What Really Happens When We Die?

Following an accident in my early teens, I had been stabilized after receiving nine units of blood. Then one night, while lying in a hospital, I began to bleed out for a third time. I soon found my conscious self floating near the ceiling and looking down on my own body as three nurses and a doctor rushed in. They were hovering over my body as I was looking on from above. I found myself in a dark, whirling funnel cloud. The doctor and nurses worked at one end below, while above me the cloud seemed to travel far into the sky, at the end of which was a bright white light. I was not alone. There was another presence with me. Although I did not see the presence, although she did not speak, still she made it known to me that it was not my time and that I was to go back. Instantly I awoke, coughing up blood but alive, and looking up into the faces of the doctor and his nurses.

The Near Death Experience (NDE) such as I had experienced tells us what happens as we die. NDE’s do not offer any proof of an afterlife. A massive loss of blood causes cerebral hypoxia or even cerebral anoxia. This resultant lack of oxygen will cause certain nerve cells in the brain to die within three minutes. The first effects are light-headedness, dizziness, a sense of vertigo, hallucinations, euphoria, and short-term memory loss. As it continues, we begin to lose control of body functions around five minutes. Our senses begin to shut down one by one. Our sense of smell, so important to our short-term memory, would be the first lost, followed by our sense of taste shortly afterward. Our sight first begins to lose its peripheral vision, growing darker, until we are unable to see in the sixth minute. Our sense of touch, and then of hearing are the last senses lost as massive blood loss to the brain causes death after seven minutes. Before losing all of our senses, the lack of blood and oxygen triggers small seizures in the brain, the frontal lobe becomes overactive as survival instincts take over, and it is at this point that the mind has an out of body experience. This is what happened to me. The real question then is what happens after the brain shuts down entirely? Cut off from the physical body in the last moments, as the mind is in an out of body experience, does the mind continue to exist in some way?

The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, offered three possibilities, “extinction, dispersal, or survival (Med. 11.3).” The first possibility is that the Mind, cut off from the brain that produced it, is extinguished forever. The second possibility offers some consolation but amounts to the same thing. The body dissolves and its component parts are recycled by Nature to create new life. We survive dissolution in a physical sense in that our DNA would continue on in our descendants and our physical body, returned to the universe that made it, would continue on in new things. But dissolution to a Stoic like Marcus Aurelius also involved the Pneuma, which is a quasi material spiritual body that carries the mind (Nous). It is the intermediary between mind and body. The Pneuma is likewise recycled after Nous, the divine within ourselves, is returned to the divine Mind over all. The Stoics held that the entire universe is God, the physical components being formed from His body, as are the spiritual, and everything participates in the divine Mind. Returned to the source from whence it came, dissolution promises oblivion to the individual mind as it becomes a part of the whole. The third possibility is that the mind and other component parts of the human form survive death. But as what, and how would we survive death?

When I was a soldier, serving in the U. S. Army, I witnessed violent deaths on more than one occasion, but two in particular stand out. One time I was seated under a tree trying to get a quick meal when there was a loud noise behind me; a man was torn in half and his upper body flung into the branches above me. He was still alive as his blood and fluids oozed down on me. He was reaching out, grasping for his last moment of life as he expired and slumped down. But he was not entirely gone. There was an airy body that did not slump down, but instead arose and floated away. Another time I was even closer to a man as he met his death. I first felt a warmth arise from him as his body was ripped open, and the blood, and the stench of his viscera. Unlike the other soldier, this one peacefully accepted his death. There came out from him a ghostly body, passing through me as it floated upward. I felt it, I saw it, I intuited him as he passed. Combat was not my first experience with ghostly figures. But it is with these experiences that I am convinced that there is more to the human form than just the physical body and that something of us does survive physical death.

Forgoing a discussion of the evolution of philosophical concepts and terms, I would explain that what ethereal bodies I believe to have seen would equate to the pneuma, or corpus spiritalis, in which the psyche, or soul travels. Within the psyche is the nous, in Greek, or in Latin the soulful corpus animalis carries the mind composed of an irrational anima and the reasoning animus Together the anima  and animus form the ens, which I regard as the Authentic Being that is the divine within us.

I believe that in the flow of the divine that permeates all things that it originates from a multiplicity source and that all shall eventually return into that source. Our lot in life is not determined by a previous life. Rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sickly, whatever the circumstances of our life, we are meant to experience them, do as well as we can, and return to the Origin of things with whatever experiences we have had. In this way the higher Gods experience life and the multifaceted source of all things can evolve itself through our experiences. As a Stoic I believe that a time will come when the flow of the divine will take up everything into itself in a great conflagration that leads to yet another round of creativity as the universe is reborn. We are taken up by the Universe, our lives and collective experience integrated into the Divine, influencing Them, evolving Them, each ens acting as but one facet to Their multifaceted Being. In a sense my view is that we shall all ultimately enter a kind of Nirvana that is neither static nor eternal. As the divine source reforms the Universe out of itself once more, we shall again be reborn into a new life. Classical Stoics held that the newly created universe would be just like the last, that the cycle from Big Bang to conflagration was never-ending and always resulted in the same way. I don’t hold that Classical view, but I do believe that the greater Universe is not created, nor does it ever end, and that the physical universe brought about by the last Big Bang is only the most recent in a series of such events. I believe that the universe can be changed, that the greater Universe evolves, and that we may influence that evolution through our lives, our experiences, and our choices in dealing with those experiences. We in the end are responsible for what becomes of the Universe, more so than that the Universe is responsible for what becomes of us.

I believe that the journey through the whirling black clouds into the star light does actually occur, that we are transported by an ethereal body to a blissful life in Elysium. In real time this may only be minutes, but in the unconscious mind an eternity. I believe that a blissful afterlife is only temporary and not our ultimate goal, nor is attaining it our ultimate purpose. Our bodies are quite literally the children of the stars and the dissolution of the body ultimately returns each into the stars. I believe that the divine within is born from the divine, and thus that all of us are children of the Gods and Goddesses. The myths about the mortal children of Gods, dying as mortals before resurrecting as Gods – Osiris, Hercules, Pallas, Mithra, Attys, Jesus, Krishna, Adonis and all the rest – are allegories related to what happens to each of us, that we are all destined to become Gods and Goddesses and all are destined to ultimately return into the godhead. In these thoughts, too, I recognize that we are responsible for what this universe is like, how it evolves, and what the next may be like. It is too simplistic an idea to think that individual souls pass for eternity either into a place of bliss or torment. Nature is constantly in motion, changing and evolving, and we, too, also continue to grow, change, and perhaps evolve on a spiritual level. In our life we may acquire a greater amount of the divine Light through living according the virtues. In death we may thereby rise to a higher level of Being and continue to spiritually evolve further.  I take comfort that in living a virtuous life I may make a better place in which to live, and I place my hope in spiritually evolving to rise and eventually become God-like that I may help provide a better Universe as well.  As a consequence of the natural processes of the Universe, may we sail on the starry currents and ripples in the divine as it flows throughout the Universe, to take up our abode in the Heavens at the right hand of the Hidden Gods guiding our Universe into a better eternity.

Morning Prayers
An Ecstatic and Formal Side to Roman Traditions
We Are Not Forgiven
The Face of the Goddess

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