Saturday, February 05, 2011

An ecology of worlds…

" ... all men shall, after their physical death, estimate the worth of their deeds, and realize all that their hands have wrought."(1)

The subject of what happens after death, or by death itself, has been on the minds of people and reflected in media and entertainment channels. In vaguely recent times consider Flatliners, in some of the more obscure parts of Star Wars lore (and less obscure when Yoda & Kenobi managed to fade their physical bodies away as they died), Harry Potter and the origin of the Deathly Hallows, Hereafter where a psychic and near death experiencer find common cause. In Babylon 5 the role of the here-after plays a significant part in the process of not only two civilizations coming to grips with their relationship but the progress of many civilizations across from the most ancient times.

Short of the realms of science fiction and fantasy literature and art, we struggle with the world of near death experiences through institutions like the International Association for Near-Death Studies, Inc., and skeptical enquirers and major archives of testimonials and analysis (see here and here.) There is a lot of stuff out there. People wonder about such things. While the details are diverse, the common core shared more or less across experiences is indeed:(2)

• Floating from one's body
• Passing through a transitional place, often a tunnel, dark with a sense of motion
• A world of light
• Greeted by beings either light and warm and welcoming or ... well... not.
• A life review
• A different kind of life in a different kind of time and space
• Reluctance to return

and the process of living in this world again is affected by the process often leading to some cluster of issues like:

• an impersonalization of emotions
• inability to recognize normal boundaries and rules
• a change in a sense of the passage of time
• more sensitive to impressions
• a detachment in perceiving events - seeing "through" events
• a detachment from perceiving one's body as one's self

It is observed that people who go through this process are not more spiritual, just different. They have challenges and inclinations. They have witnessed, they claim, what is really real but still have to find ways of getting along and can do so well or poorly - they just have a sense that the decisions really matter. It doesn't make doing the right thing apparently any easier.

Of course death and what comes of it has much to relate the realm of religion. One book surveys the ideas of the early process of death across most of the religion- "Life after death: a study of the afterlife in world religions" By Farnáz Maʻsúmián, an associate professor out of Texas. Just skimming along I find (jumping back and forth among the phases of the religions in approximate chronological order and doing so only very briefly):

Hinduism: (Rig-Veda,) in the earliest period - if a person fulfills various rites or services then on death they get a heavenly reward by the god King of the Dead.

In early Zoroastrianism the trial getting to heaven is one where one meets one's conscience and if one fails the test cannot cross the bridge to heaven or other trial.

In early Judaism people just die - there's only a vague sense of anything after death and no little part of that is just about a kind of hell.

Middle Hinduism and early Buddhism introduce a paradigm of life and karma to organize it with a soul seeking freedom from rebirth to unite with the Supreme Soul on the one hand or a mix of karmic relationships affecting one's sense of identity until one is free on the other.

In later Judaism, after it's freedom from Babylon thanks to the Persian Zoroastrians, there is an introduction of a judgement to pass through and someday a resurrection. In later Hinduism there is advice along many paths to spiritual life.

Then we get to Christianity and an extension of the framework of the judgement and resurrection mentioned in the history of Judaism.

In Islam there is the Angel of Death who oversees the process and personally attends to some and presents God's judgement to the newly dead until the end of the age and resurrection in the last days.

The Baha'i Faith, which starts assuming with the claim that the last days have come and passed, points to the ongoing purpose of death and really, well, there's a lot said in it's scripture. A couple books compile the quotes - "The Journey of the Soul: Life, Death & Immortality" and "The Glorious Journey to God" while others examine those statements in light of NDE research - from a chapter here and there to a whole book. We are to learn virtues in this life not just to make this life more spiritual - but to make our ability to live in the next world more heavenly.

And the work doesn't just come from religious thinkers looking at death; it also comes from NDE researchers looking at religion - Phyllis Atwater in her "Coming Back to Life" also spends a chapter on the spiritual implications both for individuals and what NDE might illumine of the spiritual world and our eternal nature. She calls up the work - and reminds me of another work - of the study of intense religious experiences from across religions around the turn of the (last) century that was seemingly unique to the New World - Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness and William James' Varieties of Religious Experiences. Recognizing that a sense of God comes through NDE reports, Phyllis wrestles with the diversity of religion and she boils it down to two approaches to preparing for and making the process of death work - either the energy of the transition rises up from inside us or descends down upon us. I wonder about the religious understanding of death and dying is actually evolving - maybe we're getting to a transition based on the capabilities and numbers of people who've passed on. One researcher estimates some 100 billion people have ever lived - about 1 in 19 of us presently alive. While the various religions generally take their internal development only so far there are cross-religion evolutions - Buddhism reacted to Hinduism, Christianity to Judaism, and Islam to both. And the Baha'i Faith claims to evolve based on all of them - while at the same time each claims to depend on it's own Founder and scripture for it's authority in our lives.

As big and complex as such ideas are, with lots to work on, I wonder about something else at the moment. I wonder if we are building something of a ecological change in the next world and it's relation to this world. See the Baha'i Faith has some interesting scriptures - it suggests the flow of relationship is not just this life to that life, or this world to that one:

“Those who have ascended have different attributes from those who are still on earth, yet there is no real separation.  In prayer there is a mingling of station, a mingling of condition. Pray for them as they pray for you!”(3)

Indeed beyond this, "The soul that hath remained faithful to the Cause of God, and stood unwaveringly firm in His Path shall, after his ascension, be possessed of such power that all the worlds which the Almighty hath created can benefit through him. Such a soul provideth, at the bidding of the Ideal King and Divine Educator, the pure leaven that leaveneth the world of being, and furnisheth the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest."(4)

Apparently we living in this world might be of some interest to folks "over there", and so we might in our own turn.