Living, Dying and the Physics of the Soul

An essay inspired by a class I took on the Physics of the Soul by Amit Goswami (highly recommend it). Had some major synchronicities around this class, e.g. I saw “What the Bleep?” shortly after starting to take the class and realized that Dr. Goswami was one of the people interviewed in the movie. Then, my friend Kate interviewed Wiliam Arntz who was the original driver behind the movie. And before I knew it, out of the blue I ended up meeting Mark Vicente, the director shortly thereafter (a most delightful man).
Among others it inspired me to go on Sabbatical in Switzerland. Celebrated day of the dead and engaged in some death yoga as I left my life in LA for a few months.

“I died as a mineral and became a plant
I died as a plant and rose to animal
I died as an animal and I became a man.
Why should I fear?
When was I less by dying?”

How we live our lives largely depends on our attitude toward death. If we buy into the concept of scarcity, of the materialist notion that all ends in death, we need to live this life as much as possible, consequently horde as many possessions as possible, and we end up living in fear all of our lives, afraid of anything that might shorten our stay in this lifetime. But there are better ways of living. In order to understand our lives, find purpose and depth, we must understand our ideas about death.


Over the course of human development, many answers have been given to the idea of what might come after death. Nearly all major religions, and practically all their associated esoteric traditions, have upheld some notion of reincarnation and life beyond death. Only later – and probably as a political instrument – did the paradigms change in many religions, especially Christianity, and new concepts of a last judgment, heaven or hell as final destination points arose – conveniently serving as a control mechanism for behavior of the population.

Descartes wisely avoided conflict with the church, when he began his materialist inquiry into life and death, by postulating a soul separate from the physical body. Dualism of soul and matter as suggested by his theories has held on to this day in many people’s understanding of reality. In part this is probably due to the fact that in “pure” materialism, death is the end of all. If consciousness was indeed an epiphenomenon of the brain, with the death of the brain, all consciousness would die as well. Nobody particularly likes that idea.

On top of that, there appears to be evidence that there is indeed some form of existence after death. Reports from Near Death Experiences (NDE) e.g. feature common descriptions of out-of-body phenomena, of bright lights, of religious or related persons appearing, of tunnels into other realms. In addition, there is a growing body of research surrounding past life experiences, the major arms of this research being research with children (Stevenson as cited in Goswami) and past-life regression therapies (e.g. Wambach, Grof as cited in Goswami).

With all this seeming contradiction around life and death, can there be any coherent model that satisfies spiritual notions and intuitions, while at the same time adhering to scientific standards of today and utilizing the growing body of knowledge of quantum physics?

Before answering this question, let us consider the concepts and elements of classical physics and how they influence our thinking on the matters of life and death.

“Conventional science is grounded in the idea that matter is the building block of all things. Life, mind, and consciousness, accordingly, are held to be mere epiphenomena (secondary phenomena) of matter. In such a view, death ends all epiphenomena that somehow manifest in living things.” (Goswami p. ix)

Surely, at least our atoms would remain immortal. Atoms don’t go anywhere. “Even while you live, and certainly when you die, the atoms and molecules which are at present locked into your shape and appearance are being unlocked and scattered into other shapes and forms of construction” (Bowker in Goswami p. 216). In that, even classical materialist views support immortality to some extent, although, of course, this does not include the immortality of consciousness and this does not explain transfer of memories as in past-life recall, or near death experiences. Still the dualism between consciousness and matter is haunting.

The primary crux results from the assumption that the underlying substance of all being is matter. As such, consciousness must either be separate, or must somehow emerge from matter. The separation of consciousness cannot satisfy if we wish to create an inclusive understanding of life and death, nor can the emergence of consciousness from matter be explained.

Another issue in classical physics is the idea of upward causation. The behavior of atoms determines the behavior of molecules determines the behavior of cells determines the behavior of people. If this was the case, we would truly live in a billiard ball universe and there would be no free will – not an all too pleasant notion.

Thus classical physics cannot help us much in trying to solve issues of reincarnation, life and death, or immortality. In such a view, how could immortality ever be achieved? Primarily, it would assume that the ego survives in the current physical body (to retain brain memory imprints). Somehow one would have to prolong life and stop the decay of the physical body either by means of a “magical” drug or by finding another solution for the limited cell production that occurs in the entropy of our physical system and limits its survival to approximately 100 years of lifetime based on the so called Hayflick effect (Goswami p. 221).

Freezing or even digitization of brain content to preserve the experience of the human body and maybe facilitation and future revival in form of a new body (maybe cloned) have also been suggested as means to gain immortality (as intimated by Leary e.g. cited in Goswami p. 220, and also Leary 1997).

But what about the survival and reincarnational data, past life recall? More and more research has been done in that field, and the notion appears largely popular when one looks at the overcrowding shelves in bookstores highlighting various theories on the subject.

As intimated above, there are several areas of research in this field: Near death experiences, deathbed visions, spontaneous recall of past lives by children and past-life propensities, past-life regressions facilitated through drugs, hypnosis or breathing techniques/meditation.

Near death experiences are phenomena described by people who were dead according to limited materialist definition, i.e. their hearts and breathing had stopped, and brainwaves showed no more activities, but who “returned”. Common in their descriptions are a sense of peace and cessation of pain, the experience is typically very vivid, often autoscopic (subjects perceive themselves), with sometimes heightened awareness. There is a sense of passing through a wall or tunnel and white light is perceived. Sometimes beautiful beings, religious figures or deceased relatives are seen. Common also is the experience of having one’s life “flash before one’s eyes”. In general a sense of oneness is felt, oneness with all things, beings and heaven. Lastly, the person is typically told that it is not time yet and that they must return to their current identity (Goswami p. 74f). In deathbed visions, dying or deceased relatives spontaneously appear near other relatives to convey last important messages or to bring a sense of closure. Data on these types of experiences ranges back all the way to 1889 (Sidgwick as cited in Goswami p.72).

Extensive studies with past life-recall among children have given us even more of a riddle: “Stevenson has accumulated a database of some 2000 such claimed-reincarnational memories which have many characteristics that have been verified” (Goswami p.77). On the one hand, there are past life propensities, one example being young children being able to read and write scripture in languages they haven’t been taught – xenoglossy (Goswami p.82). On the other hand, there are specific memory recalls, cases where children could identify former places of residence, relatives, and had knowledge that only the deceased could have had, to allow e.g. finding of hidden objects. The children sometimes even took on character traits of the deceased they recalled (Goswami p. 81f). Experiments, e.g. by Grof have also allowed adults to regress to past lives by induction of specific mental states, e.g. through LSD or through a method he developed called “holotropic breathing”. There are even reported cases of individuals being able to recall other people’s past lives, such as Indian gurus (as in Yogananda 2001), or healers like Edgar Cayce.

How could we integrate all this into a coherent scientific model? Classical physics does not seem to offer much of a solution, so let us consider some of the ideas in quantum physics that might explain.

Let us begin with assuming the primacy of consciousness rather than matter. This solves many of the paradoxes and anomalies in quantum physics as shown in Goswami The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World. There are also others that have intimated such a model (e.g. in Arthur Young’s Theory of Process). It allows for consciousness to collapse both matter and thought in unity and therefore overcomes any dualistic notions.

“For materialists, there is only the material world, only things moving in time and space; there is no conceptual base for another world. When you think questions like, What happens to me after death? you think dualistically. You think that the surviving part of you, your soul, goes to another world, a dual world. But…how does the dual world interact with this space-time one? Quantum physics gives us an alternative – consciousness can mediate the interaction between two disparate bodies” (Goswami p. 32)

Let us next consider the concept of quantum non-locality as an intriguing feature in Quantum physics. In 1982 Alain Aspect’s famous experiment showed that “two correlated photons [would] influence each other at a distance without exchanging signals” (Goswami, p. 33). Thus, some underlying principle must be guiding the spinning direction of either. “How are the two photons connected, if not through signals going through space time? They are connected through a nonlocal domain of consciousness that transcends space and time. It also follows that consciousness, acting nonlocally, simultaneously collapses the states of two correlated quantum objects” (Goswami p.34).

This appears to work not just for photons, but also for thoughts as demonstrated in a variety of experiments, e.g. in the Grinberg-Zylberbaum experiment (as related in Goswami pp. 35-38), where two subjects are instructed to meditate together to establish connection, and are then separated in two faraday cages outside the sight of each other. One is shown a sequence of light flashes resulting in an evoke potential, a specific brain response that can be measured. The other subject showed a so called transfer potential, i.e. the other subject, without being exposed to the signal showed a nearly identical response. While message transfer is forbidden according to a theorem attributed to Philippe Eberhard (Goswami p.39), this offers the possibility that in the case of two correlated brains the theorem does not apply as consciousness establishes and maintains the correlation between the two brains and intention allows the synchronization of the two.

Given this, one can consider the possibility of seeing events through a non-local window, perceiving through another brain somewhere in a different space-time continuum. If intention is given and consciousness is establishing and maintaining such a connection, one could explain phenomena such as “recall” of past lives, autoscopic phenomena, or even remote-viewing phenomena, as those include not just “past”, but also perception of “future” events.

But it does not yet satisfactorily explain some of the other phenomena and especially when returning into the linear process of time and space we seem to be experiencing.

What does survive? Our brains store our content, our experiences: classical memory of humans. Our genes store the program to create the cells that make up our bodies. Both our brains and our cells die and decompose. Thus anything stored in either one will cease to exist upon death.

But what could survive? In Goswami “Physics of the Soul” a model is suggested, which does not just address all these questions, but also covers even more unexplained phenomena, e.g. angels and body-less beings.

Goswami suggests that there are different “layers” to our existence. In the center is the physical body with the brain, which serves to house the ego and the content of our ego experience. This body is required as it is the physical body that allows for self-reference, thus creating a tangled hierarchy, and consequently being able to collapse consciousness into actuality (also solving the issue of upward causation).

The next bodies are the subtle bodies. These subtle bodies are also referred to as Auric fields in the terminology of the new age. They can be perceived by some people and lately advances in Kirlian photography have demonstrated that this field can indeed be made visible even to the untrained eye. The subtle bodies consist of the vital body, the mental body and the theme body. The vital body is directly following our physical body and contains emotional propensities. This is the body that is worked on in many healing as well as martial arts techniques such as Reiki/Aikido, Tai Chi/Chi Kong. Changes to the vital body impact the physical body as the vital body is essentially a blueprint for the physical body both being correlated through underlying consciousness. The next body is the mental body and could be described as the character body. Here character propensities are stored in quantum probabilities. The last of the subtle bodies is the theme body. This body contains common archetypical patterns, such as love, the hero’s journey, kings and queens, but also the laws of this physical universe etc. and is shared among people. This is highly contextual information only and could be compared to a collective unconscious. The final body is the causal or bliss body, which is the unified field of consciousness beyond any individualization, the consciousness that is all.

While the physical body is highly personalized and stores personal content, the subtle bodies are less individualized. Instead of storing actual experiences, characteristics in form of quantum probabilities are stored here. When new content is learned by an individual (the idea or creative insight coming from a non-local access to the causal body), the individual stores that information in the brain and will continue to retrieve and verify or disprove it. This continues again and again. As the knowledge is ingrained more deeply in the physical brain, the probabilities for collapse of thought in this newly learned pattern increases, and this increase is reflected in the quantum probabilities located in the subtle vital and mental bodies. So, although the subtle bodies are not individualized to the level that the physical body is, still some individualization takes place in the vital and mental bodies through shifting probabilities for quantum collapse. This can be considered the quantum self or the quantum monad and finally allows for a replacement of the overused and ill-defined concept of “soul”.

Upon death, the physical body ceases to exist. The subtle bodies, though, remain. The quantum monad or quantum self is beyond physical existence and thus not affected by the loss of content experiences. It will remain in this probability world until a new physical body can be found to incarnate into and lend to the quantum probabilities and character propensities acquired in past life times.

If this learning process is completed, for which a physical body is required in order to create the tangled hierarchy and thus allows collapse into actuality, upon resolution of all karma, the quantum monad (the subtle bodies) does not need to incarnate again. Upon physical death, bodiless state is achieved similar to that of angels and other beings. If at the moment of death the last lesson is being learned, and identification with the whole, with the Godmind, the bliss body occurs, no more incarnations are required and the quantum monad dissolves.

Death thus can be considered the withdrawal of consciousness from each of the different bodies. Initially, it withdraws from the physical body, then if appropriate from the subtle bodies. “In the Tibetan outlook, this withdrawal is imagined in graphic ways based on the idea that we are made of four elements” (Goswami p 151). This curiously corresponds to several of the hermetic notions about the elements and their correspondence to the different aspects of our beings (Bardon 2001). Of course, the elements have to be regarded as merely a metaphorical view: Earth being the grossest element corresponding to the physical body; water and fire referring to the vital and mental subtle bodies, and air corresponding to the supramental or theme body. Consequently, one can see death as “an ascent of consciousness to complete freedom” (Goswami p 152), while the return (as described in the death-bardos of the Tibetan book of the Dead) can be seen as the “complementary to it – the descent of consciousness to bondage once more” (Goswami p 152).

The Tibetan book of the Dead, a spiritual guide for living and dying, consists of six bardos or stages, which are connected in cyclical fashion. The first is birth; the second bardo covers childhood and adult life, the third covers death. Typically these first three are not included in common texts available, and the focus is on the three bardos of death. The fourth bardo is the first stage within death. Here the initial encounter with the light is described, the perception of the bliss body. If the dying person is ready, here they can attain liberation by identification with the light, by understanding that one is and has always been that light, the bliss body, the one and only consciousness.

If one fails to see that light and or chooses not to identify with it, one enters the fifth bardo. Here again a chance is presented, this time in the form of a dimmer light. If one identifies with it, one can attain a bodiless existence, the existence of an angel, deva, or bodhisattva. This can be achieved only if all lessons of the human physical existence have been learned as karma can only be resolved in the physical form – the tangled hierarchy being required. Is this not the case, one proceeds to the sixth bardo, which is the preparation for reincarnation, new parents are chosen, a new life situation and environmental factors that will help with gaining more insights and resolving more karma.

What can one learn from the Tibetan Book of the Dead for one’s life? Jung stated in his psychological commentary: “The Bardho Thödol began by being a ‘closed’ book, and so it has remained, no matter what kind of commentaries may be written upon it. For it is a book that will only open itself to spiritual understanding, and this is a capacity which no man is born with, but which he can only acquire through special training and special experience. It is good that such to all intents and purposes ‘useless’ books exist. They are meant for those ‘queer folk’ who no longer set much store by the uses, aims, and meaning of present-day ‘civilization’” (Wentz p lii).

If one indeed chooses to ignore death, pretend it does not exist, assume that only life matters and ends in material decay, then the Tibetan Book of the Dead or any thoughts around a model that includes more, are useless. In that case, one could live on, choose whichever ethics are opportune to ego desires, care little about one’s character and let one’s vital and mental bodies rot like the hidden picture of Dorian Gray.

If one, though, opens one’s eyes and consciously chooses to embrace death, one also embraces life. Life in that case becomes a constant work not toward accumulating material wealth or experiential content, both to be lost at some point, but life becomes about constantly enhancing one’s character, one’s propensities for acting “right” preparing for the time when the choice is made to become one again with the creator.

Instead of living in a pretend state, mostly caught in past or future, one opens one’s eyes to the moment – each moment. In doing so, one open’s oneself to what is referred to as one’s higher self. This higher self, the quantum monad beyond this lifetime, provides guidance toward resolving karma, toward improving one’s subtle bodies to a point where another return into matter might not be required.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “in the language of the renouncer of fleshly life the world over, tells the nobly-born that Death comes to all, that human kind are not to cling to life on earth with its ceaseless wandering in the Worlds of birth and death (Sangsara). Rather should they implore the aid of the Divine Mother for a safe passing through the fearful state following the body’s dissolution, and that they may at length attain all-perfect Buddhahood. (Sir John Woodroffe in Wentz p lxv).

How can one do this? How can one constantly remind oneself of that higher self and live in a state of conscious creativity? How, when the ego mind, the “I” that is tied to the brain to the material aspects of oneself, established and upheld through fear and guilt, the powerful mechanism of that, which is trying to keep us from surrendering and dissolving into oneness?

How can one prepare for that moment in the fourth bardo when one encounters God? One needs to learn to “die consciously, with creativity, and so be liberated. Any creative experience is a momentary encounter with the quantum self, but in a creative experience – outer or inner – while you are living fully, you have to return from the encounter back to ordinary reality where your ego-identity usually takes hold once again” (Goswami p. 187).

There are many methods available to be consciously creative, to be part and parcel of God and to prepare consciously for that final encounter when one has resolved all karma and dissolves again into oneness from which there is no return. Within each religion there are esoteric traditions that teach exactly that. They teach to resolve fear and guilt and with that retract from the material world, connect to the higher self, our quantum self, and consequently consciously co-create this reality.

There is a reason for us to be here. We are co-creating this reality and have chosen to live this life. The maya, the illusionary play of consciousness, which we have chosen to experience, is here for us. Why? If the final goal is to reunite with the Godmind, if the grains of salt, our atmans, are to dissolve again into the ocean that is all, into Brahma, then why bother?

“The illusory play has a purpose – to comprehend creatively all that is possible, all that is potential in consciousness. And creative comprehension is ananda – spiritual joy. So in this philosophy, the play is the thing, and life is joy. In this philosophy, what is the role of liberation? It is to achieve true freedom of choice and to live creatively all the time” (Goswami, p.187).

Personally, this finally has given my life the meaning I have been looking for. I have been on the path of individuation, which I had – following Jung’s ideas – always considered to be the replacement of compulsive projections with voluntary relationships. Yoga, too has taught me that life is about relationships, as our separate ego’s, required for this perception of a reality, connect to the world through our relationships. From some of the hermetic traditions I had learned that to achieve liberation one needed to destroy one’s ego. Whether through Ba’an death meditations, in which I imagined myself torn into pieces, or through more psychologically oriented paths, such as through Hyatt’s “Undoing yourself with energized Meditation”, my goal had been to remove my ego. I had not quite understood why. It seemed like the right thing to do, and my main drive had been the idea that ego separation is the cause of suffering, thus through eliminating that separation and realizing my oneness, I could overcome suffering.

At the same time, I had always felt that our natural state of being should be that of joy. I had always assumed that this joy came once that ego separation was removed altogether.

Finally bringing together the esoteric intuitions I have had with the reason I have always missed, by explaining these models in the context of quantum physics, all this finally made sense to me. It is through this philosophy, through the content of this course, that I finally put these two together. I feel like I have reached a tipping point, in that so far, my life had been about avoiding fear and suffering and my studies all aimed at this goal. But now, I realize that there is a reason for my being here that I might want to choose to remain here and come back, as long as I can hold in my mind that I am more than this ego, that I am more than just this lifetime. And I can experience this at any moment. Any moment that I choose to be consciously creative, that I choose to identify not with my ego, but with Godhood, and therefore experience what is around me consciously, partake in this world, and live in joy.

Franz Bardon, Der Weg zum wahren Adepten (Introduction to Hermetics), Rueggeberg, 20th Edition (2001)

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oxford University Press; 3rd Edition (1960)

Amit Goswami, Physics of the Soul, Hampton Roads; 1st edition (2001)

Christopher Hyatt, Undoing Yourself with energized meditation, New Falcon Publications, 1993

Timothy Leary, Design for Dying, Harper San Francisco; 1st edition (June 18, 1997)

Pramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Self Realization Fellowship; 13th Edition (2001)

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