Recognizing Ourselves Before We Die

By Duane Elgin

Posted: 05/23/11 07:00 AM ET Huffington Post:

When our physical body dies, will we recognize ourselves as a subtle body of light, love, music, and knowing? Will we recognize the unique orchestration of our being, the distinct way we light up the world? If we fail to recognize ourselves in this way — if we require the assistance of a physical body to anchor our self-recognition — then we are profoundly limiting ourselves. The afterlife is unknown; however, our invisible body of music, light and love that lives in eternity is knowable. In fact, every person that we encounter can instantly recognize these unique and invisible qualities within us. Our responsibility is not to be concerned with the afterlife, but to be so fully present in this life that we recognize the familiar resonance of who we are, wherever we might be.

Many spiritual traditions tell us how important it is to be awake to our soulful nature at the time of death. What happens after we die seems likely to forever remain a mystery. However, if we do not become familiar with our subtle self while we have the precious vehicle of a physical body, we can fail to recognize ourselves when our physical body dies. Because we are created from an invisible life force, we may die and not see that this life force is who and what we are. Our physical body is an anchor for light illuminating light, knowing recognizing knowing, and love appreciating love. If, in freedom, we have not made friends with ourselves during this lifetime, our physical bodies can die and the animating life energy of our being may dissipate and lose its coherence. We may then require the constraint of a material world to enable us to encounter ourselves once again.

Why should we be concerned with recognizing the eternal being within ourselves while we are alive in this physical realm? Jesus gives an important answer when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you.” (John 14:2). I believe Jesus is saying that, in the vast ecology of the living universe, there are spaces suitable for all beings.

Buddhists also believe we must discover our subtle, inner nature so we can recognize ourselves when we die as pure awareness or as the “ground luminosity.” Because the essence of who we are is so subtle, when we die we can become confused, disoriented, and unable to sustain self-recognition. To keep from becoming overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, colors, and visions that arise in the passage through bodily death, Buddhists teach that we must attain some degree of stability in self-recognition in the here and now. If we pay attention to the natural wakefulness and feeling presence at the core of our everyday consciousness, we will be familiar with ourselves at the time of death. The Dalai Lama counsels that, because we don’t know when we will die, it is of great importance to be prepared as, at the time of death, the total responsibility for awareness falls upon us. He writes, “The body is compared to a guest house; it is a place to stay for just a short time… When the day comes for consciousness to leave, the guest house of the body must be left behind.”

If the universe were non-living at its foundations, it would take a miracle to save us from extinction at the time of death, and then to take us from here to a heaven (or promised land) of continuing aliveness. However, if the universe is alive, then we are already nested and growing within its aliveness. When our physical body dies, the life-stream that we are will move into the larger aliveness of the living universe. We don’t need a miracle to save us — we are already inside the miracle of sustaining aliveness. Instead of being saved from death, our job is to bring mindful attention to our enduring aliveness in the here and now.

Our awakening is not the end of our spiritual journey, but rather, the barest beginning. As we learn the skills of consciously recognizing ourselves as beings of light, love, music, and knowing, we are meeting the basic requirement for our journey through eternity. Once knowingness knows itself directly, then that knowingness can live and learn forever as a luminous stream of being in the deep ecology of the universe. Awakening is never finished: We will forever be “enlightening” ourselves — becoming lighter — so that we have the ability to participate in ever more free, subtle, open, delicate and expressive ecologies of being and becoming.

When we die, we will not need to remember the material details of our lives because the knowing-resonance that we are already embodies the essential wisdom of our lifetime of experience. In the words of the spiritual teacher Thomas Merton, “Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.” As we cultivate our capacity for mindful living, we lessen the need for a material world and a physical body to awaken the knowing process to itself. Now is the time to recognize ourselves. When we consciously become intimate friends with ourselves, we directly participate in the life-stream of the universe and cultivate the body of knowing that lives and moves within the deep ecology of the universe. At the heart of life is a simple task: to become intimate and forgiving friends with ourselves and to grow as a stream of light, love, music, and knowing.