In this exciting book David Darling makes a number of startling observations, most notably that it is our ego-sense or our "consciousness" that makes us afraid of death. On page 104 Darling writes, "the prime biological function of the self is to be afraid of death." This is an ancient idea straight from the Upanishads, incorporated in the Bhagavad Gita and found in Buddhism as well as in yogic theory and practice. It is also an important idea in evolutionary psychology where consciousness or the sense of the individual self is just a trick of the species mechanism to make us fear death (among other things).
Unlike the scientific purveyors of evolutionary psychology, Darling sees us surviving death in another consciousness, although he assures us we will not be aware of our previous consciousness(es). He sees consciousness as something we all share with my consciousness being no different than yours, and in fact, it is the same thing and so can easily be taken up. We are "reincarnated" in this special sense. Darling says, on p. 180, "It is not a case of you becoming one person and me becoming someone else in the traditional sense of transmigrating souls. We have to see that `being you' is just a general phenomenon. There is no actual, objective link that determines who you will become. You will not become anyone. There is just a continuously experienced condition of you-ness." In yoga this is maya, the veil of illusion that continuously shrouds our perception.
Another nice quote is on page 176: "What the brain really does is to sample extremely narrow aspects of reality through the senses and then subject these to further drastic and highly selective reinterpretation." (See Norretranders's The User Illusion (1991) for a similar expression.) Darling's point is that the brain, as William James said in his famous quote about "the doors of perception," restricts our ability to see the world objectively. We see the world only as our system needs to see it to survive. Or, to quote Darling, (p. 180) "The brain effectively pinches off a little bubble of introverted awareness and stores and manipulates information relevant exclusively to the survival needs of the individual so created." Our sense of ourselves as individuals is, as the yogis teach, a delusion fostered on us by the evolutionary mechanism to help us cope with living on this animal plane.
Here's another idea that relates to the subjectivity of our view: If a spaceship should fall into the sun, we would see it as "burning up." To another consciousness, it might be seen as getting "tremendously excited" or "wonderfully transformed" or to a third consciousness, even "securing a place in the sun" so that it might be launched into space when the sun explodes, reproducing and spreading out. The whole point is, our bias and our expectations create our view of what is happening-indeed our expectations create our universe.
Some years ago I was excited with the idea that my consciousness is eternal, that my ideas will never die even after the universe has grown cold, nor will the unique organization of my brain cells and the pattern of their connections ever die, since it is the information they contain that is really "alive." Theoretically, I could be reconstructed and return, perhaps in a hundred billion years. Of course, that suggests the question, would I want to? and begs the observation, So what? since it is natural to feel that my "consciousness" (a kind of ghost in the machine) would not survive the reconstruction.
Darling contends (p. 175) that "consciousness can never be divorced from matter" (and vice-versa) and that the universe and everything in it has both "an objective and a subjective nature." He adds, "`Things' have no reality independent of their location in experience; they require the intimate involvement of mind to be given substance."
If we only experience consciousness when "alive," we could be dead for billions of years and alive for a few decades, on and off alternately, and we would only be aware of being alive. Sound familiar? In this sense we are immortal.
Although all this seems to be just playing with words and offering no solace to those in the thrall of the fear of death, it is not so. Regard the Gita, where it is written, we do not die. Our deaths, like our births and like our sense of self are very powerful illusions that only understanding can dispel. Darling's book is a very readable effort in that direction.