I received email today from a newspaper reporter requesting that I respond to a series of questions on heaven and hell for an article he was writing. Given the limits of space, I imagine that he will not be able to print the whole of my remarks, so I thought I would share them with you here:
Before I can answer your questions, let me be very clear about my definitions of the words I will use.
First, God. God is the Source and Substance of all that is. God manifests as and transcends all reality. God is not other than creation, nor is God limited to creation.
Second, Self. The individual is a manifestation of God. We are to God as rays of sunlight are to the sun. Sunlight is simply the sun manifest in time and space. It is not other than the sun nor is it all of the sun. You and I are rays of God. We are not all of God, nor are we other than God. This is what the Bible means when it says we are created in the image and likeness of God.
When you know who you are as the image and likeness of God you live from love with love. You embrace each moment with gratitude, and each being with justice and compassion. Living this way is heaven. Living any other way is hell.
So now let me turn to your questions:
1. Is there a heaven or hell?
Heaven and hell are states of mind. The first I call mochin d’gadlut, spacious mind, and the second mochin d’katnut, narrow mind.
When we are in spacious mind we are awake to God in, with, and as all reality; we identify with all life, and find ourselves embraced by and living from ahava rabba, infinite love. In spacious mind there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, saved or damned. There is only God manifest in infinite variety. In spacious mind we live freely, lovingly, fearlessly, with compassion and hospitality toward all we meet. This is heaven.
When we are in narrow mind we are locked in the prison of ego, and imagine ourselves to be separate from God and creation. We live in perpetual fear, and engage life without trust, love, and compassion. In narrow mind we divide and judge, calling some chosen or saved and others infidels or damned. In narrow mind differences, God’s infinite creativity, scare us, and we worship the idol of conformity. In narrow mind we imagine ourselves to be alone, afraid, and adrift. This is hell.
We move into and out of heaven and hell depending on our state of mind. The purpose of authentic spiritual practice is to open us to heaven and spacious mind. Too often, however, we worship at the altar of ego and end up in the hell of narrow mind. It has nothing to do with God rewarding or punishing us. It has everything to do with our willingness to see what is true.
2. Where do people go after they die?
The question assumes something about people that I do not assume: namely that we are entities separate from God and can therefore “go” somewhere. I do not believe this.
I am to God as a wave to the ocean. Each wave is unique and distinct, yet all waves are nothing other than the ocean in which they arise. Each being is unique and distinct, and yet not other than God who is all that is.
When a wave “dies” it simply returns to its truest nature; it becomes what it always was—the ocean. When I die, I simply return to my true nature, God. Do I “go” anywhere? No. There is nowhere to go. There is only God here, now, as me, as you, as all things rising and falling.
For people who believe that death is the doorway to heaven or hell, eternal reward or punishment, death matters. To me death does not matter. Life and how I live it matters. Death takes care of itself.
3. Why do you believe this?
I believe what I believe because of my experiences in meditation and prayer. I am not moved by doctrine or creed. I am not moved by another’s opinion, or by a teaching in a book, no matter how old or revered. There are many holy books and they say different and often contradictory things. How am I to choose which is true? I prefer to test matters for myself: to look and see what is so. In this I follow the advice of the Bible: be still and know. When I am still, when my narrow mind stops racing from distraction to distraction, I slip into spacious mind and know that God is all.
4. Describe your understanding of what is in heaven and hell.
Given that for me heaven and hell are states of mind here and now, what is in heaven is not different from what is in hell. The difference between heaven and hell is not content, but my relationship to that content.
In both heaven and hell, reality presents itself: there is you, and me, and everything else. When I am in the heavenly state of spacious mind I engage reality with absolute trust, love, compassion, justice, and equanimity. When I am in the hellish state of narrow mind I engage the same reality with absolute terror, anger, defensiveness, and violence. The reality doesn’t change. I change.
You can always tell when you and others are in heaven: you are fearless, loving, welcoming, and kind. You can always tell when you and others are in hell: you are afraid, cruel, divisive, and abusive.
5. Describe your understanding of who will be in heaven and who in hell.
We are all in heaven sometimes and we are in hell sometimes. To the extent that you know you are a manifestation of God, you are in heaven. To the extent that you imagine you are separate from God, you are in hell.
6. How do people get into heaven or hell?
We fall into the mind state of hell through ignorance of what is. We fall into the mind state of heaven by awakening to the awareness of what is.
When we are in hell we are like a man who wakes in the middle of the night to find a poisonous snake coiled next to his leg at the foot of his bed. All night long he lies awake, frozen in terror, praying with all his might that the snake not bite him. As dawn breaks he suddenly sees that the “snake” was no snake at all, but a belt that he forgot to put away when he went to bed. Once he knows the truth, the snake is gone, the fear is gone, and he is filled with joy and relief. This is heaven. The “snake” is the notion that you are other than God. Wake up and you are in heaven. Stay asleep and you are in hell. It is your choice.