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.
Each life is a unique and personal journey. And yet, we all pass through similar stages of life, such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Likewise, death is a personal journey, which unfolds in stages. The following chapters 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 abbreviated 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, as well as the various bodies and planes of experience.
All experiences arise 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 absolute and Divine in nature.
When we speak of Consciousness, we're not referring to something "out there", in space. It's the foundation of our own awareness, which shines behind the mind, making it possible to read and understand these words, right now. From this perspective, the discovery of Consciousness is the recognition of our own essential nature. And even more wondrous, it's the doorway to direct communion with the Divine.
Because Consciousness is purely spiritual in nature, it's completely hidden from view. We cannot know it objectively, because it's the subjective reality behind all experience. As such, its exact character is mysterious and paradoxical. Some view it as the impersonal and non-dual reality underlying manifest creation. Others view it in personal terms, as the Creator and Supreme Divine Being. In truth, both views are correct. And at the same time, Consciousness transcends all conceptual limitations.
Just as sunlight separates into different bands of color, Consciousness separates 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 such, the physical body and the physical plane are two aspects of the same experience and cannot be separated from one another.
After death, our conscious experience doesn't cease. It simply recedes from the physical plane to the subtle, or astral plane, and the corresponding astral body. (When people speak of spirits, or spirit communication, they're referring to this plane of experience.) The astral body is essentially a bundle of psychic impressions (conscious and subconscious), which accumulate during Earth life. From this perspective, the astral plane is like a reflection, or an echo of the human, Earth experience. Although the astral body survives death of the physical body, it is not eternal and has its own definite life span.
Beyond the astral plane is the spiritual plane, and the corresponding spiritual body, or soul. The soul is the most fundamental unit of creation and as such, it is both immortal and eternal. It's a manifest form of Divine Consciousness, plus the spiritual essence which has accumulated over many cycles of Earth life. More will be said about the soul and spiritual essence in the pages that follow.
From this perspective, the descending order of reality can be illustrated in this way: Divine Consciousness -> spiritual plane -> astral plane -> physical plane.
These different planes are not locations in time or space. They are states of consciousness, or levels of subjective experience within us. Whether we realize it or not, as human beings, we live and function on all three planes simultaneously.
Individual awareness, and the experience of individuality, is a phenomenon that arises in the mind, where the light of Divine Consciousness produces a reflection, or a sense of "me". (In Sanskrit, this is called Pragyapradh, i.e., the mistake of the intellect.) Like a dream, or a mirage in the desert, this reflection is a spontaneous appearance, which has no independent existence. Although we experience ourselves as separate individuals, this is only how it appears in the mind. In truth, there is only Divine Consciousness, reflecting in many minds, like the moon reflecting in many pots of water.