Death as a Non-Ordinary State of Consciousness
This article encourages readers to contemplate their inner feelings about their own mortality, deepen their awareness, and expand their consciousness on the nature of death. It attempts to accomplish these goals through two means: first, by guiding readers through two exercises that will help them to process their own deaths experientially; and second, by providing teachings of the mystical traditions – both Eastern and Western perspectives. The author shares her own personal reflections on death and then guides readers through two introspective exercises regarding their own feelings and perspectives on death. Spiritual teachings from the traditions of Jewish Mysticism, Christian Mysticism, and Buddhism are discussed and the common perspectives they share on the nature of death as a non-ordinary state of consciousness are also discussed.
Key words: Death, state of consciousness, mysticism
Introduction In modern society, for many young people, death is non-existent; elders on the other hand, either deny its existence or try to frantically fight against it through cosmetic surgery, obsessive exercise, or hypochondrias is – and these futile efforts often bring about depression and anxiety.
Most of secular society perceives death as total annihilation, without any positive purpose.
The prevailing view of death in all of the mystical and esoteric traditions however, is very different from this version of the modern view. The Judeo-Christian and Eastern spiritual traditions tell us that death is nothing to worry about.
Transpersonal psychotherapists tell their clients that ego deaths will prepare them for their actual physical deaths…and then all things will be fine.
My experience is that in spite of these positive interpretations of death (at least in the spiritual and transpersonal fields), people continue to avoid ego deaths… because any kind of death (whether it be physical or psycho-spiritual) still brings up major anxiety.
My Personal Journey with Death At age 16, for no reason that I can understand, I awakened one morning and began ruminating over the question of how middle age and older people can comfortably live their lives when the number of years they have left is less than what they have already lived. How can these people feel any kind of peace and happiness, when they must face that soon they will wind up in the ground and all their hopes, fears, thoughts and life contributions will vanish, I asked? And then, I obsessively told myself, that if they were only going to die – then their lives, their efforts, and all they struggled with and accomplished were for nothing.
What is still strange to me about the timing of this deep questioning, was that no one I knew or was close to me had died – and this anxiety and angst seemed to come out of nowhere.
For some months these depressing thoughts of mine would not disappear – and I recall painting abstract paintings during this “dark” period of black and purple random shapes and designs that for me reflected a deep and confusing existential despair.
In spite of all my self-induced drama, life and emotions have a way of shifting rapidly for a teen age girl. And before too much time passed, major events for me such as a new boy friend and applications to college caused my unresolved “big questions” to be pushed underground.
But these questions never really went away. Years later when I was accepted into a psychology Ph.D. program, I knew right away what the topic of my dissertation would be. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on “Death Anxiety.” And while I learned during my graduate training how to fit the topic of Death Anxiety into an empirical research protocol accepted by the psychology department – my deep and long- term questions of life, death, and the meaning of human existence were certainly not answered or even closely addressed by either my dissertation or my academic training.
And so life continued. As a young psychologist, I was active in the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS). It was through working with many people who had Near-Death Experiences that I became more confidant – that in fact – there is a continuation of the human soul after physical death. I was very interested to hear from them that death is not an end and that the way a person lives his or her life while alive in this world, is of utmost important after all – and influences one’s next stage of consciousness evolution.
Although as a child I was raised without much of a spiritual life or identity, young adulthood catapulted me on a spontaneous and strong spiritual journey. This journey – which I write about in my book “Direct Connection: Transformation of Consciousness,” still continues to this day. A large part of my spiritual process has been expressed through my work as a psychologist, university professor, and spiritual guide. For over twenty-five years I’ve bridged the worlds of psychology and spirituality as I’ve supported and guided hundreds of students and clients on their own respective psycho-spiritual paths.
I also work with Ingo Jahrsetz in Germany – and by utilizing Holotropic Breathwork, meditation, and other psycho-spiritual modalities – we have helped second and third generation Germans whose ancestors were identified with Nazism during World War 2 face their own deep shame and guilt in order to ultimately come to love themselves, their families, and their country.
For me, as an American Jew, this work has been profound, often challenging, and has provided me with many personal ego deaths, that have enabled me to finally die to my old identity as an American Jewish woman who “righteously” remains both a martyr and victim because of the Holocaust. Instead, I have come to realize that I…you…everyone else… are all of the same Consciousness – a Consciousness where there is no space or time, no life or death, no male or female, no good or evil, no victim or perpetrator or any other duality that keeps us from being One… and living fully in the moment. Because it is only in this moment, that we can realize that we are not separate people who are alienated from each other. Rather, we are all part of the Source, and this Source in the West is called God. God is pure consciousness, we are part of this consciousness – a consciousness that always has been and will never die.
Today, when I contemplate death, I am far away from that 16 year old girl who was painting dark images on a canvas reflecting confusion, despair and longing for something I did not yet see. Yes, today I understand conceptually and theoretically that the experience of death is not an end of all we are and have been.
But at the same time, I still feel discomfort. I love and appreciate my life… I don’t want it to end. I think of my husband of many years – how would he be if I was no longer here? And how would I be if something happened to him?
I also think of my young adult children – I reassure myself they’d be OK. After all, they are each happily married and now have children of their own. But my death would bring them grief, I know. And also my 6 little grandchildren. They seem to enjoy Grandma so much. Then there are my clients, my students, and my goals and plans for projects I’ve not yet accomplished, books I’ve not yet written.
So where am I now… really… around my death? I realize I don’t have fear about death itself. I also realize I don’t want to die now. I don’t feel ready. I think I will know when I am. I believe we all will sense when our time has come.
The Eastern spiritual traditions tell us that deep reflection on your own death will make a real change in the depths of your heart. I agree – I believe that contemplation of one’s own death is important. It has been for me.
Therefore, since you as the reader, are making the effort to read this article, I’d like to encourage you now to take a few moments to reflect and contemplate your own feelings around your death:
I ask that you imagine that you just heard from a reliable source – maybe from your Doctor, from your own deep intuition, or from your spiritual teacher that your death is imminent… in the next few days you will take your last breath.
What feelings and emotions come over you? Do you feel a tension anywhere in your body? I suggest that you allow yourself to experience whatever comes up for you. Breathe into the feelings, the tensions, whatever. Maybe you want to close your eyes. Don’t run away from any of it. Let yourself feel.
Perhaps you may also want to stop reading this article now and write some of your emotions down in a journal. Maybe some of you desire to do what I did as a sixteen year old – paint or draw a picture expressing what you feel.
And when you are ready you can come back and continue reading. The next part of the article will tell you what the major spiritual traditions teach us about the meaning and condition of death. When you are ready, please read the summaries of their teachings and let yourself be supported and open to what they say.
The Judeo-Christian Tradition – on Death
Jewish Mysticism – The Kabbalah The Jewish sages intimate that we possess an immortal soul.
They affirm that our dwelling place in the next world is entirely dependent upon our quality of life in this one.
According to Kabbalistic teaching, we learn and grow in the after-life with like- minded souls.
Jewish mysticism has long taught that each soul must return to earth through cycles of rebirth in order to fulfill its particular purpose.
It says that each of us on earth is entrusted with a unique and specific mission to carry out for God.
This is called Tikkun (from a Hebrew word meaning “to rectify.”). When the person succeeds in successfully carrying out his/her mission, then it is time to leave earthly existence permanently for higher realms.
In the Kabbalah, the goal is for each soul to end its repetitive cycles of death and rebirth in the physical world.
Thus, Jewish mystics (as the Buddhists) have viewed the necessity for returning to earthly existence as a distinct burden.
Rather than regarding death as the finale of human existence, the Kabbalah depicts it as a gateway to higher realms of existence.
Christian Mysticism – Emmanual Swedenborg (1688-1772) – on Death
Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, Christian mystic, and theologian. Despite his expansive scientific exploration, Swedenborg wasn’t satisfied with a purely physical approach in his quest to understand the universe.
In particular, he wanted to unravel the nature of the soul.
Soon after starting this work, on April 6, 1774 beginning on Easter weekend, he began to have vivid dreams and visions of an otherworldly quality.
A year later in 1745, something happened that would change Swedenborg’s life forever. He was divinely commissioned to be the means through which God would further reveal himself to humanity.
He wrote 35 volumes of theological books, addressing the nature of the Divine, and the life that awaits us after death.
Eastern Spiritual Teacher, D.T. Suzuki – “For you Westerners, it is Swedenborg who is your Buddha, it is he who should be read and followed.”
Swedenborg occupies a unique place in the history of Western philosophy and religion. He was equally acclaimed and at home in both science and religion. Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“The most remarkable step in the religious history of recent ages is that made by the genius of Swedenborg – he is a colossal soul who lies vast upon our times.”
A Person’s Nature After Death
Swedenborg teaches that what people cared about and devoted themselves to in life is what lasts in death.
After death, people are their love or intention, and actually make up who the person is after death. Through eternity, people stay the way they are as far as their intention and love are concerned. People who have a heavenly and spiritual love enter heaven; (meaning that they live with others who are close and open to God);…while people who have purely a physical and worldly love without any spiritual feelings enter hell (meaning living among those whose hearts are closed and whose consciousness is far away from God).
The whole heaven is divided into communities on the basis of differences in the good that comes from love.
In summary, Swedenborg shows that heaven and hell are not places as much as states of consciousness.
When the body can no longer fulfill its functions in the natural world – then most people say that the person dies.
For Christian mystics and Swedenborg, the person, however, does not die, but is simply separated from the physical body which was serviceable in the world.
They say that the actual person lives because the person is not a person because of the body, but of the spirit.
Easterns Traditions – On Death
In all Eastern spiritual traditions, there is general agreement that no human life can be meaningful unless it is lived with full acceptance of the fact of death.
To meet death then, not only as an event at the end of life, but as an ever-present part of the life process itself – is a core belief in Eastern spirituality.
The Buddhists, like the Hindus, believe that there are differences in the quality of deaths, just as there are differences in the quality of births and existences.
The definitive experience that characterizes the spiritual life of Zen Buddhism is the experience of death.
In Zen Buddhism the process of undergoing an inner death is called satori. And this inner death is the condition of holding on to absolutely nothing, of letting go of everything.
For Guatama, the Buddha, the way to BOTH an effective life within this world, and to a peaceful and successful death is through a calm and confident recognition of the universal truth that “all things must pass away.”
And to recognize that, indeed, the whole universe is passing away, that nothing remains as it is for more than an instant.
People are instructed by the Buddha not to make any plans in this world without reckoning with death. We are told to also recognize the transitory, unpredictable, and insubstantial nature of the existence of everything in the finite world.
The Awakened or Enlightened one has no desires whatsoever, either to be attached to what gives him pleasure or to be separated from what gives him pain. Having no likes or dislikes, persons are not subject to hope and anxiety, ambition and frustration.
In the Buddhist approach, then, LIFE and DEATH are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life.
Death is a condition in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.
So for Buddhism, the important message is that life and death mirror each other both when we are alive and when we are dead.
More Teachings of Buddhism Related to Death
There would be no chance of getting to know death if it happened only once. But fortunately, life is a dance of change – prompting us to let go of all the things we cling to.
One of the chief reasons we have so much difficulty and anguish facing death is that we ignore the truth of impermanence.
If we shut off this possibility, we become closed, and we become grasping. Grasping is the source of all our problems.
If everything is impermanent, then everything is what we call “empty”, which means lacking in any lasting, stable, and inherent existence;
Nothing has any inherent existence of its own when you really look at it, and this absence of independent existence is emptiness.
And all things, when seen and understood in their true nature, are not independent but interdependent with all things.
The fear that impermanence awakens in us drives us to ask: If everything dies and changes, then what is really true? Is there something, in fact, we can depend on, that does survive what we call death? The revolutionary insight of Buddhism is that life and death are in the mind…in our consciousness… and nowhere else.
Mind is revealed as the universal basis of experience – the creator of happiness and the creator of suffering, the creator of what we call life and what we call death.
There are two aspects of mind – the ordinary mind – and the nature of mind.
The ordinary mind is: that which possesses a sense of duality, … It is the mind that thinks, plots, desires, manipulates, that flares up in anger, that creates and indulges in waves of negative emotions and thoughts, that has to go on asserting, validating, and confirming its existence. The nature of mind is: its innermost essence, which is absolutely and always unchanged by change or death… It is mostly hidden within most peoples’ ordinary mind, enveloped and obscured by our thoughts and emotions.
What saints and mystics throughout history are all fundamentally experiencing is the essential nature of the mind.
– Christians and Jews call it God or Christ Consciousness; – Hindus call it the Self, Shiva, Brahman, and Vishnu; – Sufi mystics name it the Hidden Essence; – And Buddhists call it Buddha nature.
At the heart of all religions is the certainty that there is a fundamental truth, and that this life is a sacred opportunity to evolve and realize it.
When we say Buddha, we naturally think of the Indian prince Guatama Siddhartha who reached enlightenment in the 6th century BC and who taught the spiritual path known today as Buddhism.
Buddha, however has a much deeper meaning; it means a person, any person, who has completely awakened from ignorance and opened to his or her vast potential of wisdom. A Buddha is one who has brought a final end to suffering and frustration, and discovered a lasting and deathless happiness and peace.
The Buddha never claimed divinity, he merely knew he had the Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment that everyone else did too.
So where exactly is this Buddha nature or Godhead? It is in the sky-like nature of our mind. Utterly open, free and limitless, it is fundamentally so simple and so natural that it can never be complicated, corrupted, or stained, so pure that it is beyond even the concept of purity and impurity.
Dudjom Rinpoche – “No words can describe it, no example can point to it, it has never been born, it has never ceased, it has never been liberated, it has never been deluded, it has never existed, it has never been nonexistent, it has no limits at all, it does not fall into any kind of category”. This is why in the Tibetan tradition they do not celebrate the birthdays of masters; they celebrate their deaths, their moment of final illumination.
The reason why the moment of death is so potent with opportunity is because it is then… That the fundamental nature of mind, the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light, will naturally manifest, and in a vast and splendid way.
If at this crucial moment we can recognize the Ground Luminosity, we will attain liberation. This, however is not possible unless you have become really familiar with the nature of mind in your lifetime through spiritual practice.
In the Buddhist tradition, it is therefore said that the person who is liberated at the moment of death is considered to be liberated in this lifetime; – for it is in this life that the essential recognition of the Clear Light has taken place and been established. This is a crucial point to understand.
At the moment of death, there are two things that count:
1) Whatever we have done in our lives, and 2) What state of mind we are in at that moment.
Even if we have accumulated a lot of negative karma, if we are able really to make a change of heart at the moment of death, it can decisively influence our future and transform our karma; for the moment of death is an exceptionally powerful opportunity for purifying karma.
This means that the last thought and emotion that we have before we die has an extremely powerful determining effect on our immediate future.
This is the reason why for Buddhists the alchemy of discipleship is important for death.
The Alchemy of Discipleship In the Buddhist tradition, the alchemy of discipleship suggests that the inner teacher – who is with you always – manifests in the form of the outer teacher:
…whom, almost by magic, is actually experienced. …and this teacher can be your spiritual guide or teacher in the West, your Guru in the East, or even a Divine entity such as Jesus.
This encounter, Buddhists say, is the most important of any lifetime. What is the actual nature of this outer teacher?
None other than the embodiment and voice and representative of our inner teacher.
The spiritual teacher whose human shape and human voice and wisdom you come to love with a love deeper than any other in our lives:
…is none other than the external manifestation of the mystery of your own inner truth.
At the deepest and highest level, the teacher and the student are not and cannot in any way be separate:
…for the teacher’s task is to teach you to receive the clear message of our own inner teacher.
Not only is the teacher the direct spokesman of your own inner teacher, he or she is also the bearer, channel, and transmitter of all the enlightened beings. This is what gives your teacher the extraordinary power to illuminate your mind and heart. He or she is nothing less than the human face of the Absolute, the telephone if you like through which all the enlightened beings can call you.
Only if you come to see your teacher as an Enlightened Being – and not a human being will you get the highest blessing, and the more chance there is for the teacher to penetrate your heart and mind, and so bring about a complete spiritual transformation.
Slowly, over many years, transmission from the teacher’s wisdom mind and yours can take place, revealing to you the full splendor of your own Buddha nature, and with it the perfect splendor of the universe itself.
What most people need, almost more than anything, is the courage and humility really to ask for help from the depths of our heart.
As Christ said:
“Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. Everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth.”
This student/teacher relationship is considered the most important practice in life – and therefore the most important practice at the moment of death. At the moment of death, you can unite your mind confidently with the wisdom mind of the teacher and die in that peace.
The Grace of Prayer at the Moment of Death
The most effective practice of all to achieve this is a simple practice of “Guru Yoga,” where the dying person merges his or her mind with the wisdom mind of the spiritual teacher, or Buddha, or any enlightened being.
I would like to ask readers once again, to turn your attention to your inner selves, and have an experience of liberation.
Now picture your teacher (either one who is in physical form or one who is in another state of consciousness and is with you in your heart):
…Imagining with special intensity the rays of light streaming out from your teacher and purifying you, burning away all your impurities, your illness too, and healing you: …Your body melting into light; and merging your mind, in the end, with his/her wisdom mind, in complete confidence.
Realize that when your consciousness awakens again after death, this imprint of the teacher’s presence will awaken with you, and you will be liberated.
If you die remembering the teacher, then the possibilities of his or her grace are limitless: Merge your mind with him or her, and say, from the depth of your heart:
…in your own words – now I am helpless – I must rely totally on you, I trust you completely, take care of me – make me one with you. And now-breathe in deeply the peace and love that you feel. Close your eyes, let yourself feel warm, secure…and home at last.
Writing this article for the International Transpersonal Journal has been a challenge. I was asked by the Journal to write this article after my presentation “Death as a Non-ordinary State of Consciousness” at the recent Eurotas Conference in Varna, Bulgaria. It has been challenging for several reasons: first, because writing about death in a scientific journal is not easy. There are not many facts, empirical research, or quantitative analysis on the nature of death that I could cite. Second, in my presentation at Eurotas, I spoke about my personal reactions to death over my lifetime – not the kind of thing that is usually written in journals. Third, I believe that when a topic like this is discussed, it is important for listeners to have the opportunity to open themselves to their own personal feelings regarding their own mortality. Could I actually ask readers of this journal to do such a thing, I asked myself – when they were only prepared to read with interest a theoretical
article on the topic of death?
My experiences over the years have caused me to believe that authentic spiritual growth and development necessitates both direct and personal experience along with an understanding of what such an experience means. In this article I have tried to accomplish both by encouraging readers to explore their inner selves and also by presenting the teachings on death by the great spiritual traditions – both Western and Eastern. These teachings that I have stated, have been written about by the following authors: Edward Hoffman and the Journal of Gnosis wrote on death as interpreted in the Kaballah; I have gleaned Sogyal Ringpoche’s words on Buddhist perspectives from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and Swedenborg’s words are taken from his book Heaven and Hell. Hoping this process worked for each of you. I wish each reader continued spiritual growth and consciousness evolution as you travel your life path.
Original work published in Integral Transpersonal Journal of Arts, Sciences, and Technologies, Volume 11, No. 2, January 4, 2012