Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Friday, January 15, 2016

The Magician and the Goblin King

Sometimes it's hard to keep in mind that normal people die, too. People who've never done anything great, never burned so brightly they lit up a stadium or tilted the heads of an entire generation to look toward the stars. There are people dying right this moment who have never captured the imagination of an audience, never mastered the fine art of manipulating people's emotions, of engendering mistrust, hatred, laughter, empathy, and finally love, all swirled into one complex and ultimately human character. I find myself deeply affected by the passing this week of David Bowie and now Alan Rickman, and it's got me thinking about the afterlife, or the land between lives, or wherever it is that we go when our last breath goes coasting into the atmosphere.

In recent months I've been plodding away at reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. To those unfamiliar with this ancient Buddhist work, it is basically a manual, a set of instructions, on how to do death. It informs the dying and the dead how to comport themselves during their passage through the portal and then through the Bardo, the land between lives. This is a place which can be confusing, terrifying, overwhelming; a place where light and dark, deities and demons, love and rage frolic side by side and can mislead the one who goes there unprepared. The Bardo is no place for the uninitiated. We who are comfortable with our dualistic, navel-gazing, stuff-hoarding existence aren't really looking for instructions on how to avoid one more lifetime spinning around the sun.  

But our newly-dead heroes, I fancy them two souls that may already have been initiated at one point or another. Doesn't the Starman seem as though he might have tripped through untold parts of the universe a time or two? and what of our dark magician--might not wily Snape have survived the dark lands, might he not have battled a few demons and toed the line of temptation? I fell into a daydream today and began wondering, fantastically, what can be going on in the Bardo with the addition of those two. I imagine Severus Snape and the Goblin King tossed about in some wild dreamscape, demons scattering, wands and codpieces and Ziggy Stardust glitter flying about, and curses growled low in British accents. I imagine each of them fierce and joyful and completely at home with both the light and the dark, madly burning away into sheer energy.

Or maybe it's a completely different scene. Perhaps they're having tea and crumpets atop the spiny back of a peaceable dragon, discussing the possibilities of being re-born as twin girls to some oppressed woman in a little-known tribe off the coast of Africa. The joys of obscurity, of living in the dust, digging down into places they've never been. Sort of gleeful to entertain these thoughts. Not so gleeful to think of them being dust themselves, which is closer to the truth, in a way. Or again, I think of the words I read not long ago in a piece called the Physicist's Eulogy, which is actually quite close to the philosophy I find in the Book of the Dead. "All the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you...and all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are (your loved ones') eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever." 

I can get on board with that. Both physics and the Tibetan Book of the Dead tell us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So no matter how terrifying the demons of the Bardo might be, nor how demoralizing and unbelievable it is that we've seen the magic of both Ziggy Stardust and Severus Snape disappear in one fell swoop--nothing ever really disappears. It just changes form, and goes on forever. 

Goodnight, sweet princes. We will keep watching the stars, in case of any stray glitter, or a spark from a wand, or a random strain of Space Oddity beamed back from a distant nebula. Because if you taught us anything, it's that possibility is infinite.