For many years I have worked on analyzing and evaluating the evidence that some aspect of us survives bodily death in some form. If I were asked to summarize my best conclusions at this time, I could do it in two sentences. The first is that I will not be surprised, after a period of unconsciousness, if I regain consciousness after I’m dead. The second is that I will be rather surprised if “I” regain consciousness.
I’m not going to deal with that second conclusion here, as it gets rather complex, but just say that we have rather good evidence for my first conclusion, that we do survive death in some form. In my recent The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book, I put the survival of death as one of the “Many Maybes,” things for which we have enough evidence for that it would be foolish to simply dismiss them, but which most parapsychologists would not be comfortable saying are “proven” in any final sense.
I’ve had several friends and colleagues die recently, and I know that I’m going to see a lot more of this as to get older. I find it useful and interesting to assume that they survive. After all, if I take a materialist position and believe that death is the end, period, there’s no point wasting my time thinking about anything after death, there’s nothing interesting to figure out. But, assuming that they do survive in some form, what might the conditions of survival be like?
If you look at the reports of shamans and mediums throughout world history, one thing that seems almost universal is that some of the people who survive, the “spirits” that are met or communicated with, are confused about what has happened to them. They may not know they are dead, e.g., or be caught up in neurotic-like compulsions that keep them going in circles. There is also usually a presumption, explicit or implicit in these reports, that there is something to do, a “moving on” toward the “Light,” or something like that, that the spirit should go on and evolve, not just hang around here in a confused state.
Okay, assuming that’s true, is there anything the living can do to help such spirits to not be stuck here, confused and to move on?
The world’s various religions have many beliefs about what the living can do, often involving various kinds of rituals and prayers. One of the most interesting to me, since I’ve been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for many years, is the idea that a spiritually evolved person, a lama, can somehow help these confused, deceased people by bringing them into contact – a contact that I assume we would think of as telepathic – with the evolved state of the lama’s mind. What is such a state like?
If only I really understood the answer to that question!
But nothing ventured, nothing gained. My best guess at this time is that practitioners of Dzogchen, the school of Tibetan Buddhism I’m most interested in, can get into and maintain for various periods a state of consciousness that is best described as spacious, perceptive and here-and-now. That is, for us unenlightened folks, our ordinary state of mind is a three-ring circus, a state of constant thinking, which triggers off feelings, which triggers off more thinking, which biases our perceptions and actions, which trigger memories, which trigger feelings, etc. etc. etc. Never ending! To characterize our ordinary state as cramped and busy and out of touch with our surrounding reality is to put it mildly! This results in a lot of distorted understandings, and consequently of inappropriate actions, which are not really desirable or in touch with reality. The Buddhists describe ordinary life as living in samsara, illusions, the Hindus as maya, illusion, Gurdjieff says we are asleep, living out a waking dream.
A calm, spacious state of mind, on the other hand, tends to keep that three ring circus of never-ending thoughts, feelings, memories, etc., the ongoing soap opera of me, me, me from building up to its full intensity. That’s an important quality of my own experience of this kind of practice. The lamas in the Dzogchen schools also talk about this as experiencing the nature of mind, or rigpa. I’m not sure how well I understand these concepts, so won’t elaborate on them, but, to the best of my current understanding, they certainly have something to do with spaciousness and here-and-nowness.
So if a recently deceased person is hanging around at some other level of reality (the Tibetans would say in a bardo, Western occultists would talk about the astral plane), one that presumably interacts at least occasionally with this ordinary level of reality, but their mind is continuing to race and circle around in these dramas, neuroses, hopes, fears, etc., this would not be conducive to further spiritual evolution. Just as such a state doesn’t help ordinary functioning or progress. If a lama who was in a calm, spacious state was able to telepathically contact the deceased person, even momentarily, it seems to me that this contact would have an immediate effect of breaking up the continuous, fixated cycling of the deceased person’s mind, and give them at least a taste of being calmer and more spacious, and so they would have more opportunity to ground themselves in the realities of whatever the after death state is like, and then presumably see what’s necessary to spiritually move on. It can certainly work that way in ordinary life, we’re all wrapped up in some emotional/cognitive fit and someone walks in who is calm, it can calm us, just the sensory contact with that person, not even thinking about possible telepathy.
For those Tibetans who also did their own spiritual practices in life, there were many other meditative-like practices they could try to do on their own, while monks or lamas would also be reading to them from texts of instructions on practices. The well-known Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol, was such a book. It was believed that a dying person could hear long after other signs of life disappeared, and insofar as the spirit stayed around near its physical body it would continue to hear.
I don’t think of myself as a “spiritually advanced” person, but after years of study and practice I can, at times be more mindful, be calmer and more spacious, even though such a state tends to last only for seconds. So, as my friends died recently, it occurred to me, what would happen if, during one of these calm and spacious moments, I thought of a deceased friend? Might there be some kind of telepathic contact, similar to what I’m assuming happens with evolved lamas? Would my doing this help a deceased person be calmer and more spacious? I have written to one of my teachers asking about this, Sogyal Rinpoche, but, for all his marvelous qualities as a teacher, he’s not very responsive in answering my correspondence, so I don’t know if I’ll ever hear directly from him on this. Meanwhile the idea might be interesting to others, thus this note.
From what I do understand of Dzogchen though, this “thinking about” the deceased person would have to be done in a very delicate way. One thing I’m fairly clear on about rigpa or the nature of mind is that it doesn’t involve any kind of forcing, it doesn’t involve any kind of trying to make your mental state be one way and not another, to have some characteristics but not others. So I think I would have to think of the deceased person very “lightly,” very “gently,” from this calm and spacious state, but not have any strong desires to make that person calm or spacious.
Am I on to something, or just imagining something? An interesting question……