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Notes from The Modern Book of the Dead, 2011

by Ptolemy Tompkins

There is only a single supreme idea on earth: the concept of the immortality of the human soul; all other profound ideas by which men live are only an extension of it.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

As the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh demonstrated when he journeyed to the lands beyond in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the secret of immortality for humans, the Mesopotamians were haunted by the idea of human divinity every bit as much as the Egyptians were. In fact, one seeks in vain for an ancient civilization that did not give thought to the question of human divinity, whichever way they chose to answer it. The hope that humans are potentially gods—or anger and frustration at the possibility that they aren’t—is one of the most consistent of all human ideas.

At this, the Jews once again took up stones, to stone him with. Jesus answered them, My Father has enabled me to do many deeds of mercy in your presence; for which of these are you stoning me? It is not for any deed of mercy we are stoning you, answered the Jews; it is for blasphemy; it is because you, who are a man, pretend to be God. Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I have said, You are gods? He gave the title of gods to those who had God’s message sent to them; and we know that the words of scripture have binding force. Why then, what of him whom God has sanctified and sent into the world? Will you call me a blasphemer, because I have told you I am the Son of God?

Does the brain survive death? Clearly not. But does that then mean we don’t survive? Only if we accept a dogma that, though it is constantly drilled into us, the members of cultures past were not at all as sure about as we are: The brain produces thought.

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Stephen Hawking

There is no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness.

Pim Van Lommel

Brain activity is measurable. And brain activity takes place when we think. It is clearly evident in the changes in blood flow and electrochemical activity that technology now makes it possible to monitor. Whatever consciousness is, it is correlated with brain activity. It is intimately tied up with these tiny physical goings-on within the gray matter in our heads. Not only that, but the process goes both ways. Thinking—or not thinking—certain things can affect the actual neurological structure of the brain, while damaging part of the brain can affect our ability to think correctly, or to think at all. But despite all that, scientists have had no luck in demonstrating that consciousness—that mysterious thing that each of us experiences every second of our waking and sleeping life, and that makes each of us ourselves—actually comes from the brain. Brain activity isn’t consciousness, and all attempts at finding a neural basis for it have so far come up with nothing.

Judaism did not believe in a full, true afterlife for the human soul. Though each person was dear to God, it was the story of the Jews as a whole that truly gave glory to him. But with the birth of Christianity, all that changed. In the Christian view, all humanity had, like the Prodigal Son in the gospel story, wandered away from its original homeland, and would one day, after many a travail, return to it. But when it happened, that return would unfold person by person, and the redeemed earth the faithful would inhabit would be a more-than-simply-earthly place.

“On account of the infinity of God,” wrote the fourth-century Christian bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa, “the state of perfection is one of unlimited progress.” Over the centuries, however, that initial focus on cosmic and individual growth, and that vision of history as a journey out of the innocence of Eden, through the trials of the fallen world, and then back into a new condition of divinity, slowly but surely degenerated. By the early Middle Ages, fear of the Christian hell had taken precedence over anticipation of the Christian heaven. The fiery horrors that awaited the hapless sinner served not to season and refine, as the fires of the Egyptian underworld had, but existed simply to torture the soul for offenses to God committed while in the body. The blessed in heaven, meanwhile, had so little to do that much of their time seems to have been spent looking down with disdainful approval upon the distant sufferings of their less fortunate brethren in the realms beneath them. One acted well in life so that, once it was over, one could avoid the fires of hell.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Thus wrote William Wordsworth in the classic Romantic formulation of this journey out of innocence as reflected in the loss of the innocence of childhood. The Romantics were keen students of myth and legend, and they often read such stories with this universal story of descent and return in mind. They found it, for example, underlying all the fairy tales of princes or princesses exiled in foreign lands, their true stature either forgotten or concealed. The homecoming, after many adventures, to the castle where the prince or princess had always belonged to begin with is, in the Romantic interpretation of these stories, a camouflaged version of the homecoming that each and every human soul will one day experience when it recovers the memory of who and what it really is: a spirit currently exiled in the realm of matter, but destined, someday and somehow, to return to its true home, carrying the treasure of an individuality earned by completely entering into and submitting to the transformative ordeal of physical existence.

Limitation and hindrance are a part of the cosmic scheme in the creation of Souls because limitation calls the spirit out of itself.

Edward Carpenter

The physical body, in Carpenter’s view, is at once hopelessly limiting yet strangely conductive to the development of personality. The limitation that physical incarnation places upon us serves what he called “the evolution of self-consciousness and the sense of identity.” Why? Because “it is only by pinning sensitiveness down to a point in space and time, by means of a body, and limiting its perception by means of the bodily end-organs of sight, hearing, taste, etc., that these new values could be added to creation—the self-conscious self and the sense of identity. Through the development of identity, mankind must ultimately rise to a height of glory otherwise unimaginable.”

In the famous words of the British Romantic poet John Keats, the physical world is a “vale of soul-making.”

No one has ever touched a soul or seen in a test-tube; and what can be neither touched nor seen and so eludes objective verification must be dismissed as non-existent.

Robert Watson

In much the same way that Edward Carpenter would do a few decades later, Kardec’s spirits present physical life as an arena conducive to spiritual growth that functions in this capacity not in spite of, but because of, the profound limitations it forces on the beings that submit to it.

Myers was interested in highly metaphysical questions for entirely human reasons—the chief of which was his inability to believe that the human personality could simply come to an end with the death of the body.

The question for man most momentous of all is whether or no his personality involves any element which can survive bodily death. In this direction have always lain the greatest fears, the farthest-reaching hopes, which could either oppress or stimulate mortal minds.

Frederic W. H. Myers

In response to a question about his reaction to the evidence that the human spirit survives death, T. H. Huxley said, “It may all be true, for anything that I know to the contrary, but really I cannot get up interest in the subject.”

The true artist always ends in giving up real life in order to see it better, and from outside.

André Maurois

How do you describe a process of escaping from the borders of linear time while one is oneself still stuck within those borders?

Jane Sherwood called our present world a “kingdom of externals.” It’s a world of surfaces. But when we die, “the voices of this world grow dumb,” and we are no longer in a world of surfaces but a world of interiors.

One useful tool that we have in the modern world for trying to envision all this is the Internet. One of the chief reasons people love the Internet is the feeling of connected simultaneity it delivers. We long for the everything-at-once feeling that cybernetic connectivity provides, in its limited way, because we intuit that the life we currently live, in which objects hold completely still and one thing happens at a time, isn’t the full world we want, at heart, to live in, and isn’t the world where, as soul beings, we have in fact spent most of our time and where we really and truly belong.

On the vibrational level that the Myers texts call the Plane of Colour, the fact that the universe is structurally moral becomes more apparent than ever. The important idea here is that the higher up on the scale of the transphysical levels we go, the less our actual identity with others becomes an abstraction and the more it becomes a felt reality. And it can be a reality that feels wither good or awful, depending on how we behaved to others while down in the insulating costume party of earthly existence.

Just as it is at this point basically incontrovertible that the experiences undergone in NDEs can’t be explained by stress on the brain due to hypoxia, excess buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, and the long list of other hopelessly reductionist explanations offered by the phenomenon’s materialist opponents, so it is also a losing proposition to argue that every last one of the hundreds of compelling cases of past life recall, either in children or in adults, is a simple fantasy.

In the end, consciousness is either able to exist beyond the neural workings of the brain, or it isn’t. If one can’t accept that it does, then all the details discussed in this book are absurd. If, on the other hand, consciousness can and does function beyond the brain, then everything changes, and it’s suddenly possible, as we are doing in this book, to talk about all kinds of seemingly crazy things and be open to the possibility that at least some of them might not be so crazy after all.

If the universe is at bottom an arena for growth rather than a cosmic trap, this doesn’t leave much room for the “eternal round” model of reincarnation as a punishment that goes on incessantly and involves the rebirth of human beings in the form of animals, subearthly demons, or—as in Buddhism—insects.

If earthly life is in many ways a reduction from the freedoms of life outside the body, it is also, as I’ve stressed throughout this book, the domain of a certain kind of experience that can only be had here: an experience defined by limitation but at the same time by possibility and mystery.

Earthly life is like taking a scientific journey to an exotic place to collect material for later examination. The stuff of our life down here is supersaturated with meaning, a meaning made up in large part of pain and limitation but that is meaning nonetheless, and it is in the world beyond the confines of this one that we are able, finally, to make sense of it.

With the rediscovery of the group soul to which one belongs, writes Johnson, “the soul discovers the reality and joy of communion with others to an extent which it can never do on earth.” There is no arguing that higher communion with others is a longing a great many of us suffer, and it may be that, as we suggested a number of times earlier on, the very intensity of that longing argues for the reality of such a phenomenon, just as thirst argues convincingly for the existence of water.

As soon as something becomes “general” it stops being personal, immediate, and particular, the way all the really important things we encounter on earth always are.

When the authors we are looking at here bring up the word archetype, they appear to be doing it much more in the manner that the metaphysical/esoteric thinkers of mystical Islam were when they spoke of the archetypal world as being not only more real than this one but also more specific and personal. Aristotle taught us that we need matter for particularity—that for a thing to be unique it needs to be made of physical stuff. But in a world where brute physical matter is really just the lowest and roughest level of a multi tiered universe where higher and higher grades of spiritualised matter (the etheric, the astral, etc.) exist, it becomes easier to understand archetypal reality as being exactly the opposite of that generalized, abstract realm that archetype tends to conjure for most people. The true archetypal world is the real world: a world of which ours is a kind of echo or shadow. We can’t see it now, because it’s producing, generating, the world we do see. That means that we can never fully know any personality—or any animal, or any object, even—down here on earth, because the source of everything down here lies above, in the world of which this one is a lesser projection.

What matters is learning how to seize the opportunity our modern world offers to really envision the universe as an arena for the individual soul’s genuine growth and forward movement. Doing so is the modern equivalent of what I once heard a minister on a recording of an old sermon call “keeping heaven in your view.”

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