In part four of this series on death, my intention was to tie together experiences at my father’s death, commonalities in accounts of near death experiences, insights from reading from the Katha Upanishads, and some of my own experiences in meditation and out-of-the-body experiences. As it turns out, trying to make sense out of all this in one article would be long and confusing. I’ve realized that in order to convey the richness of the Katha Upanishad, some information to establish the notion that consciousness can exist independent from our physical bodies is required. The next article will explore death from the Vedantic perspective of the Katha Upanishad.
Since we have the ability to be self-reflective, there must be two parts of us: one who has experiences and a witness who reflects on these experiences. When we say ‘I’ who does it refer to, the observer or the observed? When we die do both of these aspects die? According to diverse sources, our physical body dies but our consciousness lives on intact, at least for a while, virtually unaffected by what happens to the body.
Our consciousness, while we are still in our bodies, can be divided into four states: waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and nirvana. In the ordinary waking state, we have thoughts and an “I” who is able to control thinking these thoughts. In the dream state, there is not the same deep sense of an “I” as in the waking state. There are thoughts but little ability to control the thoughts. The dream takes us wherever it wants to go. Third is the state of deep sleep in which there is no “I” and no thoughts. The fourth state is the “I” consciousness without any thoughts. This is referred to as nirvana, samadhi, a glimpse of enlightenment, the self-realization experience, or the merging with the One True Self. It is a state of being fully awake in thoughtless awareness of pure consciousness.
The state of thoughtless awareness yields an intuitive knowing that one is not exclusively the physical form. It can occur during meditation when no thoughts arise. When the mind is totally quiet, there’s a feeling that the boundaries of the body cease to exist. There is still the awareness of the ‘I’ but there is no experience of one’s body, mind, or the outer world of manifestation as a separate entity. It is a state that recognizes being a blissful and inseparable part of everything. It’s intellectually paradoxical because nothing seems to exist and yet somehow, the ‘I’ still does exist. There is just a blissful merging with the One True Self.
Those who have had out of the body experiences also know first-hand that we are not just our bodies. If our consciousness was limited to our bodies how could our awareness be outside looking back and observing? Who or what leaves the body? At the very least, the prevalence and diversity of out of the body experiences confirms the autonomy of consciousness.
Does the consciousness that is capable of independence from the body die when the body does? Or does it continue to function apart from the body as in the four examples covered so far: near death and out of the body experiences, thoughtless awareness in meditation, and as it appeared to at my father’s death?
In the next article we will see what the ancient and profound wisdom of the Katha Upanishad has to say about the mystery of life, death, and immortality.
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