Nobly to live, grandly to die.
Virtually all the world's cultures conceive of man as an ancient pilgrim on a journey involving endless cyclings of births and deaths, as he gradually seeks to follow the broader vision, the nobler way, until that day in ages to come when he will express the godhood within. Here in the West, however, in spite of a growing discontent with 'accepted' beliefs, this wider perspective of life is not generally entertained, and we tend to distrust our inherent wisdom, due primarily to our long-held materialistic approach with its concentration on the world of appearances, plus religious indoctrination and its resulting fear of the unknown.
One of the least understood and most dreaded events we encounter is death. We have been so long concerned with our individual wellbeing in the hereafter, that we have tended to overlook the here and now, not realizing that by fulfilling the daily responsibilities as they come, the hereafter will take care of itself. The belief in only one life has also contributed to a sense of futility and discouragement. As Isaac Watts is said to have quipped:
If I so soon am done,
For what was I begun?
In his parable of the Cave, Plato reminds us that
the soul of every man does possess the power of learning the truth and the organ to see it with; and that, just as one might have to turn the whole body round in order that the eye should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world, until its eye can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendour which we have called the Good. -- Republic, VII, 518
We are fortunate that at this time in our century the soul of humanity is beginning in some respects to turn its eye to see light instead of darkness, to break away from the limiting hellfire-pearly gate syndrome, as the search for truth continues, with the desire to know rather than just to believe. The current interest in religions other than Christianity has made the concept of reincarnation more acceptable. Also, recent investigations into the experiences of those near death or who have been pronounced "clinically" dead and then recovered, are corroborating in a wonderful way the knowledge which is part of the ancient wisdom tradition.
Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D. and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. in independent studies have reported similar accounts of a continuation of consciousness after 'death' from people of such widely differing religious, social and educational backgrounds as to be convincing. These have indeed helped to replace the attitude of fear and apprehension with a more rational and understanding approach to the subject. All of those interviewed (From Raymond A. Moody, Jr.'s Life After Life), with the exception of the ones who attempted suicide and were revived, found the 'death' experience beautiful, peaceful and natural. And the attempted suicides returned with a positive feeling of the futility of such an act, for they realized they escaped nothing, but merely intensified their problem. Many discovered that when the soul was out of the body, they knew a different dimension of awareness which was later difficult to describe in words. Dr. Moody points out that these experiences were not at all in a class with hallucinations. In every case there was a sound reaction akin almost to a spiritual awakening. Some, in spite of a pull to enjoy the absolute peace, felt a strong obligation to return, as though they still had an assignment to fulfill in their lives. And many were motivated to make their moments of living count for something.
Of particular interest was the reviewing of their life which was not judgmental in a harsh way, though many apparently rather expected it to be. One individual explained it as resembling "an autobiographical slide show." In numerous instances there appeared to be a being of light -- possibly man's constant inner guide, the higher self? -- who helped with warmth and understanding to elucidate the review. This replay of events is described in various ways in different religions. Modern theosophy calls it the "panoramic vision," wherein all the thoughts, feelings, actions, good, bad, and indifferent, are registered on the screen of time, bringing awareness that what we do in our lives follows after us. We learn that death is not the cessation of life, but merely change, as symbolized in the transition from chrysalis to winged butterfly. From the standpoint of the inner man, it is the beginning of a glorious adventure of the spirit.
Once we begin to view life in its wholeness, perceiving all phases of outer existence as part of the one divine force, everything begins to fit together in a most remarkable way. One sees an overall plan of incomparable beauty and synchrony down to the smallest detail, and in this pattern the spiritual ego, the actor, the true human self, "moves in eternity like a pendulum between the hours of birth and death." ( H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, p. 167.)
The relationship between life here on earth and life after death is like an equation. As we grow to understand the true purpose of our manifested existence, we begin to sense the necessity for death and its natural function in the universal scheme; and the more we contemplate its mystery and grandeur, the more we realize the depth of potential to be awakened in each human being. As we live, so will we die. There is no intermediary required to insure a just experience, as each person draws to himself his own. The equation is exact. Whatever the character of a life, so will be the afterlife. And also, whatever causes have been created in one life, will be reaped as effects in succeeding lives.
The period after death is, in other words, a world of effects rather than a world of causes, an unrolling of the reel of events that impresses on the memory the quality of these events. But so intricate and interrelated is the process, that whereas life on earth is primarily a world of causes, it is also the arena in which one must work out the results of causes sown. The sum total of causes generated in former lives helps to create the trend or circumstances of the present one.
Nature's divine economy is such that death serves many functions simultaneously. It is, of course, a necessary respite required for the psychological and spiritual restoration of the ego. It is also a time of assimilation and absorption, when all that is worthwhile from the life's experience becomes part of the soul memory, and this is carried over from life to life. Also, certain energies not finding a suitable range of expression while an entity is on earth, are expended during the afterdeath rest period. All this is quite distinct from and yet connected with the most spiritual aspect of man's constitution that is said to circulate through the celestial realms where it is at home. Actually this earth is only one of many mansions. Other cultures speak of the journeyings; of the soul after death, its travels to the various planets, and its circulations through the cosmos. There is an old Roman saying adopted by the early Christians: Dormit in astris -- He sleeps in the stars.
If we were to see the workings of nature from the inside out, they would appear as a continual flow of consciousness and we would be aware of a gradual preparedness for what lies ahead. There are no sudden changes in nature, but rather is there a faithful repetition of principles from the very great to the very small -- one cosmic law that is infinitely just and compassionate.
Sleep, for example, is a little death, and in a very real sense prepares us for the larger adventure. The Greeks spoke of sleep and death as brothers. Sleep comes as a necessary interlude between the days, to restore equilibrium to the whole being, and death provides a longer interim between lives, the length of time spent being exactly proportionate to the quality and intensity of the individual's aspirations. Those who have not generated sufficient of the higher energies would return more quickly. At the same time, those who have a deep desire to help their fellowmen would likely be drawn back to earth sooner than others who are more self-oriented. Sleep, likewise, varies in length with particular needs. The essential difference between sleep and death is that during sleep the cord of life remains intact as the connecting link for the return of the consciousness to the body.
If we were truly to understand the mysteries surrounding sleep we would have many keys to a deeper realization of death. Where do we go when we sleep, and dream? "Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, the death of each day's life, . . ." said Shakespeare. Pythagoras and others have stressed the importance of preparing oneself before going to sleep at night: reviewing the day's deeds, feeling peace of mind and heart, and harboring no hatred. This habit not only induces calmness and understanding in facing life's problems, but makes "the self-conscious realization of the events passing before the mind's eye at the moment of death far easier, quicker, and more complete." (G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 551.)
Birth and death also are like different aspects of the same spectrum of the one Life. Without the one, the other would not be. To paraphrase the saying: If the seed did not die, the plant could not come into being. The death of the physical becomes the birth of the spirit.
Both the elderly and the very young have a closeness to the world beyond from opposite ends of the line. The young have just left the world of dreams which still lingers in their atmosphere, while the thoughts of the elderly begin to reflect this same world they are soon to enter. When death comes in the natural course of events to the elderly, it can be a beautiful release, the natural fulfillment of a life well lived. In later years the focus of thought turns from an accent on outer things to the inner life, the veils between this world and the next grow thinner, and one sees a more perfect reflection of the inner self. Just as the brilliance of autumn comes before the leaves fade and drop to the ground, the bare tree all the while carrying on its inner functions until the season is right for the fresh leaves to appear again in spring, so in the older years there can be a radiance, a summation of all that has gone before, a mellowness and wisdom that presage the wondrous journey ahead.
Of a child's closeness to the soul of things, Wordsworth has left a legacy to the world in his poem "Ode on Intimations of Immortality." In explanatory notes on the thoughts motivating this work, he writes:
Nothing was more difficult for me in childhood than to admit the notion of death as a state applicable to my own being. . . . I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature.
Convinced of preexistence and the immortality of the soul, Wordsworth wrote that children come "trailing clouds of glory . . . . From God, who is our home," and that this atmosphere lingers with them in the childhood years. To him, birth into this world is a kind of death, "a sleep and a forgetting," and our soul, "our life's Star," is gradually enclosed in its "prison-house" of worldly delusions.
It is insights such as these that have prompted some to refer to our life on earth as a vale of tears. But from the standpoint of the soul, this is where we must return, through the cycle of rebirths gradually becoming by self-conscious effort the noble being we potentially are. Our earth lives can better be regarded as stages in the growth of the soul. As we go through the days and years, carving our own destiny, creating our own heavens and hells, each one of us is actually on his own self-made odyssey. As in the wanderings of Odysseus, we are continuously searching for our spiritual "home," seeking to find that marginally fine Middle Way between the perilous extremes of Scylla and Charybdis, while blown by the winds of adversity, and exploring unknown seas of experience.
There are many heartaches along the way, as we suffer and try to rise above our countless trials. But these are made lighter by the hope derived from knowing the larger view, the essential purpose, and that always there is another chance, if not in this, then in another life; and secondly, that no effort, however small, is ever wasted. At our present stage of human unfoldment, suffering is a necessary spur to growth, for through it our sympathies are widened and our character strengthened. Yet the loss of someone near and dear, especially a sudden loss, is a very real sadness, accentuated immeasurably if the individual believes that the one who has died is gone forever, and no matter what one's philosophical beliefs, time alone will bridge the gap. But the bonds of love are timeless, and in this thought lies the seed of comfort. For love is a magnetic force that holds the universe together, and life after life draws back those who feel a deep affinity for one another.
One day in eons to come, when every part of our being will have become tuned to the harmony of the universe, we will have triumphed over birth and death as we now know them, and our whole being will have become radiant with the warmth of compassion for all that lives. Only then will this particular odyssey be at an end, and a new and grander one begun.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)