Theosophy – April 1897

SLEEP AND DEATH — Vespera Freeman

In view of the fact that death brings upon man the one insurmountable misery of life, that the fear of death, and the loneliness and loss death brings, overshadow him during every moment of life, that no man can hope to escape himself or to hold back from that dread abyss either his nearest or his dearest, this subject would seem to be one of most vital interest to every one.

That there is an existence after death; that man has a soul and that this soul is immortal, is said to be a general belief in Christian countries; but how superficial a hold such belief has upon the mass of men is clearly demonstrated by their daily life and by their attitude of mind when death approaches either to themselves or friends. The Bishop, when the Captain shouts "The ship must sink, ten seconds more will send our souls to Heaven," cries fervently, "God forbid." And this is but a fair example of the sustaining power which lies in what is called, "belief in future life," and "taking refuge in the Father's heavenly mansions from earthly sorrows." We have needed sorely a belief more deeply rooted in our being — more richly nourished, have needed some more definite picture of the country on the other side — some better assurance of the survival and well-being of those dearer than ourselves who have passed before us into the seeming void and darkness.

For centuries past, in our western world at least, the thought of death as the end of everything desirable, the final limit of all hope, all happiness, possession, high endeavor and achievement — even of LOVE itself, — has lain like a black pall upon our hearts and shut out all the sun. And as though even this were not enough, the customs of the people in their pageantry of woe — the hearse decked with its sable plumes — the winding funeral train — the yawning grave — the hollow sound of earth falling upon the dead — the weeping — the mourning — the despair — the dread and sombre garments that make show of these — all these have added weight to the depression and confirmed the feeling of death's horror until a fluttering scrap of crape wounds one like a poisoned knife, with all the dread associations it brings up. A man may meet all other sorts and kinds of evil and misfortune — loss and disgrace, hunger, and thirst and cold, and bear them cheerfully or rise above them on the wings of Hope, and still endure, but when death seizes upon one who is life of his life, heart of his inmost heart, the end of things has come for him. He can endure no longer, lacking some certain clue to

"The secrets of the silence, whence all come,
The secrets of the gloom, whereto all go;
The life which lies between, like that arch flung,
From cloud to cloud across the sky, which hath
Mists for its masonry and vapory piers,
Melting to void again, which was so fair."

As with the man, so with humanity; this western world had reached a point where it could endure no longer without more light, more knowledge, that it might firmly rest upon, more hope and better grounded. And, since the foundations of all things are laid in justice, the new light came. Theosophy again began to teach of Reincarnation, of Devachan, Nirvana and the other states into which the Soul may pass when freed from the gross garments it has outworn. Emerson asserts that "The secret of heaven is kept from age to age," that "no imprudent, no sociable Angel ever dropped an early syllable to answer the longing of saints, the fears of mortals," that "we should have listened on our knees to any favorite who by stricter obedience had brought his thoughts into parallelism with the celestial currents and could hint to human ears the scenery and circumstance of the newly parted soul." Even Emerson, it seems, must sometimes err, for the truth is there are some, who can and do tell the "circumstances of the parting soul," and the unhappy, faithless world laughs, when it does not sneer, and very, very few "listen upon their knees."

Unfortunately I cannot speak myself from any knowledge of these things and so can only give my idea of what the wise ones teach and a few stray thoughts about it.

There seems to be a very plain analogy between sleep, which men look on as a heavenly benediction, and death which they fear so greatly, and we cannot fail to get some idea of the states that follow upon death from careful study of the states that follow upon sleep, since the one plan, infinitely repeated and expanded seems to suffice for all development.

A man rises in the morning refreshed from sleep to begin a new day's work. He has a certain amount of force to expend and he accomplishes much or little just in proportion to the concentration of that force upon a fixed end or aim. He may exhaust this force with care and slowly, or lavishly and fast but in either case when it is exhausted the man must sleep. Now what sleeps? The body may lie quiet but the natural processes go on, the little lives that are the body, keep at their work — the heart pumps, the lungs blow. What makes the difference between sleep and waking? It is that the inner man, the real man in sleep withdraws himself from contact with the physical plane, just as a man tired with the noise and jarring in a workroom retires for peace and rest into an upper chamber. Generally the man withdraws slowly by easy steps, — at first he is so near, a movement or the lightest call will bring him back. On the first step all sorts of scenes and forms and pictures, inconsequent, ridiculous, changing incessantly, present themselves before him and his brain takes note. He sees monsters and falls from heights, has difficulty with his clothes, still suffers from the infesting cares of day grown to grotesqueness. He withdraws more and the dreams change, grow more distinct, more consequent. He feels less and less the oppression of bodily affairs — his Soul begins to float into a region beyond pain and care. The man has passed into deep sleep and for a time is free, — free within certain limits only, for a shining thread still holds him to his body.

What are the visions that he then beholds — the bliss that permeates his being, — that refreshes — that renews him?

He has no definite remembrance of all this when he returns to waking life, because he has to wander back through the chaotic and distracting scenes presented by the changing planes of being he passed through on his way up. And so by the time he has again taken possession of his body nothing remains to him but a vague sense of peace and elevation, and even this wears away as he becomes engrossed in the affairs of waking life.

Day after day this process is repeated until a day comes when the body is exhausted utterly, worn out, useless. The real man withdraws again slowly, gradually, but this time completely. He breaks the shining thread at last, so that no power can bring him back into that body. Then we say the man is dead. This is a mere figure of speech or rather an entire misconception. The man is neither dead nor sleeping nor away. He has put off the cramping limitations of the body and has entered into a fuller, freer life. He does not reach the Devachanic state at once because he has to pass through all those planes or states he nightly passed in sleep or at least planes which correspond to these, called in the books the Kamalokic planes.

The swiftness of his passing through these planes depends upon the man himself, for he must rid himself, upon the way, of personal desires and selfish passions before he can pass on to higher, purer states. One can imagine, in some little measure what life would be, had we no body to take care of, and to suffer for and through, no desires in relation to a body to gratify or to hold in check, no earthly cares or fears, or doubts or pains, but were free utterly to revel in the ideal which has become more real to us than anything we know at present. To be at will with all the friends we love, and see them not the poor earth-worn, imperfect, sorrowing beings we know here, but the same selves purified, radiant, blissful, glorified as in our highest idealization we can picture them, — the world about them bathed in beauty, penetrated through with harmony and sweetness and heavenly peace. This is to imagine in a faint and shadowy way the Devachanic state.

Now it may easily be seen that this state must differ for each man. No two heavens can be the same, since no two men are just the same. Of the same essence, they are differently compounded, each has his own path in evolution, each his ideals which he strives to realize in his own way. The Devachan he reaches is his own and changes according to the degree of his progression toward perfection. One must believe that if a man identifies himself with all the outward life of sense and physical enjoyment, has few thoughts or ideals above this plane, his Devachan must differ greatly from the Devachan of one who strives in pain and a divine despair to realize in earthly terms lofty ideals that elude his grasp.

Devachan seems a state of assimilation, a state where all the experiences, the sorrows, the so-called day-dreams of earth life are transmuted into a sort of quintessence or elixir that builds up and strengthens, if not the soul itself, at least the soul's power to express itself which it is ever seeking. If this be so the stay in Devachan must be regulated by the amount of soul food carried from the prior life. When there is nothing left for assimilation, when the Soul finds nothing more to build its ideations on, then it returns to earth and is reclothed with a body.

And so the time of stay in Devachan must vary according to the man himself. This is a general rule, but it is said there are exceptions, that there are men, highly evolved comparatively speaking, who under the rule would naturally remain for ages in the Devachanic state but who refuse to enter it from love and sorrow for their fellow men on earth, and a desire to help and labor for them.

Just as a mother watching by the bedside of an ailing child, though wearied, will not sleep until the crisis passes and the child is safe; so these men refuse the bliss of Devachan and either are at once reborn in a physical body or remain in touch with earth life in a more etherial form.

There is another class of men, not quite evolved so far, but of such purity and goodness as would entitle them to Devachanic ages but who do not wish to enter it. They desire immensely to help on the work and labor for the race, but they have not yet gained the power. Such, it is said, are sometimes aided by other and much greater souls, to break from the Devachanic bliss and come again to help mankind. Such aid is regulated by the Karmic law. If we could only put away, just for a moment, the mental blindness that afflicts us, we should see ourselves surrounded by an ocean of compassion in which we truly live and move and have our being.

As we return from Devachan our memory of that state fades or is mingled with impressions from other planes, so that when we find ourselves reborn on earth there is generally little left in our conscious memory but a vague feeling of having lost our hold on something infinitely precious and to be desired — even this little fades more and more as we grow older and take on more heavily the cares and burdens of earth life again. Emerson says we have a cup of lethe given us to drink at birth, but it seems that we must do it all ourselves, because we might put off the wraps and veils and swaddling clothes, incident to our infancy of mind and gather will and strength to make this round of sleeping, waking, birth, death and Devachan consciously without a break. Children remember much more than we think. A child once said to me, "I think that when we die, we just wake up and find the wrong things here are only a bad dream." He spoke as though from personal experience, and his word had the more weight that he had come from Devachan so recently himself.

Just as the Cycle of Life and Death culminating in Devachan, is greater than the one rounded out with sleep, so the still greater cycle made up of many lives and deaths culminates in the state we call Nirvana. This has been called the "Centre of Celestial Rest."

How shall our thought rise to such conception? How shall words be found fitting to express even what we are able to conceive? And yet at times we know, for it is knowledge, that in each one of us is that Nirvanic centre and that it can be reached.

What is it? None can tell. How reach it? One must find his way himself!

From life to life, from Devachan to Devachan, the real man goes on, gaining in power and strength, ever perfecting, breaking through illusions, mind-made, that confine him within certain limits, until his greater evolutionary cycle ends and he has reached the threshold of Nirvana. This state must bear a certain correspondence to the Devachanic one, but while in this the man identifies himself with the Ego of the past life only thus limiting his range of consciousness, the man fitted for Nirvana has freed himself from limitations and illusions. His consciousness has expanded into the Universal Consciousness.

If we cannot picture this state to ourselves in any way or get a hold upon the idea so that it has a meaning for us, we can safely leave it to the future while we grow daily nearer to it, resting with confidence meanwhile upon the certainty that, whatever it may mean, in the Soul's expanding consciousness there must be constant gain not loss.

Always "the greater must include the less." That which we truly love we shall possess in greater and still greater fulness as the Cycles roll — whether it be Love, Beauty, Harmony, or Truth itself, which is all these and more. When we have outgrown these delusions about death and parting, — have learned "to grieve neither for the living nor the dead," we shall have courage to begin our work in earnest. Loving humanity and working for it as we can, a time will come when the walls that, in our unthinking ignorance, appear to separate one man from another, will fall apart, will melt away like sea-born mists.

Our Spiritual perceptions will unfold, we shall begin to hear the echoing Symphony of the World-Soul and to know our part in it.

"The String o'erstretched breaks and Music flies.
The String o'erslack is dumb and Music dies."

But when we have found our true key-note, neither high nor low, and have put ourselves in tune, so that our whole being vibrates in full accord with the Celestial harmonies, then we shall understand all the states after death and,

"Shall pass,
Unto Nirvana where the Silence lives."