What Happens After Death: Navigating the Bardos
(From Eternal Return Audiobook Unpublished transcript)
By Roger Woolger Ph.D.
(following section taken from the article)
Where the Soul Goes After Death
What I have observed after conducting or observing many, many regressions is that there are roughly three places that the departing spirit or soul will go as it leaves the body. There are therefore broadly speaking three states of evolution or devolution for the departing spirit :
Earthbound spirits: the departing spirit may stay on the earth, either fixed or wandering;
Unfinished or Troubled spirits: the spirit may go to a higher realm or bardo but in a state of confusion still obsessed with the life just departed; in most cases this confusion does not clear and is re-cycled into a subsequent re-birth;
Completed or Enlightened spirits: the spirit may be fully freed from the dross of earthly memories and go peacefully to an even “higher” level of bardo or pure realm of light.
The greater part of the work I do as a therapist working with past lives naturally concerns the first two of these categories, simply because it is the traumatic and tragic stories, with their fears, failures and stuckness that most clearly show us exactly where and how deep karmic patterns were established and how they are troubling us still today as unconscious patterns or complexes. We certainly meet many moving cases of transition in the third category of Completed or Enlightened Spirits but as a rule they tend to emerge only after much preliminary work has been done in clearing the more difficult past lives, after working, as the shamans would say, with the lost parts of the soul. Examples of the third type of transition will given in the next chapter.
Earthbound spirits account for roughly a third of the past life death scenarios I and my colleagues have encountered. Here the spirit leaves the body at death, but does not leave the earth at all. It may literally hang around the dead body, cling to it, sometimes try to get back into it. This is frequently encountered in regressions with people who have past life memories of being killed suddenly or violently, the worst cases being bombing attacks or being killed from behind or in one’s sleep. When a death is either extremely sudden or unperceived like this the person dying does not realize that they are in fact dead.
The confused departing spirit is left running whatever predominant mental tape was operating at the moment of death; not surprisingly such spirits will continue to reiterate the same thoughts after death as if it still had a body. “I’ve got to find my buddy,” says the soldier on the battle field who is blown up with a bomb. “I’ve got to find my child,” says the mother who is killed when separated from her child in the confusion of an attack on her village. “I’ll get him for killing me” says the spirit of the woman murdered by her jealous husband. And so her spirit clings to the house she had lived in, an angry, restless presence unaware that she is dead.
Many spirits like this literally wander. They may be looking for someone on the earth that they were previously deeply or passionately attached to. This is why in some traditions they are called wandering or hungry ghosts. Indeed there are also thirsty ghosts, those spirits whose attachment to the earth is the result of heavy alcohol or drug consumption which leaves that same craving for the substance that the person enjoyed so much when in body. So there are spirits of addicted beings that hover around the earth, sometimes around restaurants or bars!
From the perspective of working in the bardo it is actually very easy to see how ghosts “haunt” people on earth. It is not that they necessarily have any malevolent intent—some do, but usually it will be for someone also long dead—but more commonly it is the case that in their confusion they are continuing to do the things most strongly on their minds just before they died. Unfortunately since there is no body to carry out the task they are caught in a kind of endless repeating psychic tape loop.
When we encounter a part of the soul that is lost like this during regression work we can usually see very precisely how the person died and quickly ascertain what it is they're still looking for. We can even talk to the spirit and say, “are you aware that this body is dead and you can’t get back into it?” Or, to the spirit of a soldier still wandering a battlefield: “your body is dead now and so are your comrades’ bodies. It’s no use looking for your comrades here. They’ve moved on”. Often the departing consciousness is immediately enlightened by such a question. “Oh, it’s no use for me trying to get back into this body. There’s nothing I can do with it.” At that point the soldier’s spirit might start to journey upwards and leave this lower realm. Or else we may help the spirit of a bereaved mother see that the spirits of her children are now in a higher realm and have actually fully recovered from the trauma of sudden death—children actually die much more easily than adults in most cases, because there is less mental or ego attachment ( or what Freud would call “reality sense”)
Another reason why a spirit remains attached to the earth, is that it may come from a traditional or tribal culture, where there are extremely important and revered rituals for burial or cremation that actually are designed to allow the soul to complete and separate from its earthly experiences. Thus if a certain person dies prematurely or in situations where there is no proper burial given to his or her body—after a battle, say--their spirit may hang around the place of death wanting something done, waiting for the funeral to happen, and unhappy that it never happens. Like the others we have described this kind of spirit also becomes what we call a ghost, a fragment of the total soul that hasn’t been able to ascend yet either to the realms of the ancestors or to higher realms of spirit where it may ultimately be reintegrated with its totality.
Often a newly dead spirit stays attached to a place like a temple or a forest or sometimes it attaches to a person that it knew on the earth as a friend or helper. Sometimes a spirit simply wants solace, to be taken care of. This is the case of the spirits of young children. When young children die panic stricken in bombings, massacres and similar disasters, they most frequently don’t know where their mother is so they look for their mother on the earth plane. Often the spirit of such a child will cling to a person who looks friendly or motherly. It may go inside or attach to their energy field.
Many people walking around today, on this earth, do not know that they have spirits attached to them that they picked up either in hospitals, or in cemeteries, and sometimes from touristic visits to battlefields or old castles! The lost spirits see us as a sympathetic kind of energy which they can easily hook into. If we become aware of them there are easy ways to release them, in very much the same way that we help a soul fragment in regression move on to a higher awareness. In fact, the strategy that works best in helping any spirit or soul fragment that is in any way earthbound is simply to talk him or her and quietly remind them that their life is over and that they don’t need to stay on the earth any longer.
Where there has been mass killing on battlefields, or by bombings or earthquakes there will also be masses of spirits that are still confusedly attached to the earth. A person in regression may find he or she was one of many who died together. A striking aspect of this work is that as well as releasing the soul fragment of the person being regressed we can also release whole groups of earthbound spirits who are similarly stuck. For instance, we may begin to release a soldier who was unable to leave his post during a battle and who is still miserable because he let down his buddies. In releasing him we ask him to talk to his buddies and tell them too that it is all over. In doing so there is a mass lifting off from this particular battlefield followed often by a joyful reunion in the higher planes.
This then is the first bardo level. It has elements of a hell, though it’s not hellish in the traditional sense of a place of punishment; it is more correctly seen as a state where the soul is lost or out of place and thus needs conscious intervention to help him or her move on, either towards reintegration or rebirth.
Unfinished or Troubled Spirits
The most common regression experience of dying in a past life is where a person finds themselves leaving their body and simply floating upwards. This is true of both peaceful and violent deaths. Sometimes the departed spirit hovers over their body taking in that they have died and that it is all over; sometimes they may stay looking down over their body until it is buried or cremated then leave. What distinguishes this from the first category of spirits I called “earthbound” is that here there is conscious awareness that one is dead. This clearly frees the soul to travel “upwards” in to the higher dimensions of the bardo. This transition can actually be quite beautiful; one sees the earth from above, is shown a panoramic visionary overview of one’s life and is sometimes shown the progress of those loved ones left on earth. Eventually there is a feeling of having arrived in another dimension, another realm.
But if the circumstances of death have been at all difficult or the person was emotionally disturbed in any way before they died—resentful, vengeful, guilty, lonely, or fearful, for instance—it is the intensity of those emotions and corresponding thoughts that will go with them, obscuring the potentially uplifting and reassuring aspects of the transition. In his well known commentary and translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead W. Y. Evans-Wentz tells us that “Buddhists and Hindus alike believe that the last thought at the moment of death determines the character of the next incarnation”. The great spiritualist and visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg, who visited the bardo realms many times in his visionary journeys, declared something very similar in his treatise on The World of Spirits:
After death, a person is engaged in every sense, memory, thought and affection he was engaged in, in the world: he leaves nothing behind except his earthly body.
This principle is of paramount importance for our understanding of the death transition as it occurs in not only our past lives but also as it is anticipated in our present lives. It lies at the very heart of what we have discovered from regression work about “unfinished business”; any psychological state or complex that is unresolved in one lifetime will simply continue in the bardo and be reprogrammed into the unconscious mind in a future incarnation-- until it is brought to conscious awareness and altered
Once we understand this principle, however, we are in a strong position to consciously break the recycling of negative and debilitating psychological patterns. And in fact, nowhere are these old repetitive scripts to be found so clearly running as old repetitive scripts as in the bardo. Working in the bardo state is therefore a particularly direct and effective way to clear these patterns or samskaras.
But this is not always so easy. Contrary to the rather simplistic pictures of the after-death state derived from popular NDE literature and superficial regression experiences, it is simply not true that there is an automatic “life review” after death when the Higher Self explains the “meaning” of that life and helps us correct our mistakes. This only occurs in relatively peaceful deaths where the person is not mentally or emotionally obsessed by some unfinished issue.
The yoga teachings of India (see Chapter 6) have helped us understand very clearly that there are several layers of imprinting that can occur in the subtle or energy body both in life and at the time of death. These layers are referred to as “sheaths”, bodies or fields of energy and have several bands which ascend in frequency from the more physical to the more spiritual. Sogyal, as we saw, talks of how the mental body resonates at a higher frequency in the disembodied state. This mental layer is only one of several sheaths or bodies. ..............