Our Self System – Transcending the Here and Now
The following is based on the insights from Deepak Chopra drawing on Indian Vedic understanding of this life and beyond.
The afterlife can be seen as the expansion of the present life beyond the boundaries of the physical body. Yet our origin – our awareness – comes from the boundless realm of pure consciousness. From there, “life” cascades plane by plane until it reaches the physical level. In a way, even though we are physical, each of the intervening levels is also present in us. While we are unique individuals, our inner and outer world is constantly changing, therefore there is no fixed “me” identity.
After death, we move from the physical realm to the subtle realms. However, we have already been touching these realms here and now, possibly even without realizing it. Our voyages to these subtle, non-physical realms have been in dreams, imagination, myths, archetypes, epiphanies, the “shadow”, collective consciousness, the numinous creation (angels, demons, saints, bodhisattwas, deities), sacred visions, wishes and desires, as well as inspiration. The above list could be summed up as consciousness filled with subtle objects. Without taking these sub-worlds into account, one can’t see oneself as a complete person.
There are no boundaries in the subtle regions. Dark forces and beings (such as the “shadow” in our subconscious) occupy the same space as beings of light. Past, present and future also merge. Access to the subtle world is open whenever we can dream or use our imagination. The rules about what is real and unreal break down here.
While we in the West see a solid wall between life and death (created because of unspoken fear), many cultures have viewed the barrier between these two realms as permeable. Experiences are common of the departed appearing in dreams and visions.
The ancient Indian Vedic sages sought to understand the subtle world. Seeing it as a projection of consciousness, they focused on its divisions, or Koshas. These can be thought of as layers or bodies wrapped around a point of pure consciousness. The vibrations progress from the grossest to the highest. The five layers are: Physical body; prana (subtle breath or life force); mind; ego and intellect; body of bliss. The five Koshas operating in unison, give rise to the self, or more accurately, the self system. Each of us is really multilayered. Each sheath has its own rules and together they reflect the structure for the subtle world. The afterlife is a journey only in the sense that a dream or imagination are. In reality, the journey is essentially taking our attention from one Kosha and focusing on another. Our “travels” actually remain within the self system.
While unique to each person, the Koshas are also shared. The universe has its own layers and everything is interconnected. We share the air we breathe, the ideas the media propagate, and even inspiration. So a Kosha isn’t an individual possession, but is rather a dynamic realm with its own laws and experiences, a realm we can enter alone or with others.
The Koshas, comprising our individual and collective self system,will be looked at here in more detail. They each reveal both separation and wholeness.
This is the most separate aspect of the self system. While at birth, physiologically, we have much in common, as time goes on, each person becomes unique. This tends to promote the feeling of separation as each person strives for their own well-being. At this level, the consciousness is biology. It operates silently, even without our knowing, as it organizes the myriad functions of the body. At the cellular level, there is remarkable cooperation, communication, awareness of the environment, balancing, adaptation to change, and self-sacrifice.
While our bodies are individual and separate, which gives the illusion that we must compete with others, closer wholeness is achieved through cooperation, social bonding and shared desires.
Prana – Subtle breath or life force
Prana is the breath that sustains life by rhythmically joining us to nature. It is a subtle flowing intelligence that sustains our physical body. The consciousness is the binding force that keeps nature intact. It unites us with all living things and orchestrates the diversity of all levels of life into wholeness. We feel the flow of prana or vitality when we feel connected to other life forms and the various aspects of the ecosystem. Yet separation is still prevalent when humans abuse the ecosystem, causing disruption, imbalance and pollution, without realizing that they are damaging their own self system. Wholeness is achieved through kinship with other life forms, balance in the ecosystem and empathy.
Our ideas and thoughts form the root of the mind and give us identity. We process the raw data of the world and make them personally meaningful. The mind includes emotions, sensations, memories, and other uses of the brain. It is organized into its own invisible body of personal memories and beliefs that each of us fiercely protects. At this level consciousness is unlimited, for the mind can fly anywhere and imagine anything without boundaries. Yet many people limit this freedom for themselves and others. They create artificial boundaries of belief, fear and prejudice, which result in unnecessary separation and repression.
The mind is more collective than individual because most of our thoughts and ideas are picked up from the society – parents, teachers, media, and other outlets. Many memories are shared and the very stuff of thought, language, is a collective creation. So here wholeness dominates over separation and is further strengthened through shared beliefs, religion, social conditioning, and common values. Separation arises through divisive beliefs in politics and religion, “us versus them” thinking, nationalism, and arbitrary mental boundaries made of fear and hatred.
Ego and Intellect
This is the level of identity dominated by the self. Society praises those with high ego drive, while spiritual seekers tend to want to suppress the ego and its impulses. Regarded objectively, however, the ego gives us not only a personal identity, but is also the level where myth and archetypes operate, giving us stories and models to identify with. Ego teaches us about identity itself in terms of being human. We cannot know who we are individually without family and society. At this level, consciousness is self-centered, focusing on the “I”. Ego involves our individual desires, beliefs, likes and dislikes but also the world’s shared myths and archetypes. Wholeness at this level is brought about through a sense of common humanity and the need for self-respect and common worth. Separation results from personal alienation, loneliness, and repressed emotions that give rise to shame and guilt.
Body of Bliss
To the ancient sages, bliss was more than a feeling of ecstasy. Rather it was connecting to the basic vibration or hum of the universe – the ground state and source of all diversity. Here is the possibility for creation to manifest. In the body of bliss, the spark of creation is felt and bliss is an intense dynamic experience. At this level, consciousness is the joy of being. The focus is not on the external world, but rather on the numinous presence that has been described as a golden light suffusing every article of nature. Separation at this level is perceived as only a thin veil behind which shines the light of pure consciousness.
This Kosha reveals wholeness so fully – through love, joy and ecstasy – that separation holds no attraction. This existence is pure Being mixed with just enough individuality to allow for a physical existence or self-identity in the afterlife. Without this gossamer sheath we would dissolve into Being and become bliss itself without an experiencer.
Reference: Deepak Chopra, Life After Death, the Burden of Proof, Chapter 10