(This was my entry into the recently published book, Awakening Starseeds, by Radhaa Publishing. While most of the entries of this international assemblage deal with soul shaking/awakening experiences, mine goes to the bare bones of our matter and what matters.)
Barely beyond high school, I came face-to-face with death and birth working for a funeral home that also ran the local ambulance. I dealt with old dead bodies, and on the ambulance, watched some die, saved a few from death, and helped deliver a slippery baby. At eighteen, I saw more raw death and life than most ever see.
Sparing you the rawness of embalming, I will share how the rude reality of bodies got me to wondering and admiring. The inside parts are really there, just like they say in the anatomy books, functioning perfectly all the while we don’t notice. It works all our lives on our behalf. The miracle of a baby coming out of a mother awed me. That it goes on to develop ability, language, song, psychology and a life story enthuses me.
In college, subjects I had avoided, like chemistry, awakened an appreciation in me for organized, accumulated, ever-refined scientific knowledge. Anatomy was the most interesting. We run our brains on top of an astonishing assemblage of intricate and elaborate interconnections, all enmeshed in an ecosystem of support. We’re much more interdependent with bodily and worldly realities than we tend to appreciate and actualize. We are natural bodies of a limited duration living in an ecosystem responsive to how we treat it. We might better love and celebrate our bodies and our ecosystem than take them for granted or imagine we’re apart from either.
It seems an insult to the Creator to ignore, deny, disparage, and waste our own bodily incarnation. Living well in our frame fully, happily, healthily, ethically, and gratefully seems a better use of our precious bodies than any asceticism or judgmental shame. We are our bodies, at least for now.
Funeral directing led me to seminary. Dealing with dead bodies and grieving families is only a part of the more wholistic challenge and opportunity we have as humans. Ministry helps people live well while also trying to help society be healthy and fair. It deals with everything from pregnancy to death to beyond. Liberal ministry has a much wider concern than whether to merely believe in various scriptures, dogmas, and authorities. It affords and affirms our right to be smart, to be skeptical of fantastic wishful thinking, imposed as if God’s truth.
Chief among these is the expectation that I as minister would confidently affirm other-worldly realities such as living on past death. It’s what ministers are expected to do. Much of the world clings to the feeling or belief that we go on to some other place, or into some new body. I know of no such places or events. In all my embalming, I never saw the ghost of a soul. The bodies no longer seemed to be the persons, but if and where the person was – I don’t know. Insisting they must be somewhere is like insisting when we blow out a candle the flame still burns. It doesn’t. It just is not. It was, and it isn’t.
Similarly, I suspect when we die we don’t even know we’re gone. There is no loss, for there is no one there to notice. The living know loss; theirs is the grief. But the one who passed? Probably less aware of it all than when we utterly lose our self in deep sleep. Eternal torment or reward? Endless incarnations until we get it right? Like Lucretius, I can’t say those are true. I won’t say it if I don’t know it.
More important than after-life or instead-of-life is this life we’re given. Those who never appreciated or fulfilled being born want to pine for something better? A cosmic creation forms and supports them, yet they are not satisfied, praying to a Creator for “more” or “other”? Is this world a mere testing ground, a stepping stone, to a supposed other? When comes gratitude for what we’re given, or responsibility, or celebration?
As the eldest of five children, I had been raised Catholic, but had left it at age 14. I went face-to-face with the friendlier priest to confess and stop my sin: to keep coming when I no longer believed in it. Circumcised and baptized as an infant, I learned the Catechism, taught not only the right answers, but the right questions. Allegedly. Supposed truths taught by authorities based on traditions rooted on what someone said someone else said long ago didn’t stir or convince me. I had my own questions and answers to explore and live up to. So, I left.
Later, after seminary, my disappointment with western religion’s ignoring our bodily place in a worldly ecosystem was doubled in India. While maya can mean merely illusion – mistaking a rope in the corner for a snake, the extreme version of maya – that we are not the body and the world isn’t as real or important as some supposed high state – seemed to me to cause and allow poverty and suffering. Whole communities live in diseased filth, yet it’s rationalized as temporary karma. A temporary predicament, yes, but a deserved one? Merely an illusion? Suffering? So what?
It seems flippant to use the body to say we aren’t the body. We hear the message via our body. It rides in our body. When we wake up from sleeping, we wake up in our body, not next to it, not in some other place. When someone dies, we can no longer hear their perspective, and someone must deal with the body.
So, when I, sickened, had the close darshan of Shri Rajneesh in Bombay in 1972, he all jeweled and adored, I wanted to punch him in the nose. He went on about how we are not our body, and about a mile from there a thousand bodies lived in “houses” made of tin and cardboard, all sharing one water spicket and having no toilet. I didn’t dislike him, but I wanted to test his privileged, smug stance. “If the world is merely maya, and if we are not the body, would you mind if I punch you again?” I would ask.
(Of course, I didn’t. “May he be reborn into that nearby scrappy slum, into a life of hunger, mud and pain,” I thought. Then I took it back. Ahimsa (non-injury) is for all beings, even him. And later, I came to admire his bold teachings.)
Going to India was one culture shock; returning to the U.S. was a worse one. It is one thing to see all the beggars, the rivers fermenting from all the feces floating in them, the flies and vultures. It is another to see fat, frantic people suffering from the glut of frivolous consumerism, oblivious to the murderous war our military waged to protect us from falling dominos, utterly unaware or uncaring of what our sudden short-term civilization was doing to long-term Mother Earth.
How can we honor the Creator without loving Creation? What if we believed the creation myth on page one of the Bible, Genesis One, where the Creator not only generates an evolving, natural world, complete with plants, animals and humans (males and females) in six stages, but, importantly, also calls it “good” and advises us to “replenish” it? How good would we get, would Creation get, if we were to love and replenish what is originally and ultimately good? How healthy? How fulfilled? How good could we and it get?
Such gurus seemed as inadequate and misleading as some priests and popes had. When will our religions direct our care to our bodies, each other, and our ecosystem? These are our home and family. Aren’t we in and of these – at least?
Our bodies and world are made of elements formed in an earlier exploding star. The initial one had only the smallest elements. When it went supernova, it created all the larger molecules that make earth and our bodies possible. Add in seemingly endless eons of effort and accomplishment via selection and evolution. We are built of accumulating success. Every organism was the reincarnation of earlier forms, only improved in some way. None of our forebearers failed at staying alive long enough to pass on their form. We’re structured of success.
What we think of as human history is only the recent part of a much longer event. We might be, not at the end, but in the early eons of living on far, far longer.
But how? In love with life, or not?
We might be more, but we’re our bodies at least, and that’s a lot. We are each a unique incarnation of a good Creation. We have interior bones, lungs, eyeballs, hands, heart, and mind. We can live, love, wonder, and adventure. Our bodies and earth are home base for whatever else we might be. We live in social systems and an ecosystem that can be exhausted or exalted. I’m for our embodying our awakened star seed selves as ethically, beautifully, healthily, and successfully as we can while we can.
Bio:Byron Bradley Carrier was born in Pontiac, Michigan on Hiroshima Day. He was a licensed funeral director before becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, which he has practiced for 50 years. He provides commentary, ceremonies, and counseling, all available through his website. You can read more of his life and writings, contact him, or acquire his services, at www.earthlyreligion.com.