Life, Consciousness, Death
The subject of death evokes almost universal fear, and perhaps a deeper understanding of consciousness will ultimately put an end to this fear. Besides this momentous possibility (and partially because of it), this understanding would bring about most deep-seated and dramatic transformations in how we think of ourselves and the world, and therefore in how we live our lives. It may be said that it is within the world of consciousness, as an aspect of existence, that humanity finds its essentially unified state, its source of light and love and underlying purpose. Perhaps the changes wrought by such a growth in understanding will be so great that they will bring on the emerging age of a unified and freer expression of our planetary life, manifesting as harmonious relations between all beings.
We all know and experience consciousness through the fact of physical sensation, emotional reaction, images within the imagination or concentrated mental focus, to name some very familiar examples. It is an obvious fact that it is our thoughts and feelings which move our physical body and galvanise it into some kind of activity – our actions and words convey our state of mind and the feelings we experience. From this perspective, consciousness can be seen as the creative, causal factor and the form as the resultant effect – the manifestation and externalisation of consciousness. If we take this idea a little further, we might say that consciousness creates, pervades and determines the form nature, and requires that form nature for its expression – this is the ancient Eastern view of the basic nature of consciousness and its relation to form. In his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says, “At present, our body is undoubtedly the centre of our whole universe. We associate it, without thinking, with our self..., and this thoughtless and false association continually reinforces our illusion of their inseparable, concrete existence.... When we die this whole compound construction falls dramatically to pieces. What happens, to put it extremely simply, is that consciousness..., continues without the body....”1
The modern Western view seems to be quite the opposite of this: it determines that it is the form that gives rise to various modes of awareness as a result of a complex of biological processes. This means that with the death and dissolution of the physical body, we end utterly our existence. Even though this is the prominent theory of Western science, it is not the only theory that has been put forward in attempting to explain the cause and existence of consciousness. Some modern thinkers present a view which makes an approach to the Eastern view, viz. that dreams are in fact a type of action in themselves and do not depend on the physical body nature for their existence and functioning; and near-death experiences, related to investigators by so many people, seem to provide evidence for the continuation of life and consciousness after physical death.
To clarify a possible point of confusion, it may be useful to consider the difference between consciousness as a generic term and the conscious awareness of the human being. The wonderful mechanism of the human body has been explored in Western science and the more one delves into this, the more wondrous it becomes. Each cell, or grouping of cells, in the body has its own function. The cell has its own sphere of consciousness and this is demonstrated in the functions it carries out; for example, some move around literally feeling their way and are able to recognise whether cells are of the same organism, i.e. of the body as a whole, or whether they are foreign. This capacity for recognition is surely a type of awareness, yet it is obvious that these cells have not the conscious awareness of performing their activities as does the human being. Self-consciousness seems to be the prerogative of the human being, who in full participatory conscious awareness can direct his or her own activities determined by freedom of will. In addition, we are able to recognise the knower, the field of knowledge and the medium through which we know. In other words we are able to identify an observing, perceiving self – the “I”, the particular sphere of awareness or knowledge, and the form through which the self perceives. Therefore all beings are imbued with consciousness, but do not necessarily have the capacity for conscious or deliberate awareness, which is really dependent upon the perception of individuality. Fritjof Capra remarks, “Awareness of the environment,...is a property of cognition at all levels of life. Self-awareness, as far as we know, is manifest only in the higher animals, and fully unfolds in the human mind. As humans, we are not only aware of our environment, we are also aware of ourselves and our inner world. In other words we are aware that we are aware. We not only know; we also know that we know.”2
Dreaming, waking, being born, dying – all signify changes or transitions in consciousness from one type of activity to another and from one sphere of awareness to another. Having fallen asleep and entered into our dream world, most of us are unconscious participators in the activities of dreaming. We are swept from one strange occurrence to the next and, often in a single night, experience a vast complexity of emotional or mental expression equivalent to our waking awareness. And yet there are some people who are able to actively participate and exert deliberate, or conscious, influence upon their subjective environment. This has been called lucid dreaming.
A lucid dream is a dream in which one is actively aware of the fact that one is dreaming. In such a dream, where this awareness is separate from the content of the dream, one can even begin to manipulate the story and the characters to create a desired situation.3
The alive and vivid reality of a lucid dream forces anyone who experiences it to undergo a transforming re-appraisal of what they perceive to be the reality of their waking lives.4
There are other instances of being awake, yet operating through a vehicle of consciousness other than the physical body – an example being the many cases reported of so-called out-of-body experiences (OOBE’s). Many patients have watched themselves undergoing resuscitation, or being pronounced dead, and were able to recall moments during the process or even the doctor’s words when they finally regained waking consciousness, even though they themselves were completely unconscious to the world (in the ordinary sense) at the time. These reports provide evidence for the view that “the conscious self which can operate outside the body during physical life can operate completely independently of it after separation at bodily death.”5
It is said that some who are experienced in meditation are able to enter consciously into the sleeping state and “abstract” or withdraw their consciousness from the physical body to higher realms of awareness – all this is done in full knowledge of process and technique and conscious awareness of their inner environment. A similar process is said to be followed at the time of death. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is one practice centred around the processes of sleep and of dying which enables the student to become conscious during these two processes - this is dream yoga. In their view, the process of death is the greatest spiritual opportunity in a person’s lifetime and there have been devised methods of utilising death in a scientific way for the purpose of spiritual liberation. Dream yoga begins with exercising the power of visualisation – visualising the “dissolution” process at the time of going to sleep, seeing one’s subtle body leaving the physical body and entering into what is called the “clear light level of consciousness”. In dying one enters into “the clear light of death”. This all entails “a dissolution process, a withdrawal” of the consciousness. Hopefully these techniques can be modified so that they can be adopted more widely, for in most parts of the world there is “a big difference now between the scientific method of bringing people into incarnation and the perfectly blind and oft frightened and surely ignorant way in which we usher them out of incarnation.”6
It is this abstraction process, or the withdrawal of one’s consciousness from its normal state to other and higher states of awareness outside of the physical realm, that can be considered as the link between sleeping, dreaming and death and as the basis of the continuation of consciousness. So far there have been two aspects of existence mentioned and elaborated: that of form and that of consciousness – we are our physical selves and yet are aware of many types of environment – our physical, feeling and mental natures for example. It is a third aspect, that of life, which enables the form and varying spheres of consciousness to exist, and which is the difference between dreaming/sleeping and dying. During sleep, our physical bodies are sustained in their existence in the world, while our consciousness is abstracted to other areas of awareness. It is in death that both life and consciousness are withdrawn from the physical body, so that the person who has “passed over” (that is to other spheres of awareness) is in reality alive except with the life aspect now “anchored” in a body of awareness other than the physical.
Alice Bailey has the following encouraging words: “Is it impossible to conceive of a time when the act of dying will be a triumphant finale of life? Is it impossible to vision the time when the hours spent on the death bed may be but a glorious prelude to a conscious exit?... Can you not visualize the time when instead of tears and fear and the refusal to recognize the inevitable, the dying person and his friends would mutually agree on the hour and that nothing but happiness would characterize the passing? That in the minds of those left behind the thought of sorrow will not enter and death beds will be regarded as happier occasions than births and marriages?”7
Humanity can be said to be on the road to mastering its subjective nature, just as it has mastered its purely physical intelligence and activity (although not the values that motivate a more enlightened activity). And this inner process of mastery is slowly becoming apparent through the newer values that are emerging. This will surely also lead to a growth in conscious dreaming and to a science which will enable more and more people to knowingly, serenely and in joy pass through the portal of death.
When humanity lifts its eyes away from the world of form and ceases to identify solely with this world and its material nature and values, and instead focuses its eyes and identifies itself within the world of consciousness, with its expanding and potentially more inclusive values, it takes the first steps in finding its inner source and being, whose nature is unity and unfettered communication. The world of consciousness questions our material values and indeed theentire thought life that humanity has constructed regarding life and reality, and can thus release the human mind from its present constraining limitations. When greater numbers of human beings hold to the fact that form is an expression of consciousness and emerging subjective quality, we may well be on the way to finding the key to world transformation, for this must emerge from a change in consciousness. This is a major realisation towards which humanity seems to be moving so surely. We can all explore our consciousness consciously and with interest, literally opening up a new and living reality as a field for discovery and creativity.
1. Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying pp.241-2. Rider, London, 1992.
2. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life p.278. HarperCollins, London, 1996.
3. Francisco J. Varela (ed.), Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying p.101. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1997.
4. Malcolm Godwin, The Lucid Dreamer p.10. Element Books, Shaftesbury and Rockport, 1994.
5. David Lorimer, Survival? p.6. Routledge, London, 1984.
6. Alice Bailey, A Treatise on White Magic p.499. Lucis Publishing Co., New York, 1934.
7. Ibid., p.499-500.
GOODWILL IS… an essential quality for all those who deal with the transition from incarnation to greater life.