There are two stories of heaven and hell that I love. The first comes from the Zen tradition.

A wise teacher is sitting in meditation when a warrior barges into the hall, strides up to the teacher, and bellows “if you are so wise, then teach me the difference between heaven and hell.” The teacher looks up silently for a moment and then speaks. “How could I possibly teach anything to an idiotic, barbaric warthog.” The warrior is enraged and lifts his sword above his head, prepared to strike and kill. The teacher looks up again and says simply “that is hell.” The warrior is struck with clarity and sits down next to the teacher to learn. The teacher says gently “and this is heaven.”

The second story is credited to the Jewish tradition, and it shows up in many religious teachings. It is known as the allegory of the long spoons.

A person is taken on a tour where he is shown to a door that is labeled “Hell.” Inside is a huge banquet table piled high with beautiful and delicious food. Each person at the table is holding a long spoon, and their elbows are unable to bend. There they are in the midst of incredible abundance, and yet they are starving to death. The tour moves down the hall to the next door with a sign that reads “Heaven.” Inside, the scene is almost the same – tables full of food, long spoons, and fused elbows. However, in this room, the people are happily feeding each other across the table. 

In the Christian tradition, there is much written about Heaven and Hell. Many will disagree with me, but I believe that Christ was not speaking of places, but of states of being. I believe that he was teaching that when we protect our ego and defend our ideas and opinions in ways that do harm to self and others – when indulging our passing desires is prioritized over the needs of others – that is hell. Conversely, when we transcend our momentary urges and cravings, connect with the humanity all around us, and cultivate unconditional love in the face of anger, fear, frustration or resentment, then our experience is heavenly.

It can be very useful to consider heaven and hell as metaphors for innerpersonal and interpersonal experience, rather than thinking of them as physical locations where we arrive someday. It seems to me that if there is a place we go when we die (and I have absolutely no idea whether this is true or not), that focusing on how we live is the key.

And thinking of heaven and hell this way can guide a daily practice of paying attention, cultivating compassion, choosing peaceful and purposeful actions, and loosening our grip on our harsh judgments of ourselves and others. We can practice a life of awareness, acceptance, and kindness, and have faith in what comes next.