How we think about ourselves — whether we have but one lifetime in which to flower, or whether we have a limitless future in which to cultivate our hidden strengths and talents — will have a profound effect on our outlook on life. People are yearning for confirmation of their intuition that there is a compassionate order, a harmonious and just purpose behind everything.
Every human being knows death among family and friends, prolonged illness, or the grievous distress that comes when a child or friend becomes a psychological or mental casualty. A philosophy that takes in reincarnation, that emphasizes individual moral responsibility and the promise of ever-continuing growth in love and wisdom, helps enormously. Then when death comes, suddenly or after long waiting, it doesn't hit us totally unprepared, with an almost terrifying sense of betrayal, as though fate had dealt us a cruel blow. We wouldn't be human if we didn't feel the loss deeply, and the loneliness, but there come also in the quiet an inner calm and the profound assurance that "all is well."
Death is not the tragic ending of a life; it is truly an open doorway to light — both for those journeying to the "other shore," and for those of us here who must carry on with our lives. How little we know of those mysterious regions into which our consciousness enters nightly in sleep and for a far longer interval after the death of the body. Yet we follow these circulatory routes as though drawn magnetically to them, much as birds migrate thousands of miles by magnetic currents. In like manner we humans unerringly find our way back to earth time and again after migrations lasting perhaps hundreds, even thousands, of years in nature's interior realms.
Sleep we accept gracefully, thankful for our nightly rest; but death, we feel, is different. Intellectually we may recognize it as nature's way of restoring her life forces, that the release of the soul from an ailing or aged body is a boon, and that without periodic changes of form there could be no continuity of inner growth. Still, the coming of death is always a shock: we feel held by a power vaster than we can comprehend; we sense its irrevocability, that all hope is gone of sharing the unspoken thought. Yet mercifully we are sustained by a profound peace, an inflow of strength, an atmosphere of quiet assurance that the bonds linking us with those we love are as immortal as the heart of Being.
We tend to think of our life on earth as of absolute importance, when in reality it represents only a part of our unfolding destiny. Like the Asvattha tree of India, which is said to grow with its roots in heaven and its branches and leaves reaching downwards, we human beings are rooted in our divine monad whose light is reflected in our spiritual intelligence, our mental/emotional nature, and even in our physical body.
To comprehend more clearly what happens to us after death we need first to understand something of the several elements that make us up, and the role they play both during our lives and after we die. Paul's division of man into spirit, soul, and body is basic and useful in relation to other systems of thought, which classify man variously as being composed of four, five, seven, or even ten facets or principles. These facets of man's nature are not isolated one from another. In the sevenfold system, for example, each facet is itself sevenfold and contains an aspect of all the others. We could as easily adopt a fivefold division, into monads of descending quality with their corresponding sheaths or vehicles of expression; or again, a fourfold enumeration, as the Qabbalah does, three "breaths" of gradually more material quality, all manifesting through a "shell," our physical body.
Using the sevenfold division as generally followed in theosophical writings, the principles (with their Sanskrit names) are listed, starting with the highest:
Divinity — atman, "self," our immortal monad;
Spirit — buddhi, "awakened intelligence," the veil of atman: the faculty of perception attained in full by a buddha;
Mind — manas, dual in function: higher manas united with the highest two principles constitutes the spiritual individuality (atma-buddhi-manas); lower manas attracted toward kama, the "desire" principle, manifests as the ordinary personality (manas-kama);
Desire — kama, "love, desire"; when influenced by the higher mind (buddhi-manas), it manifests as aspiration; when utilized by the personality (manas-kama), without any influence from the higher element, it may manifest in aggressive selfishness or uncontrolled appetites, often of a destructive nature;
Life-force — prana, the "vital breaths," listed as five, seven, or more in number, that circulate through our constitution and maintain physical life;
Astral or Model Body — linga-sarira, the "sign or character body"; the model or astral matrix on which the physical body is built;
Physical Body — sthula-sarira, the "coarse or bulky body," the physical vehicle or instrument which allows the complete sevenfold entity to manifest.
To understand the relation of these seven facets of our being to our afterdeath experiences, we have first to recognize that death does not come merely because the body is tired or worn out. Death occurs primarily because the higher part is drawing the soul to itself and the upward pull is so strong that the body cannot withstand it. The life is being indrawn, as it were, for the larger purposes of the soul. Birth and death are gateways of life — episodes in the maturation of the reincarnating element and hence both processes, death and birth, are in the final analysis impulsed from our divine source.
The many stories of individuals who have almost drowned, been critically ill, or pronounced "dead" and then revived, demonstrate the manifold nature of the human constitution, and that it is possible for the body to be left quiescent while the soul/mind/consciousness is momentarily withdrawn. Some have experienced the feeling of being alive and floating above the body, seeing it lying below. A few have later recalled exactly what the doctors and nurses said and did during their apparent death; most of them tell of seeing the events of their life flash swiftly by in review. Such near-death experiences are a graphic confirmation of the theosophical teaching concerning the "panoramic vision" which the mind/soul undergoes preceding its release into the afterdeath journey. Not all who undergo a near-death experience are aware of anything out of the ordinary having happened to them, but those who do retain some memory of what they have "seen" usually return with a strong determination to make the rest of their life worthy of this second chance.
In sleep the golden cord of life remains intact between all parts of our constitution, while in death the cord is snapped. In near death the cord is not severed, so that even if there is a more or less prolonged withdrawal, the connecting link between the principles is not broken. This means that the individual can, and usually does, reanimate his body and a seeming miracle occurs: a person thought dead returns to life. Had the cord been broken, death would have supervened.
Theosophical writings speak of two, sometimes three panoramic visions of varying intensity: the one experienced by the dying during the final moments of physical life and continuing for a while after physical death; a second, much fainter, occurring just before slipping into a heavenly dream state (devachan); and a third, upon leaving the dream state on the return journey to earth. (Cf. H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, pp. 162-3, and G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 549-54) This allows the individual to "see" without distortion the simple justice of all that occurred during the life just ended, to enter its heavenly dream state in peace, and upon its return to earth to have a swift preview in broad outline of what is to be, before the curtain of forgetfulness drops.
When death finally comes and the soul is released from its bodily chains, the ray from the divine monad is withdrawn to its parent star, while our spiritual monad journeys among the planetary spheres. As for the body, its atoms disperse and go to their respective realms in nature where they follow their own circulations. This constitutes our "first" death. After a brief period of unconsciousness in what is called the desire-world (kama-loka), the human soul enters a temporary purgation state during which it stands unmasked before its higher self and sees the fairness of all it had experienced. A separation process of shorter or longer duration, depending upon the karma previously generated, leads to a "second" death, when all that is heavy and material in the character drops away, freeing the finer essences of the reincarnating ego to be absorbed by the spiritual monad. For most of us — average human beings who are neither very good nor very bad — our passage in kama-loka will be gone through with relative ease.
After the second panoramic vision during the "second" death, the reincarnating ego enters its devachan — the Elysian Fields of the Greeks — wherein it experiences over and over in a dreamlike state the fulfillment of its noblest thoughts and aspirations. The repetition of these idealized dreams has the beneficial by-product of leaving an impress on the soul toward the higher life, the atmosphere of which carries over into the succeeding life on earth. Meanwhile the spiritual monad, bearing within it the dreaming egosoul, journeys among the planetary spheres for its own higher adventures. The old Latins made effective use of the epitaph to perpetuate the ancient knowledge: dormit in astris, "he sleeps among the stars"; gaudeat in astris, "he rejoices among the stars"; and spiritus astra petit, "the spirit flies to the stars."
When the energies that have made devachan possible are exhausted, a third panoramic vision occurs, a swift preview in bold strokes, not in detail — a momentary glimpse so that the incoming soul may sense the justice and the compassion in the karmic circumstances that it will meet. As it turns earthward, it attracts from the great reservoir of nature those life-atoms it had built into itself in the past; with them it re-forms the souls and bodies it will use in the life to come. These life-atoms are drawn to each of us because they belong to us; in previous lives we had left our seal on all the lives composing every facet of our constitution.
These ideas may seem abstract when we are struck down with grave illness, and are able to do little about it. There may be certain remedial measures we can take, but where there is no known cure, we have to try to meet the experience with the best grace and courage we can summon. If we have a feeling for the long view and are convinced that there is a divine purpose to every life, this in itself is a tremendous aid in meeting such a crisis. Particularly is it a help when we must stand by and see another go through his private hell that we can do very little to relieve. Even more so when the young are hit with life-threatening illness and find their lives plunged into confusion. Naturally, the person who is faced with early death has a painful process of adjustment to go through, and equally so have those who love him or her.
Many people are having to meet just these circumstances, and a knowledge of reincarnation lends dignity to living and to dying. We realize that how we live when we are twenty or forty or sixty influences the quality of our death, our afterlife, as well as our future incarnations. If we can share something of this larger picture with our loved ones, they are better able to work with their karma and do as Marcus Aurelius enjoined: "Now your remaining years are few. Live them, then, as though on a mountaintop." (Meditations, bk. 10, sec 15, trans. Staniforth, p. 157) There is a dignity in the human soul that comes into its own in these hours of trial. Even where there are very difficult patches to go through, it helps immeasurably to know that our lives are a natural part of the destiny each of us has been weaving since the dawn of time, which has been preparing us for just this moment. It is mutually healing to be able to talk quietly and openly or silently commune with those who are dying; not only do they find deep relief, but we ourselves share in the process in a most sacred way.