Fast forward to the moment of your death: as the body fails, with a varying degree of rapidity, your perceptual and cognitive faculties shut down. Seeing stops. Then tasting, hearing, smelling and feeling. So too, thinking. In Buddhist traditions, supposedly hearing goes last. And at some point, presumably, consciousness.
But don’t worry too much about that last one – consciousness vanishes for a good part of every night. Sometimes, during the day as well. It comes and it goes and is no more ‘you’ than anything that arises within it. Even with consciousness completely gone, we wake up in the morning and recall stuff that seemed to have happened. Weird stuff, often. We call this stuff that happens to us in the absence of consciousness, dreaming.
Heraclitus said, ‘The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own’ (Fragment 89). Because dreams are so private and unique, we are – in a sense – closest to ourselves in the absence of consciousness. But what is this intensely personal stuff that continues to unfold in us, even in the absence of consciousness and volition? One word for it is karma.
The karmic traces are like photographs that we take of each experience. Any reaction of grasping or aversion to any experience… is like snapping a photo. In the darkroom of our sleep we develop the film. Which images are developed on a particular night will be determined by the secondary conditions recently encountered. Some images or traces are burned deeply into us by powerful reactions while others, resulting from superficial experiences, leave only a faint residue… We string them together like a film, as this is the way our psyches work to make meaning, resulting in a narrative constructed from conditioned tendencies and habitual identities: the dream. (Tenzin 1998: 32-3)
So claims Tibetan Buddhist dream yogi, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Before we write this off as exotic claptrap, consider the similar conclusions of a western dream yogi. Sigmund Freud preferred the term ‘unconscious wish’ (Freud 1976: 200-213 [Ch. III]) instead of ‘reaction of grasping or aversion’; Tenzin’s ‘secondary conditions recently encountered,’ Freud called ‘the day’s residues’ (Freud 1976: 247-76 [Ch. V (A)]); and ‘the way our psyches work to make meaning’ was precisely what Freud believed had been uncovered through his exploration of dreams, to which he dedicated the rest of his career. (He preferred to describe it as, ‘the dream-work’ [Freud 1976: 381-651 (Ch. VI)].)
The end of consciousness is not the end of karma. Indeed, in the absence of consciousness, karma thrives. But what about the end of life? ‘What dreams may come?’ Is death the end of karma too?
I’ve used my limited abilities as a lucid-dreaming yogi to interrogate angelic and demonic entities, and to scry the Enochian aethyrs. In December last year, my father unexpectedly and traumatically died. Since then, whilst grieving for him with other members of my family, cautiously and carefully I’ve tried to use dream yoga to explore his vicissitudes after death.
28th February. To see him was lovely. A vivid sense of his presence. He sat in the chair watching television. Yet as soon as interaction was attempted, things turned problematic. He stood against the wall, frozen and immobile. No response. His eyes opened and stared blankly, like they had in the intensive care unit.
6th March. I went into the kitchen and he was getting ready for work. He looked younger and healthy, but seemed stressed. ‘You’re looking well,’ I said to him. ‘You know that’s because you’re dead now, don’t you?’ He seemed bewildered and unsure. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but I feel poorly. Every time I walk into a room, I –’ Unfortunately, just then the lucid state dissolved.
‘But these are just dreams,’ is the obvious criticism. They were lucid dreams, but other than that I do not disagree – except to point out that our experience of others is always of their behaviour: the way they look, speak and move; the choices and reactions they make. In an encounter with a dead person in a lucid dream, all of these present themselves to consciousness. Phenomenologically, there is no difference from an experience of the person in waking life.
Yet in these dreams, when the dead person is called upon to react to their current situation, the interaction breaks down, because what is missing is not karma, but life. As far as I’m aware, there is no scientifically feasible definition of life that doesn’t point instead at karma. So far, life has not been defined as what it ‘is’ or ‘has’, but only in terms of actions and behaviours – as karma, in other words.
DNA, certainly, is a substance that living things have, but that having is made possible only by a doing: the self-replicating and recombining action of the DNA molecule. It appears that life itself is not the being or having of something, but a continuous unfolding, somehow beyond these, to which being and having are responses, rather than the driving force.
The karma of the dead might persist in various forms, the strongest of which is probably memories and effects upon the living. But although the karmic simulacrum left by the dead is to all extents identical with what they were, in the experience of others, that Grace by which (when alive) they were able to change, develop and respond, has withdrawn.
25th March. I couldn’t find him, but then I went into a pub and saw him. He looked normal but, on inspection, was like a hollow, metal ornament. His eyes were closed and his face dead. Inside him was black ash and soot. Still in the lucid state, I began to meditate. This way I could find him, because he had abandoned the physical representation of himself. Where he was now, he was in a kind of focused repose. No thoughts. Very peaceful. He was collecting himself quietly, focussing in on himself, with no thoughts or perceptible changes.
The karma of the dead unfolds in the living. Their vicissitudes after death are dependent on us, because they are done with developing and unfolding. Grieving is no isolated event in an individual mind, it is the dreaming-out by the dead (through us) of their karmic remnants. Our mourning is the unfolding of love or antagonisms they left behind. The dead can suffer or cling to life, depending on their dreams, woven by our grief.
3rd April. He seemed neither dead nor alive, but I sensed I could force the issue, so I walked quickly up to him and spoke loudly into his ear, ‘Dad!’ ‘Eh?’ he mumbled. ‘Love you,’ I said. ‘Uv oo,’ he replied, then lapsed back into a stillness, from which I knew he would next time be even harder to rouse.
I found it both difficult and helpful to meet him in this series of dreams. It’s not a technique I’d recommend for anyone with complicated issues concerning the deceased. There are bereavement counsellors who can guide us more safely if this is the case. It was difficult because there he was, completely back again, even though I knew full well he had gone. It was helpful because it showed me directly, painfully, how all that remained of him was karma. What had allowed that karma to unfold had now disappeared, maybe back to where it came.
This last encounter alerted me I was clinging on too tightly. As time passed, he was moving ever further away, becoming more difficult to find. Reaching out was pulling him back toward a state in which he no longer belonged. It also exposed how, really, we’d said to each other all that needed to be said. It was selfish to continue.
1st May. In the garden at night, I pointed out to him the Pleiades star-cluster. Then I realised I wasn’t looking properly: the whole sky was filled with stars like the Pleiades, packed and dense. Suddenly, he was gone. Vanished from sight, like a jump-cut in a film. Mum and I were in the garden, looking up at the stars and remembering him.
Freud, Sigmund (1976). The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Pelican.
Heraclitus (2012). Fragments. http://bit.ly/MToVOM (wikisource.org).
Tenzin, Wangyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep. Edited by Mark Dahlby. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.