Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. -- 2 Corinthians 4:16
For centuries death has been a cause of preoccupation and fear. Too long we have orphaned ourselves from nature and regarded death as an intruder rather than an experience vital to our total expression. In spite of investigations penetrating into the marvels of the invisible world, we tend to theorize rather than feel our inner ties with the whole of nature. There is no greater need today than a more general acceptance of the spiritual heritage once universally known: the divine oneness of all life, and the laws of cycles, rebirth, and karma. These form the groundwork of existence. In the context of these laws, death is not the end, but a temporary transition into a different phase of life.
Everything proceeds from the invisible to the visible, including the human soul, which is on a much grander journey than our limited life span on earth would lead us to believe. For ages we have been experiencing a continuum of births, deaths, and rebirths on this planet that has brought us to our present stage. This involves the responsibility of living up to our considerable potential, with a heart capable of feeling deeply, a mind that can engage in profound contemplation on the vast mysteries of life, and a soul able to encompass all beings in its concern.
Our problems and contradictory tendencies stem from duality, from lower and higher elements within us that are often in conflict. Our main focus of attention is in the impermanent, I-am-I, egocentric aspect that dissipates gradually at the time of death. This personality creates illusions when not influenced by our higher nature, thus preventing us from seeing things as they are. As Einstein remarks:
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal decisions and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.
The thrust of our human cycle of endeavor centers around learning to distinguish between illusions that blind and limit our vision, and reality that reveals the dimensions of our nature and the wholeness of life's purpose. Our true identity is the reincarnating ego or human soul, the creative and perceptive mind which is the immortal pilgrim seeking to become one with our higher self or inner god.
Death has been referred to as a perfect sleep, and sleep as a little or imperfect death. In both, the quality of the experience is individual with each of us, dependent on where in the inner realms we are magnetically drawn. The Greeks have a saying, "Sleep and death are brothers," and in their Mystery dramas of old the relationship between sleep and death was emphasized. Nature is merciful in preparing us well for every stage of our inward journey, not only through sleep, but through our soul memory from past encounters with death as well. In sleep, when we lose our waking consciousness, we are watched over by the higher self and are closer to it when receptive to its influence. It is possible to find answers to serious problems when thinking about them before retiring, because the guidance of the higher nature during sleep can have a more direct influence when freed from the active brain-mind. After death we are still ourselves, and the experience is the result of what we have thought, felt, and done on earth, just as our destiny on earth is the result of what we have karmically created in the previous life or lives.
Why do we sleep, and why do we die? Primarily, of course, because we are following the law of all beings, requiring cycles of repose as well as activity -- our particular need being to restore equilibrium. If after death we were to incarnate immediately, we would be as one who has gone days without sleep, physically exhausted and in a mental fog. So the length of time required for rest at night, or between lives, is dependent on the needs of the individual. There is one important difference between sleep and death: in sleep the thread of radiance that links all aspects of our being remains intact, allowing the soul to return; but in death, this link is broken, and the body dies.
Why some live to be one hundred or more, while babies die before they have had time to breathe their first breath on this earth, is not readily understood. We die because karmically it is our time to do so, and because the higher self must periodically be freed to come into its own, while the soul needs a respite, with sufficient opportunity to absorb the essence of its experience. The average time required for the different aspects of our nature to be fulfilled in this afterdeath phase is said to be at least several hundred years. On the other hand, when the very young die, they have not created a need for this experience and return to earth very soon.
In recent decades much valuable research by various doctors has given considerable scientific validity to Near Death Experiences (NDEs). These investigations parallel to a remarkable degree the world's wisdom on afterdeath experiences and have helped form a bridge toward understanding the state of consciousness after death. Though each individual's experience is unique, there are significant similarities. Almost all mention seeing a being of light who is kind, nonjudgmental, and very wise. Dr. Raymond Moody, a pioneer in this field, observed from his interviews that the being of light engaged in a Socratic type of questioning, "leading one on to pursue the truth himself." This is in itself enlightening, as the whole trend at this point in our evolution is to encourage self-reliance. This being of light, variously interpreted as God, Jesus, an angel, or a being in white, may in fact be our higher self, our guardian and companion. Quite a few speak of having seen a panoramic review. This is the first of two or even three such visions of the reincarnating ego after death where these images are reviewed with insights from the higher self, every event in the life just ended being unreeled like a film from beginning to end. The panoramic review that occurs just before the reincarnating ego is ready to return to earth, includes a preview of what is to come. (Cf. G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, "Death and the Circulations of the Cosmos" I & II, pp. 535-641.) Almost all who have undergone an NDE feel wiser, with a positive impression that death is beautiful and nothing to fear. All find that the essence of the experience stays with them, giving them a renewed sense of purpose and responsibility, reverence for life, and more sensitivity to others' needs. Their return is made possible, as in sleep, because the thread of radiance is still connected, however faintly.
Since suicide is of growing concern today, particularly noteworthy is a mention by pediatrician Melvin Morse, MD, of two children -- a boy of 11 years and a girl of 7 -- who were so desperate about their abusive treatment at home that they attempted to take their lives. Their encounters with the being of light were the kindest experience they had thus far had. The boy was questioned in a direct but understanding way: "Why did you try to take your life?," throwing the incident back on himself, and he was told he must return and see what he could do on his own to help his situation. In the little girl's case, she was first enfolded by what appeared to be a big umbrella and everything was very dark; later she saw the being of light who stated firmly: "You've made a mistake. Your life is not yours to take. You must go back." Furthermore she was told she must resolve her own problem. This is quite a challenging bit of advice for a 7-year-old to grasp. She suffered intensely, going in and out of a coma for some time. Eventually her favorite apple tree covered with ice appeared to her; then she saw the tree in full leaf, and pictured herself sitting under it in summer eating an apple. She saw this as a wholeness, how things were then in winter, and how they would be in summer. This was the slender thread of hope she needed. She finally returned to her body and underwent a long recovery process. The incident changed her approach to life, she began to stand up to injustices, and now, years later, she is happily married, with three children who are surrounded with the love she never had as a child. She wears an umbrella on a charm necklace to remind her that "When you hurt yourself, everything is hurt." (Closer to the Light, Melvin Morse, M.D., with Paul Perry, Ivy Books, New York, pp. 184-8.) Does this not suggest that children are old souls in young bodies, wise beyond their years, with a long background of experience behind them?
Melvin Morse reflects on his decade of near-death research:
It has changed everything in my life, including my views on medicine, the way I see society, and even the way I deal with my family. . . .
All these years later I accept what the ancients knew: All men must die and death is not to be feared. There is a Light that we will all experience after death, and that Light represents joy, peace, and unconditional love.
He is convinced "there is actually a soul within each of us, independent of brain tissue." (Ibid., pp. 197-8.) Other physicians have reached this conclusion. The famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield late in his life determined that mind or consciousness must survive the brain. This is a step closer to a holistic approach which today is slowly changing the attitude of many health professionals toward the ill and dying.
The questions and comments of the being of light verify the traditional wisdom about suicide, and euthanasia would also fall into this category. It is understandable that people in great agony wish to be relieved of their suffering, but medical science has helped to ease difficulties considerably, especially if one is fortunate enough to be in a hospice, or at home in a caring situation, thus lessening anxieties as well. Unfortunately, modern medical practices often tend to heighten the anguish absent in earlier times, by artificially prolonging life. Still, taking our own life is not the answer. By so doing we bring about problems not only for those around us, but for our own future. The influence of such a decision is far wider than we might imagine. We control our destiny only within the framework of greater universal laws of which we are a part, operated by intelligences far wiser than we yet are. There is indeed divine purpose to all life and, as self-conscious beings with the power of choice, we are responsible for what happens to us in death as in life.
Many dread the process of dying more than death itself, and understandably so, because often it involves much pain. Knowledge of the law of karma, however, helps one to bear suffering with more equanimity. One friend in particular comes to mind who had an unusually painful form of cancer and faced his suffering courageously and philosophically without complaint. Believing in karma, he was prepared to drink to the last drop what the cup of life had in store for him. After my friend died his doctor told me that he had never witnessed such a fine attitude in all his years of practice, and it had left an indelible impression. So it is that when we accept what comes to us rather than try to escape it, we fulfill our destiny, making inner conquests and unconsciously helping others.
James Barrie wrote: "The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he hoped to make it." However unrealized some of our aspirations, we must hold to our ideals and continue to reach for the unreachable. Perhaps the saddest example of unfulfillment is an individual who, with the imminence of death, suddenly realizes that life was an emptiness, focused almost totally on the material plane. But late as this realization occurs, it is bound to have some impact on the succeeding incarnation. In facing our destiny squarely, we are given various types of opportunities to learn, and to bring out latent strengths. Suffering and loss through death of family and friends turn thoughts inward, awakening us to the real causes of life, until gradually we become more responsive to the trials and needs of others, as well as attaining deeper perceptions of our own.
We leave this earth with unfinished business of many kinds, such as discovering more of our latent possibilities, and resolving relationships. Inwardly we are never separated from those we love. Whatever our memories of them, the finest and most meaningful will be experienced after death. Where there have been deep bonds we are bound to be together again and again, for love is eternal.
Our interconnectedness with all living things is a marvel that is at once revealing and amazing. We share aspects of nature's seasons, and elements of all the kingdoms, as well as of the planets and stars. Scientists have intimated that every flutter of a butterfly's wings stirs the cosmos, and can affect the weather; what then of the influence of our thoughts on ourselves, humanity, and our living earth? With this background, how can we entertain the idea that human beings are some maverick species unrelated to the mainstream of nature's universal operations? It is vital that we see the inescapable wholeness of life, with the vibrant force of divinity animating all things and prompting continual change, renewal, and the forward progress of evolution.
There is no death, only change in the immortal soul's mansions of experience. As Victor Hugo suggests, the death of the body here on earth "closes on the twilight," but it "opens on the dawn" of greater realization of the spirit, "the eternal spring" in the heart. At its deepest level, death will remain the mystery of mysteries until we are able to discover its wonder for ourselves. In the meantime, as we seek to live in the inner realities of our being, new windows of revelation will continue to open while we are here on earth, and correspondingly in the afterdeath experience. One day we will join those wise ones who have mastered themselves and have self-consciously traversed the spheres after death. Then we may ask with the apostle Paul, "O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?"
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)