‘I asked Laura what she thought happens after death…’
In the recess of their personal thoughts, every person at some time in their life muses on a question: Is death really the end? If not, what comes after? I must admit – it feels like a confession – that my sense is that death is a portal into some other kind of conscious experience.
I am by no means alone in this belief. A study commissioned by the BBC in 2017 (1) found that 46 per cent of the population believe in the afterlife, with the same percentage not believing and 8 per cent undecided. This collective psyche around the afterlife, muffled in society, finds its voice in literature, films, plays, music etc (2). But in Western society, in serious and professional company, the subject of post-mortem consciousness or life after death is generally silenced.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve mused on this as the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the reality of death closer to all of us.
Death and mortality are a source of anxiety: they involve endings, separations of loved ones, the idea of not having completed life plans. I worked with a client I shall call Laura, on her high levels of anxiety. She had difficulties which seemed to originate from being fundamentally disorganised in her day-to-day life. Procrastination was a major problem. Laura was also grieving the loss of her father, who had died more than two years before and to whom she had been very close. We had a strong therapeutic alliance and in due course it emerged that she had a deep fear of death. At the same time, Laura felt that since death was her final destination anyway, there was not much point in putting a lot of effort into life.
When I asked Laura what she thought happens after death, she seemed surprised at my question. Her firm belief was that death was the absolute end of conscious experience. ‘I wish it was otherwise,’ she said. We explored the topic, including whether death is a wall or a portal into another type of conscious experience. That’s a matter of speculation and belief, I argued: the proof is elusive.
Laura accepted this suggestion and became more open to the idea that post-mortem consciousness may be a possibility. She re-established an active communication with her father, on the principle that whether she was interacting with his spirit or with her father residing in her heart was unimportant. The important aspect was that it helped lighten the burden of her loss. Studies show that such a re-connection with loved ones who have died can be very helpful (3).
The brain only shows the film…
My approach is predicated on the role of consciousness. The word consciousness is sometimes used to denote awareness, or an opposite to unconsciousness. Husserl (4) uses it to indicate intentionality. I am using the word consciousness to refer to the sense of ‘I AM’. It means our subjective experience – of being, of thinking, of feeling. Consciousness is the quality of knowing itself and our ability or capacity to experience.Consciousness cannot be quantified, which means it cannot be subjected to quantitative science. How the brain (matter) generates consciousness has, however, not been demonstrated by science and chances are it will never be (5). We cannot measure the experience of redness, or weigh feelings of fear or anger, or find the volume of our experience of love. We can only communicate those experiences subjectively.
Consciousness is what animates us during our lives and when death comes to us, the body becomes inanimate. What happens to our consciousness? The premise of mainstream science is that consciousness is generated by the brain and with the death of the brain, consciousness is extinguished and we go back to non-existence. A different perspective argues that rather than a generator, the brain is a facilitator of consciousness. The metaphor used is the TV set, which shows the film but does not generate it. The brain is seen as a facilitator, rather than an originator of consciousness. This is the perspective I take.
Permeating the material world?
Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality. Like matter, its origins are outside the capabilities of science. Science understand what matter does, its laws and behaviour but has no understanding of what matter actually is. The same with consciousness; we understand our experience of consciousness but cannot have access to what it actually is. We understand matter as the exterior landscape of our experience – the objective – and consciousness as the interior – the subjective.
This mystery has led philosophers and scientists to speculate whether consciousness permeates the material world, with matter being conscious at different degrees of sophistication (6). The May 2020 issue of New Scientist had a lead article with a front cover question – Is The Universe Conscious? – and the strapline – it sounds implausible. But that’s until you do the maths. The idea is currently getting much attention and is spanning philosophy and science. In practical terms it means that a person is embodied consciousness at the human level, a dog less sophisticated at a dog level, the plant even less sophisticated, down to the electron which has a minute level of sophistication. And upwards from the human level, all the way to the highest degree of sophistication, to what spiritual traditions call God, Ultimate Reality, the One etc.
Of course, our mind is far too limited to be able to understand that supra level. But if consciousness is indeed a fundamental attribute of reality, does it not follow that it is infinite, immortal and cannot be extinguished? Paranormal, mystical, spiritual experiences are in this model of reality: connection with fields of consciousness outside of what is typically accessible to ordinary states of consciousness.
Into the therapy room
My PhD research (2019) showed that out of 103 anonymous clinical practitioners who have answered an online survey, 52 per cent believe in post-mortem consciousness. In addition, of those 103 participants, around 70 per cent confirmed that questions about what happens after death inform the way they live their lives andtheir work with clients.
I interviewed 12 participating clinicians who believe in some kind of conscious experience after death. Of those, only two felt comfortable and worked openly with clients on issues of death, the afterlife and paranormal experiences. The others did not and admitted to being surprised, reflecting whether there is something in them which is shutting this subject off to patients/clients.
At this time of Covid-19 and the heightened awareness of death including our personal mortality, it is worth considering that many of our patients and clients may be struggling with anxieties. How many are reluctant to bring up questions about death, including what may happen after, for fear of not having their anxieties and/or themselves taken seriously? This pandemic is an opportunity for everyone, but especially for us as practitioners, to examine how we face our own mortality, what gives meaning to our personal lives, what we genuinely believe happens after death and what informs that view. If our frame of reference is mainstream science, the idea that death is the end of conscious experience can be framed by an end to pain and struggles. If, on the other hand, our sense is that death is a portal into another kind of conscious experience, we must find another frame of reference. Once the issue is given the attention it requires, the potential of the projection of fears and anxieties by the practitioner will reduce. Ultimately, surely what we’re all striving for is space in the therapy room for clients to bring their own issues which can be explored in an open and compassionate way.
1. ComRes. Religion and Ethics Survey. London: BBC; 2017.
2. Garrett G. Entertaining Judgment: the Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2015.
3. Howarth G. Dismantling the boundaries between life and death. Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying. 2010;5(2):127-38.
4. Husserl E. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. London: Routledge; 2012.
5. Popper K, Eccles JC. The Self and Its Brain: an Argument for Interactionism. New York: Routledge; 2003.
6. Goff P. Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. London: Rider; 2019
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