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afterlife

Life is a game

Buddhist snakes and ladders

The other day I came across one of those ubiquitous articles about the Problem with Men. And it had this line: ‘life is not a race, it’s not a game, and it’s not a fight’. The problem, the author suggested, was men were attached to the wrong metaphor for life. He preferred ‘life is a dance’ – that frames life in a non-competitive and open way.

In the Quran, Allah likewise says: ‘We didn’t create the heavens and the earth, and all that is between, for mere play.’  The Islamic apologist Hamza Andreas Tzortzis writes: ‘believing life is just a game equals no ultimate purpose and value. Not only does it make life ludicrous but it also represents a very bleak outlook on our existence.’ 

ludicrous: early 17th century (in the sense ‘sportive, intended as a jest’): from Latin ludicrus (probably from ludicrum ‘stage play’)

So does treating life like a game necessarily empty it of meaning and moral value? It depends what game you’re playing.

In the history of games, there have been games designed to teach people the hidden meaning of life, death and the afterlife, like Senet, an ancient Egyptian game where the movement of the pieces followed the soul’s journey through the afterlife. In medieval India, a popular game was Gyan Chauper, in which players tried to move their pieces towards Moksha or ultimate liberation. Along the journey, the pieces could move up ladders – representing virtuous actions – or down snakes – representing vices. The soul could be one square away from liberation, only to tumble down a large snake – how often this seems to happen to spiritual gurus!

American Puritans developed a similar game in the 19th century called The Mansion of Happiness, in which players moved across squares representing the Christian virtues and vices until they reached heaven (shown on the left). However, in 1860 a new version of the game was developed, called The Chequered Game of Life, in which the object was not to get to heaven but rather to get rich, get a family, and retire in a nice home. That version – now called simply The Game of Life – is still played today. We edited heaven out of the game of life.

Today, we can create games that are so immersive, so huge, so brimming with intelligence, that we feel like we’re in another world, a world of humans’ own creation. That’s what I felt when I played Grand Theft Auto for several days in a row – there were so many missions and side-missions, the world of the game was so changeable, so beautiful, so full of interesting characters, that I became totally absorbed in that world.

And when you can create games which are that absorbing and immersive, you can start to see this world as a game, a virtual reality. And that’s precisely what’s happened in the last few years – various philosophers and futurists have suggested we’re actually living in a virtual simulation, created by future humans or some other intelligent species.

I’ve found myself thinking this more and more over the last couple of years, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not.

I remember walking back over Hampstead Heath one evening last year, as the sun set. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was turning a sort of bruised purple, the darkening heath seemed to flicker with pagan mischief. And I thought, if this is a computer simulation, what an utterly beautiful simulation. The sky, particularly, is a masterstroke, but you can also drill down on tiny details – right down to the microscopic or even atomic level – and it’s still beautifully and wondrously made. And then the characters you come across – so fascinating! So unpredictable! In fact, we’ve been playing this Earth game for 200,000 years and we still haven’t exhausted all its missions, secret levels and hidden Easter eggs. Bravo to the makers, seriously. 9.5 / 10 on IGN.

Another beautiful moment in the world of Grand Theft Auto

I felt it again when I went to India last year. I hadn’t been back-packing for two decades, and I was a little nervous. The first place I stayed was a beach in Goa called Patnem, where nothing much happened. I thought about walking to another beach one night, to watch some fireworks. My nerves told me not to go, that it might be dangerous (what a chicken), but I went anyway, and as I walked into Palolem, I imagined a digital voice saying ‘New level unlocked: Palolem’. And I walked in wonder among the bongo-playing hippies and children throwing firecrackers, enjoying this new level.

I guess I was inspired by Westworld, which I’d been watching the month before. It’s about a fake Wild West world filled with AI cowboys and Indians, who let the visiting tourists act out their wildest fantasies without legal consequences (it was Charles Dickens, in 1838, who first had the idea for a theme-park populated by robots so humans could act out their murderous appetites). In Westworld, tourists can either stay near the centre, where the action is pretty tame, or they can go on missions further out. ‘The further out you venture, the more intense the experience gets’.

Is it unhealthy, this tendency to view life as a virtual reality game?

It could be. You can start to see everything and everyone as fake. This is what happened to me after I emerged from a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in October. Somehow or other, in the days afterwards, I became convinced I was in a fake reality, one that was shoddily constructed and filled with anomalies. I couldn’t work out if it was a dream (why did it go on so long), or the afterlife (what a crappy afterlife) or if I’d been trapped in a fake reality by an evil shaman (I’d been watching a lot of Twin Peaks). How strange, to become really convinced that the reality you’re in isn’t real – is there a name for this delusion?

Something similar happened to Timothy Leary the first time he took LSD. He became lost in a reality where everything seemed fake and everyone seemed like plastic dolls. It was all just a rather shoddy cosmic play, which he had seen through. He wrote about it in The Psychedelic Experience, suggesting it was a phase people often go through on psychedelics:

We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen…You feel ultimately tricked. A victim of the great television producer. The people are you are lifeless robots…You are a helpless marionette, a plastic doll in a plastic world. ‘I am dead. I will never live and feel again’.

This is a sort of extreme dissociation from reality. It’s what happens to people sometimes after trauma – their soul detaches from the horrific situation, because it’s too painful to be there and feel it. It flies off and views it from above, as it were, as if through a safety glass. That’s what happened to me when I had trauma in my late teens and early 20s, and I think the ayahuasca brought this traumatic dissociation back up, to give me the opportunity to process it and bring my soul back.

Luckily, the delusion wore off for me after five days or so, once I’d come back to the UK and surrounded myself with people I loved. But I still feel a sort of detachment and dissociation from life, that is, from the usual games people play in this life. I can’t take them entirely seriously. I mean career games particularly, the sort of quest for ego-gratification that is totally absorbing in ones 20s and 30s. I can’t take those games that seriously.

Sometimes this loss of interest in my previous games means this life seems a bit ludicrous, and I almost fall drawn to death. I don’t mean in a suicidal or depressive way. I just think…death is where the mystery is. Between the levels. What is happening there? But sometimes this detachment and dissociation means I can calm down, take a breath, not get so absorbed in the trivial stuff, and just look around and enjoy the beauty and pathos of this game-world.

I can let go of fear and anxiety and craving – the fear of failure, the fear of ageing and sickness and suffering and death. It’s just a game, and we have multiple lives. We can try out multiple ways of living, in fact, we already have. And if we wake up to the game, we can let go of some of the more boring and obvious missions – accrue a lot of money and glory – and get into some of the deeper and more interesting missions. How do we level up? Who is the programmer – is it us? Can we change the code?

I’ll end with a quote from Ram Dass, Leary’s former colleague, who often uses the ‘life is a game / dream’ metaphor:

If you know you’re dreaming, can you continue to dream? That’s what the soul does – the soul appreciates that it’s a dream and that it contains the ego. If you push away the ego, if you cultivate an aversion to that dream, you’re never going to be free because there will be an attachment. The process is realizing that you and I exist on more than one plane of awareness simultaneously and on one plane suffering stinks, and on another plane suffering is grace. The question is, “Can you balance those two things in your consciousness?”

What’s the evidence for reincarnation?

Things used to be so much simpler

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I’ve believed in reincarnation longer than I can remember. It must have started in a previous life. I’ve never really examined my core belief. It’s just been there, part of the furniture. But a new book has stung me into examining that comfy old sofa. Do I really need it? Is it time to chuck it out?

The book is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, an American popularizer of evolutionary psychology and author of best-sellers including Non-Zero and The Moral Animal. Wright has spent much of his literary career trying to construct a scientifically-valid moral philosophy to replace the Baptist faith he lost as a teenager. Now, in Buddhism, he has finally found it.

The book should really be called ‘Why my version of Buddhism is true’. Wright’s Buddhism is secular and naturalistic. He assures us early on that he’s not championing ‘the most exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – re-incarnation for example’. He tells us Buddhism has some shockingly radical ideas – there is no self, emotions are usually delusions – but re-assures us that these ideas are supported by modern science, and would ‘fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course’ (indeed, he ran such a course at Princeton and you can do it at Coursera in September).

Wright’s secular, naturalized Buddhism is all the rage among western intellectuals. There is Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, who (like Wright) is a follower of Vipassana meditation minus reincarnation. There is Owen Flanagan, a leading virtue ethics philosopher, who proposes a Buddhism shorn of ‘the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism’. There is Sam Harris, New Atheist provocateur, who thinks Buddhism is ‘unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom’, but still says ‘there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison’.

And there is Stephen Batchelor, who spent many years practicing Buddhism in Korea and India, and is now trying to develop a secular Buddhism. In After Buddhism, he writes: ‘I find it disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own [ie rational humanist] uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.’ Unlike Flanagan or Harris, Batchelor doesn’t argue his secular Buddhism is superior to animist Buddhism: ‘My approach simply reflects an embedded cultural worldview that I could no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language’. Secular rationalism is simply the core belief he grew up with.

I want to address three questions. First, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? Second, is reincarnation utterly incredible? Third, does it really matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Firstly, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? I don’t think an entirely materialist-mechanistic Buddhism makes sense, unless it finds a place for free will and moral choice. As Richard Gombrich argues in his excellent What The Buddha Thought, the Buddha’s teachings on karma – as ye reap, so shall ye sow – makes no sense if we don’t have free moral choice.

Can one remove reincarnation without the building of Buddhism collapsing? Yes, but it challenges the Third Noble Truth – that it’s possible to attain a permanent end to suffering in Nirvana. That was the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching, if I understand it correctly. Very few people actually do seem to attain Nirvana (in the sense of a permanent liberation from the self and from suffering). I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but never an Enlightened person. Have you?

Either the Buddha was selling us a dud; or the journey to Liberation takes place over many lives; or the dharma only brings us occasional release from suffering, rather than permanent Liberation. Wright writes: ‘The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on some not-so-distant day. Like today!’

OK, but this is a different game. This is not the game the Buddha was playing when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to move until he was Liberated. This is not the Great Crossing – there is no other side we can realistically hope to reach. And a bit of me wonders, if there is no Liberation, whether it’s worth it to forego the attachments of this life and sit on that cushion for many, many hours. If there is just this one life…maybe just go for it, play the game of this life, this world, attachments and passions and all. Sure, it will hurt, but it will be over soon.

Removing reincarnation also removes the Buddhist explanation for suffering and misfortune – that they’re karmic retribution for past misdeeds. It means that bad things happen to good people because life is random. The universe is not moral, bad people live wonderful lives without punishment, good people live awful lives without reward. Deal with it. This secular Buddhism seems close to the pessimism of late Stoicism – life is tough, the universe is amoral, but wisdom helps us bear it before we die.

Second, is reincarnation a ridiculous belief? Well, it’s certainly weird. How the hell would it work? You’d need some cosmic filing system, to match your soul with its virtues and vices to the proper re-birth. Most species don’t have the capacity for moral choice, so what decides their rebirth? Why is the human population growing?

Materialism, by contrast, is very clean – when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need for an elaborate soul-clearing system. That’s why most academics are publicly materialists, although 25% of people in both the US and UK believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians and many Jews (particularly Kabbalists). Materialism has its own weird stuff to explain, of course – like how matter becomes conscious. But reincarnation is still a very weird theory.

I think I’ve tended to accept it, perhaps, because my two greatest spiritual heroes – Plato and the Buddha – both argued for it. If they were so wise about ethics and psychology, maybe they were right about the metaphysics too. Maybe when you reach their level of spiritual awakening, re-incarnation doesn’t seem so fruity. Some contemporary meditation masters say they remember past lives, such as Sharon Salzberg and Russel Williams. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take things on trust just because of ‘the seeming competence of the speaker’.

What about scientific evidence? There was a Canadian psychiatrist called Ian Stevenson, who headed up the University of Virginia’s psychiatry department, and spent most of his life investigating cases where children claimed to remember past lives. He was given $1 million by the inventor of the Xerox machine to carry on this work. Stevenson spent decades travelling the world and investigating cases, and claimed to have discovered around 3000 reliable instances where children knew things about previous existences that were corroborated by ‘former relatives’.

According to Stevenson’s findings, people tend to be reincarnated around two years after they die, usually in a place near where they previously lived. They may retain desires and fears from their previous existence (if they drowned, they might retain a fear of water). They tend to forget their previous life by the age of six or so. Stevenson also suggested birth marks relate to death-wounds from the previous existence.

All rather strange, although some leading Skeptics are quite open to his research. Jesse Bering, author of The Belief Instinct, researched Stevenson’s work and decided: ‘I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open.’ Sam Harris also says he found Stevenon’s books ‘interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claim of religious dogmatists’.  Others, however, suggest Stevenson could be very prone to confirmation bias – he was looking for evidence to support his pre-existing core belief, after all. And why did none of the children recall previous existences as animals?

Finally, does any of this matter? Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Certainly, humans have traditionally believed that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. The ancient Greeks venerated the Eleusinian Mysteries above all other rituals precisely because they thought initiates ‘died with a better hope’ for the afterlife. The Mysteries reduced their death-anxiety by improving their hope for the afterlife – just as psychedelics do, according to recent trials.

Christianity is also founded on the central idea that Jesus’ sacrifice enables the resurrection of the faithful in heaven. If that belief is not true, ‘if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’, says St Paul. The belief in posthumous judgement animated medieval culture, inspiring its great cathedrals, its vast economy of penance and indulgence, its constant reminders of death.

Since the decline of Christianity, western culture has embraced a more Epicurean view – death is the end, there is no God and no eternal judgement, so get the most pleasure from this life while you can. But in fact our faith in the finality of death can make us somewhat neurotic about success and status – we’re anxious to leave something behind us once we’re gone (a family, a book, a selfie). I’ve wondered how western culture might change if our beliefs about death change, as presumably they will.

I think my beliefs about the afterlife inform how I live and feel. The near-death experience I had when I was 24 helped to heal me from PTSD because it gave me the strong belief there is something in me beyond the ego, which can’t be harmed and doesn’t die.This helped me overcome my ego-anxiety. 

Groundhog Day – would you behave differently if you knew you had multiple lives?

Since then, my faith in the afterlife has somewhat faded but never gone. It occasionally makes me more detached about my ego. I reflect that I have been many different people, of many shapes, sizes, sexes, colours and talents, so why get anxious about this latest incarnation? In mystic moments, I imagine life as a computer game where we get infinite rebirths – would we live differently if we really believed this? Would we get less wound up, and stop to appreciate the beauty of the game?

No, probably not! We’d get just as absorbed in the game, just as caught-up in the movie, just as attached and emotional. The fact is, our beliefs about death don’t affect us much, because life is so damn absorbing. We barely think about death until we or one of our loved ones die. When you compare religious and non-religious cultures, there’s just as much wrong-doing, and cruelty, and avarice, and vanity in both. Any belief can be held wrongly – a belief in reincarnation could make one lazy, or unkind, or proud of one’s position in the social hierarchy.

I think Stephen Batchelor is right – the truly radical thing in Buddha’s teachings is that he said our beliefs about the afterlife are of secondary importance. Don’t get hung up on it. We can’t know for sure. Practice the dharma now, see what happens, see if it makes life better. He is supposed to have said:

Nowhere does a lucid one

hold contrived views about it is or it is not,

How could he succumb to them,

having let go of illusions and conceit?

The priest without borders

doesn’t seize on what he’s known or beheld,

Not passionate, not dispassionate,

he doesn’t posit anything as ultimate.