There is an ancient inscription carved above the door of St. Paul’s Monastery located on the secluded Mount Athos peninsula in Macedonia, Northern Greece (circa 10th century). It reads: If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die.
Similar to the prophetic words of the gold-leafed Delphic commandment Know Thyself inscribed on the Temple of Apollo approximately two millennia earlier, this puzzling Greek axiom also holds the secret to life’s ultimate treasure – eternal peace and happiness. (See: Smerconish 4/20/21 Know Thyself by Pat Croce)
Allow me to dissect the metaphysical maxim into two segments via an experiential self-inquiry to better help clarify the head-scratching questions that are potentially arising in your voice-in-the-head at this very moment.
The first portion: If you die before you die.
How the hell do you die before you die?
I suggest unlocking the ancient mystery starts by first recognizing that you are not the voice-in-the-head nor the feelings in your body; but you are That which is witnessing or aware of the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. The mental chattering and the physical sensations come and go on an exceedingly temporal basis; but you most certainly continue to exist and remain aware on an ever-present basis.
The identification with the voice-in-the-head and feelings in the body is commonly referred to – in spiritual circles. – as the ego or separate self. Liberation from this false sense of identity normally takes a certain amount of practice to help recognize and change our conditioned, reactive mental and behavior patterns. In my experience a daily 20-minute meditation practice can provide extraordinary benefits. There are numerous guided meditation apps that cut the learning curve, such as Headspace and Calm, with which I personally found as a very effective starting point. Note: It is said that if you think you do not have the time to invest 10-20 minutes a day in truly transforming your torturous mind, then you should commit an hour a day!
Freedom from the mind’s ceaseless attachment to desires and fears, the mind’s resistance to what is happening in the here and now, the mind’s judgment of apparent others, and the mind’s proficiency in pulling from the past using comparisons or projecting into the future with expectations is deemed a grace-filled death of the ego. And thus, you (egoic sense of self) die before you (body-mind) die. Not too difficult to conceptually comprehend, but extremely challenging to experientially understand.
The second portion: You won’t die when you die.
How do you not die when you (body-mind) die? Who or what is the eternal you that won’t die?
Allow me to initiate this segment of the investigation by utilizing your direct experience so as not to base any conclusions on conventional beliefs, opinions, or hearsay. For example, from your vantage point what is the absolute Reality which is perceiving my words right now? I assume your answer from your real-life experience since you are the precise one at the present moment reading these words is “I am”. Now when we explore a little deeper into the essential attributes of the I am that you are without any objective qualifications superimposed upon it – such I am a female, I am six-feet-tall, I am a businessman, I am a worrier – you discover that the I am you are and the I am that I am, and the I am that anyone is, is perpetually aware and present.
In other words, the witnessing I am can be quietly felt by every one of us as an aware presence or the simple experience of being aware (commonly known as awareness or consciousness). It is our most familiar experience when we totally invest our aware being in what we are purposefully doing in the present moment without prejudice.
Recognize the essential nature of our I am is always aware and present even though the mind – a modulation of this aware presence – may be lost in imagination, speculation, or identification with the content of what we are aware of, most notably, the noisy voice-in-the-head. It is comparable to how the dreamer sleeping in bed is always present and aware or being aware even though she has forgotten her true Self and is totally identified with or consumed by the dreamed subject of experience and the imaginary happenings of the illusory dreamworld.
This quiet understanding of I am or the feeling of being aware is our primary experience, which can only be known or recognized by being it. Unlike all phenomenal experiences, the experience of being aware is supremely unique – it cannot be labeled, explained, or described like anatomical parts of the human body, incessant murmurings of the voice-in-the-head, or the incalculable display of nature’s beautiful forms. The mind is incapable of wrapping its metaphorical arms around something that is intimately non-objective and resides permanently in the Now. The mind only recognizes forms that have a beginning and an end (such as thoughts and perceptions) and objective experiences occurring in time (such as past and future). The ability for the mind to know I am, or your true Self, would be analogous to the dreamed character in the dream recognizing the dreamer in bed, stepping out of the dreamed realm, and physically tickling the dreamer.
I am emphasizing our innate sense of I am or the indescribable presence of being aware because this natural experience is thought by most people to emanate from our body-mind instrument as a spark of awareness that resides in the mind, which in turn, is housed in a body. And if this long-standing model were true, then the second half of the ancient axiom you won’t die when you die would be found false.
However, I suggest that you attempt to uncover the experiential evidence that substantiates this conventional belief of awareness being a property of the separate and limited body-mind entity. (Not to mention, this belief is the root of all psychological suffering and dissatisfaction.)
When we inquire into the certifiable proof that the Reality, or That which you call mySelf, is aware of my words right now is limited by or dependent upon the body-mind, what do we discover? What evidence exists that the perception of our limited and located body-mind tells us anything about That which perceives it? Please note that I am not insinuating that the seeing of my words is not dependent upon the eyes of our human instrument; however, I am implying that our Reality of I am or felt sense of being aware of either the seeing or the absence of seeing of my words continues regardless of the on/off status of the body-mind’s visual apparatus.
In truth, we discover that we do not have experiential proof and we really do not know. This enchanting not-knowing opens the door for the possibility of I am to be the same limitless, eternal I am that God referred to when He said: I am That I am. The indescribable, loving you (I am) who won’t die when you (body-mind) die.
Postscript: To further boggle the mind and advance the case on the metaphysical realm that you (I am) won’t die when you (body-mind) die if you
(egoic sense of self) die before you (physical body-mind) die – is to ponder any answer we advocate that I am or the presence of being aware is limited to the body-mind would have to be known by Something. The question arises, what then is being aware of these apparent limitations?