Being Aware Joyfully

What happens when we die

Part 1. Background

Virtually all religions say that the journey of the spiritual soul continues on after the death of the physical body. Yet, that belief may be problematic for students today who can recite the physical elements from the Period Table but struggle to name the nine orders of angels in the celestial hierarchy and are at a loss to distinguish between "spirit” and "soul” – easy tasks for medieval children. By focussing our physical ability to detect objects, we may have diminished our spiritual intelligence for grasping ideas.

For example: discussions of post-mortem survival regularly miss the very essence of the idea of life-after-death, which is that the life is spiritual not physical – for the physical body is dead. We try to lift our thought to the spiritual next life, but discussion doesn’t escape the gravity of being in some form of body, whether it be ghostly existence or reincarnation or resurrection. It’s as if we feel naked and ashamed of the soul we are – as if we can’t face our original innocence without a physical guise – as if we can’t drop back into a body quickly enough.

This paper takes a different, spiritual approach to the idea of life-after-death. Instead of considering what may await our soul in some afterlife related to a physical body, the plan - as a kind of vast ‘thought experiment’ - is to chart a higher spiritual phase of the soul’s journey onwards to God.Initially working towards understanding the soul, or centre of ourselves, as a first-personal subject, the paper then considers what happens to that self-identity – the I Am we are – once we gain complete liberation from the conditions of physical existence.

Part 2. Introduction

This paper was written for seminar on "The Art of Living and Dying” which echoes the title of a twenty year-old book by the Tibetan Buddhist Sogyal Rinpoche. The Lama’s work is a reformulation of an earlier classic text, the Bardo Thodol or ‘Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State’ – more widely known in English by the casual title "The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which was edited by Evans-Wentz, 85 years ago, and published by OUP.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is traditionally said to be the work of Padma Sambhava, the C.8thCE Indian monk who first established Buddhism in Tibet. The Bardo Thodol apparently describes the experiences to be expected after death, during a forty-nine day intermediate period prior to being reborn into another physical body. The book is read aloud over the deceased to give guidance to the dead while they are in the state between death and reincarnation. The text contains detailed accounts of wonderful and terrifying visions of peaceful and wrathful deities. Since the deceased's awareness is disoriented without a physical body, it needs help and guidance about whether these arising images should be embraced or shunned. The advice enables the deceased to realise the true spiritual nature of their mind, and to see the benefit or disadvantage of reacting to the visions it faces. The Bardo Thodol teaches how to attain the salvation or Enlightenment of Nirvana by recognizing the heavenly realms, instead of re-entering the lower realms and continuing on in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

On a surface reading, the text offers an opportunity to advance in the spiritual journey, once we’re recently dead. Fortunately, the outer words have an inner meaning. On a deeper level of interpretation, the death and rebirth described is not physical, but spiritual – and it occurs in this lifetime. When interpreted knowledgeably, the Tibetan Book of the Dead gives insights into ways of transforming and improving our habits of consciousness in the present life. By straightening out our minds while we are alive, we can realise wisdom, peace and joy in life here-now and that same life goes on forever hereafter. Thus, the Bardo Thodol is a text for the living as well as for the dead.

As a philosopher, I don’t barrack for any one religion. I support what’s good and true in all faiths. At their best, religions are paths to the goal of Being Aware Joyfully, now and forever. My plan is to jump right into the deep end of that ultimate aspiration.

Part 3. Spirit in all things

We may have our doubts about religion, but it is the only human enterprise with a brief to deal directly with the issue of life after death. By consulting the views of religion while we’re alive, we may get a useful head start on knowing what happens when we die.All religions say we are equipped to realise the next life while still in this life. That option arises from the recognition that everything has a spiritual dimension. Once we see ‘a divine reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds’ (Huxley, p.7), then because we are part of everything, it follows that we too have a spiritual dimension. That spiritual reality, our true self or soul, is immune to physical death.

The Hindu Vedas affirm, ‘the part of us that doesn’t believe in death will never die’ (Chopra, p.274). Hence, by discovering our spiritual self while we are alive, we know what goes on when we die. Our search for our soul is assisted by the Hebrew book of Genesis, sacred text for the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Chapter 2, verse 7, tells how God formed the bodies of the first ancestors from the dust of the Earth, and then brought them to life by integrating, animating and awakening their material bodies with the formless spirit of divine breath. That sacred breath of life is our "soul”.

The same idea of breath as divine life is found in the English word atmosphere, which comes from the Sanskrit word atman meaning soul or breath. Every breath we take infuses us with the spirit of God. So, our soul is already present in us; but we don’t always recognise it, or notice it – much like our physical breath! Soul is the spiritual reality that gives us existence, life and thought. All compound things are held together by the undivided activity of soul – much the way our body and mind are held together by the breath of life.

The Source of soul is the Godhead, the One-without-another. All our questions about life, death and destiny are answered by the ultimate reality of the Godhead, the One who creates and keeps everything in the universe. The only way to access that spiritual Source is through the spiritual dimension of things, so let’s consider the nature of that spiritual dimension.

Part 4. Spirit is space

Spirit is formless and unmanifest. It is not physical and cannot be detected with our physical senses. Nor can it be measured with scientific instruments, for they merely extend the range of our physical senses and don’t detect anything qualitatively different. When we look round with ordinary senses the world appears to consist in lots of separate things with empty space between them. Since distance separates things in the world we can tell the limits and dimensions of those things and distinguish them from one another because of the empty space between them. Above our head to the ceiling or the sky we see nothing but empty space; so, too, between the planets round the Sun and between the stars and the galaxies in the universe, there seems to be just empty space. Visible reality is a relatively tiny sum of matter located in an otherwise vast emptiness. And yet, we know the universe includes much that is too refined for our senses to detect. It’s common knowledge that our eyes and ears and other sense organs register only a narrow range of existing things. For example: dogs can hear sounds and insects feel vibrations too subtle for us. Visible light, too, is just a slim slice of the electro-magnetic radiation spectrum which extends beyond infrared and ultraviolet to TV and radio waves, gamma rays and the ubiquitous cosmic microwave background radiation. If you can spare a moment for a practical exercise: place the palms of your hands close to your cheeks. Can you feel the heat radiating from your body? Heat is invisible light that we can feel. Our skin burns from UV light we can’t feel or see. On the planet’s surface, so-called "empty” space is filled with unseen air and fragrant molecules. While throughout the reaches of the cosmos there is not only invisible light, but gravity.Space isn’t really empty at all. Although we ordinarily think it is, in fact space is filled to overflowing with things that our physical senses just don’t detect. Indeed, astrophysicists now say that 95% of the universe is made from dark matter and dark energy that doesn’t show up on our scientific instruments. But we know that invisible reality is there and we know what it does, for it has detectable effects on the things that are visible. By analogy: we can shake a box, and when it rattles we know there’s something inside; we can even determine the weight and shape of the unknown content.So: what makes us think that the slim slice of the 5% of the universe we can see is representative and the norm for the true nature of the vast proportion we can’t see? Our powers of reason suggest, loud and clear, that the world revealed by our senses (whether alone or technologically aided) is far from the true nature of reality as whole. If we could see all frequencies of EM radiation, feel gravity waves from different objects washing over us like the complex variety of tastes in a sophisticated wine, hear the symphony of strong and weak nuclear forces vibrating within and between atoms…That vision of undiminished reality would be both beautiful and frightening, worthy of personifying in terms of peaceful and wrathful deities. Our ordinary sense of just being frail physical creatures, isolated by the limiting conditions of space and time, would be overwhelmed and fried by facing the fullness of all that exists. And yet, reason and awareness reveal there is more to reality than just what is physically visible. So, why would we believe our true identity, is nothing more than just what we can physically see?

Part 5. From separation to connection

The classical physics of Isaac Newton held sway over western thought for four hundred years with its insistence that everything is fundamentally made from countless separate bits of matter in random motion. Charles Darwin theorised how a lifeless atomistic universe could evolve life and mind. Albert Einstein, however, proposed that ultimately matter is energy – E = mc2. And the New Physics of quantum mechanics developed out of the recognition that energy itself, in the elementary form of electrons, isn’t made from separate parts or particles at all. Rather, all energy is one single integrated wave-field. That Quantum Wave Field is like an ocean of invisible light. It curves upon itself to create areas of density. These folds flock together to form particles, which amass into objects evident to our enhancing instruments and our limited senses. Observable objects thus seem to be separate from one another because the absence of density between them registers to our senses as empty space. Because we can’t see anything between things that we can see, we naturally think there is nothing there. That partial perception produces a view of things as separate from each other, so reality looks mostly empty. What appears as empty space is actually the unseen wave field. Imagine a single sheet of invisibly clear plastic, which can only be detected by the wrinkles in its surface. We can think of the visible universe as wrinkles or folds in the invisible quantum fabric, multiple interference patterns in one energy field. The visible distortions we tend to see as separate things are actually connected parts of one and the same thing we can’t see.Now, I’m not a scientist, but I admire theories in physics that promote insight into metaphysics. I’d say the idea that "everything is connected” is the single most important scientific advance in the last four hundred years. If each thing is connected to all other things, then basically there’s only one thing. Think about that for a moment.

Part 6. The Cosmos knows we’re here

The New Physics calls that universal singularity the quantum wave field. It’s the ground of being within which each and everything arises. It differs, metaphysically, from the Newtonian universe in two breathtakingly important ways. One, it’s not a chaos of separate atoms but one single indivisible reality; and, two, it’s not basically lifeless and mindless but intrinsically alive and aware. As particle physicist Henry P. Stapp writes: the most radical shift wrought by C.20th quantum physics is the explicit introduction of "Mind” into the basic structure of the universe. Human experience is elevated from the role of a detached observer to that of the fundamental element of interest.From this point of view, Sir James Jeans said: ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it [Mind] as the creator and governor of this [material] realm’. The Australian plant biochemist John Kirk puts it with stark simplicity: in human beings, he says, ‘the universe has become aware of its own existence. We are the conscious mind of the universe.’I’d agree with that. But why should we think human consciousness is the only window of awareness the universe has on itself? If the universe knows itself in our experience, then why shouldn’t it also know itself (in other ways) in the experience of everything else?Past efforts to explain that life and mind just happen by accident and don’t really belong in the universe are really quite absurd. We may well feel insecure in the natural world and alienated from other people. But that needn’t be because we’re an evolutionary accident in an atomistic, lifeless and meaningless reality. Our feelings of existential anxiety may well be clues from the universe itself, hints that lure us to the ceaseless joy we find when reconnected to the deep true nature of the one life and mind in everything. That true nature is the divine reality present in all things and lives and minds, including our individual body, breathe and thought. In traditional religion and philosophy, that fundamental ground of Being for all beings is called the "mind of God.” Everything that exists, including us, is a thought in that limitless and unchanging mind. The ceaseless and all-encompassing mind has its own Source in "The One” whose mind it is, The One who is the Self of the Universe, The One who is the source of everything itself – The One who is present in everything it thinks, just as we ourselves are present in everything we think – that presence is the personal Self or "I am” in All. The Chandogya Upanishad (6: 2) calls the Source-Self of the universe ‘the One without a second’. It is the ultimate reality and supreme identity western faiths refer to as the Godhead. That Source is the first-personal-subject who thinks the thoughts that appear in its mind as the things we see in the world. That Source is The One who knows itself in our consciousness of the universe, for the Source-Self is all that really exists.

Part 7. All into One

Let’s draw those elements together to consider what happens when we die.There’s only one divine reality. It’s the energy that drives the universe. Not only is it alive but it’s also aware; and it’s present in everything, including us. We experience it as the mechanical forces that bind bits of cosmic dust into bodies, the vital impulses that power our life processes, and the self-activity of consciousness by which we know our own thoughts and perceptions. Our individual body ceases to be enlivened by that universal energy at death. But the living and aware energy itself – including the first-personal subject of it, The One whose life and mind it is – doesn’t cease to exist. The undivided energy that creates and sustains everything – and knows itself as the "I Am” in All – continues on regardless. As Lord Krishna says to Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Adorable One”, 2, 18): ‘Bodies are said to die, but That Which possess the body is eternal.’ And each one of us knows that eternal subject every waking moment of our lives as the "I Am” that we are.For 50 or 100 years we are graced with life as one of those rare placental mammals who have the capacity to reflect on their experience of awareness. And by that means, we can find our way back to our Source, in the divine origin of everything. Each of us is a reflection of the divine, a bright idea God has in mind. Our present passes away, but God is a hoarder who doesn’t let anything go. Here-now, while we’re alive, we’re in the forefront of God’s mind, and God is in the back of ours. In dying, we swap places. Hereafter, God fully occupies the front of our mind, and we rest in peace in the back of God’s mind – not gone, not forgotten, but always present in the omniscience of God, much as our own departed loved ones are never too far from present in our mind. If we really want to know that we’re seen by God all the time, then we can start right now by working on seeing God all the time. Hoda hafiz says the Qur’an, Remember God. Remember who you are in every thought you think. God is The One who thinks that thought. The "I Am” you are (and who you have always been) had no beginning and will have no end. As Krishna says to Arjuna (2, 12): ‘There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you… Nor is there any future in which we will cease to be.’ Heed, if you will, this wise counsel from Edward Carpenter (Ferguson, p.31f): If you inhabit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below or behind thought… and a realisation of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed. And since the ordinary consciousness, with which we are concerned in ordinary life, is before all things founded on the little local self… it follows that to pass out of that is to die to the ordinary self and the ordinary world. It is to die in the ordinary sense, but in another, it is to wake up and find that the ‘I’, one’s real, most intimate self, pervades the universe and all other beings. So great, so splendid, is this experience, that it may be said that all minor questions and doubts fall away in the face of it; and certain it is that in thousands and thousands of cases, the fact of its having come even once to an individual has completely revolutionised his subsequent life and outlook on the world. And a brief word from David Fideler (Zimmern: p.21), writing on the philosopher’s ascent to the ultimate unity of God: ‘By dying to the senses, "the rushing stream of outward things (Plato),” the philosopher moves towards identification with the omnipresent higher strata of his being which has been obscured by his immersion in the confusion and multiplicity of the external world.’

Part 8. What happens when we die

At physical death it’s "Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust”, as the Book of Common Prayer laments – following Genesis 3:19, 18:27; Psalm 103: 14. And if we never discover anything that isn’t physical – never find the spiritual reality of the I Am we’ve always believed ourselves to be – then, in terms of everything we recognise, at death we effectively cease to exist. But, in the beginning, dust was brought to life and thought by spirit. So there must be more to discover than just ashes. St. Bonaventure directs us to notice ‘the first thing on which our intelligence alights, and without which we could not know anything at all.’ That first thing, which all our lives we’ve taken for granted in knowing what we think and say and do, is the eternal consciousness of the universe, aware of itself, in our individual experience. And ‘if we bring forth what is within us, what is within us will save us,’ says Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas – or, as George Burns puts it in Oh. God! (1977): "Think God!!” What happens when we die is that we awaken from the physical dream of seeing many separate things in a vast expanse of empty space. We realise that we and others and the space between are all the conscious mind of the universe. We return to The One whose mind it is – the infinite and eternal light that created the universe, The One from which we first came and in which we have always really had our every breath and thought. Hence the advice so often given by those well versed in the art of living and dying: in so far as we remember to do so, embrace the luminous aspects of both the peaceful and the wrathful deities, and "Go Towards the Light” – for, in reality, the very light of consciousness itself is the immensely radiant loving face of God, who’s always so happy to see us… regardless of what we might think to the contrary, about God or ourselves.


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