I often think about an article I read late one night, a study that suggested we might be aware of our own deaths. That consciousness may linger after the last beat of the heart, our minds still working even when blood is no longer washing the brain. “The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated,” says Dr. Sam Parnia, who studies this phenomenon. “Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost.”

This unsettling idea decimates the best argument for making peace with our mortality: the Epicurean assurance that we needn’t fear death because we will not be around to witness it. Science might tell us otherwise. According to Parnia’s research, a significant number of patients who were declared dead reported hearing things they could not have known unless they were conscious in the minutes before they were revived. They heard the last efforts of doctors and nurses, the wailing of lovers and children.

If there’s any truth to this study, it seems like it should be the most discussed story of the decade, perhaps the century. How would knowing that consciousness lingers while the body goes cold change the way we reckon with death—or bear witness? How would it affect the way we behave in a hospital room? We would need to hide our terror and grief long past the terrible moment we once thought was singular and fixed. New ceremonies would develop. Soundtracks and incantations. An extended score for the dying. I can’t help but think of the weather in the room after my parents died, the animal noises I made after the nurse turned off the machines and closed the door.

And how would we prepare for our own death, knowing it would be elastic and uncertain, that those last minutes could be terrifying or transcendent? It would require a strange kind of training, a preparation like no other. The fact of death would no longer be as easy to bury under the clutter of appointments and headlines, no longer a thought that could be tucked away like an overdue bill beneath a pile of catalogs and magazines.

C. and I once sat in an old monastery where a February wind rattled the stained glass while a physicist and monk named B. Alan Wallace described his meditation practice as a preparation for dying. “Am I a short story that can come to an end at any moment?” he asked with a smile. “If so, I can live with that. But is it true?” Although our bodies will rot and our minds will disappear, he said, some level of awareness might persist. If we do not identify with our body or thoughts, but only pure awareness: what then? “Train yourself to keep the light on,” he said.

That night we silently returned to our spartan room and laid down on our cots, listening to the sleet ricochet against the window. I fell asleep thinking of a candle that remains lit long after the lights of the mind slowly flick off one by one like the windows of a skyscraper as midnight comes and goes.

Tomas Jirku – Idiis Mortii

Touching the Sublime | Silent Season, 2020 | Bandcamp