If we can believe Socrates, all life is a preparation for death. What can he have been thinking? Death is nothing, oblivion. This life is everything. It is all we have and all we can know.
If there's any wisdom at all in this, we in the 21st Century Western world have missed the boat completely. We have banished death from our thoughts and our experience.
Let us put our toes back in the water of the river Styx. Can we know what it is like to die? The best way is to ask people who have done it. Peter Fenwick is a neuroscientist, not a mystic. He has studied both the physiology of the brain and firsthand experiences of people who routinely attend to the dying. He ties this in with reports of thousands of people who have literally returned from the dead. What did they experience while there was no neural activity in their brains?
Is consciousness a product of the brain, or is there a transcendent reality that is filtered by the brain and rectified to materiality? Wilder Penfield devoted his life to developing a science of the brain by probing the brain with electrodes, and he concluded in the end that the "energy of mind" is a different dimension altogether from neural signaling. The brain is enormously important, but it can't explain consciousness.
Monica Renz has interviewed hundreds of dying cancer patients and their caregivers, and she reports commonalities in their experience, including
- visits from intimate relatives who have predeceased the patient, who come and sit on his bed
- sojourns to a spirit world and back, conversations with non-corporeal beings who may visit and abide just outside the window
- light emanating from the room of the dying person, visible to visitors and attendants
Attachment is the source of all the pain in dying. Those who die need to let go of everything-of their possessions, their projects, their loved ones, and indeed everything to which they have devoted themselves while alive. This is the most difficult challenge of dying, and those who are able to let go make a smooth transition to an existence that is far lighter and happier than the one we are used to.