You are going to die. So am I. A little time, a few years more or less, remains of our stay here on this ball of mud and life we call home. Every historical personage we ever heard of is dead. Whether sage, ruler, or famous beauty, they have discarded their bodies, the atoms of which are now scattered among the minerals, vegetation, animals, and humans that together compose the physical globe we live on.
Why do we have to die? Let us ask instead, why do we live? and what is it that lives? We need to broaden our perspectives and see ourselves in proportion within the greater system that contains us. Sacred scriptures and perceptive philosophers recognize that we and the world itself are expressions of conscious life and energy. Even materialistic science is gradually coming to that conclusion through the thinking of its proponents who regard the universe from a more comprehensive viewpoint. Religious people have always felt that something other than the body lives in its matter. One description begins with a divine consciousness-center, itself directly descended from a still higher consciousness-center in a succession reaching infinitely upwards and inwards to the very cause of cosmic being. This center or monad radiates its energy into primordial chaos and emanates multitudes of lesser monads. Each such monad radiates from its own essence a vast number of submonads, each of which in turn radiates an incomputable number of lesser monads until the cosmos teems with life, or rather lives. Each of these lives is a direct descendant from the primal consciousness, clothed in the substances that permeate space on all levels of existence and are appropriate to the world, globe, or organism the lives are to inhabit.
We humans are one example of this process, a direct flow of divine energy which has assumed diverse coverings of spiritual substance, mental and emotional sheaths, and astral matter, each borrowed from the world it inhabits, finally assuming the fleshly form built up of the physical chemicals of our globe. In this way, the divine core clothes itself in the appropriate garments for its next step on the path of destiny. It wears its spiritual garment in the worlds of spirit. When it descends into the world of thought and intelligence, it attracts its proper vestments of mind and intellect from the universal soul. The personality we express comprises the portion of mind that concerns itself with our physical surroundings. It is the personal ego, so sensitive to impressions having to do with our senses and associations. It is the ground of selfishness, of ambition, and of all the desires as well as of the clever — though often foolish — traits connected with our earthly abilities. The energies of these several worlds embody in a perfectly appropriate vehicle, often called the astral body, which forms the model for the physical frame.
The Norse tales explain it well: three creative deities provide the substances needed for the descent into matter. Odin (air) provides the breath of divine life, spirit and inspiration, Lodur (fire) gives from his own fiery essence vitality and life force, indicated by inherent body heat, while Honer (water) supplies from his own nature the liquid flow of thinking mind. Each is a gift from the gods' own nature. Man is made not only "in the image of god" but is of the very substance of the creative divinities. What is more, we live not just on this earth. We live in many other worlds as well.
When the body is worn out, wearied from the constant impact of life force and exhausted from the events of a lifetime on earth, we return to our source for a well-earned rest where we are able to digest and absorb what we have learned during our sojourn on earth. When we are ready to depart the earth, we don't fly off into nothingness. We have a definite itinerary. Leaving this globe we discard the substances we have imbodied in here. Our body is left behind, but it is not lacking life. Every atom is as alive as ever; only the central magnet, which held it together in one coherent organism, has departed, leaving all the components free to pursue their own courses: mineral atoms to the mineral earth, vegetable atoms to their proper home, animal components (atomic as well as sensory) to the animal kingdom, and the magnetic vitality to the earth's vital magnetosphere.
Every lifetime brings us the opportunity to approach nearer to the divine monad we essentially are. With each experience we can, if we will, ally more and more of our nature with the sublime divinity from which we originally sprang. Eventually the entire nature will be transmuted into the divine consciousness whose essence is universal.
Throughout the "pillar of light," which is a truly human being, flows the pure stream of inspiration from the highest monad, obscured though it is by those energies of the intermediate nature that focus on material concerns.
What is it then that endures? All scriptures and myths without exception confirm that something survives the death of bodies. What is that something? The line of reasoning in myths and scriptures indicates that every entity is descended from a superior consciousness-center, through an endless succession of lesser monads. The essential Self receives and absorbs what can be garnered of spiritual increment from the life just ended while the composite personal nature disintegrates, leaving its characteristic properties to disperse among the kingdoms of nature where they belong. This could well account for the undesirable traits of certain animals and plants, while the finer characteristics of the personal nature find their home in friendly and loyal elemental beings, such as domesticated animals and healing plants.
Each aspect of our nature seeks its own level. The reincarnating ego discards the lower elements of the psyche in the valleys of the moon. Whether this is a painful process or a release depends on the measure of the individual's attachment to terrestrial states. A very selfish person will suffer in discarding what he has become overfond of during life. This severance is called the "second death." It leaves the reincarnating ego and the spiritual source of us free to proceed through the more ethereal spheres of the solar domain, where the human consciousness is not ready to be wholly aware. The ego is said to "sleep in the bosom of the spiritual monad," where it enjoys beautiful dreams. These consist of whatever noble aspirations the person had when living, which are here brought to sublime fruition and fulfillment. Yet it is a dream. It is not a living experience. Norse myths relate that the souls of humans are present at the banquet of the gods, but they are asleep, dreaming their own heavenly dreams composed of their most blissful imaginings.
In due course, when the monads have ensouled their imbodying egos that are native on other spheres — ethereal, spiritual, and divine — and the time is right for their return to Earth, they again pass through the unseen worlds and assume once more the psychological, vital, and physical clothing fitted for this sphere. In the Norse myths the reincarnating ego visits the wells of the three Norns, who water the three roots of the Tree of Life. One is the well of the infinite past, the cause or karmic necessity for the consciousness to enter the arena of life; the second root is watered from the well of matter — not just the matter of earth but infinite varieties of substance which, like Proteus, take on whatever form fits the current need. The third well is the source of the rivers of life, the immense variety of life forms from which are selected those that will serve the purpose of the divine pilgrims who are to dwell in them. Most interesting is the clear statement in the Edda's often obscure verses that the Norn who represents the future is created by the Norris of past and present. By her the soul is allotted the body and circumstances appropriate for its next incarnation as a human being on Earth.
In reading the tales descended from ancient myths one receives the impression that the universe as a whole, while embodying divinity in every sphere, is a gradual process of raising the lower realms into a more rarefied and spiritual state — that in the indiscernible reaches of infinitude and the endless progression of duration more and more of the physical cosmos will reenter the sublime condition of pure divinity. The human stage is but one in an unending succession of consciousness states tending toward an increasingly godlike condition. Even in our present phase of reckless materialism we have the prospect before us of an ever more perfect unity with our inmost source, a potentially universal comprehension.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)