Death is before me today
Like the course of a flowing stream. . . .
Death is before me today
As a man longs to see his home
When he has spent years in captivity.
There is great appeal in this ancient Egyptian hymn in praise of death — an acceptance of the rightness of things, a facing of death as one would the dawn of a new day. The soul is attracted to its spiritual "home," carried along on life's inner currents, as a ship in full sail, and as a flowing stream — the course of the stream, well traveled, suggesting the adventure of death as a habit of ages.
Death brushes the lives of us all, bringing with it sadness and sometimes tragedy, and whenever and however it happens, we are never quite prepared for it. Yet beyond the painful sense of loss, a feeling of inner peace gradually comes, and we know that all is well. The pain seems to be one of life's awakening experiences, widening our sympathy for others' sorrow. As time passes, all that we enjoyed and loved in the person lives on in memory and in the heart, much as the beauty, fragrance, and color of a rose linger in the mind. Actually, there is no separation on inner planes from those we love, for true love endures.
The whole process of death and rebirth is far more familiar than we allow ourselves to believe, for indeed it is shared universally. Birth and death are fundamental aspects of life as are waking and sleeping in our daily cycle, activity and repose throughout nature. There cannot be birth without death, or death without birth. A seed must die that its energy can become the plant; winter, season of seeming death, is a time of the indrawing of life into the invisible: seeds, bulbs, and grass roots are dormant underground; the vitality of the deciduous tree recedes into the trunk and root system. In the winter of human life, the consciousness gradually withdraws from mundane concerns and enters other realms in preparation for the adventure of death — a different birth. In due time comes spring, season of birth, renewal, affirming faith in immortality and the divine continuity of all things.
This prompts the question, what do we mean by life? What is the fire of animation in a human being that vanishes, as suddenly as the light of a candle is snuffed out, when the last breath is drawn? Certainly we cannot measure life in a test tube nor can we see it. We can simply see manifestations of it, and sometimes barely. Protoplasm, the essential element in cell life, borders on the unknown. Donald Culross Peattle referred to it as an almost invisible substance that "touches the finger of immortal power." Life cannot be created or destroyed, for its essence is of the spirit. The heart of life is that divine flame that illumines all and lives on eternally.
Nature never makes sudden transitions, though this may sometimes appear to be the case. We are part of the great timepiece of the cosmos, moving along with its rhythms in spite of ourselves, and there is a season and "a time to every purpose under the heaven." For example, we die a little death every time we sleep. When we retire and willingly leave behind our daily consciousness, giving in to the invisible realm awaiting us, we are preparing ourselves for the more complete sleep which is death. When we leave the world of dreams behind us as we waken, we are opening the way for the return journey back to earth. In sleep as in death, when the personal self is not in command, the higher self, our "Father in secret," becomes dominant. Where we go in sound sleep is a mystery, for we cannot remember where we have been. Nevertheless we wake up, many times at least, feeling inwardly refreshed, as though our consciousness had been free to roam the starry spaces. Remarkable, isn't it, that we lose track of our personal awareness in sleep, yet the sense of our identity follows through in our dreams as in our waking state? Even more remarkable is the fact that this identity carries over from life to life. We are born with a sense of who we are, not intellectually, but with a feeling of inner continuity throughout a lifetime even though we are continually changing outwardly. In sleep, and after death, we are ourselves, and each one's experience is different from that of others depending on the quality of our thoughts and feelings.
When we die the radiant thread of life uniting our various elements and linking us to this world is severed, and every aspect of us gravitates where it naturally belongs. The atoms of our body go to this earth, for example, while the highest self circulates among the stars. The soul or reincarnating ego gradually breaks its links with our astral, vital, desire, and lower mental aspects which go their separate ways. Only the purest and finest of its energies remain with us, and these enter into a dream state where our deepest aspirations are fulfilled. While the reincarnating ego enjoys this restful stage, it is enveloped in the highest or divine self which is circulating through the invisible worlds of the solar system.
When death comes, a panoramic vision occurs of the life just lived, showing us the reason for the pattern of events. In this dispassionate review our higher self, companion in death as in life, helps us to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of our choices along the way. Some of the initial after-death experiences have been corroborated by people of varying faiths, who have "died" and been revived. Many have witnessed this panoramic review and speak of a being of light, warm and kindly, whose influence is felt although no words are spoken. According to theosophy, a second review of one's life takes place just before the soul enters the state of blissful rest and fulfillment.
As the after-death experiences near completion, there is a stirring in the soul drawing it earthward again, and thus begins the mystery of human birth. Before a ray from the reincarnating ego enters the womb after leaving the heaven world, there is a flashback of the previous life and a glimpse of the trend of karma for the life soon to start, showing the relationship between our past and future. The reincarnating ego finds its way back through various planes of being into this material one, and the beautiful dream world from which it has recently come may linger with the child in its early years. "Heaven lies about us in our infancy," intuited Wordsworth. Very gradually the ego begins to incarnate more fully on this earth, picking up the threads from before.
Out of the invisible into the visible all birth takes place, and the process of gestation is in fact a story in miniature of the creation of a world. A magazine article presenting scientific research on how human life begins, opened with the thought: "If newborns could remember and speak, they would emerge from the womb carrying tales as wondrous as Homer's. . . . They would tell of cells swarming out of the nascent spinal cord to colonize far reaches of the embryo, helping to form face, head and glands. The explosion of such complexity and order — a heart that beats, legs that run and a brain powerful enough to contemplate its own origins — seems like a miracle. It is as if a single dab of white paint turned into the multicolored splendor of the Sistine ceiling" (Newsweek, January 11, 1982).
If, as leading scientists state, the first germinated cell has all the qualities that will mature into the human adult, is there ever a point when the embryo is not a life? From the theosophical point of view the responsibility of bringing a soul into the world is a sacred one, and the attitude of the parents, particularly the mother, has deep-seated effects; of course, aside from all the care and the best of environments there is also the karma of the incoming soul, an entity in its own right.
Death and rebirth involve many unknowns awaiting discovery, a discovery we shall one day make when we have become spiritually worthy of self-consciously following the pathways we now follow unconsciously. All cultures tell of the supreme initiatory experience, of conquering the temptations of the underworld and traversing with full awareness the mansions of the cosmos. Those who return victorious are great human beings who have gone before us and shared their illumination with mankind. They are said to have been born again, clothed with the sun, masters of death as of life.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)