What Happens When We Die


The Chinese symbol for Tao

I know it's not a topic that generally produces a positive reaction in most people, but it's the elephant in the room as you grow older. Generally, people go through four phases of dealing with death.

  1. When you're a kid, you watch your great-grandparents die, and you might not have had much of a relationship with

  2. When you're a young adult, you watch your grandparents die, and you're sad

  3. When you're an older adult, you watch your parents die and are extremely sad

  4. You watch your friends and siblings die, and you die

Now there are, of course, variations on this theme. Some may die in a tragic accident or suicide. Some might be murdered or just come into some bad luck. But if you are fortunate to live long enough, you'll notice those four phases in that order, and each takes around twenty years.

Currently, I'm in phase two. I recently turned 40 this past October, and over the last three years, I've seen the following deaths in my family:

  1. Two grandfather inlaws

  2. One grandmother inlaw

  3. One grandfather

  4. One grandmother

  5. One cousin

My mom is in her late 60s now, and my father (wherever he is) is nearly 70. In the next 20 years, I will likely lose my parents and possibly my parents-in-law. Next week, I will bury my cousin, who is my age. Two weeks ago, I buried my mother's mother. So, today, I want to take some time to talk about death from a Taoist point of view.

A word of caution before I continue.

Like most religions, Taoism spans many different sects and interpretations. I do not claim to be a master of any of these sects, but I want to pass on my beliefs and why.

I need to start by trying to explain the unexplainable: What is Tao? Chapter one of the Tao Te Ching states, "The name that can be named is not the eternal name." This means the word Tao isn't the real name because it has no name. So even trying to define it by giving it a name is folly. But because words are the form of written communication, we call it Tao which is the Chinese word for the way, the path, or wayfinding. Tao is existence. If life is like being in a boat flowing down a river, Tao is the river and the channel that contains the river. For a better example, I will tell you a story. In my story, I will call the Tao an ocean. So what does that make your life? You're a wave.

Before you, there was an ocean full of waves. No wave is exactly the same. The ripples are different, the amount of water is different, and the timing of each wave's creation and end are slightly different. One day, for whatever reason, you were created. A tiny wave rushed towards the shore. You start out small and grow bigger as you near land. You might bump into other waves and disappear. You might get caught in a storm and be snuffed out. But you are a special wave because you traveled thousands of miles and reached the shore. As you approach, you are scared. What will happen to you afterward? You crash into the shore. But are you gone? No. You simply returned to the ocean from which you came.

No one person created your wave. Your wave is a consequence of a million different actions that we can't possibly understand. It's easy to see the most recent causes for your wave, but the ocean has been there for millions of years, and if the waves, storms, riptides, and shores don't happen exactly how they did, you don't exist. And if you do, you're not the same wave.

I've spent a lot of paragraphs so far describing what occurred before you for a specific reason. You will return to the universe one day, and we call that return "death." Just as the Tao can not be named properly, neither can you at that point. Just like the wave, you have become the ocean. You have returned to the never-ending universe that you were born from. And the million of actions you have taken along your journey will ripple across time to cause a million other waves to be formed exactly as they will be.

In our lives, the universe was here billions of years before the part of the universe that became you existed. It's easy to see the most recent causes of your existence (your parents) but go back in time one-thousand years and try to imagine how many people, places, events, and wars had to happen exactly as they did to make sure you're right here reading this article.

Does a wave cease to exist when it crashes? Isn't the water that made up the wave still there? Surely I can enjoy the wave as it exists now. I can feel its warmth. My legs feel wet as I stand where the wave once crashed. I can see the sand that was moved away by the crash. This is how your loved ones experience you after your death. We can feel our loved ones as they have returned to the Tao. Their atoms and energies are all around you. Even if you don't know where they are exactly, you can know they are there.

My body will cease to exist when I die, but not all of it. The carbon atoms will eventually be used to create new living creations. Other atoms may be pushed into the air and become part of the wind. My energies may be absorbed into the ground to become grass or a tree, or a weed!

I know some of you may want answers like Christianity will give you. You want to believe or have been told that your mind will go to heaven and live forever talking, praising, and speaking to your loved ones as you once did on Earth. But for Taoists, heaven is now. The yin-yang teaches us that everything happens in cycles. Yin and Yang spin around and around each other forever. I was yin, now I am yang, and I will be yin again. I didn't have a mind or speak before I was born; therefore, I will not have a mind or speak when I return.

If you've read this far, and you are only going to remember one thing, remember this: 

You are a walking, thinking, breathing, and talking miracle of the universe! 

The carbon atoms that form you can only be created by an exploding star which means you are the universe talking back to itself. There's nothing untrue or imaginary in that statement.

Love everyone you can. This life is the only time you'll exist just as you are now, and every action you take will affect an endless cycle that will never stop. Yin turns to yang, which turns to yin. On and on forever. When you look at the stars, that's your past and your future. Look with wonder and amazement that you came from the universe exactly as you are today, and one day you'll become a star again.

You're not alone. You have never been alone. You will never be alone. Thank you for reading.

Actor and comedian Jim Carrey wrote a great children's book about this called How Roland Rolls. It's the story of a wave headed toward a shore. Also, you can watch George Thompson, a Taoism teacher of mine, speak on this topic when his grandfather died: https://youtu.be/IE2LYz3N1sE. I encourage you to read and watch both. 

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