Read an Excerpt
Memoir: The Life Beyond
While writing this book on the afterlife, I kept being drawn back to stories that I'd heard in India as a child. Parables are a powerful way to teach children, and many of the ones told to me have lasted all my life. So I decided to weave the book around tales of the kind I heard at home, around the temples, and at school, hoping that the reader would be enticed by a world where heroes battle darkness in order to emerge into the light.
In this case the hero is a woman, Savitri, and the enemy she must defeat is Yama, the lord of death. Yama shows up in her front yard one day, waiting to take away her husband the moment he returns from his work as a woodcutter. Savitri is terrified. What strategy could possibly turn Death away from his inexorable mission?
I had no trouble imagining these characters. I was frightened for Savitri and anxious to find out how her battle of wits with Death turned out. Their world flowed easily into my own, because the India of my childhood was not that far removed from ancient India. I want to take a moment to convey what death and the world beyond meant back then. It may seem like a very esoteric place. If so, you can come back to it after reading the main body of the book. However mysterious and exotic, here is where I began.
What was most magical in my childhood was transformation. Death itself was seen as a brief stopping point on an endless soul journey that could turn a peasant into a king and vice versa. With the possibility of infinite lifetimes extending forward and backward, a soul could experience hundreds of heavens and hells. Death ended nothing; it opened up limitless adventures. But at a deeper level, it's typically Indian not to crave permanence. A drop of water becomes vapor, which is invisible, yet vapor materializes into billowing clouds, and from clouds rain falls back to earth, forming river torrents and eventually merging into the sea. Has the drop of water died along the way? No, it undergoes a new expression at each stage. Likewise, the idea that I have a fixed body locked in space and time is a mirage. Any drop of water inside my body could have been ocean, cloud, river, or spring the day before. I remind myself of this fact when the bonds of daily life squeeze too tight.
In the West the hereafter has been viewed as a place akin to the material world. Heaven, hell, and purgatory lie in some distant region beyond the sky or under the earth. In the India of my childhood the hereafter wasn't a place at all, but a state of awareness.
The cosmos that you and I are experiencing right now, with trees, plants, people, houses, cars, stars, and galaxies, is just consciousness expressing itself at one particular frequency. Elsewhere in spacetime, different planes exist simultaneously. If I had asked my grandmother where heaven was, she would have pointed to the house we lived in, not only because it was full of love, but because it made sense to her that many worlds could comfortably inhabit the same place. By analogy, if you are listening to a concert orchestra, there are a hundred instruments playing, each occupying the same place in space and time. You can listen to the symphony as a whole or, if you wish, put your attention on a specific instrument. You can even separate out the individual notes played by that instrument. The presence of one frequency does not displace any of the others.
I didn't know it as a child, but when I walked around the crowded Delhi market where more humanity was packed into one bazaar than was possible to imagine, the world I couldn't see was even more crowded. The air that I breathed contained voices, car noises, bird songs, radio waves, X-rays, cosmic rays, and an almost infinite array of subatomic particles. Endless realities lay all around me.
Every frequency in nature exists simultaneously, and yet we experience only what we see. It's natural to fear what we can't see, and since death snatches a person out of sight, we react to it with fear. I certainly wasn't immune to this. The death of a pet made me anxious and sad; the death of my grandfather, which happened suddenly in the middle of the night, was devastating. My younger brother kept running around the house crying, "Where is he? Where is he?" It would be years before I realized that the correct answer was "Here and everywhere."
Different planes of existence represent different frequencies of consciousness. The world of physical matter is just one expression of a particular frequency. (Decades later, I was fascinated to read that according to physicists, there is a background hum to the universe that is so specific as to sound like the note B-flat, although it vibrates millions of times lower than human hearing.) In India a child would never hear such a complicated quasi-scientific idea, but we did hear about the five elements, or Mahabhutas: earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements combined to form everything in existence, which sounds crude to someone versed in Western science, but it contained a valuable truth: All transformations come down to a few simple elements.
In the twentieth century Western science came to understand that all solid objects are actually made of invisible vibrations. In my childhood, solid things were seen to have a large portion of the earth element. To put it another way, solid things had dense vibrations, or vibrations on a lower plane. Vaporous things had a fine vibration, on a higher plane.
Just as there are different planes of material things, there are also different spiritual planes, a shocking notion to the pious Catholic brothers, mostly Irish, who were my teachers at school. To them the only spirit was the Holy Ghost that lived in heaven. We children were politic enough not to disagree, yet in our cosmos it only made sense that if the Earth was a dense spiritual world, there must be higher spiritual planes, known to us as Lokas, which in Western mystical circles became known as "astral planes." There are an almost infinite number of astral planes, divided into a higher and lower astral world, and even the lowest ones vibrate at a higher frequency than the material world.
Long ago the West gave up trying to hear the music of the spheres, but in India it is believed that a person with finely tuned consciousness can go inward and actually hear the vibration of various higher planes. In the astral plane you can see your own body, for instance, yet it might change in age from moment to moment.
In the lower astral planes we find clairvoyance, telepathy, and other refinements of the five senses, as well as ghosts, disembodied souls, and spirits that for one reason or another are "stuck." As a child I was certain that when a cat or dog paused to assess the air, it saw something I couldn't. So it came as no surprise to later read, in various texts both Eastern and Western, that lower astral planes sometimes sensed by humans in higher states of awareness are often sensed by animals. Nor was I surprised to meet a psychiatry resident who told me that if the hospital room was dimly lit enough, he could seeon the very edge of visibilitywhen the soul left a dying person. Every Indian child devours comic books about the exploits of various heroes who fought their battles in faraway Lokas. Slipping in and out of material existence was our version of traveling to outer space. Our comic book heroes would come across thought forms and thought clouds, astral bodies traveling during sleep, astral colors and auras. All these are vibrations in the lower astral plane.
In the Indian tradition every physical body is assigned an accompanying astral body. Your astral body is a complete mirror of your physical body; it has a heart, liver, arms, legs, a face, etc., but since it operates at a higher frequency, most people are unaware of it. During life, the physical body provides a garment for the soul; it gives it the appearance of being localized in the material world. In death, as the physical body begins to disintegrate, the departing soul enters an astral plane that corresponds to its existence on the material plane, the frequency that corresponds most closely to its former life.
The general notion that you go where you belong rested easily in my mind back then. I imagined dogs going to dog heaven, and people who loved dogs joining them. I imagined bad people no longer hurting anyone except themselves because they were isolated in a kind of karmic jail. This was consoling, an assurance that the good people who loved me but were now gone lived in a place of goodness. But my view had limitations. I was never sure whether my wise grandfather met his wise grandfather in the hereafter, who showed him how to proceed, or if that job was carried out by angels, or enlightened spirits. Much later when I began to research karma I found that after we die, we remain self-motivated. A soul moves according to its desire from one astral plane to another, projecting as in a dream whatever sights and people, guides and astral entities it needs for its own advancement.
All these planes ultimately were imagined by Spirit, just as it imagined the material world. The Indian word for Spirit was Brahman, which is Everything, the one consciousness that fills every plane of existence. But Indians are relaxed about terminology, as befits a very old culture. We said God. Rama. Shiva. Maheshwara. The important thing wasn't the name but the concept of a single consciousness that creates everything and continues to do so in infinite dimensions at infinite speed. On the astral planes Spirit continues to play roles. There, one can actually see images of gods and goddesses, angels and demons. These are ultimately illusions, however, for each astral plane provides the experience of Spirit. Here, on our plane, we experience Spirit as matter, solidity. On the astral planes we experience subtle beings and the landscapes they inhabitwhat we might call dreams.
The cosmos is nonlocal, that is, it can't be mapped as a location. After death we gradually stop being local. We see ourselves as we really are from the soul's perspective: everywhere at once. This adjustment is probably the biggest obstacle any of us will encounter in the astral planes. Right now you are at the center of the universe because infinity extends in all directions, yet someone on the other side of the world is also at the center of the universe, because infinity extends on all sides of them, too. If both of you are centers of the universe, you must both be at the same location. The fact that you appear to be in different places is a sensory artifact. It's based on sights and sounds, which are local events. You are not a local event.
Similarly, each moment is the center of time, because eternity stretches around each moment in all directions. Therefore every moment is the same as every other. The cosmos, being nonlocal, has no up or down, north or south, east or west. These are only points of reference for our convenience at our particular frequency (i.e., inside a body). The transformational process after death is not a movement to some other place or time; it is just a change in the quality of our attention. You can only see what you vibrate to.
I had an uncle who loved to travel and visit the various saints and sages that so densely populate India. Sometimes, to my fascination, he brought me along. I saw renunciates who sat in one posture for years at a time; others who barely breathed. I know now that my eyes were deceiving me. I only saw a chrysalis, inside of which marvelous transformations were taking place. Silently, these figures were tuning in to different frequencies beyond the outside world. Through a shift in attention they could speak to Rama (or Buddha or Christ, though that was less likely in India). Deep meditation wasn't an inert state; it was a launching pad for consciousness. In the ER when someone dies of a heart attack, only to be resuscitated with reports of a near-death experience, he or she uses a different launching pad. In both cases there was a shift in the quality of attention.
The big difference is that when a cardiac patient goes into the light, the journey is involuntary. Those silent yogis from my past were exercising an intention. By having a desire at a deep enough level of awareness, they went through a process that parallels death. The senses fade one by one. (The last one to leave when a person dies is sound, which was the first to come in at birth. This fits the Indian notion that the five elements come and go in a specific order; since sound is the equivalent of vibration, which holds the body together, it makes sense that it would be the last to go.)
As the gross senses become duller, the subtle senses sharpen. We still see and hear after we die, but now the objects aren't physical. They consist of anything we want to see on the astral plane: celestial sights and sounds, heavenly beings, and brilliant lights. In near-death experiences the most typical manifestations are faces, voices, or an emotional presence. In other traditional cultures people might expect to encounter ghosts or animals. Often a dying person feels something subtle around hima certain warmth, a faint form or sound before leaving the body. Somehow these can be accessed on the dying person's vibrational frequency. Anyone who has spent time with the dying knows that they may say that they've been joined in the room by a departed spouse or other long-dead loved one. Some kind of astral contact is being made in the transition zone from physical to subtle.
At death the astral counterpart of the physical body separates from it. According to Vedic teachings, the departed soul then sleeps for a time in the astral region, which I translate as its incubation period. New ideas percolate in the mind before they lead to action, and something similar happens with the soul. Normally the soul sleeps peacefully, but if a person dies suddenly or prematurely, or has many unfulfilled desires, this sleep may be restless and disturbed. The horrors of a violent death would continue to reverberate, and so would more mundane torments like unrequited love or grief. Suicides experience the same inner pain that led them to take their lives.
Unfulfilled desires don't have to be negative. A longing for pleasure also represents an inability to let go. My uncle the spiritual devotee heard many detailed accounts of souls stuck in lower astral planes. Days, months, and years aren't the yardsticks of the soul's perspective.