Practicing Death as the Path to Illumination, Part Two

The Hardest Way to Take Death as the Path

“Close your eyes and let the mind expand. Let no fear of death or darkness arrest its course. Allow the mind to merge with Mind. Let it flow out upon the great curve of consciousness. Let it soar on the wings of the great bird of duration, up to the very Circle of Eternity.” ―Hermes

The most difficult is the most natural, wherein we prepare for death by tracing its course as our prelude to meditation. Just as we arise as the deity from meditation in the above practice, here we enter into meditation as the deity.

The process of death is well known to many, but only in that latter half of the twentieth century has much of the Western world, and the United States in particular, created a peculiarly unnatural culture around the process of death and dying, and in fact, transformed it into an industry. We encourage everyone to die alone or in the company of a small group of trained and prepared loved ones when possible. This will allow for a maximization of the process as it is important for the body to be undisturbed for as long as possible up to three days for the steps of disincarnation to complete themselves.

Among the most well known books of Oriental wisdom on the death process in the West is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. While there are many so-called bardo texts, or texts dealing with the death process in particular, the one best known by practitioners, scholars, and laymen alike is the Bardo Thol. Information on this text is easily available, particularly among those involved in hospice care. What is not well known is that the ‘death process’ is also used extensively in the lineages of tantra from which the Six-Yogas of Naropa gets its name. Here, the process of death is mentally enacted as a preparation for various meditation practices.

It is a simple method and all beings are said, according to Tibetan tradition, to go through it either consciously or unconsciously. Some methods have more details than others, but as with everything Tibetan, there are at least three approaches to the same practice. Here we give you the easiest method as was given to us by two Lamas: Nyingma and Gelukpa.

We have heard of a certain Pythagorean-Rosicrucian group in Europe that utilizes the death process as part of its practices, but the details are not known to us so we mention it only in passing. In general, we have found that few of the Western esoteric and initiatic groups have detailed practices around the death process or incarnation, and leave it as much up to fate or karma as do the exoteric churches.This is unfortunate and if it is the case, needs to be both remedied, and their processes made more available to a wider public if these organizations are to remain relevant and vital.

The Process of Dying

Collapsing of the Elements

The signs of physical death appear. The Element of Earth dissolves into Water and physical strength is lost. In the outer domain we have trouble moving, on the inner we feel like we are sinking. The mind vacillates between lucidity and clarity, blankets are heavy. Water then dissolves into fire and the body becomes dry. We experience thirst and our tongue is swollen. The mind becomes unclear. We see smoke like a mirage or various apparitions. Fire dissolves into Air or Wind and our body loses heat. Breath is shortened. The body is stiff and cramps appear. The mind is agitated and may anger easily. Smoke clears away and flashes of light appear – this is the arising of the Light of Emptiness, the Luminous Lumina – the Light of Lights, the foundation of Being becoming stronger. We fail to recognize people and the outer world is not clear.

Finally, the Air dissolves into consciousness, herein there is shortness of breath, heavy breathing, rasping, and the eyes roll up into the head. The mind is unstable and confused and hallucinations based on habituated patterns appear. This is where our deity practice – Assumption of the Godform – is most critical. Here, we can have glimpses of the realms of enlightened beings in the various Spheres of the Tree of Life, or Platonic Spheres. The mind will be very clear and we can rest in it. A bright light like a torch will be seen and we must rest in the signs as they appear.

Collecting of the Red and White Essence at the Heart

As consciousness dissolves into Space – Akasha, or Spirit of the modern qabala – the energies which give rise to our body – the red and white essences (or Red and White Mercuries) – move from their locations and meet in the central channel of the psychic body. This ‘Middle Pillar’ or central channel is described as blue in most texts, but also as light yellow or gold in others. The red sphere of life essence moves from below the navel, near the sexual organs, up to the heart. At the same time the white essence moves from the center of the brain, or slightly higher, to the heart. When the red essence reaches the heart it fills with a flash of red light, and when the two merge, there is a flash of black light and we go unconscious. Red energies are our passions and attachments, white energies are our aggressions and anger, and the black light is our ignorance, all of which dissolve at this moment and meditation in the clarity of the moment is very beneficial. In contemporary terms, when these essences move into the heart we find ourselves in our own subconscious, or ground of consciousness, but not ‘soul’. That is, our subconsoious is the store of all of our thoughts and experiences, as such, we can still generate images and distractions and our habituated tendencies arise. For this reason it is critical in our meditations or even dreams to learn how to be undisturbed by what we may see or experience.

Here, we have the opportunity to see past our limited sense of self, and experience reality directly as it is, or as some might call it, the soul, Divine Within, Holy Guardian Angel, or Experience with Eternity – the base unity of our Being.

During the entire process one may make prayers to their teacher, meditational deity, or lineage to aid them in the realization of clarity of the absolute light of mind – the Luminous Lumina.

The transfer of consciousness, as given in the first practice, if it is to be done, should be done when the dissolution of the Elements is taking place. Regardless of what we do, it is critical that we keep our mind calm and focussed, as our last thoughts direct our consciousness on its path of our next adventure. There is a continuity between our thoughts and our experiences, and that must always be remembered.

Experiencing the Collapse of Consciousness and the Lights

The final phase is when we are able to recognise the luminosity and not black out. Calm meditation is essential for this as is learning how to hold our mind there. When this happens at the time of death we have the great opportunity for awakening. We often fail to recognize these states of pure consciousness because they are natural, simple, everyday and not spectacular and extraordinary. The cycles of energy across the day are also cycles of consciousness or specific forms of potential awareness. We can understand these in planetary or elemental terms, or simply observe ourselves and experience where our thoughts lead us and notice the patterns and the possible effects. We say possible because an impulse is a cause but not a command. We ultimately decide how, when, why, or even if we will respond to an impulse. That is the difference between a response and a reaction: a response is a choice, a reaction is a habit.

It is very important to realize that not everyone will experience the stages of death exactly as outlined. Some will be faster, other slower, Some may or may not have various visions based upon their mental predilections and habits, or karma.

During or after the black phases certain colors are said to arise. These colors may be the easiest for many to recognize and get their first glimpses of this particular aspect of consciousness while alive. We have given a detailed discussion of these colors or photonic experiences in the IHS Study Guide and its course, The Mind of Hermes – Visionary Experiences in Western Esotericism. While all colors appear, not all may appear in the exact order for everyone. Again, these colors are aspects of the pure mind and actions of what in qabala we would call Kether, or in the individual, the Neshama. As we have pointed out many times, the colors are energetic qualities coming into being, and each has its own unique set of qualities associated with it, and thereby means of experiencing consciousness in the various realms. These colors can be seen in meditation, transitionary dream states between a ‘normal dream’ and a waking or lucid dream, as well as when the mind is very still and relaxed during a waking state.

Within the Tibetan practices associated with the process of death and dying we are said to experience what are called the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities. The peaceful deities reside in our heart center while the Wrathful ones reside in our brain. They are of unequal number, 42 and 58 respectively, and each is associated with a Sanskrit letter and sound used in the Vajrasattva Mantra. The number of deities is not literal, although the symbolism has meaning, and it is the concepts they represent that is important to us. Peaceful deities are the energies and intelligences of enlightenment that reside within us: the Elements of Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Space or Mind – in their pure and unobstructed forms. These energies are not limited to the heart and brain but in fact are across all aspects of the psychic anatomy. Herein we experience the extremes being expressions of the undefiled consciousness. Peaceful is often said to be stationary and subtle, whereas wrathful is active and dynamic. Between these extremes all contradictions are resolved.

The Wrathful deities can easily be confused with demons because of their fearful appearances, but they are defenders of the faith so to speak, and help keep the disciple on the proper course of practice and action. We see a similar notion in the earliest understandings of Geburah and Chesed in qabala, with Geburah being the fierce and wrathful expression of YHVH, and Chesed its merciful aspect. The Teurtonic Theosopher Jakob Boehme presents his visions of the cosmos in a similar fashion with the powerful extremes of and the Ungrund, or ground of being. Here, we have the freedom to “do what thou wilt” and with that freedom a cause is created and from it and effect. With it, karma is set in motion. At the point of Origin this is referred to as ‘The Fall’ or the descent of consciousness described in detail in other works. Once the effects of this are totally realized, and a near total ignorance of our spiritual origin in the Naught or Nothingness, the Void, Abyss, or whatever you wish to call it is achieved, we begin the reverse of this process, or the Path of Return. However, what is nearly completely forgotten in many modern schools is that this Path of Return, while understood to take many incarnations, is in fact possible in an instant, because everyday we recapitulate the entire process of our Becoming. The entire process of birth, life, death, and return is experienced to varying degrees in the waking, meditation, and sleep phases of life. Duality is too often considered a sort of “poison within creation” wherein something is “good” and another is “evil” or at best, in “ignorance”. This moralizing is helpful in the beginning of the Path but if clung to strongly becomes a significant obstacle to it’s realization when the guideposts it is meant to represent become themselves mistaken for the end goal.

These extreme and diverse forces are all to be experienced as ‘divine’ or ‘pure’ in their own unique expressions of a primitive and at time inexplicable void or abyss from which divinity as we call it exists, and the mind of God (and with it the gods and all that is) arise or come forth in the form of a personality or individualized existence. Each with its own mixture of possibilities we for convenience refer to as ‘the Elements’ and their permutations. These powers each interact and with them various expressions of sentience and a hierarchy of beings is brought forth into existence that range from absolute purity of awareness to the darkest of hell realms and ignorance. What is most spectacular is that each of these exist in each of us and is the reason we are capable of experiencing the vast array of life itself: we are microcosms, or miniature universes interacting with each other and the whole.

“He Who Dwells in the Shelter of the Most High…”

For this reason the various lists of angels, the Seventy-Two Angels and their seventy-two demonic counterparts have a certain degree of similarity, although not exact from a literary comparison, with the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities. In the end it is irrelevant: we will encounter both peaceful and fearful forces in the death process as we do in daily life, in rituals, meditation, and in our dreams, and only with a clear stability of consciousness will we be able to navigate those encounters to the experience of complete wholeness. We may take refuge in the deepest part of ourselves, in our meditational deities, or in our teachers, whatever is strongest for us at that time. However, the ultimate citadel is our own very Self of Self, our Self-Created nature so that we may be truly free.

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