What Comes Next?

I can’t recall a time in my life when I did not believe in some kind of afterlife. Certainly my visualization of what that life after death might entail has changed over the years, but the certainty of my continuation has never wavered.

Although raised a Catholic with all its flowery imagery of heaven, I had a questioning mind, the result of growing up with a non-believing father and somewhat heretical mother. I outgrew this early religious training when I hit puberty, the age so many of us decide to leave the fold. This abandonment of Catholic dogma, however, did not strip me of a spiritual compass.

It was my mother who first introduced me to the IChing, the Tarot and a more esoteric view of existence. Each New Year’s eve, she would pull out her dog-eared copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes book of changes and invite us to cast ancient chinese coins (purchased in Chinatown) to glimpse a picture of the coming year. Part of this yearly ritual was to review the previous year’s predictions and analyze its accuracy. Little did I know at the time that I was being trained in a form of channeling, in tapping into that ethereal essence that guides all who choose to listen.

In my twenties she gave me my first Tarot deck, the Visconti-Saforza deck, the earliest surviving tarot deck. She told me that it was best to receive your deck as a gift. It certainly cost less. But possibly in the gifting she was also passing on some of her Picean energy. To this day, I rely on both the Tarot and the IChing for guidance when I am confused or uncertain.

My early esoteric training was amplified in the 70’s by an exploration of mind-altering plants and the books of Carlos Castaneda. Psychotropics have a way of putting you in touch with the tenuousness of everyday reality. Castenada’s descriptions of alternate worlds ignited the imagination and complimented my first-hand experience. I still recall a most vivid impression of dissolving into vibration. I was vibration and so was everything else. It took considerable mental effort to remanifest on the physical plain.

At this same time, I was also in active pursuit of a Ph.D. in sociology. It was through this study that I was exposed to the underside of the scientific method and the mathematical tools that prop it up. I discovered how results might be manipulated by the way questions are asked, the numbers shared, and the interpretations made. To be sure, sociology is one of the softest of sciences and particularly susceptible to manipulation. But once you know how the numbers work and what they mean, you can find flaws in even the hardest of sciences. At the same time, sociology revealed to me the very underpinnings of society and the way knowledge works. Knowledge is socially managed and as much a product of publicity as scientific tests. One need only look at the current “debate” over global warming to see the truthfulness of this.

As I matured, plant-induced states of mind were replaced with spiritual ones. At a Sufi camp in New Mexico, I discovered the mind expanding possibilities of slow movement, dancing, singing, drumming, whirling and chanting. Essential to the success of these practices was a clean body devoid of cigarettes, caffeine, alcohol, psychedelics, chocolate and even food. Yes, fasting was part of the regime and it certainly enhanced the spiritual states. It does make one wonder how much of this mysticism is chemical and therefore reducible to scientific facts. But what do these facts really mean? That certain stimulants excite left brain functioning? That in order to tap into other realms we need to quiet the left brain chatter? That the right brain is the doorway into exalted states and is easily overruled by its left brain brother? You bring the science, I’ll bring the interpretation.

In spite of its flaws and susceptibility to manipulation, I do not dismiss science or the scientific method. I am just more careful about its claims. Like a recent one about a study that shows organic foods have no more nutritional value than the conventionally grown. It all depends on how you define “nutrition” doesn’t it? The scientific method is just one way of looking at the world. It can be very reliable when applied with rigor and uninfluenced by monetary interests and preferred outcomes.

It was not until I was facing the death of my father that I directly addressed the question of the afterlife. While preparing my talk for his memorial, my partner gave me a taped recording of a talk by Kubler-Ross. I knew only that she was a medical doctor who pioneered death studies. Her tape talked about various aspects of death, but what I recall are two stories that I found utterly convincing about the existence of an afterlife.

One involved a woman in a car accident somewhere in Europe. I imagine the Alps, on some winding two lane road through the mountains. As a result of her accident the woman left her body and traveled up the long line of stopped traffic listening in on the conversations of people delayed by her accident. They were, as you would expect, complaining about the delay. The farther she traveled the more disgusted she became with life and the people in it. She was just about ready to surrender to her death when she heard the voice of one woman saying to her companion that there must have been a terrible accident and she hoped the people involved were all right. These words touched the heart of the disembodied woman. She made a note of the license plate and returned to her body. Much later, when she recovered, she researched the license plate of the car and discovered the name and address of the compassionate woman. She wrote to that woman and thanked her for saving her life and her faith in humanity.

The second one involved another car accident, this time in Arizona. A good Samaritan witnessed the accident and went over to the wreck to see if there was anything he could do. The young woman, a Navajo, asked the man to please take a message to her mother on the reservation. She told him the name and said, “Tell her I am alright and that Tommy is here with me.” The woman did not survive her injuries. The man, compelled by this death bed request, traveled to the reservation and tracked down this Navajo woman. Not an easy task, I assure you having lived there myself. When he found the mother he delivered her daughter’s message. The woman was at once both sad and elated. It turns out that Tommy, a cousin, had recently died himself, on the very same day the young woman had been killed in the accident. The only way she could have know about Billy is if she actually saw him on the other side.

These stories were my first encounter with near death experience (NDE). There are other, much more convincing NDE stories, ones that have external and unbiased corroboration like the story of the sneaker on the ledge. So I have become even more comfortable with my belief in a continued existence after death. What I have been less clear about is how this afterlife would manifest. Having tasted the exalted states of divine unity, I am not so attached to this individual ego — a force that can cause so much damage to my equanimity. I am open to the idea of death being a dissolution of my spirit into a vast sea of intelligence where I am but a single droplet joined with many. What I find more difficult to accept is the notion of communities of disembodied spirits living in homes and hanging out with each other as is described in The Destiny of Souls by Dr. Michael Newton. I suppose I hoped for something more rarefied and less mundane. I am heartened by the suggestion that this may be only one level of existence after death and that there may be many other levels.

Even as I am attracted to the esoteric, I am also cautious. I do not like to be duped any more than the next person. So I am proceeding with a curious but critical mind into this next phase of my mystical journey — a series of a free teleconference calls: The Mystery and Magic of Life and Death. There will be many opportunities to explore this very questions of what comes next.

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