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Posted: March 18, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Consciousness Beyond Death?

Last year was a challenge for me. Death came for not one, but an even dozen of my friends and colleagues. Since then, I've spent hours trying to make sense of these losses. I can no longer pick up the phone and call my friends, or send a hurried email. Death has cut me off from those who played such important roles in my life. Our communication, once so vital, is now a one-sided discourse. Or is it?

It is easier to avoid or rely solely on faith to answer questions about survival after bodily death than to seriously consider them as empirical issues. Yet the mystery of survival can be explored with both critical distance and openness to relevant data -- beginning, for instance, with what the world's religious and spiritual traditions have reported about the possibility of postmortem survival.

Virtually all mystics, of all faiths, maintain that human consciousness continues to exist in a disembodied condition after death. Some Taoist sages have claimed that only a few highly evolved spirits survive, while Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist yogis argue that all living creatures are reincarnated. Considering such diverse beliefs, it is sensible to remain doubtful about the specifics of most pictures of postmortem existence.

Yet certain claims about the survival of consciousness are founded on the direct experience of people with various beliefs about the afterlife. For example, people in many eras and cultures have enjoyed illuminations or visions in which an eternal or immortal self seemed unequivocally apparent. "Some people imagine that they should see God, as if he stood there and they here," wrote the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. "This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge."

The practices of Stone Age shamans, carried into today's few remaining shamanic cultures, are grounded in a belief that there are multiple levels of reality, and multiple dimensions. By moving between various distinct domains of existence, shamans assert, we can travel to the spirit world, identifying and connecting with our ancestors and the spirits of nature. Shamanism suggests that the line between the living and the dead is arbitrary, less a hard edge than a common boundary.

Various domains of science speak to the question of life after death. Psychologist Gary Schwartz, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has been testing several well-known mediums under controlled conditions to see whether they can give accurate information about departed loved ones. In one study, a medium was asked to contact a decedent known to a client out of the client's presence, so the medium could not respond to the client's verbal or physical cues. After the reading, the client read several transcripts. One was the medium's report on contacting the client's departed loved one; the others were those of similar readings conducted for other people. If mediums are really in contact with disembodied spirits, then clients should, on average, be able to select their session's transcripts more often than decoy transcripts. In repeated tests with various mediums and clients, Schwartz believes that he has found enough evidence to warrant continuing the work.

Does this mean that we can communicate with the dead? No. But we also don't know that we can't. As studies of mediums are combined with other efforts, such as investigations of reincarnation, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences, scientists are formulating a new image of death. We are moving from an image of the grim reaper, cutting us off from our loved ones, to what psychiatrist Raymond Moody described as "the being of light." From this perspective, death is seen as a continuum rather than an either/or condition. By reframing death, we may engage in levels of transpersonal growth that provide us with connections to the subtle, causal, and ultimate realms of reality.

This exploration of the possible survival of consciousness, even in the absence of definitive answers, can offer comfort to the bereaved. The burden of grief, the lingering fears and doubts, may be tempered by hope and possibility. Through this process, we may move outside a limited paradigm of separateness and finality and toward a larger sense of self and our connections to the whole.


Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D., is director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and senior scientist at the Geraldine Brush Cancer Research Institute at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. She has taught at Stanford and Harvard universities and lectures widely at venues including the United Nations and the Smithsonian Institution.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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