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The Fear of Death by Ralph Lanesdale 1879
THE fear of death is hardly known in some countries, while in others claiming a higher position in the civilized world it is a grim reality. The only justification for such a degrading
attitude of mind is the crude belief that life on earth is the one reality and that death cuts that short finally and inevitably. No promises of heaven seem to rob death of his terrors, in Christian lands at least, except in rare cases; for it is in these enlightened lands considered almost indecent to speak cheerfully of death, and few will dare to smile at a funeral. And why? Is death the end of life? At first sight it may seem that as the death of the body actually cuts short the activity on this earth of the personality concerned, so it is only reasonable to suppose that death ends consciousness.
But that is really another proposition. Nothing is more difficult to think of than a time when we ourselves were not. We cannot conceive of our coming into consciousness except as an awakening from sleep: nor can we think of a time when we shall not exist in some state or other. We can easily imagine the death and destruction of this body; but, note well, we remain as some sort of a spectator of that event in an imaginary condition, however bodiless.
To think of ourselves as unconscious is difficult, if not impossible, though we can in fancy dispense with such a body as we occupy at present. In all such speculations we naturally look upon our body as a possession, or as an abode, or perhaps as an instrument very closely identified with its owner or occupier, but which may be abandoned without in any way renouncing the fullness of our own identity. We are always our self. I am always ‘I’: though my personality may change in any number of ways according to my fancy, I remain ‘I’.
Therefore it seems to me that we should naturally suppose ourselves to be eternal and immortal, unless we had been taught to think otherwise. I do not think the natural man would of his own accord invent the theory that man’s life began at the birth of his body and ended with its death. But who could teach him such an unintelligent idea?
I believe that there has not yet been found a race of men who had not some belief in the continuity of consciousness on other planes of existence than the one they actually occupy. And yet the fear of death is very common, though in varying degrees of intensity. Apparently a firm belief in the full continuity of consciousness beyond death is the most effective antidote to fear, in the case of either savage or civilized peoples.
Animals fear pain; but do they fear death? I doubt it. They seem to fear anything that they do not understand, and so they may tremble at the approach of death; but fear of death in man is greatest when death is not nearest. With him it is a mental attitude.
It is certain that in some cases, if not in all, fear has been deliberately cultivated in the minds of men in order to bring them under the control of those who have desired authority. There are many evidences in history of this use of fear directly cultivated by a religious hierarchy.
A man who has lived well does not fear death. It is more likely that he will regard it as a doorway in the house of life. The significance of death is to be measured by the value of life. So it is well to understand life’s meaning and purpose — the importance of death depends upon that.
If life stops short when that change which we call death comes to the body, then there can be nothing to fear or to hope, since there is no beyond. But this is unthinkable, however ignorant we may be of what the future may hold for us. We cannot think of nonexistence.
The philosopher may declare that all beings are expressions of one universal consciousness; and he may assert that their sense of individuality is borrowed from the Supreme, and returns there at death, so that each separate entity is a new expression of the divine Self. But that is really equivalent to a declaration of the indestructibility of life and the eternal continuity of consciousness.
What does Theosophy teach? Not the fear of death; not the suspension of consciousness at death; not the death of the ego with the death of the body; not the ending of life when the sleep of death overtakes us. But rather the continuity of consciousness through life and death, as through sleeping and waking states, the continuity of evolution, and the perfectibility of man by means of that evolution.
Theosophy reveals a wider horizon than the limits of one life on earth; for as a lifetime here on earth may consist of many thousands of days and nights, with their alternate states of sleeping and waking, so the lifetime of the Spiritual Ego, that incarnates in the man of earth, may number countless appearances on this planet, in which to garner the experiences possible on this plane of life as well as those attainable in the periods between lives lived in the physical body.
Truly it was said “In my Father's house are many mansions”; and we say “Death is a doorway in the house of life." Through that doorway we may pass into ‘mansions’ that differ widely from the one we have discarded, as that one may have differed strangely from those that went before. Innumerable experiences are needed for the education of a man: one day does not make a lifetime; nor does one lifetime make a cycle of experience, such as would exhaust the possibilities of experience on this planet. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”
In the ancient mystical and philosophical writings, such as constitute the bibles of the world, are to be found allegorical stories of creation and evolution in which days and years are spoken of that each represent enormous periods of time. In the Christian scriptures we find a clue to this in the saying: "A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday”; and the Brahmanic scriptures assign very definite lengths of ages to the days and nights of Brahma, as well as to the days and nights of the lifetime of the planet and of the humanity on the planet, and of the races of men symbolized as individuals. And so on down to a day of life, that is merely one lifetime. These greater days and years include periods of time that, expressed in our years, would require fifteen or twenty figures for one year or perhaps for one day.
Theosophy endorses this larger conception of creation and evolution; for creation is continuous, and evolution is universal. The universe itself has its days and nights; and the human ego has a cycle of existence so extended as to entitle it to be regarded as immortal, if measured by the lifetime of the body.
Such words as immortality are of course relative. The immortality of the human soul means merely that the soul does not die with the dissolution of the body. To people whose imagination has been cramped with the psychological influence of the one-life idea, this relative immortality may seem a great stretch of fancy; whereas it will seem small to one who has accustomed his mind to the broader scope of Theosophy.
When it is understood that the patriarchs of the bible-stories were symbols that stood for races of human beings, each one with a long historical existence of its own, and that the travels of these patriarchs were records of the migration of long past races whose history was merged in tradition long ages ago, then it may come to appear as if those records were more scientific than we dreamed, and that they are written in symbols that are not entirely undecipherable even now.
Furthermore, this symbolism, which offers the history of a man as a key to the history of humanity, or of some race or nation or tribe, will appear on closer consideration as perhaps a better mode of transmitting records than our modern plan of historiography; for the old symbolism is natural, and may even be more true than the statistics that delight the heart of our recorders. It may be that there are great souls who actually in their own lives express the possibilities of the race whose destiny is typified in their prototypal man’s life-record.
Indeed, I believe it was Madame Blavatsky who said that all old myths embodied a record of actual events, as well as a symbolical rendering of the interior evolution of the race.
Such a mythology of course demands intuition as well as study for its correct interpretation; but it is not necessary to go very deeply into it to see that the ancient records dealt with vast periods of time as well as with the evolution of races long since forgotten.
According to Theosophy there have been many races of men upon this planet, which have lived and grown old and have passed away, leaving the inheritance of their experiences and acquired knowledge recorded in various ways for the instruction of the next race. Each one of these races may figure in the mythology which is history as a man, a patriarch, a king, a hero, or leader; and his age in years may be stretched abnormally to admit the figures necessary to indicate in centuries, millenniums, or other larger units, the duration on earth of that race of men. The name of the symbolical man will probably be formed, according to a definite system of cryptography, so as to explain the general character of the race, its stage of evolution, or the region it occupied.
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Each such race would represent a period of human evolution that might extend in duration to many thousands of years, during which the spiritual egos of the race would incarnate and reincarnate many times, acquiring experience during life in the body, and assimilating the fruits of experience during the after-death states, evolving gradually a higher type of humanity, and leading on the evolution of all the lower kingdoms of nature that look up to man as to a race of higher beings.
In such a scheme of evolution death plays a most important part as the gateway between the objective and the subjective states of existence.
If death were the end of everything, it would have no importance, for there would be nothing to follow; nothing to hope, nothing to fear, nothing at all. Death itself would be nothing. But death is as important an event as birth and should be so regarded. It should be understood and prepared for, but not with fear. The moment of birth is but the climax of a long process of gestation, as important to the after-life of the child as the actual birth itself. The importance of prenatal influences and conditions is now fully recognised. A terrified mother may stamp fear on the mind of her unborn child. Many dislike and even fear death at a distance, but when death comes the one who is called goes gladly enough. And that is natural. What we fear is a bogy: a fancy, a terror manufactured out of ignorance and superstition; and most frequently, perhaps, a horror planted in the infant’s mind by the stupidity of nurses and parents, a gloomy image that takes root in the child’s imagination and comes to be accepted in later life as a reality. Whereas at the actual time of release a door opens, not on a scene of terror, but on one of relative joy; and the dying one goes gladly to meet the experience of a new day.
The grief of those who are left behind is due to natural affection that suffers a shock and a loss, quite personal, and soon healed in most cases. Here too a great part of the grief is due to ignorance, to the belief that the life of a loved one is cut off and ended.
We suffer sometimes acutely at parting with a loved one even for a brief absence, with no question of death involved: for there are ties between human beings that are quite real, and that cause actual pain when strained or broken. This kind of suffering is emotional and even physiological, and it may be either aggravated or relieved by the aid of imagination. The bonds of affection are largely forged by the imagination, and can be made sources of joy or suffering according to the temperament concerned. Naturally there is in all such matters a strong element of selfishness, that is not always recognised as such, and the fear of parting can be minimized by the hope of reunion, but being personal can only be entirely surmounted by rising to a higher conception of life in which personality is merged in something nobler, nearer to the divine.
So long as we are content to live within the limits of our personality we must suffer and rejoice selfishly at the bidding of the emotional part of our nature. But when we realize that our real life is not thus bounded, then the joys and sorrows of the personality seem of small account, or disappear altogether in a grander outlook and a nobler conception of life, such as that offered by Theosophy.
Man, according to Theosophical teachings, is a complex being: a soul embodied in a temporary vehicle, and inspired, or enlightened and guided, by a spiritual ego, that is the real man, but that may be misunderstood to be a guardian angel, or even a god, according to the degree of ignorance and superstition in which the personality is sunk.
The mind of man is said to be like a mirror, that may reflect the truth of spiritual wisdom or the errors of the lower animal nature; so that man is more or less aware of a constant duality in himself, a tendency to fluctuate between extremes of the highest idealism and the lowest materialism and gross sensuality.
There is a constant war going on in human nature until the lower nature is dominated by the higher and is placed where it belongs.
The lower man is dissolved into his constituent elements after the death of the body; but the higher man is relatively immortal, enduring throughout the whole period of a great cycle of evolution; while the Supreme Spirit, that presides over the whole race, survives the birth and death of the spheres or worlds of which the universe is composed.
It is taught that the complete dissolution of the personality requires a considerable period, which may include a series of deaths as real, or as apparent on their own plane, as is the death of the body on the material plane. But it is also taught that the real ego, the spiritual man, leaves the personality almost at once, freed from the grosser ties that held it to earth during the life of the body. That which remains of the personality is neither spiritual nor in the ordinary sense material, but is still of a degree of matter that is quite material according to the Theosophical analysis of matter; and this lower personality has to shed off its grosser elements one by one in a series of deaths or successive purifications that allow the spiritual ego to assimilate to itself all that the personality has gained of wisdom from its recent earth-life and experience. During this long process of liberation from the bonds of earth the spiritual ego, though not subject to recall to earth by the will of living persons, is like one who is in deep sleep, and whose dreams may be to some extent disturbed by the efforts of the living to hold communion with the dead. The remnant of the still dying personality, after the death of the body, may be, as it were, galvanized into a semblance of life, but is devoid of that higher intelligence which is the real self of the truly departed.
Naturally this process must be complex, and I am only attempting to give my own understanding of what is taught in Theosophy of the condition of man after death. The essential idea is that the real man is a spiritual intelligence that never wholly incarnates in the body during its life, and that escapes the control of earthly influences soon after death, gradually freeing itself entirely from all earthly contact, before descending once more from its state of pure spirituality to identify itself with life in a physical body during another earth-life or incarnation.
Even during life the spiritual self is not always in command of the personality, nor can it be always invoked at will even by its own personality. This is a common experience. We all know how hard it is to be always up to the height of our best and noblest ideal: indeed it seems that many people only rise to that height on rare occasions. Are we not all inclined to live in our lower nature, consciously ignoring the appeal of that which is best in us and which is really the true self?
The duality is a fact that surely few can be unaware of, though it would seem as if the appeal of the lower nature is at times so urgent as to deafen us to the voice of our true self, that voice which we call the voice of conscience, as if it were something external or separate and not really our very self. Of course the highest self is the Supreme, which, as it were, overshadows the spiritual ego; but, speaking from the ordinary state of man, the higher self may be regarded as the incarnating ego, and for this self death can have no terrors. That which may fear destruction is the illusive, the false self, or personality, which has indeed only a brief spell of borrowed reality, the real self being the higher.
Again it is nothing new or strange to any thinking man to find himself met constantly with the questions: What am I? Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?
The mystery of self is no new problem, but its interest is eternally new and eternally insistent. It is eternally urgent that we seek to know ourselves; and to do this we must free ourself from illusion as well as from actual delusions, and cease to be terrified by bogies such as the fear of death.
We must realize our immortality by identifying ourselves with our higher self, by habitually regarding the body as a garment that can be put aside when worn out, to be replaced by one better suited to our needs.
It is almost useless to declare that there is no death in face of the facts of general experience; but it is useful to remind ourselves that the real self does not die when the personality is dissolved.
Death is a doorway in the house of life, and it has its place in the scheme of existence; but it should be no more terrifying than any other doorway.
We do not fear sleep, but seek it as a trusted friend whose mission is to make life bearable, to ease the mind from the burden of memory and to relieve the body from the strain of nervous anxieties. Sleep is the friend of life, not its enemy. Where should we be if we feared to go to sleep, or doubted our waking in due time?
Yet sleep is astonishingly like death. It changes the current of consciousness; but we find small inconvenience in that. We do not fear to trust ourselves to the great unknown when we go to bed, yet who can be sure that tomorrow will be what we anticipate? Nor is this sense of security entirely due to the confidence gained by experience. A child goes to sleep with perfect confidence and with no experience. Sleep is not more natural than death.
But death may come before its time, we say, knowing little enough about what its right time may be. And it is surely right to live as long as possible, just as it is right to sleep no more than is necessary, because life is opportunity for experience; and whereas death may come prematurely, it is not likely to delay its arrival unnecessarily. There are many correspondences between sleep and death. Why should one be regarded as a boon and the other as a disaster? Simply because we are taught to believe that death closes life and offers no tomorrow. And this belief depends upon the habit of denying our own existence and of identifying our selves with our bodies.
The one thing in life of which we are absolutely sure is our own existence: what we are may be uncertain, but we do know that we exist and are conscious of our own existence. We know that we sleep and in sleep forget the waking life, and we know that on waking we mostly forget the sleep-life; but we do not look upon sleep as the end of life, and for that reason we are quite content to go to sleep, even with the certainty that we are going into another state of consciousness that may be quite forgotten on waking.
A Theosophist can have no fear of death, because to him it is but a change of state and not at all a cutting of the continuity of consciousness.
To step out of a well lighted room into the darkness may be bewildering for a while, and so may be the coming up to daylight from a deep mine; but a change of state is not a matter for alarm, it is but a new experience.
It has been said that “death is but a sleep and a forgetting,” and some may ask what then is the difference between an end of life and a forgetting of all that made up that life. But there is no loss of knowledge implied by the forgetting of the experiments and experiences by which that knowledge was acquired. We all know how to walk, yet we have, most of us I imagine, forgotten how we learned to use our limbs and to stand upright. So, too, the forgetting alluded to as a characteristic of death is the process by means of which the soul assimilates the fruits of bodily experience and leaves the memory of unnecessary details to the body, which gradually dissolves after death has liberated the spiritual self.
Experience is like food: it must be digested in the mind before its essence can be assimilated as knowledge; and after that the knowledge must be transmuted into character and made instinctual or intuitional. It is these characteristics that distinguish us from one another. They are the steps by which we climb to wisdom, and in their acquisition death plays an important part, affording opportunity for this assimilation.
Understanding death as but a change of state, as necessary as it is beneficent to us in our present stage of evolution, we shall regard it as the prelude to the opening of a new day, with new opportunities, with forgetfulness of failures and mistakes, a day which we may enter on with characters enriched by the experience of those discarded failures, and minds unclouded by the memories that so often seem to make life unbearable. The path that leads towards perfection when rightly understood is a path of joy. Until we learn that lesson we shall still need the opportunity for rest and sweet forgetfulness afforded to the harrassed pilgrim in his journeyings by the friend and comforter whom we call death.