The first book I read by Stanislav and Christina Grof was Beyond death: The gates of  consciousness (1980, Thames & Hudson). It is a concise and gorgeously illustrated look across time and different ethnic and religious groups at the astonishing similarities in their concepts of death and the afterlife. It was an eye-opener.

This post is taken from notes I made during my first reading of the book, with page numbers as notations. Some are quotes, others are paraphrases; all are, it seems to me still, very much worth taking in.

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13 Recurrence of certain themes is quite remarkable, especially in the polar opposites of heaven/paradise, and hell. Their basic experiential characteristics are always the same: joy at one extreme, punishment at the other. It is not always clear whether concrete imagery was believed to be literal or metaphors for states of mind that cannot be otherwise captured.

14 In experiential psychotherapy (and other situations) “one encounters ecstatic and hellish experiences of an abstract nature as well as concrete and specific images of heavens and hells. It is fascinating to find that occasionally the eschatological symbolism appears to be from a cultural framework unknown to the subject or totally alien to his background; this observation supports Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of the collective and racial unconscious.”

Whether experienced as concrete or abstract, heaven/hell are negative images or complementary aspects of each other, distinct polarities. Celestial = spaciousness, freedom, abundance of light. Infernal = claustrophobic, oppressive, dark.

15 Heavenly inhabitants = ethereal, translucent, radiant, surrounded by auras, halos, fields of light; benevolent, healing, protective. Infernal inhabitants = heavy, bestial, terrifying; cruel and malevolent, representing unbridled instinctual forces.

The polarities extend to experiential counterparts, bliss and serenity at one pole, an entire range of emotional agonies at the other.

In the light of recent consciousness research…“It is now understood that these are experiential states available under certain circumstances to all human beings. Frequent for psychedelic subjects, also spontaneous during spiritual emergencies we call ‘acute psychotic episodes’ they are of quite regular occurrence when one is facing biological death. This suggests we should re-evaluate our attitude toward eschatological mythology; data about heavens and hells can prove to be not useless bits of knowledge but invaluable cartographies of strange experiential worlds.”

It is now understood that these are experiential states available under certain circumstances to all human beings.

19 Egyptian and Tibetan Book of the Dead: support for the journey of the soul. Western has counterpart in the Ars Moriendi (Art of Dying) literature of late middle ages, a guide for the dying: “a rich repository of knowledge about important experiential aspects of dying.” Satan attacks to divert the soul from heaven: doubts re faith; desperation and agonizing qualms of conscience; pride, greed, vanity, other worldly concerns. Counteracted by divine influences: sense of divine judgment, promise of redemption. Modern consciousness research has demonstrated that many of these also occur when people are facing death symbolically. “There is no doubt that the descriptions of dying in these Art of Dying literatures should be taken seriously as accurate experiential maps rather than arbitrary imaginary constructs.”

Most manuals agree it is essential to instill in the dying the right disposition and attitude; avoidance and reluctance to surrender are considered two major dangers. The purpose of the guides is “not to allow the dying to use denial and die unprepared.”

“Observation of the experiential therapies demonstrates that deep confrontation with the most frightening and repulsive aspects of human existence can result in a spiritual opening and a qualitatively different way of being in the world. The message teaches not only about death, but about an alternative approach to life mediated by the experience of dying.”

24 The eschatological descriptions found in religious scriptures represent experiential realities rather than reflecting anxious denial of death and wishful fancy. This has inspired a trend among Western scientists to move the category of religious beliefs from primitive superstition to the area of psychopathology. However, psychedelic research has demonstrated that matrices for such experiences exist in the unconscious as a normal constituent of the human personality.

26 A shattering encounter with the extremes of human existence has two consequences: 1) a profound existential crisis that forces the individual to question seriously the meaning of human life and reevaluate his/her own system of basic values; and 2) the opening of spiritual areas of the unconscious that are intrinsic parts of human personality structure, independent of racial, cultural, and religious background. The realm of the collective unconscious is therefore archetypal.

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These themes in Beyond death are, with the related work of Carl Jung, the only explanations I have encountered which make sense to me in terms of what is going on with near-death and similar experiences. They normalize what is otherwise in Western materialism considered pathological and constitute a believable base on which to base a beginning understanding of religious and mythological narratives and images. The book has profoundly shaped my thinking. If you know of any similar source material on imagery in the collective unconscious—or any other aspect of deep consciousness–please let me know.