In those parts of the country where seasons register as distinct climatic changes, just a few years of childhood allow a person to know that seasons are changes; that they are reliable to appear, rise to a midpoint, then move into a subsequent season; that they carry and project their own distinctive energy, warmth, fierceness, and moods. People reflect these seasons with the exuberance of spring, the laze and mellowness of summer, productiveness of fruit-bearing in autumn, and the quiet cold waiting during winter for yet another spring. The signs are clear, but the emotions they awaken in us are modified by attitude and depth of understanding.
In my early observations of the graduations of seasons, it was autumn which evoked the strongest feelings. When we turned the calendar page to September, and donned shoes for school after a barefoot summer, it was autumn. After the first "killing frost," as the farmers said, we knew summer was gone. Nature gave us clear signs. The gardens turned black with dying vines and plants; melons and squash lay exposed, begging to be rescued; corn fields became yellow and gaunt looking. There was a smell of bonfires in the air even when there were no fires. Sounds seemed closer, as distant mooing cattle and barking dogs seemed close at hand. There was a solemnity and ominousness about this season that haunted me as I'd watch the frosted branches wilt under the morning sun; and again it would creep over me as night settled in too early. In my heart I imagined it to be the season of death, a season to get through despite risking the bleakness of winter.
How correct was my intuition that autumn is the season of death, but that death and autumn certainly need not carry gloom and doom with them. They are for each of us a fruit-bearing season, the season of dropping off all superfluities, the season when the senses can detect our proximity to the divine essence, smell sweet scents, hear close and stirring sounds, and see visions never imagined.
At one time, the suggestion that death is a duration had a strange connotation to me. The expressions sudden death, gradual death, and lingering death conveyed the length of time for the physical to separate from its lifelong companion, the soul. All subsequent effects of this separation, I referred to as after death. Consequently, the finality of this separation and the total uncertainty of this so-called after-death era, loomed as an event to be fully prepared for, and best prepared for in the framework of fear. No wonder I dreaded death, felt angry at its treachery, looked suspiciously at it, and held it at bay with all possible means.
Theosophy with its fear-dispelling teachings helped me connect death with the concept of "season," flowing out of and into the other seasons of birth and life. It began with testing the saying that sleep is a short death, and death is a long, long sleep. The element of fear is far from sleep; sleep is restful, restorative, refreshing — sometimes even adventurous. I would not delay sleep because of fear, since in sleep we are free to wander in the wonderland of dreams. Fear has no place in the realization that "the nighttime of the body is the daytime of the soul." The logic reflected in the cycle of sleeping, waking, and rising to activity gave easy credence to ward understanding the larger cycle. I move into the death season and, when this is completed, I am drawn earthward through physical birth and awake to the full day of a subsequent life. This is reincarnation.
But what goes on in the heart of the death season? The reawakened day of life is quite evident to us at this point in our evolution. Our senses, emotions, and developing mental concepts are sufficient for this stage, our humanhood on earth — but what do these same faculties do, experience, or learn as we slip into the death period? Can we find answers in accounts given about "after-death experiences" by authors such as Raymond Moody, Sylvia Cranston, Elisabeth Kubler Ross? Do they not portray death from this side? Who is there to tell us of death as death, in death? Will we need to rely on earth-side dreams, and continue to draw a parallel?
Charles J. Ryan and Lydia Ross speak of the mystery of death thus:
Birth and death are only names for that mystic curtain that rises and falls as we come and go upon the visible stage of life. Our eyes can neither see, nor see through, this ethereal veil that separates the shifting scenes of this world from the greater realities of invisible realms beyond . . . the parts we play here are at best only pale, distorted copies of the splendid experiences of the inner Self.
In very truth our higher principles are not less, but far more, consciously alive after the body dies. Then they are free to wing their way back again to their native home and to live there in an exalted sense of spiritual being. For every part of our composite nature — from the physical which is visible, to the spiritual, which is invisible — has its own place somewhere in the boundless universe to which we human atoms belong. — Lydia Ross & Charles J. Ryan, Theosophia: An Introduction, Point Loma Publications, 1974, p. 30.
It appears to me that it requires the dropping away of the vestures of the earth stage which enables the entity to penetrate the veils of our being. These vestures or principles are seven in number. The most spiritual principle is atman, a ray of pure universal spirit. Atman is reflected in buddhi, which is pure intelligence, wisdom, and love. Next is manas, the thinker in man. These highly spiritual and ethereal principles are divine in origin. The less ethereal principles are kama (desire principle), prana (the sustaining force), the astral body, and physical body. All these more material vehicles are temporary, drawn from the animal-vital qualities in nature.
At death the pranic force that holds this sevenfold human universe together releases its support and, like the implosion of a building ready for its demise, this incarnated union folds into itself, thus releasing first its physical body; then gradually continuing to free the astral, ethereal, and spiritual atoms to the boundless universe. Leoline Wright writes about the disembodiment process:
Upon the withdrawal of the Higher Triad and the breaking up of the lower principles, the kama (desire) is, so to say, separated out as a bundle of desire energies. It is soulless of course, for the higher triad, the real self has gone; but it will persist for a longer or shorter time according as the passional selfish nature of the man was encouraged, or was controlled and refined, during the life just ended. — Leoline L. Wright, After Death — What?, Point Loma Publications, 1974, p. 21.
Nature takes care that death's rest and restoration period is not marred by that energy bundle known as desire. In earth life it served us well or ill depending on whether we used it as incentive to learn and grow, or allowed it to entangle us with urges leading only to self-gratification. At this stage in death, nature untwines the desires that confine, and gives wing-space to those that fly heavenward. It has provided a place for this to happen: kama-loka (desire world), the whole psychological realm extending in consciousness between earth life and the heaven-world, known in theosophy as devachan.
It is on this semi-material plane which encloses our physical globe that a second death takes place. It is a gradual process, and for the average human being is entirely unconscious — we are no more aware of it than we are of the daily and quite normal and healthy breakdown of the tissues of the body and the more subtle changes taking place in our character. It is said that the bundle of energies called the desire body is instinctual only.
Is it at this point in the death journey that artists, poets, storytellers, and composers depict glorious entrances into the indescribable — some in color, some in the meter of poetry, others with imaginative folklore, and still others in ecstatic symphonies? Each with his own perception and talent has sought to lead the soul through the veils into the anticipated bliss of devachan. By this time the appropriate detachments have occurred; and the longing for fruition of the spiritual aspects of earth experiences creates that golden stair and ensemble of notes that only the spirit can envision. "There is nothing left within us to suffer for we are living then in the light and purity of the harmonious realms of spirit. And over us is the divine aegis of the Spiritual Self," Wright reminds us (Ibid., p. 29).
As I reflect on the teachings I received in catechism, I believe that it was this blissful step in the death season that was expected immediately upon the death of the body — dependent solely on the soul's condition of repentance, heroics, or state of grace. Today it is eminently clear to me that such immediate bliss could never be enjoyed (may I say, endured) because the quality of the being at that moment would still be too coarse, too encumbered, too distracted. But when gradually freed, purified, and one-pointed, the higher aspects of our self, the self-conscious, reincarnating ego, is withdrawn into the bosom of its loving Father in Heaven for a long period of blissful rest. How do we comprehend such a state with our earth minds, emotions, and desires? We enjoy a sleep above all sleeps!
I often wonder if the commonplaceness of the words rest and sleep leaves us totally non-curious about what magic takes place during those precious hours which refresh us so well each night. This fact was brought home to me very dramatically some twenty-five years ago while I was hospitalized with a very serious illness. It had dragged on most of the summer, with my health in steady decline. On a particular night, I began to realize that I might die, and maybe that very night. I begged the nurse to omit the customary sleeping inducement and just let nature take its course. She did so warily. Strangely enough, I fell into a deep sleep without the aid of a sedative. I heard later that the nurses closely monitored my condition, thinking I might sleep away into death. I vividly recall awakening to a sun-filled room that September morning, surprised by the smiling faces of two nurses. I smelled coffee on the patients' trays outside my room, I smelled toast, and it was the most enticing aroma ever to meet my nose — because I was truly hungry for the first time in several months. There was an outstanding change in my strength, my clearness of thought, my eagerness to be well.
I have heard numerous medical explanations of this experience, but with it all I know it was due to that wonderful night's rest. I like to compare it to the after-death rest which Dr. de Purucker refers to as a time of "efflorescence." Webster defines this word as "blossoming," " to change on the surface or throughout." Purucker explains that our aspirations, our daydreams of yesterday, and our well motivated hopes will effloresce and we will be changed throughout, so that in the morning of our next life we will rise with hunger to pursue those lofty dreams, and with sustenance to carry us through. Wellness blossomed for me that night because it had been an aspiration, it had been yearned for. From that and other less dramatic experiences I have learned firsthand that rest is like a progressive season. For the most part, it will open to yet another season, after the entity has absorbed all it could and is ready to use its wellness, its compassion, its intuition — all of which effloresce during the night or season of death. Truths about death are learned, not so much by the recordings of after-death experiences, as by listening to those holy ones, our older brothers, true initiates, who have consciously experienced death while their bodies awaited their return. It is a journey all of us will someday need to take consciously. Now we experience it without remembering, but then we will travel through in the fullness of our faculties.
Purucker summarizes the journey of death, which spans an entire season:
At death the physical body is laid aside . . . The vital-astral body likewise, which is a little more ethereal than the physical body, is dropped at death. It decays away or dissolves and thus vanishes in due time, lasting but a trifle longer than does the physical cadaver. But the finest part of the man that was, leaves the physical vehicle at the instant when the “golden cord of life” is snapped. It is released; it now reenters by degrees the spiritual monad of the manbeing that was on earth; and in the bosom of the monad, all this noblest portion of the essential man abides on and in the higher planes on the inner and invisible cosmos in the peace and unspeakable bliss of the devachanic condition, until the time comes anew when nature shall recall it forth to a new appearance on earth through reincarnation. — G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 298.
Today there still is a somberness about autumn for me, but no fear. As I walk through the autumn of each year there are things I wish to release to the energies of the universe, where they may meet those who can put them to better use. There are attachments to things, to ideas, to habits which presently block intuition, open-mindedness, and more useful routines. Before the final purification of this present earth life, I dream of the day when I will move with abandon; then soar to the heights and absorb all those aspirations that will prepare me for an other visit to beautiful earth. It will take the entire death season for this to take place.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, October/November 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)
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