Through the Portals of Death

By Armin Zebrowski
It is the teaching of theosophy that evolution — or the unfolding, unwrapping, self-expressing, progressive growth of an entity — proceeds in cycles both large and small. — G. de Purucker

If we were aware that our lives could end at any time and place, wouldn't we live differently? Wouldn't we try to use our time more wisely and treat our fellow human beings in a more brotherly way? Physician Melvin Morse describes how near-death experiences have changed many of those who have returned:

Experiencing the Light has given people new purpose in life. By that, I don't mean that they were saved by God to invent a cure for cancer or to save the world from nuclear destruction. Nothing that grandiose.
Their purpose is quite simple and can be easily summed up: revere life and see the intricate connections throughout the universe.
. . . . .
The messages given to these children of the Light are not new or controversial. They are as old as mankind itself and have served as the primary fuel of our great religions:
"Love thy neighbor and cherish life."
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." — Closer to the Light, p. 163

Life and death are fundamentally one, just as energy and matter, or spirit and substance, are two aspects of the same thing. Death is simply a transition to another aspect of life, exactly as birth is. The real self is the inner self, not the body. No fire, no weapons, nothing can destroy the real self; only the body and other lower parts of the human constitution are mortal and are, like empty shells, left behind at the end of an incarnation. At death the inner self or reincarnating ego sets out on a wonderful journey which should fill us with great reverence.

According to theosophy, the natural process of dying starts many months before physical death occurs. (Cf. G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, Sections 11-12, "Death and the Circulations of the Cosmos.'') As the higher aspects of the human constitution begin slowly to withdraw, a shock goes through the entire organism which indicates the approaching event. Physical death begins only when the eternal pilgrim is ready to set out.

Let's take a more detailed look at the transition from the physical to the spiritual world. The Mahatma Letters explains that

At the last moment, the whole life is reflected in our memory and emerges from all the forgotten nooks and corners picture after picture, one event after the other. The dying brain dislodges memory with a strong supreme impulse, and memory restores faithfully every impression entrusted to it during the period of the brain's activity. . . . The man may often appear dead. Yet from the last pulsation, from and between the last throbbing of his heart and the moment when the last spark of animal heat leaves the body — the brain thinks and the Ego lives over in those few brief seconds his whole life over again. . . . Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting on its reflection upon the Veil of the Future. — pp. 170-1

What we call memory is the ability to read, more or less accurately, the mental, emotional, and physical impressions which have been imprinted upon our inner being during our life. During this panoramic vision countless impressions are dislodged which had not been noticed by our daily consciousness because we were not receptive to them. At death we experience everything anew, and also perceive hidden things; our consciousness is largely freed from the barriers of the physical brain and becomes lucid.

When the last thought is reached, the last emotion lived through again, the ego understands this life's harvest and which seeds have been planted for the next incarnation. Without fear, without self-condemnation, without sorrow or pleasure, the ego is aware of what the life just ended has achieved from the viewpoint of its own higher self.

In a similar way, before going to bed we can recollect the day, determining what we have done well or ill, and what we should change. This spiritual exercise is a good preparation for the panoramic vision, for death is a perfect or more extended sleep. Moreover, if each night we recognize our mistakes and are willing to improve, the mind tends to quiet down and we fall into a restful sleep.

Once the panoramic vision has ended, a process begins which is alluded to in the Chhandogya Upanishad:

When a man is suffering a mortal pain his kinsmen surround him and, offering him affection, say: "Do you know me? Do you know me?" So long as his speech does not merge into his mind (manas), his mind into the life (prana), the life into the fire (tejas), the fire into the Supreme Divinity — so long he knows.
Now when his speech is merged into the mind, the mind into the life, the life into the fire, the fire into the Supreme Divinity — then he knows not.
That which is his minuteness (ani), that is one's own essence, that is all, that is truth (satya), that is Atman. That thou art, O Svetaketu. — 6.15.1-3

Thus the divine ray retreats, plane by plane inrolling itself. How? As the panoramic vision draws to an end, the connection between the physical body and the inner being withdraws, starting at the lower extremities and rising slowly to the heart, then through the spinal cord to the brain. The moment comes when the life-thread irrevocably snaps and the polarity of the body changes. The physical effect is the onset of rigor mortis; the life forces still present in the body fall back into a vegetative state, causing physical rigidity. As these pranic forces leave the body, the limbs relax.

The respective pranas flow out through each orifice of the body. The reproductive organs, anus, and navel release the lower pranas. Some higher aspects of the astral body leave through the mouth and nostrils, others through the ears and eyes. The pranas located in the heart rise through the spinal cord to the brain. And the spiritual, noble, intelligent elements of the constitution leave the body through a mystic opening at the crown of the head near the pineal gland. After the pranas retreat, the chemical decomposition of the physical body begins, as H. P. Blavatsky explains:

It is the action of Fohat [cosmic electricity] upon a compound or even a simple body that produces life. When a body dies it passes into the same polarity as its male energy and repels therefore the active agent, which, losing hold of the whole, fastens on the parts or molecules, this action being called chemical. Vishnu, the Preserver, transforms himself into Rudra-Siva, the Destroyer — a correlation seemingly unknown to Science. — The Secret Doctrine 1:526n

We are composite beings, and the life-atoms which form the different parts of our constitution must return after death to their respective realms to follow their own cycles: earth to earth, water to water, air to air, fire to fire. The lower parts of the constitution, including the material aspect of mind, disintegrate into various classes of life-atoms and circulate through the kingdoms of nature.

The separation of the lower elements from the immortal being is a purification process. This "second death" has been depicted as going through kama-loka, Hades, or Purgatory. The mortal aspects separate from the immortal, which latter are drawn into still higher aspects of the spiritual self. The more strongly we are connected to the material side of nature, the longer this process is. Conversely, the more spiritual our life and thought have been, the easier our transition into the spiritual world.

After this second death, all of a spiritual character in the past life is drawn into our immortal monadic essence. Then a wondrous journey begins through the inner spheres, with the reincarnating ego resting in perfect bliss and peace. It processes and assimilates the experiences of the past life, integrating them into its character, in the same way as food is digested and tissue is rebuilt during sleep. This dream state, or devachan, has the individual quality of each person's noblest thoughts and aspirations.

However, the monad's inner journey is much more than a recompense for the sorrows of earth-life. The spiritual self travels through the inner being of the earth, where on each sphere it briefly imbodies in a suitable vehicle. Next it journeys through the sacred planets to the heart of our solar system, the sun. Then the return journey begins. On each of the sacred planets the monad takes up again the clothes it laid aside on its outward journey. Finally there is another panoramic vision into the rosy dawn of our new incarnation, viewing the mountains and valleys of the coming life. We see the seeds that we have brought with us, our karmic portion. But before birth we drink from the River of Lethe, the waters of oblivion, because at this point in our evolution we are not ready to live with the constant consciousness of our past. The reincarnating ego then creates the circumstances for a new human life.

While death is a doorway into a spiritual world, it is also a time of passivity. In that state we cannot change anything, we can only dream the dreams we have woven into the spiritual side of our lives. Death warns us that we should live aright, for after death we cannot change the course of life any longer.

I am reminded of Otfried Preussler's children's book, The Story of Strong Vanya. As a simple farmer on his way to becoming a czar, Vanya lives through many trials, passing through them all with courage, vigor, willpower, and trust in his destiny. The key to this story lies in how he lives his life. At each crossing he flips a coin to determine whether he should go right or left. This silver coin was given to him by his mother, and he wears it on a cord around his neck, right above his heart. If we want to follow the cycles of evolution, at each decision, day in and day out, we must consult our spiritual heart, our inner mother, to find out which path to follow. We don't suddenly find ourselves one day confronted with the great test; rather, at each breath we find ourselves confronted with many small trials. Only by passing these tests, and so following the right road, will we finally pass the great test and become "czar" — ruler over the realms of nature and her highest servant.

Death is a doorway into a wonderful world, and no one should be afraid of it. It urges us to use our lifetime wisely to shape our tomorrows, to actively and consciously use our divine possibilities. Only thus can we unfold the forces latent within and use them as a blessing for creation.

Let us ready ourselves each moment to stride through the portals of death well prepared. Hermann Hesse expressed this thought beautifully in his poem "Stages":

Each flower must age,
But every stage of life will blossom, wisdom too,
And every virtue blossoms — and then fades.
Prepare your heart to answer life's demands,
Then say farewell and go on to something new,
Courageously, with no regrets,
Take on new, different commitments.
There is a magic in each new beginning
Protecting us and helping us to live.
We should strive from place to place gladly
And cling nowhere as if it were our home.
The spirit does not wish to hem us in.
It wants to lift us step by step and free us.
If we were to settle in a rut,
We could grow drowsy and content.
We should be ready to break away and travel
And throw off the paralyzing webs of routine.
Perhaps the very hour of death
Will send us, young, to novel spaces,
And life will never cease to make demands on us.
Go to it, heart, take leave and fare you well.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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We are the living links in a life force that moves and plays through and around us, binding the deepest soils with the farthest stars. — Alan Chadwick