We find in a very old letter from a Master, written years ago to a member of the Theosophical Society, the following suggestive lines on the mental state of a dying man: —
"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 that has been entrusted to it during the period of the brain's activity. That impression and thought which was the strongest, naturally becomes the most vivid, and survives, so to say, all the rest, which now vanish and disappear for ever, but to reappear in Devachan. No man dies insane or unconscious, as some physiologists assert. Even a madman or one in a fit of delirium tremens will have his instant of perfect lucidity at the moment of death, though unable to say so to those present. The man may often appear dead. Yet from the last pulsation, 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, in these few brief seconds, his whole life over again. Speak in whispers, ye who assist at the death-bed and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death. Especially have ye to keep quiet just after Death has laid her clammy hand upon the body. Speak in whispers I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought and hinder the busy work of the Past casting its reflection upon the veil of the Future. . . ."
The above statement has been more than once strenuously opposed by materialists; Biology and (Scientific) Psychology, it was urged were both against the idea, and while the latter had no well demonstrated data to go upon in such a hypothesis, the former dismissed the idea as an empty "superstition." Meanwhile, even biology is bound to progress, and this is what we learn of its latest achievements. Dr. Ferre has communicated quite recently to the Biological Society of Paris a very curious note on the mental state of the dying, which corroborates marvelously the above lines. For, it is to the special phenomenon of life-reminiscences, and that sudden re-emerging on the blank walls of memory, from all its long neglected and forgotten "nooks and corners," of "picture after picture" that Dr. Ferre draws the special attention of biologists.
We need notice but two among the numerous instances given by this Scientist in his Rapport, to show how scientifically correct are the teachings we receive from our Eastern Masters.
The first instance is that of a moribund consumptive whose disease was developed in consequence of a spinal affection. Already consciousness had left the man, when, recalled to life by two successive injections of a gramme of ether, the patient slightly lifted his head and began talking rapidly in Flemish, a language no one around him, nor yet himself, understood. Offered a pencil and a piece of white cardboard, he wrote with great rapidity several lines in that language — very correctly, as was ascertained later on — fell back and died. When translated — the writing was found to refer to a very prosaic affair. He had suddenly recollected, he wrote, that he owed a certain man a sum of fifteen francs since 1868 — hence more than twenty years — and desired it to be paid.
But why write his last wish in Flemish? The defunct was a native of Antwerp, but had left his country in childhood, without ever knowing the language, and having passed all his life in Paris, could speak and write only in French. Evidently his returning consciousness, that last flash of memory that displayed before him, as in a retrospective panorama, all his life, even to the trifling fact of his having borrowed twenty years back a few francs from a friend, did not emanate from his physical brain alone, but rather from his spiritual memory, that of the Higher Ego (Manas or the re-incarnating individuality). The fact of his speaking and writing Flemish, a language that he had heard at a time of life when he could not yet speak himself, is an additional proof. The Ego is almost omniscient in its immortal nature. For indeed matter is nothing more than "the last degree and as the shadow of existence," as Ravaisson, member of the French Institute, tells us.
But to our second case.
Another patient, dying of pulmonary consumption and likewise reanimated by an injection of ether, turned his head towards his wife and rapidly said to her: "You cannot find that pin now; all the floor has been renewed since then." This was in reference to the loss of a scarf-pin eighteen years before, a fact so trifling that it had almost been forgotten, but which had not failed to be revived in the last thought of the dying man, who having expressed what he saw in words, suddenly stopped and breathed his last. Thus any one of the thousand little daily events, and accidents of a long life would seem capable of being called to the flickering consciousness, at the supreme moment of dissolution. A long life, perhaps, lived over again in the space of one short second!
A third case may be noticed, which corroborates still more strongly that assertion of Occultism which traces all such remembrances to the thought-power of the individual, instead of to that of the personal (lower) Ego. A young girl, who had been a sleep-walker up to her twenty-second year, performed during her hours of somnambulic sleep the most varied functions of domestic life, of which she had no remembrance upon awakening.
Among other psychic impulses that manifested themselves only during her sleep, was a secretive tendency quite alien to her waking state. During the latter she was open and frank to a degree, and very careless of her personal property; but in the somnambulic state she would take articles belonging to herself or within her reach and hide them away with ingenious cunning. This habit being known to her friends and relatives, and two nurses, having been in attendance to watch her actions during her night rambles for years, nothing disappeared but what could be easily restored to its usual place. But on one sultry night, the nurse falling asleep, the young girl got up and went to her father's study. The latter, a notary of fame, had been working till a late hour that night. It was during a momentary absence from his room that the somnambule entered, and deliberately possessed herself of a will left open upon the desk, as also of a sum of several thousand pounds in bonds and notes. These she proceeded to hide in the hollow of two dummy pillars set up in the library to match the solid ones, and stealing from the room before her father's return, she regained her chamber and bed without awakening the nurse who was still asleep in the armchair.
The result was, that, as the nurse stoutly denied that her young mistress had left the room, suspicion was diverted from the real culprit and the money could not be recovered. The loss of the will involved a law-suit which almost beggared her father and entirely ruined his reputation, and the family were reduced to great straits. About nine years later the young girl who, during the previous seven years had not been somnambulic, fell into a consumption of which she ultimately died. Upon her death-bed, the veil which had hung before her physical memory was raised; her divine insight awakened; the pictures of her life came streaming back before her inner eye; and among others she saw the scene of her somnambulic robbery. Suddenly arousing herself from the lethargy in which she had lain for several hours, her face showed signs of some terrible emotion working within, and she cried out "Ah! what have I done? . . . It was I who took the will and the money. . . . Go search the dummy pillars in the library. I have . . ." She never finished her sentence for her very emotion killed her. But the search was made and the will and money found within the oaken pillars as she had said. What makes the case more strange is, that these pillars were so high, that even by standing upon a chair and with plenty of time at her disposal instead of only a few moments, the somnambulist could not have reached up and dropped the objects into the hollow columns. It is to be noted, however, that ecstatics and convulsionists (Vide the Convulsionnaires de St. Medard et de Morzine) seem to possess an abnormal facility for climbing blank walls and leaping even to the tops of trees.
Taking the facts as stated, would they not induce one to believe that the somnambulic personage possesses an intelligence and memory of its own apart from the physical memory of the waking lower Self; and that it is the former which remembers in articulo mortis, the body and physical senses in the latter case ceasing to function, and the intelligence gradually making its final escape through the avenue of psychic, and last of all of spiritual consciousness? And why not? Even materialistic science begins now to concede to psychology more than one fact that would have vainly begged of it recognition twenty years ago. "The real existence" Ravaisson tells us, "the life of which every other life is but an imperfect outline, a faint sketch, is that of the Soul." That which the public in general calls "soul," we speak of as the "reincarnating Ego." "To be, is to live, and to live is to will and think," says the French Scientist. (2) But, if indeed the physical brain is of only a limited area, the field for the containment of rapid flashes of unlimited and infinite thought, neither will nor thought can be said to be generated within it, even according to materialistic Science, the impassable chasm between matter and mind having been confessed both by Tyndall and many others. The fact is that the human brain is simply the canal between two planes — the psycho-spiritual and the material — through which every abstract and metaphysical idea filters from the Manasic down to the lower human consciousness. Therefore, the ideas about the infinite and the absolute are not, nor can they be, within our brain capacities. They can be faithfully mirrored only by our Spiritual consciousness, thence to be more or less faintly projected on to the tables of our perception on this plane. Thus while the records of even important events are often obliterated from our memory, not the most trifling action of our lives can disappear from the "Soul's" memory, because it is no memory for it, but an ever present reality on the plane which lies outside our conceptions of space and time. "Man is the measure of all things," said Aristotle; and surely he did not mean by man, the form of flesh, bones and muscles!
Of all the deep thinkers Edgar Quinet, the author of "Creation," expressed this idea the best. Speaking of man, full of feelings and thoughts of which he has either no consciousness at all, or which he feels only as dim and hazy impressions, he shows that man realizes quite a small portion only of his moral being. "The thoughts we think, but are unable to define and formulate, once repelled, seek refuge in the very root of our being." . . . When chased by the persistent efforts of our will "they retreat before it, still further, still deeper into — who know what — fibres, but wherein they remain to reign and impress us unbidden and unknown to ourselves. . . ."
Yes; they become as imperceptible and as unreachable as the vibrations of sound and colour when these surpass the normal range. Unseen and eluding grasp, they yet work, and thus lay the foundations of our future actions and thoughts, and obtain mastery over us, though we may never think of them and are often ignorant of their very being and presence. Nowhere does Quinet, the great student of Nature, seem more right in his observations than when speaking of the mysteries with which we are all surrounded: "The mysteries of neither earth nor heaven but those present in the marrow of our bones, in our brain cells, our nerves and fibres. No need," he adds, "in order to search for the unknown, to lose ourselves in the realm of the stars, when here, near us and in us, rests the unreachable. As our world is mostly formed of imperceptible beings which are the real constructors of its continents, so likewise is man."
Verily so; since man is a bundle of obscure, and to himself unconscious perceptions, of indefinite feelings and misunderstood emotions, of ever-forgotten memories and knowledge that becomes on the surface of his plane — ignorance. Yet, while physical memory in a healthy living man is often obscured, one fact crowding out another weaker one, at the moment of the great change that man calls death — that which we call "memory" seems to return to us in all its vigour and freshness.
May this not be due as just said, simply to the fact that, for a few seconds at least, our two memories (or rather the two states, the highest and the lowest state, of consciousness) blend together, thus forming one, and that the dying being finds himself on a plane wherein there is neither past nor future, but all is one present? Memory, as we all know, is strongest with regard to its early associations, then when the future man is only a child, and more of a soul than of a body; and if memory is a part of our Soul, then, as Thackeray has somewhere said, it must be of necessity eternal. Scientists deny this; we, Theosophists, affirm that it is so. They have for what they hold but negative proofs; we have, to support us, innumerable facts of the kind just instanced, in the three cases described by us. The links of the chain of cause and effect with relation to mind are, and must ever remain a terra-incognita to the materialist. For if they have already acquired a deep conviction that as Pope says —
Lulled in the countless chambers of the brain
Our thoughts are link'd by many a hidden chain. . . .
— and that they are still unable to discover these chains, how can they hope to unravel the mysteries of the higher, Spiritual, Mind! — "H. P. B."
1. Reprinted from Lucifer, Vol. V., October, 1889. (return to text)
2. Rapport sur la Philosophie en France au XlXme. Siecle. (return to text)