The existence of heavens and hells, that is, of higher and lower realms of conscious being, was a certainty in ancient cultures. In Eastern religions one of the assumptions still is that our visible world occupies an inferior position and that man is not at home here but is an exile from higher spheres, to gain experience and growth in wisdom and love. The Puranas, for instance, mention fourteen worlds which make up the spirit, soul, and body of a living cosmos. Pythagoras called the consciousness of a universe such as ours Monas monadum, the monad of monads: monads, not as material units but as centers of energy where every center is a part of a greater center of life and intelligence, in endless series. Man is no exception; beyond and above our limited waking consciousness lie other and higher levels, source of all the major and minor mystical experiences that have been described over the ages.
Experiences which transcend everyday realities occur spontaneously to many people who, as a rule, are reluctant to tell others, knowing that reports of this kind are not often received with much understanding and sympathy in our society. Fortunately there is a growing willingness among research institutes, such as the Koestler Foundation in London, to investigate and acknowledge facts as facts, whether or not they square with established theories. Of the spontaneous occurrences the near-death-experiences (NDE) have been best investigated so far and have drawn the most attention.
Before having the experience, the majority had identified themselves with the body when, suddenly, there was this clear out-of-body awareness. The physical form was seen lying there, surrounded by those who were trying to help; later, details were given about the methods they employed, their words, sometimes even their thoughts — verifiable data which proved accurate. There was a sense of being enveloped by a "spiritual body," weightless, movable in the wink of an eye, with thinking processes incredibly faster and, above all, clearer; sometimes hearing and sight became abnormally sharp and extended. Many expressed an overwhelming sense of wholeness — gone were all diseases and infirmities. Others relate how the "spiritual body" sensation changed into a vision of loved ones who had passed on before, and about telepathic communication with them. Thoughts were understood and answered by thought. There was no loneliness such as exists on earth, where so often there is misunderstanding and being at cross-purposes.
All these recurring features have been carefully chronicled, as also the completeness and amazing vividness of the "panoramic memory" when the whole life is seen in its integrity. Not only are long forgotten words and acts remembered, but also the real motives behind them. In physical time the experience will have taken only a few minutes, but long enough for the individual to bring back a strong sense of completeness, a lasting feeling of peace, and trust in the meaning of life. The effect is marked; these people are no longer afraid of death, are mellower, more understanding, and often speak of love as the most important element in life. Some mention having reached a point where a choice had to be made: to return or to go on. The decision to return is characterized as painful, as having been made on behalf of a child or somebody who needs their care. By far the most moving part of the NDE is the contact with a "being of light," an intelligent and loving presence, superior to the everyday personality yet strangely familiar. Dr. Raymond Moody writes about it:
Despite the light's unusual manifestation, however, not one person has expressed any doubt whatsoever that it was a being, a being of light. . . . The love and the warmth which emanate from this being to the dying person are utterly beyond words, and he feels completely at ease and accepted in the presence of this being. He senses an irresistible magnetic attraction to this light. He is ineluctably drawn to it. — Life after Life, pp. 58-9
Our culture is not the first in which attention has been paid to matters like these. In fact, one cannot help noticing the striking resemblance between accounts of a being of light, and the numerous traditions telling about guardian or tutelary spirits. Later Mahayana Buddhism describes beings of wisdom and harmony called by some jinas, "conquerors," and by others dhyani-buddhas, "buddhas of contemplation"; they are close to the heart of universal nature and are the spiritual counterparts of human beings, entities with whom we are in some way connected. A similar conviction about man's spiritual lineage is represented by the guardian angels of Gnosticism and related mystical movements. Socrates was known to have an inner companion, his daimon, who warned him on several occasions. The same ideas are found in various parts of the world in different ages — a beneficent influence, if only our workaday consciousness would open itself to its intimations.
In our day and age attention is again being paid to clear unequivocal mystical experiences that point in this direction: "I didn't actually see a person in this light, and yet it has a special identity, it definitely does. It is a light of perfect understanding and perfect love" (ibid., p. 63). Not surprising, for in all ages there arises a yearning in many to live in the spirit even while in the body. In the oldest hymns and traditions the ideal lives on:
He who is unperturbed like the earth, who is steadfast like Indra's post (in the portal of a city), whose character is as pure and translucent as a clear lake, to such a holy one there are no further cycles of rebirth (samsara). — Dhammapada, v. 95
Samsara — akin to Heraclitus' idea that everything flows, everything moves is derived from the root sr, to flow along, hinting at the unceasing change all entities undergo. As in the material world nothing remains the same, so in the psychic world with its ever changing emotions and thoughts that continue in waking and sleeping and, according to widespread belief, after death as well. Reincarnation and samsara are closely connected. The multitude of unfulfilled desires and their force eventually bring the soul back to earth where the seeds of former deeds and thoughts germinate in a succession of causes and effects.
Everlasting motion is the nature of the universe; all is interaction, movement. There is no growth without change. Bringing this fact to bear on matters of life and death, happiness and distress is enormously practical and a help to all who are suffering. But passively drifting along with every influence is one thing, self-piloted growth in harmony and wisdom quite another. One is the needlessly long and difficult way, the other the road to enlightenment and freedom. Everybody who goes through life seeingly knows how much misery there is on this planet but behind the seeming lies a spirit of wisdom and hope, and a great joy. Deep in our heart the intuitions of what is true and what untrue, what is right and what is not, still live, for beyond the limitations of the personal "I" are hidden deeper layers of consciousness, and the will of the spiritual self that is in harmony with the universal will.
In the theosophic tradition this spiritual self is described as the source of consciousness, whence peace of mind and clear vision are always ready to flow into our lives if only we allow them passage.
It is no coincidence that an age rediscovering the unitary quality of "spaceship earth" and the marked effects of states of mind on bodily health — in addition to their influence for good or ill on other minds also witnesses a growing conviction that life's most valuable things are to be found in the realms of "Inner space," where our true roots lie.
Today there is a rapidly expanding search for a better way of going through life that is producing a new awareness . . . This transformation of consciousness is prompting us to look inward, and as we explore our inner spaces we recognize the harmony and atonement that has always been there. As we look inward, we also become aware of an intuitive voice which provides a reliable source for guidance. — Jampolsky, Love is Letting Go of Fear, pp. 11-12
Beyond the thick fogs of personality-thoughts lies the sun-trail which mystics of all ages have followed. It surely takes something of a mystic to break the spell and come in touch with the heart of things, the "realm of love and light where a child's heart can remain forever open."
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1985/January 1986; copyright © 1985 Theosophical University Press)