The Mystery of Sleep and Death

Life and Death

Part Three

In experiments where the subjects were deprived of body sensations by suspension in water at blood heat, and with sound and vision totally shut out, strange results occurred. Some people quickly lost all awareness of self, despite not being asleep. Others experienced horrific or ecstatic fantasies or day dreams in which they seemed deeply involved. One friend who was in contact with young pilots undergoing sensory deprivation as part of their training, told me that they felt it was like an initiation into dying, or religion. There seem to be many levels of the experience, and only a few are able to dive deeply into themselves.

In working with people teaching them relaxation I have watched the same results. Some people may stay near the surface or go to sleep. Others delve deeply and experience ecstatic or psychologically disturbing emotions. A few go beyond images and emotions to a pure experience of their basic nature.

Some of these experiences are very similar to Spiritualism, but they have been achieved using a different theoretical background. What the Spiritualist claims is due to the intervention of a discarnate personality (as in the cases of healing and prophetic or philosophic insight), can also be explained as due to the unconscious. This is the view of psychology. The philosopher calls it the overself, The Christian, the Spirit, the man in the street thinks of it as intuition, and so on.

The voice talking in the three previously quoted cases is just such an example. Spiritualism explains the voice as one’s Spirit guide. In occultism, it is one’s inner master or guru. Psychology calls it the Self, Religion refers to it as God or an angel. In Yoga it is the Overself.

But whatever our description, it remains the same experience, coloured only by the expectations, beliefs and limitations we bring to it. As John Lilly says in ‘The Centre of the Cyclone‘, ‘I was to realise that the limits of one’s beliefs set the limits of the experiences. At the limits of one’s creative imagination (whatever that is!), there are a set of beliefs yet to be transcended. The learning process is on a vast scale.’

But we set out to examine the other problem. Spiritualism mentions the power of thought and emotion in the bodiless condition. We were going to test this experimentally.

Let our first experiment be this:

Look around you at any artificially produced items, and try to find one which is not the product of planning, imagination, desire, thought or experiment. In your imagination, trace backwards the process of its creation, whether it is the printed page in front of you, or a car, or shoes, or a building.

Somewhere, sometime, someone had an idea, a plan, a desire, a vision. Here and there we may find an exception in a spontaneous discovery. But even these usually arrive only to those who have spent long years preparing a fertile mind or awareness.

Usually, after the initial idea or desire, the person persists with it, and, working with the unwieldy materials at hand (wood, bricks, metal, a pen, a saw) gradually materialises, and realises, the idea. This takes time and effort because matter offers a lot of resistance to being moulded by our thoughts. Nevertheless, every man-made thing we see is the result of mind acting on matter through the medium of intelligence, imagination, skill, and the body.

People say ideas are intangible and dreams unreal or ephemeral. Yet all about us we see the impact, via the body, of these so called intangibles, when they have been acted upon. And such dreams or ideas have changed the course of history.

Now try another experiment: Sit comfortably and bring your hands up to your head. Press the thumbs in the ears to shut out any sound. Press the index fingers on the eyes to exclude the light. Take a deep breath and press the nostrils closed with the second fingers, and now place the last fingers pressing on the lips. Hold this as long as you can without breathing. Try it before reading on.

Well, perhaps you felt suddenly shut off from the world. Maybe you saw psychedelic flashing patterns and colours. Or perhaps you could feel yourself falling. The colours are those seen when LSD is taken, and spiritualist mediums also have such impressions. Yet you have neither taken LSD nor attempted to go into a trance. You don’t need to. You have paddled in the shallow waters of inner impressions.

Now try this third experiment.

You must have somebody to read the experiment to you slowly, while you sit comfortably and follow it in your imagination. After you have tried it, swap roles, and read it to your fellow experimenter. Then try it on others to note differences.

First it is necessary to prepare. Wash your face and hands. This is a symbolic cleansing of mind and body. So as you wash imagine your are cleansing not just your body but your mind and feelings.

Now, with the feeling as if you are entering a temple, take off your shoes and sit comfortably.

It is best to perform the experiment before reading on, or else virtually all its spontaneous (and therefore unsuggested) results, will be spoilt.

Now your partner stanrts reading the following. Read this slowly with pauses to allow the person being read to time to imagine what is suggested.

Close your eyes. Imagine a house, the house of your dreams. Place it wherever you would like. It can be in a field, on a mountain, in a town, in any surroundings that please you.

Now answer these questions, with your eyes still closed.

Is the house large or small?

Where is it situated?

Does it have trees near it?

If it has trees, are they large or small?

Does it have a garden?

If so, is the garden cultivated or natural?

Is the house modern or old?

What sort of contents are inside?

Take your time and explore.

Do many people visit you in the house.

If they do, what do you do inside the house with them?

Go and have a look in the bedrooms.

What do you see? Be as frank as you can.

Do you have a basement in the house? If so, what is it like and what is in it?

Again, take your time and explore in your imagination.

Is there a door or doors in the basement leading anywhere else?

If there is a door, explore through it and report what you find.

Now, even if you originally had no basement, search your house, in your imagination until you find a door leading to one.

Having found it, descend and see what is there. What do you see or feel?

If you are already in your basement, search for a blue door you previously missed. Open it and go through.

Beyond it is a circular tunnel. It is not man made, but natural.

Feel yourself walking along it.

Instead of going deeper, it steadily climbs, and you can see clearly enough.

If you are apprehensive, take someone or something with you which you feel will help you.

You climb for a long time, but do not surface. Instead you arrive at a fairly large oval cave with beautiful blue shining crystals everywhere. Look around and say what you feel, see or experience.

But at the other end of the cave there is another tunnel. You walk on and after some time you reach another cave.

In it sits a wonderful old person, somehow neither male nor female, but perhaps like an old man. He is sitting quietly in prayer or meditation.

What do you see in the cave, what do you feel?

Now speak to the ancient one and ask any questions you wish. These can be about problems that are troubling you, or about life, or whatever comes to mind What does the old one say?

Talk as long as you wish. Then take your time. Go back down the tunnel. Back to the basement. Close the blue door. Go up to the ground floor, and when you are ready, open your eyes.

For many, this will have been an extraordinary experience, so let me explain how it is possible.

Words are only symbols for real things. We are constantly thinking of real things in symbols, and even experience real things in the same way. Thus, a book, via the symbols of words, may stimulate us to anger, love, tears, fear, and so on.

We are used to habitually covering up the real thing with symbols such as words, images, form or ritual. We clothe experience in multitudinous ways. Therefore, in the example where Lilly projected himself out of his body to examine what he called ‘Spirit’, he clothed the naked experience with the images of the stile, the hill, the towns, and so on. BUT, these images are nevertheless real, and not to be thought of as illusion.

A baby is only an adult in the making. But because a baby is only one aspect of the totality of our growth, it doesn’t mean that it’s an illusion. It is not the whole but it is one of the aspects of the whole.

When we imagined the house, its basement, and the rest, we were doing very much the same thing as we do when we read a book. We look at symbols, and let our inner emotions and associations rise to give life to them.

Our inner self uses the symbol of the house to represent our own personality or being. We can see this in our speech mannerisms. We say things like – ‘they are putting up a facade’, ‘I have no room for him in my life’ ‘he has a mind like a sewer’, ‘they have shut themselves up in their ivory tower ‘.

The ground floor of the house is usually associated with your everyday life:- the kitchen is work or preparation:- the sitting-room is leisure, your bedroom is rest or relationship. The basement is your unconscious desires or fears, the library depicts study or knowledge.

inner and outer life

Thus when we imaginatively go into our house, we go into ourselves. Just as when we read a book, our inner self projects emotions and ideas (in the shape of images and feelings), onto the story. The placing of the house shows your basic likes, whether you wish to be in a crowded town – or not. The size is depicts how you see yourself, how you rate yourself. The trees are friends – near or far, many or few, big or small. The garden is self cultivation, or your inner and outer life. The age of the house shows perhaps whether you live in the past or present, but also often relates to how old you are, what period of time you emerged from. The contents show you your pet ideas and attitudes.

The basement, being the part of you which is usually unconscious, shows what desire or fears, wisdom or folly, you have deep within you. If there are doors, you have deep connections with other people or interests. The blue door is the one leading back deeper into yourself to the blue grotto the mother’s womb and beyond to the level of consciousness – the Self beyond birth or death, male or female.

discovering the death experience

Just as we explore our own inner emotions and ideas in a book, so in exploring the images of the house we have discovered, to some extent, the death experience. We allowed our Self, or Spirit, or Atman, to express itself through symbols, just as Lilly experienced the ‘Spirit’.

In the three cases mentioned in part two of this series, where a voice spoke and instructed, we have an example of one level of a person’s consciousness, experiencing communication with another level or aspect of self in the form of a voice.

I said earlier that we can roughly categorise our being as objective, subjective, interior and transcendental. In the voice, we see the transcendental talking to the interior or subjective. The transcendental, usually called the Self or Overself or Spirit, is also often clothed in the symbol of a guru, a saint, an angel, Jesus, Buddha, a great man or woman, or any symbol of higher awareness and authority.

When we dream of a guru, or voice behind us giving us advice, our conscious self is really receiving instruction from the Self. In our inner adventure we made some sort of contact with the formless level of our being through the symbol of the ancient one in the cave beyond the blue grotto. Perhaps this contact was hazy, or perhaps it was vivid, – perhaps it was only made after much difficulty, but it nevertheless shows us, in images, what we are receiving from our transcendental self.

What has all this got to do with sleep and death? How can it be an experimental death experience?

Taking the last first, I hope you have seen from the experiments we have done, death may be simply a removal of the body, leaving the rest of our being intact. The experiences of those who have died and been resuscitated suggests this. Removal of the objective world leaves us with our thoughts, emotions and unconscious beliefs and fears..

The cases quoted show how their temporary death was an exploration of these parts of their being. Lilly’s voice positively stated that the ego explores its own innate images garnered from objective experience. This is exactly what we have done in exploring our imagination. Leaving it there, however, may give the wrong impression, so let us look at sleep more fully.

dream consciousness

In sleep we ‘die’ to our body. Our pendulum of awareness, having swung well into our physical sense impressions during our waking, now swings the other way. Our objective, physical world recedes as consciousness withdraws from the senses. As sleep claims us, we step into the interior world of our thoughts and feelings, then deep into ourselves and into the dream consciousness. This plunge into ourselves takes us right into the transcendental level of our being. Gradually we travel back through the interior level of dreams and unconscious impressions, then right beyond images, feelings or even a sense of self. In this way every time we sleep we touch the void Buddhism describes. But we do so without awareness. This is called the transcendental because it transcends sense impressions, thought and feelings.

Dreams seem to be one of the balancing or regulating factors existing between the deep interior of self and the deep exterior. They balance our outer life and our transcendental. They are themselves a mixture of the world of forms we find in our physical life, and the formlessness of the transcendental.

When they are stopped by drugs or research programmes, the person quickly becomes neurotic or even psychotic. Dreams are the healing agent between the ego and the Self, between the caused and the cause. Considering that all of our sense of self, our physical senses, our thoughts and feelings can disappear when we sleep, seems obvious that the foundation or ground of our existence arises from the dark basement of our being lying beyond sense of self and body awareness..

we disappear during sleep

Put in another way, sleep and death show that most of what we call self – our personal awareness and desires – can subside into a basic level of being. This basic level connects to our conscious, personality level via dreams.

The point is that, apart from dreams, we as an ego, disappear during sleep. We reappear the next morning, but what happened to our personality, our consciousness of self in the meantime? Where did it go?

In some strange fashion this consciousness we call ‘I’ was withdrawn, like a snail into its shell. Our body was also lost sight of. True we could be aroused, but nevertheless for hours we were unaware of being a distinct personality, or of our body. But research has proved that we all dream. If you do not remember dreams, it means your daily death experience is an unconscious one. It means you are unable to maintain personal awareness beyond the borders of sleep – and death!

That is a big statement, but you prove it experimentally to yourself every night. Well – do you, or don’t you? Do you or do you not maintain personal awareness once your consciousness recedes from your physical senses during sleep? And, if death is the removal of the body and its physical senses, do you suppose some magic will occur to stop you losing personal awareness again? Or is it simply that you forget your other life outside of your physical body awareness?

maintaining awareness in death

Note well – I did not say you would cease to exist. You do not cease to exist when you dream and forget. You simply do not bring such dreams through to waking consciousness. It is a subtle point, but important. What I am saying is that you can only maintain your awareness of self in death as far as you can maintain it in sleep. I see that nearly all dreams show the person who dreams in the body they usually know themselves as. This suggests that we cannot get beyond seeing ourselves as a body with a particular gender and with the features we associate as oneself. I also see that nearly all people who are mediums communicating with the dead always describe them as the person exactly as they appeared in their life in the body. So I see that unless we have grown beyond the idea that our body is us we may not be able to remain conscious in the further regions of death.

Rudolph Steiner, in his exploration of the death state says, in the fifth level of death, “Here too we meet those great beings of all nations, religions and times who have trod the path before us. If we remain conscious at this stage, the wisdom and experience of these saints and masters, comes to us as fully as we can receive it”.

Here is a description in my book The House of the Ancestors of communicating with my dead friend Shaun.

“This communication was unlike any other I had experienced with Shaun previously.  I started by asking my usual question as to what he was meeting now in his after death life.  He told me that the process of losing himself had continued and he was now on a boundary, which if he passed over, he would no longer be the Shaun I had known.

I was trying to understand this and asking questions when suddenly Shaun was a woman, and engulfed me in wonderful female love.  This was so unexpected and beautiful I wept.  To be loved in that way by somebody I had known as a very masculine male was an extraordinary experience and very moving.

Gradually I recovered from the surprise and the feelings, and saw that Shaun was now male and female at the same time.  He had not switched to becoming a female, but had enlarged to being both male and female.  The losing of himself as he had been, and the adding of things that he could not experience while in the body, had led him to become this fuller very loving being.  Now, he/she was a whole person.

As I experience this I wondered what the border was that he/she was now ready to cross, so asked him/her if she/he knew what was over the other side.  She/he replied that it was very simple.  “It is a life without boundaries.””

If you have achieved full consciousness throughout sleep – if you have fully woken up in your subjective, interior and transcendental level of self; if while awareness recedes from your body during sleep, you maintain full consciousness in the other levels of your being, death holds no mysteries for you. For you, unconsciousness in death no longer exists. This odd idea links the views which says we do not survive beyond death without religion, which says we do. From this point of view both are right.”

Also, through seeing ‘dreaming’ as an experience of the sort of apparently real world we create outside of bodily life, it helps us develop a concept of the power of our thoughts, attitudes and desires in forming an experience of death. In our experiment in the ‘house’, we can see that our unconscious ideas about ourself, our desires, fears, biases and loves, caused us to have a different experience of the house to that of anyone else. The unconscious hopes, fears, cultural background, all played a part in causing you to build up a particular type of house; to fill it with different objects; to find in it different pleasures or fears; and to draw out of the Ancient One different responses. In this interior world of yourself that you face during sleep or death, your actions during the day, your loves or hates, your joy or pain, your ambition or quest for knowledge, cause you to meet different images and situations in your dreams.

a  world built of thoughts and desires

Built of thoughts and desires During an experience in which I consciously left my body asleep on the bed, I floated above it. Looking down at the sleeping body dressed in pyjamas. Looking down at the body near the ceiling, I saw that it was dressed in my civilian clothes. I say civilian clothes because I was then in the RAF. Having read that the projected body was an astral double dressed in pyjamas, I naturally wondered why I was in my civilian clothes.

I asked the question myself during the experience, and intuitively knew the answer from within. Unconsciously I always thought of myself as a civilian, never as an ‘airman’. I could not wait to get out of the RAF. At this level of being, thoughts were things. “Whatsoever a man thinketh, that he is.” This body and its clothes were literally built of my thoughts and desires.

Whereas in the physical world people shape matter by their thoughts and desires, but do it slowly, when the body is asleep or left behind, thought and creation are immediate. I was experiencing the world of mind, where I could create or destroy with a thought, and could wing or commune with all the subtlety and wonder of my released emotions and imagination. ‘I’ was discovering ‘me’.

Link to Part four

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved