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.
“The eschatological descriptions found in religious scriptures represent experiential realities rather than reflecting anxious denial of death and wishful fancy.”
I’ve been buttered on both sides with materialism. I can’t escape it. I keep waiting for an experience, internal or external, to scrape away that butter. It hasn’t come yet. I try to remember my dreams, stand in my yard looking at the stars, search the internet, read everything I can to prime me to believe in something before my time to die comes. Neither belief nor death has come, yet. Boy do I hope belief comes first and whatever that belief may be I sure hope it’s not belief in only what I have experienced…in materialism. I think all cultures, modern and ancient, suffer from and yearn for the same thing.
Nan Bush says
You’re certainly right about the universal longing. Taking my cue from James Fowler’s “Stages of Belief,” I wonder if it makes a difference to ask, not ‘What do I believe’ but ‘Where do I put my trust?’
Jonathan W. Maxson says
I have looked fairly deeply into Jung, Grof, Buddhism and several other second-hand and third-hand sources in our English-language (plus translation) literature, but I cannot answer your question without drawing primarily on my first-hand source material, which consists of hundreds of my own hybrid NDEs and NDLEs.
Sheila Joshi says
Very thought-provoking, Nan! I’m sure enjoying your posts.
What jumped out at me from this one was the nearly universal equation of death with judgment. The crux is the question: Am I good or bad? Death itself is so often seen as a judgment, and / or you get judged in the afterlife.
Unless you were very, very lucky in the parent sweepstakes, I think “am I good or bad” is a gnawing question in most people. I see a pandemic around me of conscious or unconscious chronic self-criticalness. This gnawing goes on for years, and then an STE or major illness or accident or even just getting to a certain age can bring the question to a climax.
Nan Bush says
I also think the fear of judgment is a key element. Now I’m pondering why that is so. Thoughts?
Dave Woods says
Humanity thinks of judgment as helplessly, defenseless, standing in front of a dominating judge, force, entity. This is where the term “A God fearing man” came from. The nde’s say we judge ourselves.
Perhaps there’s a divine judgment that loves you anyway regardless of your mistakes. Anyone I’ve ever loved I’ve had to love them regardless of their mistakes, and failings.
Right now as I sit here writing this, I’m aware of all my mistakes, failings, and transgressions against everything living, when I knew no better, and I’m sorry. I’ll stand and face anything I have to when I cross over, which is not far away.
Sheila Joshi says
Two thoughts, but they’re highly speculative, and I’m not sure that’s what you have in mind, Nan! 🙂
1) Earth may have been supposed to be a pleasant place, but humans in physical form are prone to fear. Fear leads to all sorts of unhealthy behavior including acting out and judgmentalness. But, I think we’re evolving. 😉
2) Meanwhile, in another part of the forest….Things may be evolving in “the afterlife,” too. There might be more options and more sophistication than there were, say, 5000 years ago. Less of a heaven – hell set-up. More variety of scenarios and paths.
In other words, harsh judgment has been an artifact of developmental level – both of the human race and of the parts of the universe that deal with deceased Earth humans. (As you know, the primitive superego is black and white; the more mature superego is more nuanced and complex.) That still leaves untold parts of the universe that may be so beyond us developmentally that we can’t even imagine them!
Guillermo Garcia says
Perhaps fear is not so unhealthy as it may seem at first glance, of course nobody likes fear, but in the same way that physical pain is like a warning system for our body, fear may be a warning system for our soul, surely is not the only warning system we have but is one of them, to help our soul to keep our main target on mind during this foggy earthly journey. Just imagine a world of fearless human beings…, if we all fulfill the law of love as … ” You shall love your neighbor as yourself”…or … “love and do what you like”… everything is OK but in this real world with real people may be that fear is like a red Street lamp, a reminder that there is an existing supreme law for all we do, think, wish, etc. certainly we can use our free will to act agaisnt that law but we must face the consequences of our actions.
If we have in some place in our mind the idea that whatever a man sows, that he will also reap,we see that we need some first alarm, a defence line, as a warning against anything that can derail our life.
This felling of fear and the idea of an afterlife judgment , with the consequence of an after earthly life in some kind of deserved realm (heaven or hell or somewhere in between),seems to be one of the very basic characteristics of human life, you can see this so far away as in the judgment of Osiris with the weighing of the heart as well as in the judeo-christian values, or a similar approach with different tools in Plato, and is also seen in psychedelic research, and much more closer when you are close to the deathbed of someone and is really very difficult just to imagine that is something that can be changed through evolution, seems to me that is here to stay and to help in our life, may be is a key element to help us to judge ourselves by our intentions.
Sheila Joshi says
Hi Guillermo –
I never throw out the baby with the bathwater! 🙂 There *is* a place for fear and a place for self-criticalness. It’s just that we have way too much of them and use them like bludgeons on ourselves. I think we evolve to use them more self-compassionately and maturely. And that causes the reality around us to change.
Guillermo Garcia says
Yes Sheila, You hit the nail with this point, there is a place for fear and self-criticalness, I think is the place of a tool. Through history to our present days we have this picture of a purposeful life but also that each one of us are held accountable or responsible for how we “use” this deep mystery that we call the days of our life, more or less accepted and always challenged this is an idea we all have in some place in our mind, also seems to be present the feeling, sometimes uncomfortable, that we must do something with our days, that is not quite right just to live without a good purpose, a purpose directed not only to the day to day life but also to the eternity, in this point is where seems to me that fear can help, not for an empty self-criticalness or to be used like bludgeons against ourselves in a “The three stooges” style but to help us, like a good old friend who can say to us those things that we dont want to listen but we must, so we can go one step further from the fear and with the help of that fear to the positive change towards a point where we are at peace with our days even if we are facing our physical end.
If we stay in the fear level, like frozen after the pie in the face, the end of our days can be so unpleasant that seems to me is good to take advice even from our fears, understanding what are the causes of these fears and then moving to the next level in our spiritual journey, evolving and with our evolution helping others.
Sheila Joshi says
Yes, well put, Guillermo! LOL — three stooges! Pie in face!
“That still leaves untold parts of the universe that may be so beyond us developmentally that we can’t even imagine them!”
– Sheila Joshi
I don’t think that point can be stressed enough. How many times do near-death experiencers have to tell us that their experiences are beyond words? Heck, I didn’t even know what the word ‘ineffable’ meant until I came across it in NDE literature, and then I had to look it up.
I would even go as far to say that concepts of heaven and hell are artifact’s of materialist thinking. What else can we do? We live in a material world, so we are naturally inclined to give substance to the Spirit World.
Personally, I like Bernardo Kastrup’s philosophy describing how reality is fundamentally created out of consciousness, but at the common sense level, what does that mean? I’m sure if I tried to discuss it with someone in the supermarket line, they would insist that I go ahead and get in front of them, if they didn’t flat-out run away from me.
Sometimes it seems like the average Jane and Joe Sixpack would rather hang on to the devil in a fairy tale they know, than live in a world with more questions than answers.
Nan Bush says
About Jane and Joe Sixpack and their attitude about living with questions, I am taking the liberty here of snipping a pertinent quote from the admirable blog Baroque in Hackney, written by my London daughter, Katy: “My mother once said to me – she said it in response to my teenage frustration over the general political apathy, but it applies here too, and indeed forms part of my Philosophy of Getting By – she said: ‘On the whole, most people would rather go bowling’.
Dave woods says
Bowling…..? hey nan at least they were trying…. to get on the ball.
What about Dave and Trish LSD trip. We spent the afternoon in Dinosaur Hall at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s amazing what you can learn when you distill the ultimate question down to the bare bones. Especially from those who’ve really been there.
Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
You definitely know what youre talking about, why waste your
intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something informative to read?
Hire A Vibration Plate says
This website was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped me.
Nan Bush says
I am so glad. Thank you for your comment.