The Contemplation of Annihilation

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The present moment is not mundane. It is, in essence, extraordinary. -DC

For those of us who have been brought up in a fervent Christian belief structure, the transition from belief to non-belief poses an especially potent perceptual and emotional timebomb. This bomb goes off at that moment when we finally grasp and own for ourselves the idea that eternal life, or any life after our deaths does not exist.

Although primitive religious motivations center around propitiating gods to cause or prevent things in this life (crops, health, good fortune, etc.), it is my opinion that the hope for some version of life beyond death is the undergirding concept of most modern or orthodox religious belief. Certainly, Christianity promotes this in a pure form, and it is the doctrinally admitted foundation for all that the religion is. For example, Paul states in I Corinthians 15:32, “What advantage does it give me if the dead do not rise? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Humans are so self-perceptive that we have the perhaps unique problem of contemplating our own non-existence, and we invariably find such an idea disconcerting and repulsive. How can we grasp, much less accept, the concept of our own complete annihilation, or that of a loved one? Those not coming from a strong life-after-death paradigm religion or those who were never religious in the first place, may not have such a difficult time with this. They may have found acceptance and peace with the idea all of their lives, but we who did believe these things must now confront a truth that comes as a very great shock.

In my own process of leaving Christianity, the realization that there was no God was the pivotal cognitive or rational moment, but the pivotal emotional moment was this realization: when I die, I will cease to exist. Everything I had attached to my religion - ethics, charity, life-style, ritual, - was founded on the concept of life beyond death. This life was promised and held forth as a reward or as a punishment, but annihilation was considered an impossibility.

It is the former believer in life after death who now has the urge and the motivation to examine this idea of annihilation in some depth. Those who never believed may find this a waste of time, for they never had to put it in the same kind of perspective. Many long-time rational thinkers simply don’t think about it at all.

I once wrote a poem about myself that ended with the descriptive line, “ half-stepped into eternity.” This was really how I saw myself. I had obtained a grand view of time, nurtured by science’s revelations of geologic eons, and I knew and surely believed that I would be around in some form that I would be able to call “me” for all that time again and forever more. What, then, did this tiny bit of my physical life on this planet really amount to in the face of such a magnificent expanse of time? Surely the travails and activities of this life were to be considered unimportant once I was in my eternal form and, presumably, endowed with enhanced perceptions. I already pictured myself there - with God in his eternal heavens.

It is astonishing how one’s beliefs can direct one’s life in fundamental and sometimes self-harmful ways. A Buddhist who believes that all the material things of this life are impeding his journey to enlightenment will go through his entire life without possessions other than a simple bowl with which to beg food. In some ways, the true Christian believer is not so different, if he or she be honest in their belief of an afterlife. Paul wrote that he was tempted to leave this physical life of troubles and pain in order to be with Christ all the sooner [II Cor. 5:1-8].

Human desire for an afterlife has led to the postulation of many ideas other than the Christian heaven. Some believe in reincarnation, others in some blending or melding of one’s soul into the overall “mind” of the universe, etc. For me, the only kind of afterlife that would mean anything would be one in which I am still present as myself. That means my memories and my particular mind with all its peculiarities and potential would have to be intact. Reincarnation, if true, does not fit this criteria - else all of us would remember all the others we once were, surely leading us into some terrible form of madness. The Eastern concept of Nirvana is unappealing for much the same reasons - the process required to achieve it would render me into another person, one I would not wish to be. No, the only eternal life I would find worth hoping for would be one where I would be myself and where I would have the opportunity to grow and learn and create. Anything short of that would be pointless and tantamount to the death I wished to avoid in the first place.

There is one life where this definition of “life worth living” is undeniably and scientifically true right now. It is the physical life we are living in this present moment. We are undeniably ourselves, and, no matter how good or bad our circumstances are, we all have the opportunity to grow, learn, and create, to some degree. This life is worth living, but it is rather apparently not eternal.

We will consider the impact and benefits of annihilation on our present lives in a moment, but first we must come to terms with that concept. If our belief in an afterlife is shaken loose, how do we begin to understand the alternative? How do we grasp and deal with the concept of complete annihilation - not just of our bodies but our personalities as well? If fairly considered, this is extremely difficult.

I could only approach it in one way. Where were we on the day before we were conceived? This simple children’s question is usually gently explained away by platitudes such as, “you were in God’s hands,” or, “you were just a smile in my heart.” We don’t have an answer because there is no answer. We simply did not exist. It may sound simplistic or patronizing to state that annihilation-death is simply birth in reverse - the act of becoming non-existent - but that is really an accurate way to put it.

We all recoil at the idea of not being in existence at some point in time. The nature of the force of Life is a deep mystery that no one–not scientists and certainly not the preachers and theologians–can adequately explain. Although evolution is a useful concept and explains a great deal, it does not attempt to explain life itself, nor can it explain the phenomena of consciousness. Why life is desirable to the living, and why it is constrained to only a short term of activity are two of the “Big Questions” we really have no answer for. Pascal once wrote:

“Why is my knowledge limited? Why my stature? Why my life to one hundred years rather than to a thousand? What reason has nature had for giving me such and for choosing this number rather than another in the infinity of those from which there is no more reason to choose one than another, trying nothing else?”
[Pascal, Blaise, Chevalier 208,89]

The nature of life, and therefore annihilation and non-existence, is unknown if not unknowable. We accept our life and our lives, good or bad, long or short, prosperous or poor, whether we wish to or not, for although we may control what we do, we are not in control of the life force itself, and though we may control or even cause the time and nature of dying, we surely shall not be in control of death itself.

This observation will help us to move on to the next phase. We must come to terms, if not acceptance, with the notion of our own total death and non-existence some day. I believe this process is vital to our health and happiness as human beings. Ignoring the facts of death will lead us into a complacency that can cause us to literally waste our lives.

When I finally came to the realization that eternal life was a myth and began to “get over” the distaste of considering true death, the next shock was even worse. I suddenly realized just how much time I had wasted in my life so far. The long road ahead had now become frighteningly short. Time–the time of my life–had become a newly precious commodity.

I once lost a canteen on a long desert hike. I suddenly went from plenty of water and no worries, having a great time, to instantly being in mortal danger. The small amount of water left in my other canteen had become as precious as gold to me - literally. I would have paid a hundred dollars or more for a single sip of water by the time I nearly went into heat stroke. It is just this kind of perspective jolt that happens to us when we “get” that this life is absolutely all we have left.

In a very important way, this is a good thing. In the desert, I learned a lesson that I still carry with me today - not only to carry my water more carefully, but more fundamentally, to value that water as the precious resource it is, even when I have it in abundance in my comfortable home. We must value our life’s time in this way as well.

Contemplating annihilation should cause us to revalue our own lives and those of our loved ones and our friends. If we understand that Mother will not meet us in heaven some day, perhaps we will approach our relationship with her in a new way here in this life, in this present time. If we understand that we will not get some nebulous “second chance” at living, perhaps we shall be more motivated to do something useful, creative, grand, loving, or even fun with our precious present lives. Our heritage feeds us here and now in this moment, and our legacy is determined here and now by what we do with our lives–in this moment.

The myth of eternal life or life after death leads us to a dangerous narcotic with a lovely name - Hope.

Hope is a natural and positive aspect of our humanity, but it can be abused like a narcotic drug. When we isolate hope and depend on it blindly for a better life after this one, it smothers our action and delays our decisionmaking. It then becomes a great demotivator that can steal our lives from us, not only in the context of eternal life, but in most other practical aspects of our lives as well. If we are only hoping, we are not doing. If we are only wishing for eternal life or even a good life here on this planet, we are wasting our time. Only considered action and reasonable decisionmaking will deliver us a chance to achieve the things we were wishing and hoping for.

In the final analysis, our acceptance of the reality of our own eventual annihilation is the motivator that makes us live every moment as if it were the most important moment of our lives - which it is.


Ready for some really bracing and useful straight talk about annihilation, death, and how to deal with it? The very best words and advice I've read come from the character of Don Juan Matus in Carlos Castaneda's famous book series starting with "The Teachings of Don Juan–A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." Don Juan is presented as a shaman teacher for Carlos and in the book "Journey to Ixtlan," he puts things into crisp perspective for us. (I'll quote a goodly bit here from several spots in the book to give the main points on this subject and how he presents it.)

__"Death is our eternal companion," Don Juan said with a most serious air. "It is always to our left, at an arm's length. It was watching you when you were watching the white falcon; it whispered in your ear and you felt its chill, as you felt it today. It has always been watching you. It always will until the day it taps you. . . . How can anyone feel so important when we know that death is stalking us?" he asked. . . . "The thing to do when you're impatient," he proceeded, "is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. . . . . "Death is the only wise adviser that we have." . . . .

__"Yes," (Don Juan) said softly after a long pause. "One of us here has to change, and fast. One of us here has to learn again that death is the hunter, and that it is always to one's left. One of us here has to ask death's advice and drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them." . . . .

__"One must assume responsibility for being in a weird world," he said. "We are in a weird world, you know."
__I nodded my head affirmatively.
__"We're not talking about the same thing," he said. "For you the world is weird because if you're not bored with it you're at odds with it. For me the world is weird because it is stupendous, awesome, mysterious, unfathomable; my interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time. I wanted to convince you that you must learn to make every act count, since you are going to be here for a very short while, in fact, too short for witnessing all the marvels of it." . . . .

__"If (death) is out there waiting for me why should I worry about it?"

__"I didn't say that you have to worry about it."

__"What am I supposed to do then?"

__"Use it. Focus your attention on the link between you and your death without remorse or sadness or worrying. Focus your attention on the fact that you don't have time and let your acts flow accordingly. Let each of your acts be your last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will your acts have their rightful power. Otherwise they will be, for as long as you live, the acts of a timid man."

__"Is it so terrible to be a timid man?"

__"No. It isn't if you are going to be immortal, but if you are going to die there is no time for timidity, simply because timidity makes you cling to something that only exists in your thoughts. It soothes you while everything is at a lull, but then the awesome, mysterious world will open its mouth for you, as it will open for every one of us, and then you will realize that your sure ways were not sure at all. Being timid prevents us from examining and exploiting our lot as men."

Carlos Castaneda, "Journey to Ixtlan–The Lessons of Don Juan," 1972, Simon and Schuster, New York, pp: 54-56,107,112.

Emphasis (bolding) mine. DC