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A Journey on the Left Hand Path

What Happens When We Die?

Greetings! The following article was actually written twice. The original version was unfortunately lost due to the combination of a personal computer failure and a total wipe-out of my website hosting. Most of the pages were backed up properly or were recovered from Google's archive. Luckily that original article about "what happens when we die" was the only casualty. ;) The good news for you, gentle reader, is that you get an updated account of the subject that more closely represents my current views. In addition, I would like to share with you this video I recorded at the beginning of 2012 on the topic of Cryonics.

What Happens When We Die?

Sept. 11/2010

When confronting this question, I often wonder whether there is any point in trying to answer it. We can’t conclusively know about everything that occurs when the physical body stops working. Certainly we know a lot about the types of transformations the physical component of an individual will go through after death. The big question is, “What happens to my mind after my physical body stops working?” Does consciousness simply end when the brain activity ceases? Is there a part of my individual existence and personality that survives in some fashion?

One concept that we encounter sometimes is that the individual will continue to exist in the sense that the actions they made while alive continue to influence those still living, perhaps for many generations to come. This concept is behind one commonly cited formula for achieving immortality: Plant a tree, write a book and raise a child. We know that leaving behind artefacts in both the objective universe as well as in the subjective universes of individuals that we can indeed continue having an influence in the world after our body has completely decomposed and returned to the elements. Sometimes our influence continues to increase after we die. For all we know, this may be the only type of immortality that is possible to achieve. This may satisfy some, however there is something lacking in this option: the continuation of personal consciousness.

The prospect of retaining your own individual personality in full consciousness in some form after the physical body ceases to function is what many of us wish for. The part of us that makes us unique is seen as the jewel of our existence. We may enjoy our physical bodies, but it is a part of ourselves that is largely determined by our personal genetics, which we currently have very little control over. In addition, we have been conditioned to accept as an absolute truth the inevitability of physical death. Of course, what we do with our bodies and how we make them unique is something most of us identify with to some extent. Transhumanism is a field of thought that has been challenging some of the ideas about the prospect of gaining a much greater control over our bodies, including the possibility of maintaining it in a healthy state forever. It is a fascinating topic that inspires some mind-blowing thought experiments. The main goal of transhumanists seems to be centered on maintaining a physical vehicle for the mind, sidestepping the need to address the possibility of continuation of consciousness after physical death. They simply seek to prevent physical death in the first place.

In Hermetic philosophy one of the most widely cited aphorisms is contained in the Tabula Smaragdina or Emerald Tablet of Hermes. It is the famous, “As above, so below.” This has also been described as the macrocosm/microcosm theory. The idea is that things are scalable. A model of the atom can be usefully compared to the model of a solar system. Both can be described as a large central nucleus being orbited by smaller units. We can even extend this to a universal scale, as the galaxies are said to orbit around a giant black hole in the centre of our physical universe. In between the atomic and solar levels of this example lies the individual human who is said to be like a universe unto themselves. One way to look at this is that we each have a central core consciousness that we identify with and then we have several sub-personalities that move around this, influencing behaviours. Yet another interpretation of the concept is that different levels of experience can inform us about the others. What occurs in the physical universe can help us to understand what is occurring on more subtle levels such as emotional and mental experience (which is traditionally referred to as the “astral plane”.) In this case we can reframe “as above, so below” to mean “as without, so within.”

Hermeticism teaches the tripartite division of the individual (and everything else, including inanimate objects) into Body, Soul and Spirit. The body we are already quite familiar with. This is the flesh, bone, nerve and blood. The spirit is the impersonal animating life force or vitality. It is what separates a living body from a corpse. What is the soul? It is the unique personality (and beyond) of an individual human being. The goal of alchemy is to first separate each of these principal components (usually referred to using the esoteric terminology of Salt, Sulphur and Mercury), then purify each individually and to recombine them. This results in an incorruptible and tightly knit unit that no longer has the same limitations as the initial loose conglomerate of parts. Done to a chunk of lead, the results are referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life. Both terms refer to the same object but emphasize a different function – either the transformation of base metals into precious metals or the bringing of health and longevity to an organism.

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is claimed that the consciousness of the individual retracts as the senses shut down until there is a complete swoon. Some time thereafter the consciousness begins to re-emerge and is faced with a series of dream-like experiences. These start out gentle and enjoyable but grow more violent and disturbing. At any point along the way the consciousness may come to a full realization that they are dead and experiencing an illusion. If this occurs, the “dream” ceases and the individual merges with Nirvana – an ultimate state of unity and bliss beyond the suffering inherent in life. This is called attaining liberation through awareness in the bardo (or “in between state.”) If liberation is not obtained, the mind gets caught up in the images and lives out several of these death dreams until all of the accumulated karma from the most recent life has been worked out unconsciously. This karma no longer being a distraction, the soul starts to instinctively notice some of the things going on with the living. Specifically, they are drawn to the energies of people copulating. Eventually the soul enters a new body and starts the whole cycle (samsara) over again. This is one particular variant of the belief in reincarnation. Within this belief there is also the phenomenon of the bodhisattva. This is one who is able to gain at least some level of awareness in the bardo, but intentionally chooses to reincarnate. This individual is said to be able to retain something of his former lives. Usually this would include maintaining certain personal preferences and especially aptitudes. They wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to bring up actual memories of experiences had in lives past. The Dali Lama is supposed to be one of these Bodhisattvas who continue to incarnate in a physical body. As part of the recognition process, he is said to have identified personal items that were owned by him in a previous incarnation.

Using dreams as a way to understand what happens after death leads into dream yogas that aim to give the practitioner some experience in recognizing the true nature of whatever experience they are having. The major work involves first learning to become aware that you are dreaming while still in the dream and then taking advantage of that state for further work. The modern term for this type of dreaming while aware that it is a dream is Lucid Dreaming. There is another level of work beyond this that involves retaining consciousness during deep, dreamless sleep. In this state you do not have any external or internal stimulus causing your brain to generate a multi-sensory experience. In other words, you do not experience the waking world, nor do you experience a dream. There is nothing but your own pure consciousness. This type of consciousness is so removed from what we normally think of as ourselves (the stream of thoughts and experiences which is almost always running through the undisciplined mind) that it is very difficult to maintain self-awareness in this state. As with everything, practice makes perfect.

Taoism teaches that each of us coming into this world inherits and absorbs various components of the psyche or “soul” through the process of living. Many of these parts don’t even agree with one another. However you want to describe them, these internal conflicts should be familiar to anyone with even the most rudimentary self-awareness. One part of me wants to indulge in some sort of physical pleasure and another part of me feels that I should abstain, for a common example. Also people sometimes encounter certain ideas that seem to make logical sense to them but violate a deeply held emotional understanding that they have developed. To the Taoist, the Soul is not just one uniform object. It is a loose conglomerate of parts. The task of the Taoist mystic is to take this starting material and to forge it into a single, unique and personal Soul. Most of this work involves modifying the relationships between the parts in order to create a harmonious system. This is often done through identifying each of these parts with their corresponding external force in nature and the cosmos allowing the individual soul to take on the same level of harmony that we see in nature. The individual, as a discrete unit within nature, also thereby gains a greater degree of harmony within the whole. Some will continue to accentuate this harmony with the natural world to the point that they become an almost passive vessel for universal forces to act upon the world according to the natural flow of things. This is the path of dissolving the personality in favour of cosmic unity. In other cases you have individuals becoming cosmic immortals, very similar to how we think of the Greek gods and even more like the concept of the anthropomorphic pantheon found in Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo and Santeria. Taoist Immortals have accentuated the parts that make them unique in the world rather than the parts that are common and universal. This is the path of apotheosis, or becoming divine.

These are a few of the ideas about the afterlife from systems that I feel some resonance with. The following can be taken as a story. It can also be taken as my current best guess as to what happens to the consciousness after we die. Ultimately, it is intended to provoke contemplation and lead the mind in certain directions. First, we know that the physical body is a conglomeration of parts. When it stops working, the bonds between the elements start to break down. These components are eventually dispersed and go on to become parts of other bodies, not just those of other humans. This is all commonly understood scientific fact. Applying the “as above, so below” principle, the psyche or soul can be expected to act in a similar way, but on its own plane of existence. The bonds between various sub-personalities and complexes start to break down. There is some sort of further “digesting” of these parts and the material is then reused for the creation of new souls. The third component of an individual, Spirit, being undifferentiated, fades back into the vast field of spirit. Just as the wave temporarily appears to be a separate object, but then dissolves back into the ocean.

As mentioned before, soul fragments can be acquired through absorption during life. These will come from soul fragments of other individuals copying themselves into you. Sometimes this transfer occurs directly from person to person (to person, etc...), other times indirectly through material artefacts that may be experienced by others long after the artist/producer has experienced physical death. In addition, the practitioner can apply an alchemical operation on her own soul instead of [or in addition to] an ingot of lead. The result can be compared to taking common carbon and crystallizing it into a diamond. The Buddhist tradition of Tibet even calls this the Diamond Body. The soul attains such a high level of coherence and unity that it does not break down even if the physical body stops working. To maintain this state indefinitely and with self-awareness, connection with Spirit needs to continue. This is where learning to remain self-aware during deep dreamless sleep comes into play. If this work can be accomplished while still incarnate in the flesh, the transfigured soul can work to affect longevity. Perhaps eventually there comes a point where the powers wielded in a lucid dream can be accomplished in the physical world while awake. The individual becomes an Immortal or a god and would normally “reside” within a universe or “heaven” of their own creation.


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