a bardo between death and rebirth where we re-experience mental simulations of the unresolved emotional states of our life. I am also careful to say that I do not know any of this for certain and I have yet to meet anyone who does. I therefore do not intend to roll out all the concepts and imagery of the Tibetan traditions.
But I can engage in a thought experiment. What would be my experience if I continued to be aware without a physical body? Would it be something like the dream state?
Let’s say that I am conscious but I have no means to engage in current sensations…only the memory of them…and I am no longer ‘located’ in physical space. Having no body, I am not actually anywhere in a real sense.
In ordinary life, I experience the reverberation of the physical and the mental. A sense experience gives rise to related or associated mental content which in turn engages further sensations. This is what my ordinary ‘emotional’ life consists of…identification with one thing or another, reactive ping pong between mind and body, punctuated by horizontal sleep.
Now, let’s remove the physical side of the equation. Remove the ping. Now I am ‘living’ within the mental simulations of my own undigested experiences, memories, the same repetitive loops of thought, fear, anxiety, jealousy, anger, greed that characterized my reactive, identified life in the body…but without the grounding of tangible sensory input or the possible shock-interruption of something new from outside.
Feeling claustrophobic yet?
My ‘experience’ would be just projections of my mental states with nothing to contradict them. Where is there a refuge from this tedious, repetitive self-expression? Voluntary presence and attention? Have I learned to sustain them while in the body, when it is so much easier? Or do I find that voluntary presence and attention are impossibly fleeting, quickly overwhelmed by the internal roar of associative thought projections powered by habitual identifications? Can I interrupt the flow of otherwise unimpeded thought loops?
This is why we have the black room…a room with absolutely no visual references, no sense of location. This may be somewhat like life after death if it exists. Can I sit in that room and maintain presence and attention? Do I remember the tricks we have discussed for doing so? Or do I immediately fall into associative thinking or even sleep? Voluntary attention and presence open the possibility of choice, of movement, of contact outside yourself. Perhaps, when you are dead, you will wish you had learned to sustain them amidst the flow of personal experience.
Why sit in the black room? Perhaps to prepare for your death.