No sane person fears nothingness. It might be boring. It might not be delightful. But at least it should be restful, peaceful, and painless. And relative to all the troubles of wakefulness, it is pleasant and much sought after by every one of us.
The Sleep of Death: New Situations for Consciousness
What we do fear, and should fear rationally, are pain and suffering. We work hard in life to avoid pain and suffering for ourselves and those dear to us. So we are afraid of death, not because we know it is nothing, but because we know in our bones it cannot automatically bring us nothing. We fear the many painful somethings it might bring us. So our sensible human caution wants to know what it will bring, how we can prepare to avoid the bad and gain the good—what to expect and how to prepare for it. We know that falling asleep tonight will not prevent tomorrow and its challenges.
So we prepare for tomorrow as best we can. The better we are prepared, the more happily we fall asleep. We know that the sleep of death will not automatically prevent new situations for consciousness. So we prepare for those new situations. And the better prepared we are, the more relaxed we will be when we have to die.
For even the most diehard materialist, Pascal’s famous “wager” is still compelling: If we become nothing after death, we will not be there to regret having prepared for something. But if we are something after death, and we have not prepared at all, or are badly prepared, then we will long feel bitter, painful regret. So we have everything to lose by not preparing, and nothing to gain; we have everything to gain by preparing, and nothing to lose. Should our preparation be for nothing, a little time spent on it in this life will not be regretted for eternity. Should our preparation be for something, the time taken away from it for the sake of this life’s business or pleasure will be deeply regretted for eternity as the waste of a vital resource.
So, those of us who have either the prudence or the adventuresomeness to deal with a life situation of total relativity in space and time can safely proceed. There are no boundaries to our interconnectedness with limitless dimensions and universes. And there are no limits to our continuity of development, bad or good. A very powerful commitment—to ameliorate the situations in which we find ourselves along with others—arises from the understanding of the inevitability of being situated in infinite relativity and continuity. The abandonment of any reification of nothingness leaves us with an absolute preoccupation with the quality of relative situations. This preoccupation demands that we use every means at our disposal to improve them.
To fall back on particular religious beliefs supported by no rational evidence or plausible inference is not sensible, given the fact that our choices of actions might have unlimited consequences. Having cured ourselves of the temptation to reify nothingness, why would we reify some improbable soul-state that reproduces the characteristics of a pleasant nothingness—a blissful anesthesia, aloofness from connection to conditions, permanent isolation from experience, and all guaranteed by an absolute, nonrelative power that controls the relative yet is unaffected by it?
Reversing Pascal’s Wager
Here, rather, we should use Pascal’s wager in reverse. If, due to an inevitable destiny of soul, an Omnipotent Being will save us no matter what we do, we will not regret having spent a bit of time preparing unnecessarily to save ourselves. But if there is no such Being, or if there are divine Beings more powerful than us who can help us if we are prepared to accept their help, then we will deeply regret for a very long time our failure to prepare ourselves.
There is no reason for a sound faith to be irrational. A useful faith should not be blind, but should be well aware of its grounds. A sound faith should be able to use scientific investigation to strengthen itself. It should be open enough to the spirit not to lock itself up in the letter. A nourishing, useful, healthful faith should be no obstacle to developing a science of death. In developing such a science, it behooves the investigator to consider all previous attempts to do so, especially those traditions with a long development and a copious literature.
-Excerpt From Tibetan Book of the Dead by Robert AF Thurman