Dreams and Death
An examination of dreaming and death from the standpoint of Eastern
By Tony Crisp
In most of the great faiths and traditions of the world, there are similar
teachings about the relationship of the living with the dead. The Egyptian Book
of The Dead, one of the oldest books in the world, explains how the soul of the
dead person is brought before the gods to answer their queries. The Tibetan Book
of The Dead gives detailed instructions for a living person to read to the dead.
The text explains how the soul of the person will face his or her own deeds,
thoughts and fears in a new way, and will come face to face with the gods. It
explains how each of these can be best dealt with. Even the recent investigation
into near-death-experiences echoes this theme of the person facing their deeds
when they have died.
As an example of this, Allan Pring, an ex-RAF pilot experienced a near death
experience while undergoing what was supposed to be minor surgery. He describes
this as follows:
'Then I experienced the review of my life which extended from early childhood
and included many occurrences that I had completely forgotten. My life passed
before me in a momentary flash but it was entire, even my thoughts were
included. Some of the contents caused me to be ashamed but there were one or two
I had forgotten about of which I felt quite pleased. All in all, I knew that I
could have lived a much better life but it could have been a lot worse. Be that
as it may, I knew that it was all over now and there was no going back. There
was one most peculiar feature of this life review and it is very difficult to
describe, let alone explain. Although it took but a moment to complete,
literally a flash, there was still time to stop and wonder over separate
incidents. This was the first instance of distortion of time.' (Quoted from The
Truth in the Light, by Peter Fenwick and Elizabeth Fenwick. Published by
Although The Tibetan Book of the Dead arises from a very different cultural
standpoint than that of the West, it is more than a strange or superstitious
document. It encompasses a profound attempt to look at the subtle side of the
human mind and speculate on what we face in death.
In ancient China, the tradition of ancestor worship was of tremendous
importance. Here again we see the personal value of relating to the dead. Most
aboriginal races have a similar strong feeling of connection with, and
remembrance for, their dead. In Catholic Christianity, there are a whole series
of sacraments linking one with death or the dead. From the very first, baptism
aims at bringing one into a new relationship with God, and making one ready for
direct and conscious entrance into Heaven at death. The sacrament of the Mass
applies not only to the living but also to the dead - Mass by the living being
given for the dead.
This question of what fate we face at death is in fact explored by most past
races. Looking at these ideas from the standpoint of what we now know about
sleeping and dreaming, can throw new light on these ancient ideas.
Sleep and Death
Two possibilities may exist in sleep, and therefore perhaps in death also.
One is that we may penetrate sleep with self-awareness, as happens occasionally
in lucid dreams. The other is that we may be carried along by images and
emotions, influences and drives, whether we like it or not, as occurs in
nightmares. Some of the images and experiences may be beautiful, and some may be
terrible. In using this approach to understand ancient texts about death, it is
helpful to clarify exactly what it is we experience in a dream. Whether what we
experience is beautiful or terrible, are they anything more than tremendous
experiences of virtual reality? If they are not, then any horror or beauty we
meet are self-created. If this can be accepted, that the apparently real people
we meet in dreams are not more real than the experience of colour we have when
we look at a rose - considering that we are not seeing the colour, but nervous
impulses sent by the eyes to an area of the brain where it is translated into
what we apparently see.
The Eastern texts mentioned state that if we lack the ability to stand back
from involvement in these swirling impressions and fail to see them for what
they are, we will be carried wherever the seeds of thought, emotion and fear
move us. This much is not speculation. We need very little examination of our
own experience to see how time and again our ability to coolly respond to
situations is swept away by unbidden emotional or physical responses. If we can
see these powerful feeling reactions, or subtle influences for what they are -
our own swirling thoughts, emotions and sense impressions - we enter another
level of experience entirely. In this situation our identity is like a small
boat swept along in a rushing river. The river in this case is our sense
impressions, our emotional responses triggered by glandular secretions such as
the adrenals, and our imagination or anxieties.
If you can accept for a moment that when you are totally involved in a dream,
you are immersed in experiencing your own largely unconscious attitudes, fears,
longings and ideas as external realities, then it gives a starting point to
explore these ideas about death. We can begin to understand from our own
observable experience rather than from subtle oriental philosophy.
The example of a nightmare you have experienced at some time will be helpful
in this. During the nightmare you were almost certainly convinced that it was
real. All your actions and feelings also arose directly out of feeling that the
nightmare was an external reality, and not a play of internal emotions and
fears. Most likely only waking was able to begin dispersing the fear you felt.
But supposing you had become aware in your nightmare that what you were facing
was not an illusion, but a projection of internal memories, past experience and
attitudes. What would that be like?
It is not necessary to speculate too much on this, as many people have been
able to become lucid in this way. (See: Buddhism and Dreams for some examples.)
What people meet who have done this is a breaking through the apparently real
images and events of the dream into direct personal insight. In other words the
images of the nightmare give way to direct memoirs of past events that lay the
foundation of feelings out of which the nightmare arose. For instance Robert Van
de Castle writes that when he has helped people explore nightmares about a
ghost, it has always led back to the childhood memory of a parent coming to the
bedroom and lifting them or moving them to prevent bed wetting.
Such direct experiences also help us understand what happens when we fail to
face the images of a nightmare, or in fact any other troubling fears and
anxieties. We know from personal experience that they remain to haunt us. They
continue to influence the way we deal with life, with opportunity, with
relationships. It is this influence in the present arising out of the past that
Eastern peoples call karma.
interaction of past and present
If we create a scheme of the levels of the mind in meeting a nightmare, first
of all we meet the dreams images. In most cases this is as far as we go. Our
experience of the dream people or creatures is that they are as real as any
object or person we meet while awake. Because of this we react to them as if
they are real, and can harm us.
So at this first level of interaction we are victims of the virtual reality
of the nightmare. Our actions and reactions arise out of acceptance of the
reality of the dream characters and situation.
Moving to the next level, from the experience of people who become lucid in
their dream, the characters, drama and objects of the dream are experienced as a
projection from our own past, from our own fears or imaginations. So the
nightmare can be equated with life events. Using the Eastern term of karma, we
can say that in the nightmare we are experiencing our karma - outflow of past
experience and events.
The doctrine of Karma in Eastern cultures states that our experience of life
and its events depends upon the actions, thoughts, desires, longings, that have
become built into ourselves from the past - this life and others. When we break
through the images or surface life events, we come to the realm of Karmic
influences. That is, we discover the pattern of past habits, attitudes, fears,
pains, plans and aspirations that have projected into our conscious life and its
Therefore this second level of experience is one of penetrating what is at
first an apparently external virtual reality, and in penetrating it discovering
the influences, the processes or energies that create it. I have summed this up
by using the word karma. So we begin to see the karmic influences out of which
our life is woven.
Imagine what it would be like to penetrate deeply into your own mind in this
way. Again, many people have done it, so it is not a 'What if'? When it happens
the events and directions we have taken in life are seen to be the outworking of
deeply etched patterns of behaviour; of passionately made decisions, perhaps
from the experience or betrayal; out of lessons learned sometimes over
generations of our family. Our conscious biases, opinions, abilities, fears,
failings and illnesses, are seen to emerge from this matrix of past experience.
If we think of our past deeds as a colour transparency in a projector, and
our conscious self as the screen, we gain an idea of this. Hatred, love, fear,
built into us in the past, act as images on the transparency, influencing,
colouring, the life-giving energies of our being. If we experienced something
that has hurt us sexually or emotionally, and we thus deadened parts of
ourselves rather than face our pain, then our present sexuality and emotions
will be lacking the full outflow to that degree. These blockages are dense areas
on the transparency of our Karmic nature, blocking the light. The light itself
is all the range of our experience, sensual, sexual, emotion, mental and
spiritual. This is not altogether a good analogy, because our Karmic matrix may
contain frozen lumps of our life energy.
If we could consciously meet our fears or pains, our passionately felt
decisions of the past, we might arrive back to awareness of the 'transparency'
or matrix. In the Catholic sense, we would have now 'admitted' to consciousness
- to ourselves - our past 'sin' or error. Becoming conscious of such patterns
often wipes them away. In modern psychological terms, awareness transforms. If
we see some of the ancient teachings in this light they are less esoteric, and
more easily understood as amazing expressions of past psychological insight.
Coming back to the experience of a nightmare, or in fact any dream, while we
are alive we can wake up. But what ancient cultures say is that when we die we
cannot wake from this world of dreaming, or perhaps of nightmare. This is
precisely why masses are said, or why teachings of the East expound ways of
helping the dead find their way out of the apparent reality of a strange and
perhaps disturbing environment.
In the 'Bardo Thodol' (Tibetan Book of The Dead) the dying or dead person is
told to hold himself or herself in the Clear Light, without letting anything
such as thoughts or karmic influences claim them. What this means in today's
terms is that a living person reads to the dead, telling them not to get lost in
their own thoughts and feelings. They are told that underlying the apparent
reality of the 'dream' or mental landscapes and environment they find themselves
in, is the clear consciousness without form. All the mental images and emotions,
terrors and wonders experienced, are things the mind creates. But it is all a
moving torrent of experience that is not ultimately satisfying. Only the clear
consciousness gives the person an experience of their fundamental nature.
In Christianity this clear light is called Christ the Redeemer.
If we gain some concept or feeling of the power that has grown us from
conception onwards; that has unified the millions of body cells; that organises
all the functions and organs of our body and mind, we have an understanding of
this unifying power. Modern psychology has also shown us how hate, fear, shock,
jealousy, interfere with this activity as it attempts to keep us whole and
If we think of the totality of our past experience as the karmic matrix
mentioned, we might see even more clearly how it interferes with the principle
behind our own growth and stable existence. The Catholic sacraments look upon
the negative influence of this karmic matrix as our 'state of sin' and tell us
Christ can redeem us.
When we experience the power of this internal life principle in the way
healing or 'redemption' takes place in us during and after illness, our
awareness of its power and reality becomes very great. It is the energy that
upholds our existence, and which we can either, co-operate with or work against.
The 'Bardo Thodol' calls this the Secondary Clear Light. In experiencing it
we are aware of the effect of the Clear Light and its power on and in us. But we
are not conscious of the Light itself. The 'Bardo' says that very few people can
actually remain fixed in the Clear Light itself. The reason being that it is
formless, impersonal, and transcendental.
Again, in the 'Bardo' it says, 'The common people call this the state wherein
the consciousness principle (object knowing principle) hath fainted away.' These
teachings declare that if we cannot hold onto this condition, we drop into the
next level, which is experiencing the effect of the Clear Light. If this is not
possible to maintain, we drop into our karmic matrix. If this is not maintained,
we become lost in images and 'dreams' arising from the karma we have gathered,
i.e. our loves, hates, fears, and aspirations. This means we are back in the
Looking at the previous statements, we can see that four levels of experience
are defined. These four levels are not difficult to understand if we look at our
own experience of waking and sleeping. If we once more look at sleep, we will
perhaps understand what the 'Bardo Thodol' is saying. For instance, experiments
in sleep laboratories have shown that when we sleep, at first we drop into a
deep dreamless state. Then we gradually move to a condition nearing waking
consciousness in which we dream.
In dreamless sleep our 'object knowing' self disappears. There is only
'being', pure consciousness, without images, emotions or sense of self. We
experience it every night when we sleep. So it is not anything strange or
unknown. But because we usually lose any sense of our ego in this 'dreamless
sleep' state, we usually say we were unconscious or asleep. Nevertheless, we
went into the void of dreamless sleep, and we emerged from it again. Some people
even mange to maintain a level of awareness, as in lucid dreaming, and so carry
back a memory of the void.
Those people, who have melted into the void and carried back awareness of it,
describe it as the basic level of existence, universal, imageless consciousness.
Another way of attempting a description is to say it is unchanging and
self-existent, as opposed to the ever-changing experience of our senses,
emotions and thoughts, all of which are linked with other phenomena, and so not
Because few of us can even begin to grasp that this daily experience of
dreamless sleep, this seeming absence of being, as a reality - The Reality - we
cannot, do not wish to, are frightened of, maintaining it. As the Bardo
explains, most of us cannot maintain the Clear Light, so we enter again into the
acceptance of the world of sensory experience, of dreams.
Working from outside in, if we break through the experience of our senses and
dream images to the karmic matrix, and dare to meet the passions and pains out
of which our life is woven, we have now woken up at the dream level. At this
point we are no longer completely dominated by, and at the mercy of, the
passions and pains that previously moved us unconsciously.
From here we can begin to see why the sacred teachings of many races have
said the living can help the dead. In their book 'Dream Telepathy', Krippner and
UlIman tell of their years of scientific research into the sensitivity of
sleeping persons to the thoughts of others. Their research at the Dream
Laboratory of Maimonides Medical Centre in New York has now become world famous.
Many people who were not a part of Krippner and Ullman's research have also
noted how the thoughts or prayers of others frequently alter the pattern of
We can understand this further if we think of it in the terms used generally
in these articles. The state of hell can be thought of as being submerged in the
images and experiences of one's own violence, hate, terrors and incohesiveness.
Purgatory is the same as this, but with one main-difference, the personality
before death had, through baptism and confirmation (i.e. opening consciousness
to and fixing it in) contacted the unifying principle. The expressed power of
the Clear Light, God, has the effect of integrating and redeeming the images and
energies we become lost in or possessed by, in the sleep or death state.
Free will, for nearly all of us, is missing at that level, as is the ability
to stand apart from the images.
Nevertheless, those who have contacted and opened consciousness to the
unifying power causing their existence, find the nature of their dreams
changing. The integrating power is actually opened to even in dreams, and
relates us differently to the images and events being faced. This psychological
fact seems to explain a great deal about he theological catholic statements in
regard to the power of baptism and the laying on of hands to give a different
'quality' to the soul, and making the difference between being lost in hell, or
being capable of direct or indirect entrance into heaven. If we equate baptism
and confirmation with the opening of consciousness to the unifying principle,
these statements can be understood.
consciously work on a dream
The question of helping the dead is one of the clear will of the living,
being used to pierce through the confusing images of the dream state, to aid the
central ego of the person to open to the influence of God. We can achieve a very
clear impression of what this means when we ourselves consciously work on a
dream, or directly face images we ran from during sleep. Consciousness can
decide to do things that are not possible during sleep.
It has been said above that if the unifying power has been a conscious
experience, the quality of dreams is changed. It is also true that when our
conscious understanding of dreams is clarified, another type of change occurs.
A different approach results, which leads to seeing beyond dreams to their
causes. This relationship between our own conscious understanding and our sleep
experiences also appears to exist between the living and the dead. They
complement each other in a very real sense. For waking consciousness limits,
defines and decides. In this way it can direct energies through understanding
This rational defined and separate consciousness is generally better
developed in occidental peoples, and has been the basis of our technological
culture. The interior sleep awareness is unlimited, ranging through space and
time, possible and impossible, fact and fancy. It is not defined.
Almost any dream one attempts to analyse has a great power of avoiding final
analysis. One can only arrive at general understanding. This is more the tone in
which the oriental peoples are masters. The one cannot easily go beyond the
visible or obvious; the other tends not to be tied down to defining in external
abilities or creations their interior life.
help of prayer
If we therefore pray for the dead, in the sense of opening ourselves and them
to the unifying principle, this releases a power into the condition they may
find themselves in. Such prayer will aid in releasing them from images and
psychological difficulties being experienced. Also, if we have a clear View of
the after death state, and talk to our dead as the Tibetans and others do, this
brings to them the clarity of our consciousness to aid them. We, in return,
through this subtle contact, receive impressions of wider awareness and
understanding. If the experiments of non-physical communication between the
living were practised and remembered, some idea of how this communion is
experienced will be yours.
In Spiritualist 'rescue circles', someone with this type of sensitivity acts
as the connecting link between the living and dead. The group then throws the
light of their waking consciousness, argument and explanation, into the
experience of the dead person being helped. Thus, those trapped by suicidal
urges, ignorance of their situation, uncontrollable desires or fears, are aided
to find release.
Subud also practise what they call a 'latihan' (spiritual surrender to the
unifying power) for the dead. They say that the dead have very intimate contacts
with their living family. If one of their family opens to the unifying
principle, or life force, and thus becomes themselves more integrated, this
influences the condition of the dead. If this surrender to God is done in the
name of the dead person, family or not, it has, they say, a tremendous power to
help, and 'wake them up' in death.
Although all these methods are very different in outer form, we can see a
thread of similar aims and ideas passing through each. Something to be dealt
with later on, but not out of place here, is to say that the dead have a similar
relationship to us as our own sleep consciousness. This is only an extension of
what has already been said, but may easily be overlooked. To put it into a few
words: the dead are now parts of our own interior, and often unconscious, being.
They are aspects of our own total psyche. The insight, love, prayer, release of
healing power, or attempt at understanding we bring to them, influences them in
precisely the same way it influences ourselves.
The 'cult of the dead,' as it is sometimes called, if persisted in long
enough in an attempt to aid a soul through the miasma of unconscious truth and
error to the Clear Light, is also a legal spiritual path. The soul we help to
the clear light is a part of our greater being, and its attainment is for us
also a consciousness of the highest. If there is a criticism, it is only that
most such attempts give up at the level of communicating chit chat and proof of
'When through illusion,' says the Bardo, 'I and others are wandering in the
false images, Along the bright light-path of undistracted listening, reflection
and meditation, May the Gurus of the Inspired Line lead us:
May the etherical elements not rise up as enemies; May the watery elements
not rise up as enemies; May the earthy elements not rise up as enemies; May the
fiery elements not rise up as enemies; May the airy elements not rise up as
enemies; May the elements of the rainbow colours not rise up as enemies;
May it come that all the sounds in the death state be known as one's own
May it come that all the Radiances will be known as one's own radiances;
May it come that the Clear Light will be realised in the state of death.'
For more information about dreams and death, or dreams in general, see Tony
Crisp's book Dream Dictionary, or New Dream Dictionary.
Also visit http://dreamhawk.com