To Sleep: Perchance to Dream

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

Humane behavior is more valued today than it used to be. There is a kindlier, more understanding attitude toward frailty and weakness: we no longer beat horses to death to force them to put forth their ultimate effort; the erring daughter is no longer thrust out into the snow for having "disgraced the family." In fact, frailty and weakness are exploited blatantly in advertising and marketing to make money for commercial enterprises that cater to voracious public appetites. The luxuries of the past have become the necessities of the present -- so much so that pleasure and comfort are demanded to a degree that often makes vice masquerade as virtue. Perhaps we are carrying this attitude too far.

In everything, from cookery to the skills of medicine and pharmaceutical research, industrial society panders to an increasingly hedonistic life-style whose consequences we shortsightedly believe we can escape. Medical science has made remarkable advances in the past few decades. Some of these advances have far outreached the human instinctive sense of right and wrong. Of course there is nothing immoral in enjoying natural pleasures in moderation. Healthy exercise and wholesome food are natural and should be enjoyed; this applies to many natural appetites. The key is moderation, a quality that has been woefully neglected in a society where anything pleasurable is carried to its ultimate so that extremes become the norm.

There is greater individual freedom than we have known in any age in history. It is fitting that each one has the right to govern himself without external pressure, but we have grown to expect that "anything goes." Life has become so prized that it is prolonged at any cost, as though we really believed we could live forever in our present bodies. At the same time suicides are on the rise, especially among the young, who sense a lack of purpose in their lives; they are beset by fears of a nuclear disaster, of AIDS, and feel helpless to remedy situations that arise, often from international frictions far beyond their control. They are acutely aware of the lack of guidance that, traditionally, older generations should be able to provide. Some even convince themselves that existence is subject to our volition: while it suits us to live, we live; when it becomes too hard to cope with events that crowd in upon us, we look for an easy way to die. The human soul, recalcitrant and undisciplined, seeing but the surface of life's fathomless depths, often wants only to enjoy what is pleasing and may even feel justified in bailing out when the going gets tough.

This disregard for the sanctity of life and the possible consequences of desecrating it is due largely to the attitude that people are merely bodies. The dweller in the body is generally overlooked or regarded as of no account. We need to recognize that consciousness is not just a haphazard occurrence arising from a concatenation of brain cells but a powerful force which has gathered momentum through ages. It would be wise to consider where all that energy is going when we no longer dominate it. Perhaps we should then have a care for the effects it has on other individuals and on our own future. Yet we are aware that all our living is undertaken by our consciousness -- without it we should be unaware and lacking the one essential that constitutes human life, the realization of our own existence.

We know we are alive in sleep and that the consciousness is active even when out of the body, so we may reasonably expect to be aware also in that deep sleep which follows death. When the body is discarded, its component lives go their separate ways. Where do the forces go that animated the form --- the violent passions, the absorbing interests, the thoughts, sublime and base, that occupied the mind in life? How can the powerful forces that impelled all our life's actions cease to be, when we know that energy is indestructible? What dreams ensue when the potencies of the soul are released from the imprisoning form? This alone should make us stop and ponder. It is echoed by Shakespeare in Hamlet's soliloquy: "To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause."

There is a controversy raging as to the advisability of legalizing euthanasia when a body has become so diseased as to be unbearably painful. Aside from the recognized fact that acceptance of the practice of euthanasia would open a door to possible, even probable abuse, there are other considerations that need to be thoroughly explored. While it is heartbreaking to see a suffering parent or friend undergoing an agonizing terminal illness, and the arguments for ending such a life are persuasive, could we see the long-range causes from the unknown past which may have brought about the diseased condition, we might suffer even more in the knowledge that the agony, if artificially ended, could conceivably recur, and that depriving the soul of its Gethsemane might be condemning the sufferer to further such experiences until the purgation is complete. Nor must we overlook the possibility that a brave soul may undergo seemingly unbearable suffering by choice, with the conscious aim of conquering some hidden weakness or of acquiring true empathy with others in similar distress and firsthand knowledge of their suffering. As we cannot know the underlying causes that bring about such a condition, we can only share the pain and alleviate it as much as possible.

No one has the right to terminate life, his own or another's. This instinct has extended to our younger brothers, the animals, so that many people have espoused vegetarianism. The world's many wisdom-traditions are unanimous in regarding life as a sacred privilege to be treasured and respected.

The physician, confronted with life-or-death decisions he instinctively feels he has no right to make, faces an acute problem. In one case he feels obliged to prolong a life that as far as he can judge serves no purpose when the patient is brain-dead; in another he sincerely feels that a suffering patient would be better off dead. How is he to resolve his doubts? How can he know what his patient will undergo when the last breath is exhaled?

There is no easy answer but, having thought for the inner person more than for the body, he can make an educated decision. Nature is a resourceful guide. Where life reaches a natural term, its artificial prolongation by "heroic measures" serves no useful purpose; where it is a burden to the patient and his family, every effort should be made to relieve pain, while permitting the soul to carry its life to a natural conclusion, thereby ensuring that the cause of the suffering is spent and the agony will not be likely to recur.

When we see and hear about abominable crimes committed and permitted, we reasonably expect that the perpetrators have lessons to learn and sorrows to face that are proportionate to their character and actions; looking at the other side, we see tragic griefs that assail many of our fellow human beings, and we must assume that these have a cause in lessons still to be learned. A murderer is justly brought to trial and should be taught and given the opportunity to make amends for his misdeed -- not through execution by a vengeful society which lacks the means to rehabilitate and educate, but by being made aware of the sorrow he has caused and of the deterioration of his own nature that results. None of us is free from disharmony carried over from a distant past, just as none of us is devoid of joys seemingly undeserved, which we may suppose to have resulted from unrecognized merit.

Death is part of life. We live in many worlds and our sojourn on this little planet is like a pause at a whistle stop, one of many stations on our endless journey. Soon we must go on to other worlds of experience, to return in due course for another class in earth's school. The lives we live in other states of consciousness are necessarily tinged with the coloration we have given them by our former choices. With every experience we gain a little increment of wisdom, which is the human version of the gods' task of gradually raising material realms to spiritual status.

We undergo our schooling in many mansions of the universe. No experience is wasted, nor can any be bypassed. The reincarnating ego undergoes every kind of event; some we enjoy, others displease us, but both kinds are indispensable to the growing awareness. Many who have undergone great suffering confirm that more understanding grows out of the dark nights of sorrow than in the palaces of pleasure. Often they have chosen the difficult path and know their gain to have been immeasurable. Karma automatically provides the exact conditions which will enhance the burgeoning of soul wisdom, and whether we like the events or shrink from them, the awakening of understanding will take place by whatever means our karma prescribes. We cannot avoid or undo the pain that often accompanies growth, nor can we be unmoved by the hurt that assails us or our companions on the way. "Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin" is a truism and cannot be ignored. What constitutes a deed of mercy must differ with every case and occasion. Each one must decide between appropriate sentiment and maudlin sentimentality, choosing between longterm benefits or ills.

What we need most is vision: the vision of the inner god whose purpose is paramount over personal preference. We can be helped by considering that grand example when the avatara of the Western world left the decision to his divine Father: "If this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done" (Matthew 26:42). No sorrow marred this choice, no hesitation, for the initiate knew his inner triumph and oneness with the divine soul in all.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)

Death Menu

Issues Menu