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.

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  • Donna Swindells

    A wonderful, thoughtful & informative post about a subject where there is many schools of thought. You have witnessed death 1st hand yourself & by others dying around you.
    I was in nursing for over 20 plus years. I have also witnessed the passing of other souls 1st hand. Most of them were with family members who had died, being present to them. One of my patients saw Her dead husband who had passed many years ago. She sat up & said, Where have you been? I have missed you! I was there and She didn’t die until 2 days later. Another patient saw their grandmother days before they passed. I could list many of these events. I believe they were real.
    Only we will know, but I don’t think I will pass alone.
    Thank you for your post. It is needed to help people of all faiths & beliefs to think & talk about.
    Blessings of Hathor, Lady of the West

  • Soleggiata

    Thank you for this post. Actually, thank you for this blog. Before I stumbled across Patheos, I never knew that Roman religion and philosophy could be so fascinating. Your posts always give me a lot to think about–certainly more than the religion I grew up with (I’m not naming names). In school, we never learned in depth about the philosophies of people like Aurelius either. I don’t have anything brilliant to say–just that I enjoy this blog… as well as this post, the way it combines science with philosophy and personal experience.

  • kwdayboise

    Lovely thoughts. Subscribing to watch for more.

  • Amit Jain

    Congratulations brother, for these after life experiences.

    The answer to your queries can be found in Jain scriptures.
    here you will get an answer to what was that consciousness which you found floating at the ceiling and also what was that cloud which you experienced was transporting you.


    • Marco Orazio

      Our cultures and religions may help or hinder our ability to express what we experience. Beyond the human constructs used to explain them, the important thing to remember is that these are very real human experiences that we all share in. As people of spirit we are to transcend our own religious path to find a higher truth encompassing all religions. As the Roman statesman Symmachus once said, “It is not possible that only one path leads to so sublime a mystery.” This I think is part of the purpose, and surely the value, of a site like Patheos.

      • Amit Jain

        Very True sir. The real truth is so vast that its not possible to be explained by any one path or tradition. The religions we follow are at best a window to the greater truth, not the complete truth in themselves.

        This perhaps is the reason that when a master realizes the real truth, He transcends His religion. This was perhaps the reason why Jesus had to rise above Judaism and Buddha ceased to be a Hindu.

  • AtiyaTheSeeker

    I must say, like Soleggiata before me, I hadn’t known much about the beliefs of Ancient Rome, and I find them fascinating from your point of view.

    Beyond that, I am deeply thankful for this article — this night, I had earnestly begun to doubt my beliefs. Not the first time this has happened; it’s what caused me to convert from Christianity to Eclectic Wicca. However, this time I was beginning to feel hopeless, my mind drifting toward apostasy. Your words had helped me reaffirm what I believe, and it is truly a godsend to me. Thank you.

    • Marco Orazio

      Between Hollywood, Christian propaganda, and fascism, today’s practitioners of the Religio Romana have a few PR hurdles to confront.

      The Rome I see is the same one that appealed to the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. The Romans were a practical people in governing their personal lives and in governing the Republic. Multi-cultural, multi-racial, religiously diverse, governing a quarter of the world’s population at the time, Rome gave us principles of law that still govern us today.

      In religion the Romans were also very practical. At the heart of the Religio Romana is a form of ancestor worship that is very similar to traditional Chinese practices. Along with this is a form of spiritualism much like that in the US and UK of the Victorian Era. I am often reminded of Roman beliefs in the spirits in Nature when Shinto is discussed. Rome and India shared much, and if you really want to gain some idea of ancient Rome you might visit today’s India. The first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar, greeted Brahmans from India and Buddhist monks from China, and of course there were diverse religious traditions in his empire. Romans retained their own customs even as they joined in a multitude of religions. Roman religion is not exclusionary and even promotes respect for all religions. So you could say they were eclectic in their practices. It was quite common for Romans to be a member of many temple associations, including temples of different religions. We even have examples of those who were priests in more than one religion. Romans actually went beyond tolerance of other religions to practicing many religions at the same time, as was only natural for a practical people.

      Where you will find Roman tradition to be most practical is in its advice for living a good and happy life. Musonius, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius were Roman Stoics whose writings focus on practical ethics to live by in the diverse world that they knew, a world that is much the same for us today. Many of the practitioners of the Religio Romana who I know read a passage from Marcus Aurelius daily, as part of their morning meditations. Others read him frequently, if not every day. The ‘Handbook’ of Epictetus has 53 lessons drawn from his larger collection, ‘The Discourses,’ that also serves as a practical guide to dealing with life’s little problems. And I’m particularly fond of Seneca. However, Rome embraced a number of philosophies in addition to Stoicism, and Romans held eclectic habits with philosophy as with religion. They took what were different schools of Greek philosophy, made them Roman, and reconciled differences to form a new philosophy – Neoplatonism, founded by Plotinus at his School of Rome, combined Stoicism and Platonism with ideas from Aristotle as well. Eventually it was that eclectic Roman philosophy that both confronted and influenced developments in Christianity as the last public bastion of the traditional religions of Rome and its many peoples. So, yes, there is a very deep richness to be found in the Religio Romana as it is a way of life, diverse and practical, more than a rigid system of beliefs.

  • Marco Orazio

    For the sake of brevity I did not include many of my experiences. Donna Swindells reminded me of the death my mother. We had never previously been close, but in her last year when she was struggling with her impending death, she turned to me to voice her fears. She went through what you might expect, denial, anger, bargaining, and all the while I was counselling her. A vision came to her on her last night. Her parents and other deceased family members appeared to her clothed in light, assuring her that they would be waiting to welcome her. Finally she accepted her death and passed the next morning. She was not quite gone though, but visited others over the next two weeks. She consoled my son, warned by sisters of danger to our father, visited him and others. Such experiences are viewed as normal in my family, and I could tell of similar experiences when other relatives have died. And my mother’s vision of her family welcoming her into her new life seems a common experience as well.

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    Terrific post! It integrates nicely the many perspectives on the afterlife of the major world religions while being compatible with a scientific worldview. I intend to link it in a future blog in http://spiritandscience.net/