The purpose of death
The nature of life after death
How we can prepare for death
How we can assist the dying
You say I am going away. But where can I go? I am always here.
Death is essentially the dissolution and transformation of the psychic impressions which accumulated during life. In this process, the self we constructed in our imagination gradually passes away. Our true self (spiritual body, or soul) remains intact and evolves through repeated cycles of birth and death.
Even though the experience of death is unique for each individual, there are several distinct stages, or transitions, which most of us will go through. The following pages contain a description of the four primary stages of life after death, thus providing a road map of the territory ahead. As with any map, a great deal of information has been condensed in order to provide an overview and to highlight the more important landmarks.
To describe the different stages of life after death, we must first talk about the nature of Consciousness and then distinguish the different bodies and planes of experience.
All experience arises in Consciousness, which is both the foundation and substance of creation. Divested of all limitations fabricated by the mind, Consciousness is formless, eternal and unbounded. For these reasons, it is considered Divine in nature.
When we speak of Divine Consciousness, we're not referring to something "out there", in space. It's our very own awareness, which shines behind the mind, making it possible to read and understand these words, right now. From this perspective, the discovery of Divine Consciousness is actually the recognition of our own essential nature. And, even more wondrous, it's the opening of direct communion with the Divine.
Because Divine Consciousness is purely spiritual in nature, it's completely hidden from view. We cannot know it objectively, because it's the very source and substance of our being. As such, its exact character is mysterious and paradoxical. Some view it as the impersonal and non-dual reality underlying the manifest creation. Others view it as the Creator and Supreme Divine Being. In truth, both views are correct. And at the same time, Divine Consciousness transcends all conceptual limitations.
Individual consciousness is a natural phenomenon which arises in the mind, where the light of Divine Consciousness produces a reflection, or a sense of "me". Like a dream, or a mirage in the desert, this reflection is a spontaneous appearance which has no absolute basis in reality. Although we take ourselves to be separate individuals, this is only how it appears in the mind. In truth, there is only Divine Consciousness, reflecting in different minds like the moon reflecting in different pots of water.
Just as sunlight can be separated into different bands of color, the reflection of individual consciousness can be separated into different planes of experience. Each plane corresponds to a particular type of body, or platform of conscious experience. (see Illustrations) These are actually two sides of the same coin. For example, the physical body is the platform of experience for the physical plane. As a result, the physical body and the physical plane are two aspects of the same experience and cannot be separated from one another.
After death, the experience of individual consciousness does not cease. It simply recedes from the physical plane to the subtle planes of experience, and the corresponding subtle body (also known as astral body, or spirit). The subtle body is composed of the conscious and subconscious impressions which accumulate during Earth life. Although the subtle body survives death of the physical body, it is not eternal and has its own definite life span.
Beyond the subtle planes of experience is the Spiritual Plane, and the corresponding spiritual body, or soul. The spiritual body is not a body in the usual sense. It represents a completely different order of reality, beyond the realm of energy and matter. In its purest state, the spiritual body is Divine Consciousness, plus the accumulated spiritual essence gathered from many cycles of Earth life. More will be explained about spiritual essence and the spiritual body in the pages that follow.
These different planes are not locations that exist in time or space. They are states of consciousness, or levels of subjective experience within us. We will now examine each of these planes in terms of the four main stages of life beyond death.