By Linda Johnsen
"Death is a habit of the soul," Swami Rama often told us. "Just as you change your clothing each day, your soul also changes its garment. The body is subject to disease, death and decay. But the inner dweller is an ancient traveler who continues on its way."
Swami Rama should know. He was one of the greatest yogis of the 20th century, a full fledged mahasiddha (highest caliber adept) who was rumored to leave his body at will to check up on students on the other side of the planet. I'm not normally a credulous person, but I'm inclined to believe those tall-sounding tales. I myself have observed Swami Rama in advanced yogic states, where he sat motionless for hours, incredibly without any perceptible sign of breathing.
"All of the body is in the mind, but not all of the mind is in the body," he explained to us. After years of intense spiritual practice, yogis like him learned to put their bodies into a death-like state of suspended animation. In one notorious true episode, Swami Rama left his body in the house of a devotee who promised to look after it. While the devotee was at work however, a relative stumbled across the apparently lifeless body. Swamiji actually woke up in the morgue!
All this talk about the physical body simply being a garment is very consoling. We're not really going to die. We'll just discard the body like a worn-out pantsuit but we, the real inner person, will be fine. We may in fact soon find ourselves reincarnating in a new physical form, perhaps a healthier or better looking one. Death will be as easy as trading in our old car for a new model. Whether we trade up to a Lexus or down to Chevy two-door, the driver at the steering wheel remains the same.
But then Swami Rama would continue, "At the time of death, the body, breath and conscious mind fall away." What? That can't be right! But I am my conscious mind! If my conscious self perishes, in what sense do I even continue to exist? Many of us raised in the West believe that "I," the personality I am now, will continue on forever in some higher world (heaven hopefully). Though we'll be disembodied, we'll still recognize our family members and friends when they join us on the other side. We'll be able to shake Elvis Presley's hand and tell him how much we loved his music. We may even be able to ask John Kennedy who he thinks really shot him. (It might be even more interesting to ask Lee Harvey Oswald, but most of us doubt he'll be living in our neighborhood.)
We may even be able to follow current events in newspapers printed back on Earth. After all, the obituary sections contain loving messages to departed relations, as if the dead check the paper every year on their birthday to see if there's a picture of them with a note from those left behind, assuring them they still think of them and miss them. "At death, the conscious mind passes away and the unconscious mind comes forward," Swamiji went on, confusingly. I didn't like the sound of that. Aren't we supposed to simply "go into the light" and live happily ever after?
As he explained further, I began to understand a little better. Much of what we think of as waking consciousness is in fact the activity of the manas, one function of the mind. Manas sorts and coordinates the massive amount of sensory data input downloading into our nervous system every moment and determines what to call to our attention. As we step into the street we note that an oncoming truck will hit us if it doesn't slow down or if we don't speed up. Manas gives lower priority to the florist shop two blocks from the corner. We may walk through this neighborhood hundreds of times and never even notice the shop.
Manas is our work-a-day practical awareness, operating almost instinctively. Sometimes it seems as if we're sleepwalking through life, driving to work, doing our job, going home and making supper, all on automatic, without necessarily being lucidly aware of what we're doing. Manas is regulating this entire process. We have to be intensely alert in order to learn to drive, but once we're comfortable driving, manas takes over so that we can turn our attention to gossiping on the cell phone as we commute. It controls sensory and motor function, two functions we no longer need when we pass away.
At death, Swamiji was saying, this work-a-day level of consciousness, so intimately tied into the wiring of our brain, becomes useless and dissolves with the body. Now another level of our being, which we may be less familiar with, comes to the forefront of our awareness. As we lose our ability interact with the external world, or even perceive it, we enter the inner universe of chitta, the unconscious mind.
This is a sobering thought. You know the Viking in the TV commercial who demands, "What's in your wallet?" A more pertinent question is, "What's in your unconscious?" As you move into the after-death state, what images from the unconscious will command the field of your awareness? Images of ghosts and ghouls from horror movies you used to enjoy? Images of people you hate so intensely, you couldn't stop obsessing about them in life? All the hurt and pain you weren't able to let go of? Or beautiful memories of those you love, or images of saints and angels from your childhood?
Shockingly, Swami Rama insisted there is no heaven or hell but the one we carry around inside ourselves. Without the distraction of the external world provided by our physical senses, the dream-like world of the unconscious will fill the screen of our awareness in the disembodied state. That's when it will really matter whether we used our meditation time to distinguish between the silent inner witness and the vast field of mental content within it. Were we able to defuse the bombs in our unconscious by maintaining a serene state of mental balance and calmly letting go of inner imagery that disturbed, frightened, angered or saddened us? We all have thoughts and memories we wouldn't want to meet alone in a dark alley, or in the state after death.
Fascinatingly, in some ancient cultures people practiced their death in advance, in hopes of making the actual experience less onerous. In Egypt people learned complex formulas and detailed visualizations involving familiar deities. During the destabilizing process of leaving the body, they would call these visualizations to mind and inwardly chant hymns they had carefully memorized. This created a stable mental world in the out-of-body state.
Today we plunge fearfully into death as if we were being thrown into the deep end of the pool without having first learned how to swim. Buddhists initiated in texts like the Tibetan Book of the Dead were ready for what comes after. Hindu aspirants also visualized elaborate yantras peopled by caring deities; this is what their unconscious was conditioned to project for them after death.
Swami Rama constantly insisted that our mantra is the only friend that will accompany us through the after-death experience. If we have made it a prominent feature of our spiritual life, it acts as a sounding beacon after death to call us back to our meditative center-this is especially useful when scary or upsetting images emerge from the chitta. The mantra becomes an anchor to stabilize our awareness in the choppy seas of subconscious imagery.
In a very real sense, our meditation practice is a dress rehearsal for death. We slow down our breath (yogis stop theirs almost completely), withdraw our awareness from our limbs, from our energy state, from our usual mental preoccupations, and calmly abide in the witnessing consciousness that adepts tell us survives both death and birth.
This insistence that we ourselves are responsible for our state after death is very different from the New Age view where, like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, we say a temporary goodbye to the people we love and then walk into the light. Swami Rama told us this inner light really exists; when yogis withdraw their awareness through the anandamaya kosha (the subtle most sheath of the soul), they too see that light. Numbers of people who've had near-death experiences report seeing a light that beams at them with unconditional love and wisdom. They want to merge in the light, but then remember unfinished business on Earth and return to their bodies.
We assume everyone else simply enters the light. Not so, according to the yogis. The vast majority of people have unfinished business - it's just that their body is no longer viable so they need to be reborn in order to fulfill their desires and learn the lessons they need to learn. They never do enter the light - not till they're ready to freely and completely let go of everything below. Early Christian literature exhaustively described this transition, as we see from the many ancient Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. Modern religion rarely focuses on this aspect of spiritual life anymore, nor surprisingly does the New Age movement.
Sometimes people who survive a potentially fatal experience report they saw their entire life flash in front of their eyes in a second. Suddenly everything came together-they understood how the pieces all fit, what they were being taught, where they were being led. In the Indian tradition it's said that at the moment of enlightenment all our past lives flash in front of our eyes. Suddenly even the tragedies, even the injustice, all makes sense. The enlightened one learns, and let’s go.
Today though, we're carefully shielded from the reality of death. Cosmeticians in funeral homes make our loved ones look as if they're "only sleeping," so we the survivors are partially spared the grim starkness of decay and death. People who once refused to eat food with preservatives are now pumped full of preservatives themselves, packed in a box, and stored in the root cellar of the Earth.
In the Katha Upanishad, a young boy approaches the King of Death, determined to both understand and master the process of immortality. Perhaps we modern yoga students too should look to the lesson of our mortality with a similar innocent and eager sense of inquiry. The ancient traveler within us is not our work-a-day conscious mind, nor is it the vast churning sea of our unconscious. Beyond the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states, beyond embodied life and disembodied being, lies the true Self Swami Rama encouraged us all to get to know.