Theosophical University Press Online Edition
We Fear What We Do Not Understand
Sleep and Death
The Ray of Consciousness Withdraws
The Partnership Dissolves
A Process of Segregation
The Ray Absorbs Its Projection
Rest-period between Earth-lives
The Ray Re-enters Matter
Physical Body Useful for Physical Existence Only
Our Entrance Indicates Pre-existence
Our Exit Indicates Continuity of Existence
Changing Scenery Does Not Change the Traveler
In all ages men have pondered over the problem of death, and asked the question: "Is this the end of our existence, or is there a life after death?"
We do not want to lose contact with our loved ones. We have interests that we would like to follow up; dreams and hopes we would like to see fulfilled; and all of us have made mistakes which we want a chance to make good. In many ways we have just learned how to live when old age and death overtake us. It is not strange, therefore, that we should seek an answer to the foregoing question. But at the same time, we are reluctant to take it up, for it evokes fear and gloom. And so we put off a consideration of it until some time in the future, with the result that it remains as dark shadow in the background of mind.
Man fears what he does not understand. If he could lift, even little, the veil of mystery that surrounds the problem of death, the subject might lose much of its terror.
The Ancient Teachings have much of an illuminating and hopeful nature to tell us on this subject, the keynote being found in the ancient Greek proverb, "Sleep and Death are Brothers." The same succession of events that takes place in death, also takes place in sleep. In sleep the Ray of Consciousness withdraws from the outer plane to inner and invisible planes of existence. In death it also withdraws to inner planes, but the withdrawal is complete and long-lasting.
When we go to sleep it often happens that the Ego becomes unconscious, only to return to consciousness again, a process that may repeat itself several times before sleep is definitely entered into. Often death also follows this pattern. The Ego has periods of consciousness on this plane, alternated with periods of consciousness elsewhere. Usually the latter periods are passed in silence, but sometimes the person may talk to himself of his experiences in scarcely audible tones.
Sleep begins with a period of unconsciousness which later is followed by dreams. Death also begins with unconsciousness followed by a dream state, deeper and more real than that of sleep. After sleep we return to the same body. After the rest-period that follows death, we return to earth in an infant's body, which we then build up for a new life on the material plane. Sleep is a miniature rehearsal of what takes place in death. Every time we lie down to sleep we "die an incomplete death." Every time we wake up we experience a rebirth into matter.
There is no difference in what happens to the indwelling consciousness, except in degree, but there is a difference in what happens to the vehicle, the body. In sleep the body lies dormant and inactive, but it retains its capacity for recuperation. In death the body breaks up and disintegrates.
The reason we have become accustomed to look upon death with horror is that we have fixed our attention on the rapid destruction of the body that takes place after death, and this, coupled with the erroneous assumption that man is identical with his body, has misled us to think that the destruction of the body meant the destruction of the indwelling consciousness.
The great mistake made in studying this subject in the Occident, is that too much attention has been paid to the body or vehicle side of man's nature, and not enough to the real man, the indwelling consciousness.
Man is a composite entity, and the death of the body is only the discarding of the outermost garment used by the consciousness in the material world. The discarding of this vehicle causes a change in the state of our consciousness, since the Ray of Consciousness now transfers its center of activity to higher vehicles of its inner constitution, but our essential self is not annihilated or destroyed by this change.
When we realize that every time we go to sleep we have a preview of what will happen to us in death, the thought of death will lose its terror. And when we reflect on the feeling of relief with which we drop the cares of the day and welcome the peace and rest of the night, we can visualize the still greater sense of release that will come to us when we abandon the worn-out body completely.
The Sufi poet Jalal-ud-din describes the relation between the consciousness and the body during sleep in the following beautiful poem:
Nightly the souls of men thou lettest fly
From out the trap wherein they captive lie
Nightly from out its cage each soul doth wing
Its upward way, no longer slave or king.
Yet for a while each night the Spirit's steed
Is from the harness of the body freed:
"Sleep is Death's brother": come, this riddle read.
But lest at daybreak they should lag behind,
Each soul He doth with a long tether bind,
That from these groves and plains He may revoke
Those errant spirits to their daily yoke.
The same life which is lived piece-meal and in snatches during sleep is lived uninterruptedly after death.
The higher principles of man's constitution exert a constant upward attraction on the Human Ego during its entire life. In youth and maturity, however, these attractions are crowded into the background by the interests and demands of physical existence. But when old age approaches, the worldly attractions lose their force and the spiritual attractions begin to dominate.
As these attractions become ever stronger, the Ray of Consciousness begins a gradual withdrawal from man's compound constitution which manifests on the outer plane by a more and more enfeebled condition of the physical body. This keeps increasing until finally the heart stops like a run-down clock. The primary cause of death is the withdrawal of the Ray of Consciousness, but the resulting decline of the body in its turn has the secondary effect of speeding the withdrawal of the Ray.
In the case of a normal old age after a life well-lived, death comes as a longed-for rest and a welcome relief. In case of sickness the breakdown of the vehicle may force the withdrawal of the consciousness before its regular time. The same is true of death caused by accident, violence, or suicide. (For a very illuminating treatment of these special cases, as well as the entire subject of death, the reader is referred to Chapter 16 of The Esoteric Tradition by G. de Purucker, as well as other of his works, which are the source of most of the information given here.)
In all these cases the course of events that follows after death differs in the earlier stages from death following old age, but even in these cases the Ego will at a later stage pick up the thread of events and meet with the same experiences it would have met had death followed a normal course.
Reviewing briefly what has been stated regarding man's constitution: his central core is a Ray of Consciousness, a spark of the Universal Life. The highest foci of this ray, which collectively we called "Man's Inner God," are not directly active in the waking state of the ordinary human being, but rather illumine his consciousness as a light that shines overhead. Although not directly active as yet, we must not lose sight of these higher principles, for without them the lower principles would be non-existent.
The active partners that together produce the waking state of consciousness are the Human Ego aspect of the Ray, or the I-AM-I; the lower mind with its brain-vehicle; and the body. During the waking state these principles merge and blend into an active partnership.
Death and sleep both consist in a dissolution of this partnership. In sleep the dissolution is incomplete and temporary; in death it is complete and permanent. The separated partners are not annihilated in the process, but their mode of existence is entirely different from that of the united partnership, just as the elements of a chemical compound differ in appearance and characteristics from their combined product.
What happens to the various principles of the human being when they separate after death?
The highest principles return instantly to their spiritual home, the "Father in Heaven." The lowest part, the physical body with its lower energies and model body, no longer vitalized by the controlling consciousness, begins to disintegrate. (This process can be hastened and the liberation of the Human Ego from its lower partners greatly aided by cremation.) The lower mind ceases to function, in death as it does in sleep, when the Ray of Consciousness withdraws its vitalizing force from the brain.
This explains what happens to the higher and the lower principles of man's constitution, but still leaves the intermediate part, the Human Ego with its various aspects, to be accounted for.
The withdrawal of the Ray of Consciousness from the brain is not instantaneous, and long after the last heartbeat and the last breath, when the body to all outward appearances is lifeless, the process of dying continues on inner planes. During this first postmortem period — which may last many hours, perhaps longer — the brain automatically dislodges from its innermost recesses every memory that was stored in it during the life just ended.
The Ego then sees passing in review before its inner vision every detail of its past life, beginning with its first conscious experience in early childhood and ending with its last moment of self-consciousness before death. The memory of these experiences is then stored as a permanent record in the imperishable part of man's inner nature. By this panoramic vision the Ego is enabled to see the justice of all that has happened to it and to realize what the effect of this life will be on its future incarnations.
It is not uncommon in cases of near-drowning, when the victim was rescued at the last moment, that he will relate having had just a panoramic vision of his past life. The writer has a firsthand account of such an experience from an old friend, who as a boy nearly lost his life by drowning; and who related how the memory of every event of his life, "every mean little thing I had done" (and presumably also the good ones) came back to him in the greatest detail and with extreme vividness and lucidity.
This postmortem review of the life just ended may be compared to the retrospective view the Ego takes when just before losing consciousness in sleep, it reviews the events of the day just ended and realizes the effect that these events will have on the future.
There is this important difference, however, that the pre-sleep experience takes place in the lower mind, while the panoramic vision occurs in the higher mind. The use of the higher mind is made possible because the Human Ego at death is temporarily raised into union with the Higher Ego, and thus enabled to condense a whole life's experiences into a relatively brief period of time.
Referring to the period following upon the apparent death of the body, one of the Masters who was instrumental in forming the Theosophical Society writes:
Speak in whispers, ye, who assist at a death-bed and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death . . . . . Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting its reflection upon the Veil of the Future. The Mahatma Letters, p. 171
After the panoramic vision, the Human Ego finds itself unable to maintain its union with the Higher Ego, unless during earth life it has accustomed itself to live in this part of its nature. The change of focus of the consciousness from the familiar brain-mind to the unfamiliar higher mind is too sudden and too great for the Human Ego to remain in this high state, and so it lapses at first into a state of unconsciousness.
We have a similar experience in daily life when we fail to keep ourselves mentally and otherwise on the higher levels that we attain occasionally, and where we would like to remain always.
The Human Ego that sinks into the dormant or unconscious state at the end of the panoramic vision, is a combination of high aspirations and ideals — originating in the Higher Ego — and worldly interests and earthly desires, originating in the lower mind. The better part of the Human Ego, the truly human part, must now free itself from all the dross by which it is weighted down, before it can rise into union with the higher Ego. It therefore has to pass through a process of segregation, during which it has to face not its creator, but its own creation, that accumulation of effects it has built up during life by its thoughts and deeds, feelings and uncontrolled appetites.
The ease or difficulty with which the Ego disentangles itself from the lower qualities of its nature depends on the kind of life it has led while embodied, and therefore differs for different individuals. The average decent man passes through the sloughing-off process with relative ease, and in a dreamlike or scarcely conscious condition. A very spiritual man is hardly aware he is undergoing a purification, and passes through this state very quickly.
A man who has lived a grossly material life and habitually indulged in passions, selfishness or evildoing, is, on the other hand, deeply entangled in the webs of his lower nature and will naturally require a much longer period of liberation before he can free himself from all the base elements of his nature. It is a serious and sobering thought, this, to realize that one day after we have left this material plane we shall have to face the labor of freeing ourselves from the bonds we ourselves so thoughtlessly and perhaps recklessly forged while embodied.
No one is entirely free from taint, and no one is so evil but that there is something good in him to be liberated. Therefore all must pass through the segregation process. The conditions met in this after-death state vary as much as the experiences met within material life. The time spent also differs greatly, all according to the life lived on earth, but long or short, difficult or easy, there is an end to the separation period. In every case there comes a time when all the base materials, have been cast aside and the higher part of the Human Ego is free to join its "Father in Heaven." This final casting off by the Human Ego of its last impediments is what the Ancients called "the second death."
During the waking state the Ray of Consciousness is active through its projection — the Human Ego.
When we go to sleep the Ray of Consciousness withdraws this projection and thus temporarily absorbs the Human Ego back into itself. The Ray of Consciousness then begins to act on the next higher plane through the Higher Mind, as the Higher or Reimbodying Ego. The Human Ego being unable to rise to this high level of existence and being dislocated from its daytime habitation, the brain-mind, loses consciousness and is unaware that it has been reabsorbed by the Higher Ego.
It sometimes happens that due to the condition of the body, the Ray is unable to withdraw its projection completely from the brain, with the result that some small portion of consciousness is still active there. This fractional remnant of the Ray then rummages around among the various memory-deposits in the brain and produces the confused and incoherent dreams that we know so well. In this case the withdrawal of the Ray was incomplete, and the Human Ego was not fully absorbed into the Higher Ego, with the result that the sleep was restless and not as beneficial as it would have been if the absorption had been complete.
If, on the other hand, the withdrawal is complete, the Human Ego is fully absorbed into the Higher Ego and a restful and beneficial sleep is the result, with no memories of any dreams. A complete withdrawal, then, is the prerequisite for the most beneficial sleep.
After death the same withdrawal of the Ray occurs, and here too the withdrawal in its initial stages is incomplete. For although the higher part of the Ray of Consciousness frees itself immediately, yet its projection, the Human Ego, is still entangled in its lower qualities.
While it is struggling to free itself from these, it exists in a confused, chaotic dream-state comparable to an ordinary, confused night dream. But after the second death, when it has freed itself completely from the lower qualities, the Human Ego is reabsorbed into the Higher Ego, and by slow degrees awakens to a partial consciousness in the Higher Mind. It is the higher, truly human part of the Human Ego that has this awakening; the castoff lower personal part remains dormant.
The case, then, is similar to that of sleep except that in sleep the Ego is still encumbered by its lower qualities, and therefore not pure enough to experience an awakening in the Higher Mind. Also the period is too brief to allow time for the necessary segregation. For these reasons the period of absorption during sleep seems to be one of unconsciousness and is not recollected by the Human Ego after awakening.
After the second death, when the Ego slowly awakens to consciousness in the Higher Mind, there begins for it a new state of consciousness. This resembles a dream state during which the Ego lives over again all its happy experiences of earthlife, unalloyed by any sad or discordant memories. The body and all the lower qualities have been cast aside and the limiting and retarding effect of these on man's spiritual aspirations and nobler feelings is removed. The Ego is now free, and in its consciousness carries to fulfillment all the good resolutions of its former earthlife; brings to completion the lofty plans it had built in imagination while embodied, but could not then realize.
The function of the Ego during this phase of its existence is not one of producing new causes, but is rather a period of rest during which the Ego assimilates and permanently incorporates into its own nature all that was good during its past earthlife. It weaves all these experiences into its character, which is ennobled thereby, and when the Ego, reinvigorated and refreshed after its long rest, returns to earth again, the better side of its character has thus been strengthened and recrystallized into a new and improved mold for the life that is about to begin.
The duration of the rest-period between incarnations varies greatly for different individuals and depends on the nature and direction of their interests and longings during earthlife.
Those whose lives have been filled with spiritual longings and idealistic endeavors have much material for contemplation and assimilation, and their rest-period is of long duration. Those whose interests have been chiefly with material concerns, with few thoughts of self-forgetfulness, love, or yearnings of a lofty character, have a small harvest of a spiritual nature to occupy their attention. Those who have lived base and ignoble lives have a very meager harvest, and their stay in the rest-period is relatively short, and the greater part of it is spent in almost complete unconsciousness.
The appropriate average time between incarnations for the whole human race is said to be about 1500 mortal years. So vivid are the experiences of the Ego in its blissful contemplation, however, that it does not notice the passage of time, which in this state is not divided into hours, days and years as it is on earth. Centuries and even thousands of years may go by without the Ego being aware of their passage. It is the same as in ordinary sleep: if we wake up while it is dark we cannot tell whether we have slept a few minutes or several hours.
The foregoing accounts for what happens to the higher part of the Human Ego after it has separated itself from the lower qualities at the second death. But what happens in the meantime to the lower elements, discarded by the Ego during the segregation period?
Each such vehicle or garment disintegrates on the plane to which it belongs, but in each case it leaves behind a residue, a kind of "seed," that retains in a latent state the nature and characteristics of the discarded element or garment.
These "seeds" lie dormant on their respective inner planes of Nature, and thus preserve in germ-state the characteristics of the perishable part of the former entity. The higher principles of the entity, including the higher part of the Human Ego, do not disintegrate. These, together with the "seeds" of the lower elements, then, are the repositories for the entire character of the human being, so that in future ages, when the Ego returns to earth life, it will again be clothed in the same basic character it had at the end of its former existence, but now made better by former efforts at self-improvement.
After ages spent by the Human Ego in its blissful rest following the second death, there comes at last a time when the Ego has carried to its ultimate completion every hitherto unfulfilled aspiration and made it a part of its character. The material for its dreams has gradually been exhausted and the Ego begins to long for a more active existence. Vague memories of former earth lives now begin to haunt the imagination. The Ego longs to revisit old familiar scenes and to test again its strength in the activities of earthlife. Just as, prior to death, the spiritual aspirations exerted their "upward" pull, so now do the longings for earthlife grow ever stronger, until finally the Ego starts on its earthward journey.
During its descent to the material plane, the Ego follows the same pathway it used in the ascent, but now travels in the opposite direction. Slowly it loses consciousness of the plane of spiritual aspirations, and gradually passes into a state of complete unconsciousness. As it descends through the intermediate and lower planes of Nature, it passes on each one of these planes the "seeds" it left behind on its ascent. These seeds now feel the stimulating and vitalizing effect of the presence of their Master, and just as iron filings are drawn to a magnet, so do these "seeds" now attach themselves to the returning Ego, and in due course rebuild the garments that formerly enshrouded it. Therefore, when the Ego is ready to re-enter the material plane, it is equipped with all the essentials required to rebuild its former vehicles just as they were before.
It is said that just before the Ego re-enters earthlife it has a brief period of vivid consciousness, during which it sees again the same panoramic vision of its former earthlife that it saw at the end of that life, starting as before with the earliest memory of childhood, showing the entire life with all its details and ending with its last conscious moment before death.
The Ego recognizes its responsibility for all its acts and sees the consequences that must follow from these acts. Then, we are told, it sees a preview of the new earth life that is about to begin, and sees the justice of all the experiences that will come to it.
It is psycho-magnetically attracted to those parents, that can furnish the heredity and circumstances of life most closely corresponding to its deserts. Love is the strongest bond that brings parents and children together, but hate can also be a factor in those unfortunate cases where problems of dislike and disharmony were left unsolved in the past. Such Egos are again brought together until they learn to understand each other and come to realize that "hatred ceases not by hatred; hatred ceases only by love," as all great religious teachers have taught.
As the Ego in the distant past left this plane through the door of Death, so does it now re-enter it through the door of Birth. The little infant body is of course a very weak and imperfect instrument, and this must now be strengthened and built up. This task Nature tackles with vigor, for the infant spends almost its entire time eating and sleeping, the first prerequisite for growth. Only occasionally and for brief periods do we see the consciousness beginning to assert itself. It seems to come and go. It tries to use its little instrument, but the latter is too weak and feeble and undeveloped. The view it gets of this world through the "windows of the senses" is blurred and misty. The consciousness gives up the effort and returns temporarily to its more familiar dream plane, only to return again and again.
As weeks and months pass by and the body develops, the consciousness can remain for longer and longer periods before the little body is overstrained by its presence, and sleep with unconsciousness of this plane again becomes necessary.
It is a slow "awakening" of the Ego to consciousness on this material plane, a process that extends over months and years before the Ego has developed self-consciousness. It repeats on a larger time scale what happens when we half-wake up in the morning only to fall asleep again, an act that may recur several times before the Ego finally becomes fully conscious on this plane.
During its waking periods the Ego seems to realize that it must now become acquainted with the new world it has just entered, for we notice that whenever the consciousness is active on this plane, it is observing and studying its surroundings. The baby watches its fingers move, feels the bedclothing, handles some little toy and puts it in his mouth. He watches the light in the ceiling and reaches for it, only to find to his surprise that distance or space is one of the characteristics of this new, strange world.
Parents often complain that the baby so soon "tires of his nice new toys" and always wants something else, but quickly tires of that also. When the baby gets hold of a new object he looks at it, feels it and usually also puts it in his mouth. To the baby this toy is not an object with which to pass away idle time. It is an object of serious research, a bit of the new world to get acquainted with. But after the baby has handled it a sufficient number of times and knows its characteristics, the object has served its purpose and holds no further interest; baby wants some new object to study.
We see that whenever the consciousness is present, its activity is that of observer, learner, experiencer, in the little limited world in which it exists.
But the years pass and gradually the soil becomes suitable for the germination of the character seeds that had been lying dormant since the end of the former earthlife, and slowly the character of the incoming Ego begins to manifest itself. This is the "inheritance" the Ego willed to itself by its own thoughts and deeds during its former existence, and that now shows itself in disposition, temperament, talents and aptitudes, or the lack of these. As the Personal Ego draws on its stock of day-to-day memories stored in the brain, so does the higher part of the Human Ego draw on the deeper and more lasting memories in the permanent storehouse of the character.
Finally, after more years have come and gone, the individual has passed through adolescence to maturity. The Higher Ego has again projected its Ray into the human constitution where it now functions as the Human Ego working through the Personal Ego. The co-partnership of the former life is again assembled, the body is full grown and functioning. The brain and lower mind are revitalized and active and the Human Ego is back at its observation post. The Ray of Consciousness has again "fallen into matter" and is ready to continue its evolution, using its rebuilt vehicle which is virtually a duplicate of the one used in its former existence on earth.
Thus as the Ego at night goes to sleep and after a period of rest awakens in the same body, so does the Ego after death have its period of rest, after which it slowly "awakens" in a new — and if it has so deserved — better body. As the individual is rested and refreshed after a night's sleep and is ready to tackle the duties of a new day, so is the Ego reinvigorated and filled with youthful enthusiasm, ready and eager to tackle the duties of a new life.
Going to sleep is a process of disimbodiment, after which the Ego loses consciousness of this plane and passes beyond the reach of those who remain conscious here. Death is also a process of disimbodiment, followed by the same sequence of events.
The two events, then, are identical, except that in the case of sleep the disimbodiment is temporary while in death it is permanent. Since the consciousness frees itself from the body in both cases, the relative value or usefulness of the body to the consciousness is also the same in both cases. Inasmuch as the body was of no use in sleep and may even be a hindrance, it should be reasonable to conclude that the body is equally unnecessary to the Ego's existence after death. Since it is possible for the consciousness to exist and be active during sleep without the use of the body, it should also be possible for it to exist and be active after death without the use of the body, and the destruction of the latter does not mean the destruction of the indwelling consciousness.
When the consciousness withdraws from the body in sleep and death, those who remain conscious on this plane are unable to follow it further. At this point the thread of the story is lost in an impenetrable mist, and further investigation in this direction is blocked.
Since we are unable to follow the consciousness as it departs from this plane, our next best approach would seem to be a study of our entrance here, for an understanding of this may throw some light on our future.
Taking a retrospective view of life from the present time — going back to youth and early childhood, even to the first event that we are able to recollect — we know that we were one and the same Ego that passed through all the experiences of life, and we are positive of our existence that far back. Is the fact that we can remember nothing earlier than this event a proof that the Ego did not exist before this, its first memory?
Let us go back in imagination to the day in early childhood when something unusual happened that made a deep impression on us and that later turned out to be our earliest conscious memory. Let us think of ourselves as we were then. We know that on this day we would remember what happened to us on the previous day. We would probably remember much farther back than that, perhaps a month, perhaps several months. In each case let us go back in imagination to that earlier date which we could then recollect, and continue the process of retracing our conscious existence as far back as possible. Finally we would reach a point where the picture would be too hazy, but in each and every case as we went farther and farther back in our imaginary journey toward infancy, we would recognize ourselves on that day as the same Ego, the same I-AM-I as on the "yesterday" before it. We know by this that the Ego did not come into existence with its first conscious memory, but that it existed, was active, and observing events much earlier, and that it had a day-to-day recollection of other and earlier events which it later forgot. We can confirm all this, for it becomes very evident, if we watch a two or three-year-old child, that the Ego is present, active and observing, much earlier than the child will be able to recollect later in life.
Our interests and our fields of experience vary greatly during the different periods of our life. In maturity they may extend over a wide range, while in infancy they are limited to the four walls of the nursery. But no matter whether the field is great or small, the nature and essential function of the Ego is to observe and learn from life, and this is characteristic of the infant just as much as it is of the full grown man. Right from the start and all through life the occupation of the Ego is that of spectator and experiencer of life.
When we took the retrospective view, trying to determine if the Ego came into existence with its earliest memory, we arrived at a point where the Ego was probably unable to recollect any event in its earlier existence because the picture was too hazy. Does this mean that the Ego had no existence prior to its first faint recollections?
If we watch an infant in its earliest months, even shortly after birth, we notice that during its relatively brief waking periods, part of the time there is an observing consciousness present, for we can see the eyes following the mother as she moves around the room. But at other times the eyes, as if exhausted, stare vacantly into space, and though the body is not asleep, the consciousness has absented itself, much as it does when an adult is "day-dreaming." After awhile sleep returns and the consciousness is completely absent. This appearance and disappearance of the consciousness keeps repeating itself with gradually shortening sleep periods and lengthening periods of conscious existence. In this we see a duplication of what often happens to an adult when he awakens only to fall asleep again, and we see a "repetition in reverse" of what so often occurs at death when the consciousness withdraws, only to return again, perhaps several times before final withdrawal.
What happens to the infant's consciousness during its absent periods? There seem to be two possible alternatives: 1. The consciousness passes out of this plane onto some other plane of consciousness where it dwells until it returns to this plane, or 2. The consciousness is annihilated each time it goes, and a new consciousness comes into existence each time the infant wakes up. If the second alternative were true we would have a new consciousness coming into existence with each waking-sleeping cycle. That would make a whole string of different consciousnesses coming into being, only to be snuffed right out again, and each time the baby woke up there would be one more to add to the list. The idea does not appeal to the reason.
The first alternative is supported by the fact that as soon as memory begins to operate we have proof that it is the same consciousness that comes and goes, for the infant in one conscious period will remember events from a former, even though the two periods were separated by intervals of unconsciousness. The fact that the memory was non-operative in the earliest stages should not produce a change in the status of the consciousness itself. And if it is the same consciousness unit coming and going after memory is developed, it should be reasonable to conclude that is the same consciousness unit, the same Ego, that has been present ever since birth.
If then, during its absence from this plane, the consciousness has retreated to some other plane, it must have had some kind of vehicle for existence on this, to us, invisible plane. If it can exist in this vehicle and on this inner plane during the periods of its absence from the body and the material plane, it can just as well exist in this same vehicle on this same inner plane before its first visit to the body, or before the body existed. So it seems that there is nothing in our knowledge regarding the first appearance of consciousness in the body contradicting the ancient teaching that this consciousness existed before the birth of the body.
A circumstance that also points to an existence of the consciousness before its entry into the body is the early appearance in children of definite gifts, aptitudes and talents. These gradually come to the surface without being in any way prompted or inculcated by the parents. For instance, there may be two children in the same family, one of which has distinct artistic ability that the other completely lacks. The first one will produce with a few lines scrawled on a piece of paper the picture of a natural and even good-looking face, while the other child, even with help and instruction, can produce only a crude caricature — a "goblin-face."
The artistic child did not acquire his ability in this life; neither did prodigies in music, mathematics and other fields learn these subjects in this one life. When and where could these arts have been mastered then, except in former existences?
Does not the growth from infancy through childhood and youth show every sign of an incoming soul overshadowing, vitalizing and gradually taking possession of a material body furnished it by Nature? It is the soul that left a dying body sometime in the far distant past that is now "waking up" in a new body, gradually displaying the heritage it brought with it.
It might be said that a man's house is in one sense a part of himself, for it is a necessary adjunct to his life here. Every time he passes out through the door he finds himself in open space where the conditions are vastly different from those inside the four walls of the house. Perhaps his work keeps him out-of-doors all day, but in the evening he returns and re-enters his home where he again finds the old familiar surroundings. But a house will in time get out of repair; perhaps the foundation settles, and one evening when he comes home the door jams, and he finds himself locked out.
The passing of the man from indoors to out-of-doors did not change the man except that it enlarged his view and perhaps put him in a different frame of mind. The fact that he could not return through the jammed door did not in any way change his condition in the out-of-doors.
Man's consciousness lives in a body, a "house" of flesh. Every twenty-four hours it passes out of this house through the door of unconsciousness into sleep, and then finds itself in some sort of "out-of-doors" of consciousness, with conditions of existence very different from those inside the "house." When morning comes, the same consciousness, the same I-AM-I returns to the body, so that whatever its condition had been during sleep, this in no way changed its identity or interfered with the continuity of its existence.
Preceding death the consciousness also passes out of its "house" through the door of unconsciousness and may remain absent for long periods, only to return and repeat this coming and going many times before final withdrawal. During each of these absent intervals the consciousness has some sort of an existence in some "out-of-doors" of consciousness, which for all we know to the contrary is the same or similar to that experienced in sleep.
Each time when the consciousness returns after one of these pre-death absences, it is the same Ego, the same I-AM-I as before, so that in this case also the out-of-the-body existence did not change the identity of the Ego and did not interfere with its continuity of existence.
Now let us suppose for the sake of illustration, that the Ego passes into unconsciousness six times, and six times returns to consciousness, but the next time it loses consciousness it does not return. Does the number of times it returns have any influence on the out-of-the-body existence of the Ego? Suppose it had come back a seventh time; would it not still have been the same essential Ego as the one that came back the fifth, fourth or third time? And suppose it came back many more times; would it not still be the same Ego as before? Does not this indicate that the Ego had a continuous existence whether in or out of the body? And may it not be possible that even when the Ego failed to return, it had tried to re-enter the body this time also, but found it too far disintegrated? The Ego was locked out as the man who could not re-enter his house, because of the jammed door, but the Ego had not ceased to exist any more than the man who was locked out.
And why should we think, when the consciousness failed to return after its last disappearance, that its condition in the "out-of-doors" on the other side of death was any different from what it would have been if the door had not jammed and the consciousness had returned this time also?
Is there not a remarkable similarity, operating in reverse, between the consciousness slowly, gradually and intermittently taking possession of the body after birth, and that same consciousness slowly and alternately interrupted by briefer and briefer return visits, gradually withdrawing from the body at death?
Death then, is the opposite to Birth, not the opposite to Life. Life is continuous. Consciousness comes into this material plane through the door of birth from some "out-of-doors" of consciousness. It sojourns on this plane for a period of years and then leaves through the door of death to re-enter the "out-of-doors" of consciousness from which it came.
But what happens to the consciousness after it has left this material plane and entered the great "out-of-doors" on the other side of the portal of death?
Here as also in sleep the ordinary human consciousness is unable to follow. The friends who watch at a deathbed are like those who gather on the seashore to bid farewell to a departing friend whose boat is slowly passing out to sea. At first it is within hailing distance but gradually it passes farther and farther out of reach and approaches closer and closer to the horizon. Finally it seems to pass the line where it drops out of sight behind the horizon, and to those on shore it seems that a sudden and complete change has taken place. But to the man in the boat there was no sudden change, for it all came gradually and naturally. He is gone from the sight of his friends on shore, but to him there are opened other horizons, new vistas, new experiences in other states of consciousness — other mansions of life.
But the traveler does not remain permanently in any one place. He continues his journey farther and farther, like a ship that keeps sailing always in the same direction, to the West, let us say. When, after months or years, this ship finally returns to its starting point, it comes not from the West where it disappeared, but from the East, where it seems to come out of nowhere. While out of sight to those who stayed at home, it has still existed and been busily engaged in circumnavigating the globe.
This may be considered a figurative representation of what happens after death, for during the long absence of the consciousness between earth lives, when it is completely out of touch with this world, it journeys through many mansions in the house of life, and when it returns to earth life, it makes its entry at the opposite side of the stage from where it left. It enters at birth.
When we go to sleep we do so in the full conviction that we shall awake the next morning. We know that we shall become unconscious, but that does not frighten us in the least, for we know that in the morning our consciousness will return to its familiar setting, pick up the threads from yesterday and continue life where it left off.
We know so well the complete cycle of activity and rest which we experience every twenty-four hours, that we hardly give it a thought. It feels so good to lay down the tired body after a day's hard work and forget it all, especially as during the night Nature will renew the worn out tissues and in the morning we shall awaken rested and refreshed. All in all then, sleep is both a happy experience and a beneficial one.
We should feel the same way with regard to the longer sleep of death, says the Ancient Wisdom, for sleep and death are both rest-periods for the Human consciousness. And as sleep is followed by an awakening in the same body, so is death in due course followed by an awakening in the body of a newborn child.
It should be with a feeling of relief that we lay aside the aged, worn-out instrument, in the knowledge that we shall again start out in life with a new instrument that should be — and if we have lived right will be — stronger and better than the old.
Even when we grow old we should not center our attention on death, for it is only death to the body. It is only one step in the universal process of repetition that we see everywhere in Nature. It is the consciousness disappearing from one plane in order to appear on another. It is the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new, and even if we do not understand the details of the process, we should have confidence that Nature has the same ability to lead us gently out of this existence that she had in leading us into this life.
Old age need not and should not be a period of retrogression or decrease in man's spiritual and intellectual faculties. At this period of life the body vitality is reduced and this gives greater freedom for the expression of man's spiritual and intellectual faculties. These can and should be active and expanding until even a few hours before death.
The body, of course, grows feeble with advancing years, but it is not uncommon to hear aging people, who have not lived chiefly in the material side of their natures, say: "I don't feel a bit older than when I was twenty. Perhaps in some ways I feel even younger."
There will still be much that we can do and much that we can learn, remembering that no effort is wasted and that even if we cannot in this life make use of these late experiences, it will be that much gained for our next incarnation.
We should have our inner vision directed forward, not backward, even to the last, remembering with Victor Hugo that "Death is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes on the twilight; it opens on the Dawn."