by Anna Yusim
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
When patients ask me, “What’s my prognosis?” I always tell them, “We all have the same prognosis: fatal.” Despite our best efforts to avoid death, deny death, or defy death, one day our lives will inevitably come to an end, which begs the question: What’s next?
Newton believed there was no afterlife. Socrates, in contrast, believed in the immortality of the soul and expected to befriend a community of life-minded truth seekers after his time on Earth had ended. According to Sigmund Freud, clinging to hope of an afterlife is a form of infantile neurosis: human beings need to create fantasies of an afterlife because we are too afraid to face the possibility that this life is all we’ve got. Most Americans do not agree with Sigmund Freud, however. According to the 2014 Religious Landscape Study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans believe in Heaven, 21% do not, and another 7% don’t know.[i]
By the law of conservations of energy, energy cannot be created or destroyed; it simply changes form. The amount of energy in the universe is constant—energy can be changed, moved, controlled, stored, or dissipated. However, it cannot be created from nothing or reduced to nothing. In essence, atoms are immortal. They never die. Although the forms and structures that atoms create eventually come apart and “die,” the individual atoms themselves reconfigure, change form and live on. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, discusses how modern-day concepts of death and dying defy the law of conservation of energy:
When the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier said, “Nothing is created and nothing is lost,” he was saying exactly the same thing. The concept of death is that being turns into non-being. That is impossible. Can somebody become nobody? No. If we burn the piece of paper, we cannot reduce it to nothing. The paper will turn into heat, which will go into the cosmos, and turn into smoke, which will join the clouds in the sky. Tomorrow a drop of rain will fall on your forehead, and you will make contact with the piece of paper. The ashes produced by the burning will rejoin the earth, and one day they will manifest as daisies.[ii]
Fritz-Albert Popp, a German biophysics researcher, suggests that death is a decoupling of our energy from matter (aka our cells and our bodies), so we can return to the field that connects us all.[iii]
Death and Time
Death is predicated on the concept of linear time. We are alive as physical, living and breathing bodies for a certain number of years, after which our bodies cease to function and we, as we know ourselves, cease to be. Everything in our life is measured in designated intervals of linear time, beginning with the nine months we are in utero from conception to birth. We scrupulously keep track of time, bemoan its passing, measure our accomplishments against it, and await the next milestone. We may ask ourselves, particularly in our waning years, if time is infinite, why do we have so little of it?
But what if time is not truly linear? What if it is actually possible to go forward or back in time? What then do we make of the concept of time-dependent death?
Science writer and MIT professor Alan Lightman explores this question in his 1993 bestseller, "Einstein’s Dreams." In a series of vignettes weaved into a novel, Lightman illustrates thirty conceptions of nonlinear time, such as the following:
Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly. For the most part, people do not know that they will make the same bargain again and again. […] In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely.[iv]
Lending some credence to the idea that time does not function as we might think it does, Cornell social psychologist Dr. Daryl Bem conducted many experiments on this subject. When he gave two randomly selected groups of students a simple test, he asked one group not to study for the test at all and the other group to study only after taking the test. Surprisingly enough, the students who studied afterward did better than the group that had not studied at all! Studying for a test will surely increase your test score, but how can this be possible if you study after the test?
Scientists all over the world were encouraged to replicate his seemingly anomalous results. Bem’s experiment has been carried out ninety times in thirty-three different laboratories in fourteen different countries. A meta-analysis of the data suggests that, indeed, his findings are for real.[v] Studying after a test improves your test score. Had I known this trick, I could have saved myself a lot of time in college and medical school!
So what is going on here?
Bem hypothesizes that these results represent the effects of time slippage, the ability to tap into your so-called future self to make use of what that future self might know.[vi] This is a general form of precognition, when we know something before it actually happens. Bem’s results turn the modern-day concept of cause and effect on its head and provides support for the phenomenon of retrocausation, where the effect (doing well on a test) occurs before the cause (studying for the test). Maybe time can move backward after all?
Appalled and fascinated by these results, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sponsored several conferences for physicists and researchers to figure out what is really going on here.[vii] In the conference proceedings, published by the American Institute of Physics, it was written: “It seems untenable to assert that time-reverse causation (retrocausation) cannot occur, even though it temporarily runs counter to the macroscopic arrow of time.”[viii] Has the AAAS officially declared that time can move backward? Why didn’t anybody tell me earlier? There are a few things in my past I was hoping to alter just a bit….
Time slippage, retrocausation, precognition, and time moving backward are inherently incompatible with our everyday Newtonian conception of physical reality. Numerous researchers have suggested compelling metaphors with quantum theory to explain what is going on[ix] as well as other theories that are more testable than simple metaphor.[x]
If nonlinear conceptions of time exist, what does this say about our ideas of death? Whatever the answer, death of the body is our destiny. We all want to survive, so we instinctively resist death. The most powerful way to overcome death anxiety is to live a life of fulfillment: living authentically, living with purpose, and perhaps most importantly, living in the present. After all, the past is gone and the future is not yet here. The present moment is all we have. It is all we have ever had. Yet often our minds get in the way of our embracing the present. We relive the past and plan for the future. These behaviors are healthy and normal. They are essential to living a fulfilled life. Yet the capacity to quiet the mind, embrace the silence and be present with our experience is one of the most important tenets of cultivating true fulfillment.
[i] 2014 Religious Landscape Study conducted by Pew Research Center, Belief in Heaven:
[ii] Thich Nhat Hanh. You are here. Sept. 6, 2011. Website: https://leptospira.wordpress.com/
[iii] F. A. Popp, “Biophotonics: A Powerful Tool for Investigating and Understanding Life,” in H. F. Durr, F. A. Popp, and W. Schommers, eds., What Is Life? (Singapore: World Scientific, 2016).
[iv] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York: Random House, 1993).
[v] D. Bem, P. Tressoldi, T. Rabeyron, and M. Duggan, “Feeling the Future: A Meta-Analysis of 90 Experiments on the Anomalous Anticipation of Random Future Events, Version 2” F1000Res. 2015 Oct 30 [revised 2016 Jan 29] 4:1188, doi: 10.12688/f1000research.7177.2, eCollection 2015.
[vi] Daryl J. Bem, “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100 (2011) 407–425.
[vii] D. P. Sheehan, ed., “Quantum Retrocausation—Theory and Experiment, AIP Conference Proceedings (San Diego, California; Melville, New York: American Institute of Physics, 2011) 863.
[viii] D. P. Sheehan, ed., “Frontiers of Time: Retrocausation—Experiment and Theory.” AIP Conference Proceedings (San Diego, California; Melville, New York: American Institute of Physics, 2006) 1408, p.vii.
[ix] D. I. Radin, Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality (New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2006).
[x] E. C. May and S. B. Marwaha, eds., Extrasensory Perception: Support, Skepticism, and Science. Vol. 2: Theories of Psi (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015).
Excerpted from the book "FULFILLED: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life" by Anna Yusim, MD. Copyright © 2017 by Anna Yusim, MD. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.