after death: “… as consciousness or unicity, there is nowhere we are not, just as the whole ocean is there in every wave …” ~ Joan Tollifson

sunset unicity ocean every wave tollifson

Exploring death inevitably brings up the question: what happens after death? … traditions in India and that part of the world consider reincarnation as a given – e.g., Tibetan Buddhism followers accept and actually live by this understanding their entire lives …

The topic of Near Death Experiences (NDEs), reincarnation, and memories of past lives have always intrigued humanity – to varying degrees from culture to culture …

Joan Tollifson digs into these topics in her recently published book Death: The End of Self-Improvement … offering a refreshing perspective where she posits “… And none of this actually seems very important to me. For me, THIS life, right now, is what matters, not hypothetical past lives or imagined future lives. Heaven and hell are right here. And it’s the presence itself that really matters …”

But … before we consider Joan’s insights …

As we’ve done since the COVID crisis began … we want to honor and highlight the “heroes” that continue to ensure our health and safety in the midst of the pandemic: Go Fund Me continues to organize various campaigns targeted towards the COVID-19 relief efforts. All of these campaigns are worthy of our attention … but for now we want to highlight TWO critical ones that we are supporting personally and also as Stillness Speaks (through donations):

We are all facing financial challenges but IF your situation allows you to donate and help then …

… please visit  Frontline Responders Fund’s Go Fund Me page … and help deliver crucial supplies to these frontline responders …

… and/or visit  America’s Food Fund Go Fund Me page and help feed the neighbors in need.

And, we again, express our deepest gratitude to a) the COVID-19 Frontline Responders (all the healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, hospital/medical-services staff – firefighters, law enforcement, volunteers, and any/all the people involved in keeping the “system-at-large” functioning for ALL of us) … and b) Go Fund Me for organizing America’s Food Fund to feed the needy.

THANK YOU – our lives would not be possible without your dedication.

sunset unicity ocean every wave tollifsonNow … back to Joan’s insights …

Explored through her book Death: The End of Self-Improvement … where she talks about the “only actuality there is” … the “aware presence in which the whole universe is contained” … that which has “no beginning and no end” … the “ever changing process inseparable from everything else in the universe” … that which is “gone forever and {always/still} right here”

Part 1 of this multi-part series was the entire opening chapter Dissolving … and

… in Part 2 (excerpts from chapter one titled Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan explored death by talking about … That which “cannot depart from itself ” … That which “has never been absent” … the “felt spacious openness at the very core of our being” … the “recognition that is very ordinary and always already here” … and more.

… in Part 3 (the ongoing excerpt from Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan delved deeper into awakening .. or what she terms unbroken wholeness : “… the ever-present actuality. What comes and goes is the mirage of apparent separation, the feeling of being a person in a story, the ever-changing weather of experiences positive and negative—all of that comes and goes. Here-Now (boundless awareness, the Ultimate Subject) is omnipresent. And nothing actually exists outside of this, or other than this. To awaken is to recognize the sacred everywhere, to live in devotion to this luminous presence, to wake up again and again from the dream of what we think is happening …”

In Part 4 (the concluding excerpt from Stepping Through the Mirror) Joan considers the “natural next” question of what happens after death? … and in answering that she addresses the subject of near-death experiences, reincarnation, and memories of past lives …

All italicized text (except for the block-quoted parts) is from Death: The End of Self-Improvement by Joan Tollifson and is published here with her (and the publisher New Sarum Press’) generous permission.

Here are all of Joan’s posts on Stillness Speaks … and her website – full of deeply insightful and valuable content for your journey.

Part 3 closed with: “… {Life} doesn’t “mean” anything other than the indefinable suchness of each moment, exactly as it is. Death is that which makes life so surprising and impossible to grasp. Death is the freedom that offers a new beginning in every moment. Death is the great liberator thinly disguised as our worst fear.” … so, here’s what follows next …

What About Near-Death Experiences, Reincarnation, Memories of Past Lives?

I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering,
whether I have lived my life or dreamed it.
Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of
the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.
~ Eugene Ionesco

What we call NDEs and memories of past lives are real experiences, and they’re as real as any dream, but that doesn’t prove what people often assume it does. In one sense, as consciousness or unicity, there is nowhere we are not, just as the whole ocean is there in every wave. But “the wave” is never a solid, fixed thing that reincarnates whole-cloth, so to speak, as a new wave. That’s the false assumption. Thought, and to some extent conditioned perception, separates, divides, freezes and reifies what is actually an indivisible whole.

space hidden treasure abdal

I personally suspect that NDEs occur as waking consciousness is either slipping away or returning, as a kind of dream, not during a state of actual brain death. But as far as I can tell, there is no way to scientifically know for sure. Past-life memories can be explained in many ways. None of these things prove that “my” individual conscious experiencing survives death or that there is some kind of cohesive soul-like entity that travels through different lifetimes. My movie of waking life, and even the bare, impersonal knowingness of being present and aware, vanishes every night in deep sleep. What remains is devoid of all content, all experience, all sense of presence. Nothing perceivable or conceivable remains. That doesn’t mean there is nothing, but there is nothing experienceable.

We could say that consciousness or presence is reincarnating from moment to moment as the apparent character it is playing in the movie of waking life, and that the world as it appears in our movie is reborn from moment to moment as the coherent and continuous whole it seems to be. Certain patterns and stories are reborn moment to moment, giving rise to an apparently consistent personality. And it seems obvious that our “personal” or “individual” consciousness is not walled off from other “personal” or “individual” streams of consciousness, or from the larger “universal” whole. Remember, these are all words, dividing up the indivisible. Just as no wave in the ocean is walled off from the other waves or from the whole ocean, and just as water moves from one wave to another as the waving movement rolls along, it seems apparent that “my mind” and “your mind” are not really separate. Thus, we have those seemingly inexplicable but very common events where you think of an old friend, and a second later the phone rings, and it’s them. Or the way someone suddenly “knows,” as one of my aunts correctly did, that her husband’s plane had just crashed. Or the way I knew on several occasions before I got the word that a person close to me who was dying had just died. Or like out-of-body experiences—I had one of those in a car crash once— where consciousness seems to have left the body and is watching it from a place beyond.

Our True Body is the whole universe. This is there in the Buddhist teaching of emptiness and interdependence, in modern science, in the Advaita notion of One Self, and in our own direct experience if we look closely. We are the holographic jewels in Indra’s Net, each only a reflection of all the others. Reality seems to have infinite layers, dimensions or perspectives from which it can be seen, and who knows how it all works? No formulation can capture reality. Thought only imagines that it is describing reality. When we let go of the need to describe and understand, we can melt into simply being what we are—presence itself, Here-Now, utterly inexplicable and yet obvious and unavoidable.

human spirit true body whole universe tollifson

While the notion of an individual soul as a discrete and persisting entity that travels through time makes no sense to me, I can relate to “soul” as a word pointing to a certain aspect of the mysterious event we call “a person” or “life.” Zen teacher John Tarrant sees soul as “the part of us which touches and is touched by the world,” the vital counterpart of spirit, the part that transcends the world and goes toward the light. Some people see “soul” as a kind of amorphous cloud of information not bound by space or time. Perhaps the word soul might even describe the felt-presence of a loved one who has died, not as an actual entity or a ghost, but as some energetic pattern that is alive in us and in the whole universe—the infinite ripples of a life, rippling on. Words like heart and soul, when I use them, do not refer to some objective or material thing, but to a quality that is unlocatable, boundless and ungraspable.

When the snow flake hits the ground, when the flame is extinguished, when the wave subsides, when the bubble pops, they are finished. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what makes life so alive, so fresh. And yet, the indivisible immediacy of just this is never born and never departs from itself. It just keeps changing its appearance. What we are concerned about—the survival of “me”—is so small. What we truly are is so vast.

Of course, it’s possible that I will be very surprised at the moment of death. Maybe I will find myself hurling down a long dark tunnel, passing through the bardos one-by-one, sailing into the white light, slipping into a new body, arriving in some heavenly realm where my parents and all my dead friends and beloved pets will be awaiting my arrival, or plunging down into some fiery hell where it turns out all lesbians go after all. But if any of that does happen, it will only be another passing dream in the Great Dreaming, empty of substance. And it won’t be happening to Joan Tollifson—that corpse will be burned up and dropped into the Pacific Ocean.

after death dark tunnel tollifson

And none of this actually seems very important to me. For me, THIS life, right now, is what matters, not hypothetical past lives or imagined future lives. Heaven and hell are right here. And it’s the presence itself that really matters, not the ever-shifting content, whether that content is a shopping mall in Chicago, a dream of flying through the air, an experience of kundalini rushing up the spine, or a magni cent near-death experience. All experiences are gone in an instant, and they are all dreamlike.

When we look closely at the past in this lifetime, we find nothing substantial—a bunch of notoriously unreliable and partial images and narratives that are endlessly revised and reconstructed, occurring Now. How much less real or reliable the “memory” of previous lifetimes? How real or substantial is any of it? Does any of it actually refer to something objectively and inherently existing?

Although I don’t believe in reincarnation or the soul, I do feel the presence of my mother and father in my heart, and I even joke frequently with my mother—in my mind. My parents show up in my dreams sometimes, as do others I’ve known who have died. I don’t interpret this in the literal way that some people do, but I do feel we have within us the imprint of all the people who have touched our lives. No one is ever really gone, in one sense. And in another sense, no one was ever here in the first place as any-thing graspable or separate from the whole.

~ Joan Tollifson


Stay tuned for more from her fascinating and deeply insightful book … next we’ll cover Beyond Self-Improvement: Embracing What Is …

Again, here’s Part 1: Death: Dissolving … and Part 2: Totally Obvious Yet Utterly Mysterious … and Part 3: Unbroken Wholeness

All italicized text above (except for the Go Fund Me related text) is from Death: The End of Self-Improvement by Joan Tollifson and is published here with her (and the publisher New Sarum Press’) generous permission.

Images (edited & Logo added): 1 & Featured) Sunset over an ocean beach shore by WestCoastScapes, 2) Cover page from Joan’s book, 3) Human eye and space starry fantasy background by SergeyNivens, 4) Human Spirit by CoreyFord, 5) Light at end of tunnel by design_ua. All are purchased from depositphotos, for use only on our website/social channels (these images are not permitted to be shared separate from this post).


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