Death experience

From AnthroWiki

Death experience is presented from an anthroposophical point of view in this way: Death does not extinguish life, which has an independent etheric reality, but it finally separates from the physical body, whereupon the latter is inevitably given over to decay. At the moment of death, the processes of death, which already give us the basis for our consciousness during our entire life on Earth, increase to an immense degree. At the moment of death, consciousness shines so brightly as we can never experience it during our life on earth. Again and again, people who have already come to the threshold of death, but could be brought back once more, report from their near-death experience of this radiant experience of light that arises when the whole life forces are flung out of the physical body and arouse their tremendous reverberations in the soul. The consciousness that awakens with death is incomparably stronger, richer and more saturated with reality than our earthly waking day consciousness. So strong is this light of consciousness that shines forth in death that it illuminates the whole of the dead person's further existence. This soul light is so intense and dazzling that the dead person cannot distinguish any details in it at first, and only as it gradually dims do individual details become perceptible.

„That man is not able to see this moment of death immediately after death is connected with the fact that we do not have too little consciousness when death occurs, but on the contrary, that we have too much consciousness. Just remember what is written in the Vienna Lectures[1]: that we do not live into too little wisdom, but into too much wisdom, into a wisdom that floods us, that is infinite, that reaches us from everywhere. It is impossible for us to be unwise after death. This wisdom comes upon us like a light flooding us on all sides, and we must, on the contrary, first arrive at limiting ourselves, at orienting ourselves in that in which we are not initially oriented. So it is through this down-tuning of the quite highly tuned consciousness to the degree of consciousness which we can bear after our earthly preparation up to death, through this down-tuning that we come to what we can call the awakening after death.“ (Lit.:GA 161, p. 128f)

„Man is in a kind of unconscious sleep after death. Then he awakens, but "awakens" is not quite the right word. It looks as if, on awakening, one would come to a kind of consciousness. That is not the case. When man has laid aside the etheric body, he has not too little or sleep-consciousness, he has too much consciousness. He has a kind of overflowing consciousness. Just as one cannot see when blinded by overflowing light, so there is too much consciousness after death. We are completely flooded with infinitely effective consciousness, which must first be damped down to the degree that we have acquired after our development in the physical world. We must orient ourselves in the overabundance of consciousness. That which is called "waking up" is first an acclimatisation to the much higher degree of consciousness which we enter after death. It is a lowering of consciousness to the degree that we can bear.“ (Lit.:GA 174a, p. 68)

„"From this side of life, death appears as a dissolution, as something of which man easily has fear and horror. From the other side, death appears as the most light-filled beginning of spiritual experience, as that which spreads something sunlike over the whole later life between death and a new birth, that which most joyfully warms the soul in the life between death and a new birth, that which is looked back upon again and again with deep sympathy. That is the moment of death. If we want to describe it in earthly terms: The most joyful, the most delightful thing in life between death and a new birth is, seen from the other side, the moment of death.

If we have formed the idea, for instance from the materialistic world-view, that man has lost consciousness with death, if we cannot gain a correct idea of this progress of consciousness - I say this particularly on this day, because the cause, the inducement for this is living together with the dear dead. If we find it so difficult to imagine that consciousness exists beyond death, if we believe that consciousness darkens - and it seems that consciousness darkens after death - then we must be clear: It is not true, for the consciousness is an exceedingly bright one, and it is only because man is still unaccustomed to living in this exceedingly clear consciousness in the very first time after death that something like a state of sleep occurs at first immediately after death. But this state of sleep is the opposite of the sleep we spend in ordinary life. In ordinary life we sleep because our consciousness is dulled. After death we are unconscious in a certain sense, because consciousness is too strong, too powerful, because we live entirely in consciousness, and what we need in the first days is to live into this excessive state of consciousness. We must first learn to orient ourselves in this excessive state of consciousness. If we then succeed in orienting ourselves in it to such an extent that we feel ourselves rising out of the fullness of the world's thoughts: That was you! - at the moment when we begin to distinguish from the abundance of worldly thoughts our past life on earth, we experience in this abundance of consciousness the moment of which we can say: We are waking up. - We are perhaps awakened by an event which has had a particularly significant effect on our earthly life, and which also has an effect on the events after our earthly life.

So it is a getting used to the supersensible consciousness, to the consciousness which is not built on the basis and support of the physical world, but which works in itself. This is what we call "waking up" after death. One might say that this awakening consists in a feeling of the will, which, as you know and as you can see from the cycle of lectures mentioned above, can develop particularly after death. I have spoken of the emotional will, of the volitional feeling. When this volitional emotional life feels its way into the supersensible world, when it makes the first switch, then the awakening has occurred.“ (Lit.:GA 161, p. 81f)

Self-knowledge is necessary after death in order to dull this brightly shining consciousness to such an extent that the "waking up" described can take place. The people left behind can support this process of self-knowledge by commemorating the deceased and his or her life on Earth:

„So what one has to do is to dull the consciousness little by little. So one cannot speak of an awakening as in the physical world, but of a recovery from the overabundance of consciousness to the degree that one can bear, depending on what one has experienced here in the physical world. Something is necessary for this: In order to find one's way in this all-flooding light-consciousness after death, the starting point must be the knowledge of one's own being; it must be possible to look back on one's own being in order to find the guidelines, as it were, for orienting oneself in the spiritual world. The lack of self-knowledge is precisely the obstacle to consciousness after death. We must find ourselves in the overflowing light. And now you see why the need comes to characterise the dead in order to meet him in finding himself.“ (Lit.:GA 157, p. 160)

For further self-awareness after death, the immediate experience of death itself is of decisive importance:

„If we were not able to have this experience, which we knowingly take part in, of our physical body leaving, we would never be able to develop an I-consciousness after death! The I-consciousness after death is stimulated by this experience of the departure of the physical body. For the dead it is of the greatest importance: I see my physical body disappearing from me. - And the other: Out of this event, I see the sensation growing in myself: I am a self. - One can utter the paradoxical word: If we could not experience our death from the other side, we would not be able to have an I-consciousness after death. - As true as the human soul, when it enters into existence through birth or even through conception, gradually adapts itself to the use of the physical apparatus and thereby gains I-consciousness in the body, so true does the human being gain I-consciousness after death from the other side of existence by experiencing the falling away of the physical body from the whole human being“ (Lit.:GA 168, p. 13f)

„For as little as one looks back on birth in physical life, it is indispensable that one looks back on death between death and a new birth. Death is always there in retrospect, only it looks different from the spiritual side. It may be terrible from the physical side, but from the other side it is the most glorious event one can look upon. It shows the glorious fact that the spirit triumphs over the physical by wresting itself from it. That is one of the most beautiful things, this experience that one has between death and new birth in retrospect.“ (Lit.:GA 174a, p. 69)

„I have often spoken to you of the fact that the moment of death is in a certain respect something frightening for life here in the physical body. People also like to turn their faces away from death. After death the sight of death is always there - I have often emphasised this - but it does not mean anything frightening; rather, as the human being looks at his own death from the other side of life, in this sight there is always the certainty that he is an I and remains an I.“ (Lit.:GA 183, p. 147f)

After the physical body has been discarded with death, the dead person initially lives on in his three higher members of being, which can only be experienced supersensually. These are: the etheric body, the soul body and the I. Since we are now no longer connected to the physical body, our consciousness inevitably changes quite decisively. Everything that we could perceive through the physical sense organs during our life on earth soon disappears. So do the abstract thoughts that depend on the physical tool of the brain. But this means no less than that most of what we could experience on earth in waking day-consciousness is very soon no longer tangible for us. Only for a very short time can sense perception and abstract thinking occasionally be maintained, since it is basically not the physical organs that perceive, but ultimately the self-aware I, which comes into contact with the outer world through the sense organs with the help of the soul body and the etheric body. The physical organs only imprint very specific habits on the etheric body and the soul body, as they are necessary for sensual perception. As long as the etheric body and the soul body retain these habits, a limited sensual perception is still possible. Experiences then arise such as are occasionally described by people who have come close to death and later report how they then found themselves outside their physical body, feeling as if they were floating above it and could look down on it, and also consciously witnessed what doctors and rescuers spoke and did to call them back to life. Such out-of-body experiences are not at all rare. Even without coming close to death, they occasionally occur spontaneously. They are always based on the fact that the three higher members of the being detach themselves at least partially from the physical body, but still retain the habits appropriate to the physical world.

What remains for us at first, when external perception and intellectual thinking finally fade away completely, is the view into or onto our own etheric body. It is this that arouses the blinding light of consciousness in the soul when it tears itself away from the physical body. Our consciousness, as we have acquired it on earth, is at first much too weak to cope with this dazzling fullness. During our earthly life, the greatest part of the activity of the formative forces was devoted to the constant preservation and regeneration of the physical body and therefore remained completely unconscious to us; only a very, very small part of the life forces was reflected back into the soul's experience, and only this part can the dead person at first consciously grasp. So what is the content of this consciousness? Sensory perception and intellectual thinking are no longer there - but the memories of what we have perceived and thought are! The etheric body is the actual carrier of memory. During our life on earth we can remember many things we have experienced only very faintly, some not at all. After death, the memory lights up with tremendous strength and shows us the past earthly life as a seamless panorama of life. All the experiences we have had stand simultaneously and clearly before our soul's gaze. Everything we thought we had long forgotten, we now experience again, but with the sober distance of a neutral observer, which is due to the fact that the etheric body already begins to detach itself from the soul body and is, as it were, looked at from the outside, which is never the case during the waking earth life. Time no longer plays a role here. Similar phenomena are also known from the dream life, where a whole enormous dream drama can unfold within fractions of a second.

One will understand the whole thing even better if one keeps in mind how the memory of the human being embodied on earth actually functions. Whatever the soul experiences at the moment, the etheric body lives very strongly with it - for in the waking state the etheric body and the soul body are very strongly connected with each other - and stores it as a dynamic inner life activity. This life activity excited by the soul experience very soon spreads to the physical body and imprints corresponding traces on it. In order for these traces to remain throughout life, the etheric body must constantly regenerate them. The etheric body thus takes up the soul's experience, converts it into a corresponding life activity and imprints this on the body. In this way, however, what we have experienced psychically is first "forgotten" into the depths of the physical organism. For when the activity of the formative forces turns entirely to the body, it can no longer arouse any mental images. This also corresponds to our everyday experience, for we do not carry in our consciousness uninterruptedly what we have once experienced, and, as many an examinee must painfully realise, it is often very laborious to lift what we have learned back into consciousness. In earliest childhood, what we experience connects most strongly with the physical body. Only fleeting reflexes are reflected in the soul and almost everything coagulates into physical structures. Everything we perceive as a small child is so strongly imprinted on the organism that we can never remember it later. What we perceive almost unconsciously as a baby thus forms the fine structure of the brain in the first place. It is relatively easy for us to remember only what we have experienced with fully awakened I-consciousness. The memory traces formed in this way only become superficially engraved in the organism. The dream-like experiences of the soul body attach themselves much more strongly to the physical body and can therefore only be snatched from the darkness of oblivion with much greater difficulty. That is why we can only remember very little of most nocturnal dreams. Only after death do the experiences of the soul body become completely accessible to us. In fact, what we experience through the soul body is much richer than what we experience with our full self-awareness. Our self-awareness is still very weakly developed. The after-death life panorama therefore shows us above all those experiences of which we have not really become aware on earth, or which we have forcibly repressed into the deeper layers of consciousness. The panorama of life that shows itself to our soul's gaze after death is therefore very different from our earthly memory.

So what happens when we remember something? Remembering means that we withdraw the etheric formative forces, which constantly regenerate the physical memory traces, from the body and lead them back into the soul experience. The physical memory traces thus begin to dissolve, and only when we release what we have remembered from consciousness can the etheric body imprint them again on the physical body, perhaps in a modified form. So it would probably not be very healthy for us to remember our earliest childhood experiences, because then the fine structure of our brain could very easily be damaged. Experiencing, forgetting and remembering represent an important life cycle through which our physical body is very quietly reshaped and adapted to our life experiences again and again. In animals, this life cycle is almost exclusively limited to a short, very early period of life. In humans, this ability is most pronounced in early childhood; as we grow older, the etheric body begins to separate very carefully from the physical body. It then becomes more and more difficult for us to dig memory traces into our organism, but suddenly youthful experiences reappear that we could not remember during the whole of our previous life. This phenomenon is very common among older people.

As long as we live on earth, the etheric formative forces are very strongly turned towards the physical body and prevent its decay. After death, when the physical body falls away, they follow their inner cosmic light nature and integrate themselves into cosmic events. Already a few days after death, the etheric body normally begins to dissolve, whereby the life panorama also gradually fades, becomes thin and transparent, as it were, and now gives way to other experiences which are much more intimately connected with our inner soul being than this sober overall view of the outer events of the past life on earth.

The dead person then enters that realm which in spiritual scientific terminology is called Kamaloka, in the Christian occidental expression purgatory.

„At the same time with the memory image, the human being feels that he is getting bigger and bigger. The images that surround him, which are the images of the past life, also increase in size. While the human being is still in the etheric body, he grows, so to speak, into his surroundings. If the human being who is in the etheric body has experienced an event which took place fifty miles away, it is as if he extended himself to the scene of the event. Once he has been to America, he feels himself expanding all the way to America. In the etheric body, man feels himself growing ever larger. In the astral body, on the other hand, he feels himself broken down into various individual parts. He does not feel the astral body as a spatial unity at all. For example, there are gall wasps whose front and back bodies are only connected by a very thin stalk. This is an example of how, even in the physical world, two parts belonging to each other are only held together by a connection of very little extension. In the astral world it can happen that there is no connection at all between two parts and yet one part belongs to the other and this belonging is felt. In the astral body a human being can be in the most diverse places at the same time. If a person passing through the Kamaloka has once in his life on earth inflicted a physical or mental pain on another and reaches this point in his backward experience, then he feels himself in the other person and experiences his pain in his own astral body. All the experiences and deeds of the previous life on earth are found for the second time in this mirror of feeling. This is also a part of the Kamaloka life.“ (Lit.:GA 96, p. 181f)


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  1. Cf. GA 153