BODY AND SPIRIT
When we love someone profoundly, and are loved in return, we may sense a union of body and spirit, a coming together that expands our horizons and those of our beloved. Although such encounters may not always transport partners into a marvelous new realm of being, they can nonetheless be profound. The ecstasy of personal attraction and sexual union, fleeting or not, may deeply impact those involved. Such relations may even inspire mythological analogies. In this regard, John Sanford, in The Man Who Wrestled With God, observes that:
“The province of Aphrodite was to bring together into beautiful and fruitful union all living creatures. She did this by means of a power and charm so great that neither man nor woman, nor beast nor god (with a few exceptions) could resist her. She inspired in men and women a longing, desire, and love. Her powerful love enchantment could cause a human being to forsake all duty and become lost in the beautiful rapture of fusion into oneness. Hers was the force of attraction that brought the sexes together, that made the flowers bloom, that made the earth beautiful.”
While love can definitely include deep personal feelings and the joyful melding of bodies, it can also be profoundly selfless. In a way, love can be like breathing in and out. We take in (inhale) and enjoy human contact and other delights — thereby expanding our joy and being. We also give back (exhale) in response to this joy by touching other’s bodies, minds and lives: giving of ourselves through poetry, music and other expressions, as well as in selfless acts of kindness. By loving in these ways we share who we are and what we have to offer with others and the world. Such generosity of spirit may prove to be simultaneously selfless and selfish — let’s say self expanding — by touching others and the world in a life-enhancing fashion. The especially selfless ones are most inspiring. Lebanese-American artist and author, Kahlil Gibran, captures this in the following from The Prophet:
“(T)here are those who give and know not pain in giving…
nor do they give with mindfulness of virtue;
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breaths forth its fragrance into space.
Through the hands of such as these God speaks,
And from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.”
But what of love, including the selfless desire to unite with others through acts of kindness that extend beyond the limits of worldly concerns? Does the notion that “God is love” suggest that such love invites a profound union with our divine origins?
Many humans imagine uniting with God, Goddess, or other forms of transcendent and eternal reality as profoundly important. The whole notion of eternal life can be associated with this arena of thought. Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality calls it “the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire.”
Those inspired by religious beliefs advance the notion that our desired destiny is eternal union with God in heaven. The 14th century Flemish mystic, John of Ruysbroeck states this notion well in The Sparkling Stone:
“But when we transcend ourselves, and become, in our ascent toward God, so simple that the naked love in the height can lay hold of us, where love enfolds love, above every exercise of virtue — that is, in our origin, of which we are spiritually born — then we cease, and we and all our selfhood die in God. And in this death we become hidden sons of God, and find a new life within us: and that is eternal life.”
The universal longing to unite or re-unite, whether or not viewed in a religious light, proves meaningful to many. It may even have to do with our calling as beings. Does destiny call to us through this hunger for union? Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung observes: “Everyone on earth has a spiritual, unknown self which transcends the material world and consciousness and dwells outside of the time dimension in spiritual perfection within the unity of the oversoul. The sole purpose of human existence on earth is to attain reunion with the immortal consciousness.”
Is it because mystical interludes, loving relationships, transfixing aesthetic experiences, and recollections of oceanic experiences suggest something pervasive and even immortal that they are so important to us? Are these memorable present and past interludes merely enchanting moments, or do they signal something significant about our future?
At this point in our evolution as beings, what we humans are generally confident about is that we are born and eventually die. Of course, much happens to us in between those momentous occasions, but having a beginning and end seems fixed. But is that all there is to it? There are intriguing parallels between the occasion of birth and the experience of death that may hint at our destiny.
UNION AND REUNION
Reports of death experiences may offer insight into why experiences of union and reunion seem so important.
Much has been written on such experiences by credible authors who died, for all intents and purposes, and were subsequently revived thanks to emergency medical intercession. Once clinically dead, humans describe a variety of amazing experiences. Very common is the experience that many once-deceased humans have of traveling through a tunnel toward a guiding light or radiant realm of being. Very often, in that wondrous new realm, they are greeted by deceased family members and friends: people who never disconnected by virtue of their loving presence in and beyond their tangible existence in the world.
It is tempting to consider how this tunnel to a new realm parallels that of the fetus’ journey to life through its mother’s birth canal: both are channels to a next realm of being. When emerging from the womb babies exit a warm and comforting environment to confront earthly challenges, like breathing on their own, being cold, and hungering for nourishment. It can be a tough transition.
The birthing process experienced by many temporarily dead humans is reversed. The transition is from a challenging world of sometimes painful self sufficiency to one where, as in the womb, all is well. Here the “new born” reunites with people from a loving past, perhaps an occasional angel or two, and glimpses of a heavenly future. It would be delightful to know whether such death/life channel experiences are just simply passing joys, or signal a new beginning.
The notion that we pass through a birth-like channel into a new realm of being is evident in the rituals of some indigenous cultures. During a 2007 trip to a small village in the Asmat region of southern New Guinea, my wife and I, along with fellow travelers, were invited to participate in a dramatic local adoption/birthing ceremony. The ceremony was imbued with drumming and chanting. During this event a member of our party, along with a few local people, experienced a ritual transition into union with a local family. Adorned with ceremonial feathered head-dresses the adoptees were directed to crawl through a tunnel. That tunnel was through the parted legs of a line of several women from the community. Lying under the women’s legs, face down, were men from the community. The backs of the men served as a floor for the birth passage, considerably tightening the path for adoptees. At the end of the crawl/struggle through the fleshy tunnel, the “new borns” lay still on the floor in a fetal position. Ultimately each new born was lifted up by villagers and carried to a place from which they embark on a new beginning as a member of a new family.
To what extent is such an initiation a real, new beginning for adoptees?
In Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead states that “…in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.” I agree with Whitehead in this regard, and find irresistible the notion of “new birth” — whether a birth into a new community/tribe, or a new sphere of reality after physical death. Passing through a “birth canal” at death, in particular — generally a delightful rather than painful passage — to unite with loving family members, acquaintances, and perhaps those from many lives before, is appealing.
This birth/death parallel is present in the following quote from Gustav Fechner’s The Little Book of Life After Death:
“Those souls, however, which have seized together upon a form or an idea of truth, beauty, or goodness in their eternal purity, remain thereby united to all eternity and in like manner possess these ideals as a part of themselves in everlasting unity. The comprehension of the higher thought by advanced souls means therefore their growth through this thought into greater spiritual organisms, and as all individual ideas have their root in the universal, so at last will all souls, in fellowship with the highest, be absorbed into the divine.”
Whether or not Fechner’s notion is true it certainly qualifies as interesting, something Whitehead might find appealing.
Not as yet being dead, it is challenging for me to say for sure what destiny holds beyond our present state of being. The reflections of those quoted in this article are both interesting and appealing. The notion of a new birth or re-birth suggests the potential of fascinating reunions and adventures. I like the way recently-deceased film critic Roger Ebert put it when writing about death in 2010. Ebert is quoted on the April 5, 2013 issue of the Minneapolis Star Tribune as saying: “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.”
I share Roger’s sense that what comes next will in some fashion parallel pre-birth contentment. If that new union means reunion in “the same state,” or reincarnation in another mother’s womb, contentment will prove delightful but short-lived. On the other hand, as an optimist, I imagine new union as something different than before: something more spirited, soulful, and even divine.
Based on the death experiences of a wide range of credible human beings, the notion of delightful union and reunion may well be true. At the very least, it is interesting.