By Matthew Butler
People save up for retirement, but how well do we prepare for the journey after? Ancient cultures put great emphasis on the afterlife, because they knew consciousness continued after death. They were right: Out-of-body experiences reveal we really do exist beyond the body. Knowing this truth should inspire us to seek in life what really matters and remains after death – awakened consciousness.
What is the greatest mystery of life? According to a legendary Q&A in the Indian spiritual epic the Mahabharata, the greatest wonder is that countless people die every day, yet those left behind believe they will live forever.
There is a well-known saying that the only certainty in life is death, but our hyper-connected modern society is not exactly inspiring much reflection on what lies beyond the transient.
People put aside savings for retirement, and some take out life insurance to take care of the loved ones they leave behind. This looks after physical needs, but what about the needs of consciousness which continues without the body? What preparations are made for its journey after death – the ultimate journey of a lifetime?
Religious institutions offer a solution to their followers that usually depends on adopting a set of beliefs rather than personal spiritual discovery. On the other hand, some scientists will tell you with equal conviction that nothing comes after death, so don’t worry about it. Both of these points of view depend on belief, but what if, when the final moment comes, you realise you wasted the great opportunity your life provided? An alternative option is to discover for ourselves why we are here, and what our place in the universe is, while we are alive and have the opportunity to do something with the knowledge we gain.
Ancient spiritual cultures almost universally placed importance on the individual’s preparations and journey into the afterlife. They clearly understood our existence extended beyond our bodies, and that life and death were best seen with the bigger picture of creation in mind – as part of an ongoing journey of consciousness – with life presenting an amazing opportunity for conscious evolution that we take the fruits from after death.
This was bought home to me in an interesting way during a trip to a museum exhibition showcasing ancient Egyptian afterlife cosmology; it reminded me of the universal nature of the afterlife, and how Near-Death Experiences and Out-of-Body Experiences offer us a glimpse into the reality of existence beyond the body, revealing that awakening consciousness is what creation is really all about.
With our modern culture drifting more and more into shallow short-sighted materialism and faux metaphysics, the need to re-discover and live this deeper purpose to life, so cherished by the ancients, is more important than ever.
A Journey into the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife
A while back I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a one-way self-guided tour through the ancient Egyptian afterlife, thanks to a special museum exhibition featuring artefacts from the British Museum collection.
The local museum was packed, and we had to wait in a queue before being allowed in. Finally we entered a dimly-lit passage thronging with people, winding past ancient Egyptian artefacts, artworks, tools, scriptures, and mummies.
There were ancient scrolls of the pyramid texts on display, and ancient art depicting the soul’s journey through the afterlife. A major theme in their art was judgement and the “weighing of the heart”, where a deceased person’s heart was weighed against a feather, and their fate was dependent on their inner qualities and the sum of their actions while alive. Toward the end of the exhibition they had a mockup display of this, with a large set of scales on which you could weigh your “heart” against a feather, while Egyptian Gods looked on from a mural.
After that, you passed into a depiction of the Egyptian paradise before stepping outside into the sunlight. I doubt the effect was intentional on the part of the exhibitors, but after passing through the exhibition’s dark passageway with its ordered depictions of the afterlife, judgment and then stepping into the light, I couldn’t help but think of accounts of near-death experiences, in which people often report passing through a dark tunnel toward the light, and experiencing a life review where they see the consequences of all their actions.
The exhibit really brought home to me how the ancient Egyptians understood they existed for a purpose that went beyond everyday life. Death was a doorway to the next stage of existence, and their lives were an opportunity to prepare for it. They knew we do not cease to exist when we die, and saw the quest for immortality through awakening consciousness as the real purpose to creation.
From looking at artefacts from different periods, it was apparent the ancient Egyptian understanding of death changed over time. It seemed to me that originally, the emphasis was on living spiritually and obtaining an immortality of the soul, while in later periods their understanding declined into more literal interpretations of preparing the body (rather than consciousness) for the afterlife through mummification, and a preoccupation with the arrangement of one’s burial and tomb with the right spells and amulets.
But I was vividly struck by how through that civilisation’s long and varied existence, the importance of the afterlife always reigned supreme, and being prepared for life after death was absolutely central to existence. Death, and therefore life, was taken very seriously.
I couldn’t help but notice a stark contrast between our modern culture and theirs. It was a bit like being in some kind of time warp, where two very different cultures collided. The artefacts of the Egyptians gave a sense of the sacredness of life and creation, but the bustling, noisy crowds of modern onlookers apparently saw this ancient preoccupation with the afterlife as mere novelty and amusement. How different ancient Egypt was to our modern society where the reality, and inevitability, of death is given little thought or preparation, and the understanding that consciousness continues after death is often summarily discounted and ridiculed.
I highly doubt that many people who attended the exhibition paused to reflect on whether they would continue to exist after death and, if so, how? And why are we here anyway? This was driven home when, just prior to reaching the scales of “judgement”, I noticed a whiteboard, styled with papyrus veneer, with a pertinent question written at the top.
What would you take with you to the afterlife?
Good question. A pen hung from the board, inviting people to write their response underneath. The answers ranged from the sentimental, to the mundane, to the silly.
Some wanted to take their friends and family with them, while others wanted to take things like their iPhone, make-up, favourite band, football team, favourite rock star, chocolate, alcohol, and so forth.
A “time machine” was perhaps the only clever response. I could see the benefit of that if you realised you had wasted your life. I don’t think it’s really an option however.
This brought home how we don’t take death and the meaning of our lives anywhere near as seriously as we should today. The ancients knew a lot more about life and death than we do. We have lost their ancient wisdom, and with it the understanding of the amazing opportunity our existence in this universe presents.
This is a serious problem. Our consciousness will continue to exist without the body. But if we don’t question our existence and why we are here, we will not awaken consciousness and we will never reach our true potential.
Near-Death Experiences and the Reality of Existence Beyond the Body
Existence after death is not something the ancient Egyptians invented. Concepts of an afterlife are so common across geographically isolated cultures around the world that it cannot simply be dismissed as a coincidence. There may be cultural differences in the details, but the understanding that we continue existing without the body has been pretty much universal for thousands of years.
In fact, the burial of the dead and the realisation of an afterlife are considered some of the most important hallmarks of cultural development in Stone Age people. It was a sign of intelligence distinguishing people from animals, and paved the way for the development of more sophisticated civilisations.
These include an out of body experience, where they leave their body and realise they are separate from it, perhaps seeing their body lying beneath them. Then they may go on a journey, which may feature common aspects like travelling through a tunnel, and a life review, where a person is shown everything they have done, and feels the effects of their actions toward others, whether good or bad.
Although some scientists speculate that these phenomena may be caused by the brain, the reality is that these experiences have occurred when patients are clinically brain dead, and it has not been proven these experiences are produced biologically. Furthermore, there is no ultimate proof that consciousness is produced by the brain anyway, although this is a strongly-held assumption among those entrenched in materialistic beliefs.
NDEs challenge rigid materialistic beliefs about life. In light of the prevalence and commonality of NDEs, some scientists now suggest that consciousness interacts with the brain rather than being produced by it. Rather, the brain is a conduit through which consciousness can express itself, much like the way a computer is a conduit for the internet, but the internet continues to exist when the computer is switched off.
NDEs are increasingly reported in the modern world due to improvements in health care leading to more people being revived, but they are also an ancient phenomenon. Research by the scholar Gregory Shushan found there are universal afterlife experiences which underpinned both modern NDE accounts and ancient afterlife mythologies. His research involved an in-depth comparative analysis of afterlife conceptions of five ancient civilisations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) and compared them to modern NDE accounts. He demonstrated that, although there were some variations in the details based on the cultural origin, there were specific recurring similarities that reappeared too consistently to be mere coincidence, suggesting that, “afterlife conceptions are not entirely culturally-determined and… appear to be universal or quasi-universal to some degree”.
Life is an Opportunity to Awaken Consciousness
Realising that you are consciousness, and continue to exist without the body, awakens you to the bigger picture of life. It puts your whole life in perspective.
In an NDE life review, people tend to see that what really matters in life is not how much money they made or what they achieved in a given field, but how they treated other people, and whether they acted with love. These experiences tend to change people’s lives, inspiring them to be more spiritual.
Realising that we exist beyond the body can open the door to awakening. You realise that what really matters in life is not what we gain physically, but developing consciousness. Then the question, “what will you take with you to the afterlife” becomes much more meaningful. You can’t take physical things with you when you die like your iPhone, but you can take consciousness. Then you see that the focus on the afterlife in ancient cultures was not a preoccupation with death, but a deep understanding of life, and how to live it in the most meaningful way to bring spiritual benefits to yourself and others, the effects of which continue after death.
States like anger, greed and hatred have their consequences in the world which are bad enough, but who wants to take these states with them to afterlife? If these states don’t bring happiness here, why drag them along after death? Expressions of consciousness like love, wisdom and inner peace are much better qualities to carry within. By awakening and expressing consciousness in a world filled with ignorance, hatred and darkness, we not only help to make the world a better place, but continue to carry these spiritual qualities in our consciousness when our body is left behind.
Understanding this is so important today. We live in a society bombarded with elite-controlled propaganda and entertainment that not only hides the darker agendas working in the world, but blankets people in ignorance, keeping us from uncovering the deeper potential of our consciousness and empowering ourselves by striving to awaken – which enables us to break free of the grip of darkness that exerts its influence over humanity. Failing to wake up to this agenda has it implications in the world, and also for our consciousness, and it’s consciousness that really counts, both in life and beyond.
So what would you take with you to the afterlife?