Death Is What We're Going for
And on some level, we've always known.
An editor recently told me not to talk about souls.
“It feels New-Agey,” he said. Clearly, he was unfamiliar with my work.
Those in power never want you to talk about souls, because that requires talking about death, and talking about death shatters the great Western illusion. The recognition of our own mortality is one of few true universals among humans, yet we go to great lengths—especially in America—to deny its existence, keep it from sight, and delay its unstoppable march.
We do this because our culture is built upon separation. When you associate who you really are with your body, country, clan, career, interests, politics, beliefs, or even your mind, the idea of any of these slipping away is unimaginable. Multibillion-dollar industries have been built to exploit these fears, as we kick and scream our way to the inevitable end, painting and stretching and suctioning to preserve ourselves like corpses in perfect repose. We file our elders in institutions and pump palliatives through the veins of the terminally ill, extending animus while extinguishing life, all while the funerary-industrial complex preys upon both the passing and bereaved.
In ancient societies, death was part of life, and in many parts of the world, it still is. Humans have always held funerary rituals, but we’re now learning that the earliest spiritual traditions went even further. For millennia, and possibly as far back as the Stone Age, groups of people gathered in the tombs and at the graves of their kin to revel in ritual drinking and feasting, sharing potent (and sometimes psychedelic) beverages that thinned the veil between worlds. This was an “ecstatic communion with the ancestors,” as Brian Muraresku, classical scholar and author of the paradigm-shattering book The Immortality Key, told me in an interview—where the living came to share a drink with the dead.
He was paraphrasing the German archaeological team that excavated Gobekli Tepe: a monolithic site in modern-day Turkey that’s a lot like Stonehenge, only 6,000 years older. This mysterious place, built at a time when humans still roamed nomadically, is part of a growing body of evidence for something many of us have long suspected: that we are Homo spiritualis. Popular belief holds that ceremonial ritual was an outgrowth of civilization, the product of free time and a reliable food supply—but technological innovations in fields such as archaeochemistry along with ongoing archaeological, anthropological, and ethnobotanical discoveries suggest that it was the other way around.
After all, something was compelling early humans to consume substances and enact rituals that allowed them to transcend. Funerary rituals may even predate Homo sapiens; in 2013, a team led by renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger discovered a new species of pre-human ancestor, Homo naledi, that appears to have ceremonially buried their dead. They had much smaller brains than we do, though size isn’t directly correlated to cognitive function. We don’t know if they had a Default Mode Network, the part of the brain neuroscientists believe generates the awareness of self and others. Did Paleolithic people have an inner monologue? Were they running a mental to-do list of the foods they had to forage, or worrying about what other clan members thought of them? It’s entirely possible. For every spiritual tradition knows that where awareness of mortality lives, the ego makes its home.
And the more complex human societies became, the more they evoked separation. As ancient social groups grew larger, more distinctions arose between subjects and objects; the stronger, more powerful individuals asserted leadership and then control. Hierarchies emerged to maintain the balance of power; physical structures were constructed that mirrored psychological and socio-cultural walls. And it calcified under capitalism, which relies not only upon separation but also specialization—wherein knowledge, production, and traditions both spiritual and material are constrained to an “expert” class, creating a culture of learned helplessness fueled by the farcical notion that oneness can be self-contained.
Such a society relies upon the denial of death, because death is the key to life. That’s why so many traditions involve rituals of resurrection, whether it’s meditating in a cave, wandering in the wilderness, marking the flesh, or drinking divine blood. It’s all just a big metaphor. In order to truly live, first we must die to the hierarchies and constructs, both without and within. We must murder our precious notions that any person, society, or even species should be held as sacrosanct. Yes, you are special, but no more or less than every other living thing—and that’s the beauty. It means all that you strive for, you already have, and all you want to be, you already are, and on some level, we’ve always known this, ever since we busted into a tomb to share a toast.
For these bones are not where the soul resides. There is only one self, and it’s all of us, unbound by this organic world. It goes on, all of it, infinitely recycling and returning, simply taking different forms.
My healer once told me cheerfully as I was facing a difficult choice, “It’s okay! Death is what we’re going for,” and I can’t think of a better mantra. Let us toast not to life, but to the death, where our greatest awareness awaits.