Unit XI.  Death of the Body


1.  Stages of Dying
2.  Death as a Doorway
3.  Death of the Little Self in Life
4.  Preparation for Death
5.  How to Meet Death

Materials needed: Journal, Chart or drawing paper

Books needed:

Opening to Dying and Grieving
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Beyond Fear
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Unattended Sorrow or
The Courage to Grieve
Who Dies?
A Year to Live (optional)


Stages of death
Tibetan Book of the Dead
Dying to former life
Life review
How to meet death

“Change begins within a single mind.” – Ruiz

Every day there are little deaths.  Things change.  People change.   We lose control over a situation.  There are the ego deaths.  Then there are the big deaths.  Friends die.  Family members die.  We fall ill and find ouselves confronting our own death.   So there is a sense in which each of these losses are opportunities for rehearsal of the big death in which we lose our lives.

Actually the pattern in all these losses is the same.  Elizabeth Kubler Ross (1975) outlined them some time ago, and they are still pertinent but now we have the additional insight that they are a more basic pattern of reactions to losses of any kind.

Stages of Dying

The first stage is denial.  We protest that this is not happening.  There must be a mistake somewhere.  Or we put it out of our minds refusing to deal with it.  Examples abound from the use of cosmetics or wigs to mask physical losses to insisting on medical treatments long after a diagnosis of terminality.  There is an initial shock, and denial gives us some time to adjust to the news.

Next comes anger.  This is not what I want.  You can’t take that away from me.  I need him/her.  It isn’t fair.  There is a kind of contraction, a digging in of our heels and insisting that we won’t go there.  The ego feels powerless to control the situation or to change things to a more favorable status.  So the anger hides our helplessness, sadness and vulnerability.  It keeps our energy vibrating as if that would help to achieve a more favorable  resolution or to cover up our pain, guilt feelings and frustration.

Bargaining follows anger when we discover that the anger has not changed anything.  We promise to do better if spared the ordeal or if the inevitable is postponed.  Often a sense of guilt emerges, and we feel like we were somehow responsible for what is happening.  It is an “If . . .then . . .” proposition.  We appeal to a higher authority to change things for us.

Next, when nothing seems to help and we know that what is happening is inevitable and irreversible, we sink into a deep sadness.  This depression is the real beginning of mourning and grieving the loss.  It is important to note that the  depression that comes from mourning is not the same as clinical depression though it may have some of the same qualities in it.

Finally, comes acceptance or disengagement.  This appears to come more gradually and rests on letting go of what we want or the way we think it should be.  It is about surrender of our wills to Divine Will.  It also involves coming into the present moment with a willingness to face whatever is going to occur with some amount of trust and openness.  Ruiz (Nelson, 1997, p. 181) says, “We just enter a place of no judgment and that is what surrender is.  We accept that everything is divinely perfect and we surrender to the experience.”

Exercise: Stages of Death

Read Opening to Dying and Grieving: A Sacred Journey by Valle & Mohs (2006) and do the practices.  You may also consult Death: The Final Stage of Growth  (Kubler-Ross, 1975) for more details on the stages.  The first book is shorter and includes more up-to-date findings.

It is easy to outline these stages as a set of mental constructs.  It is quite another to go through them.  Consider, for instance, the loss of a friendship.  Perhaps it is a case of being rejected without any explanation of why I am no longer wanted in that person’s life.  At first, I may say to myself, “She doesn’t really mean it.  She’s just going through a lot of problems in her life.”  This is denial.  Then, as time goes by, and the relationship is not renewed, anger and perhaps projection comes into play.  “She is treating me unfairly.  I haven’t done anything to her.  I am going to confront her and tell her off.”  Anger.  As that begins to fade or feel unworkable, I may try to determine what I did wrong or how I might be at fault.  I may apologize even though I do not really feel guilty of anything.  But I wish to preserve the relationship: Bargaining.  When I still cannot get through to her, I begin to grieve.  I cannot believe that the friendship is over, and I will no longer have access to my friend.  I cry.  I review all our good times together and the secrets we shared.  This is depression and mourning.  Finally, I come out on the other side having released the bonds that held us together.  Acceptance.  We can see this pattern in any loss of relationship, and the stages are more or less traumatic depending upon the depth and quality of the connection we had with that person.

On a somewhat less poignant level, we can see this sequence of events happening around the aging process.  There is the first gray hair, the first wrinkle, sagging breasts, aches and pains that were not there before, children leaving for collage or the first day of school.  I remember the first time my son rode off on his tricycle without looking back like it was yesterday.  All of those feelings raced through my heart in a moment and left behind a residue of sadness for a while.

The Buddhists call this change “impermanence” and tell us that it is the major cause of suffering.  Or rather, that trying to stop the process is the cause of pain.  If we put our ego’s will in the path of change, it becomes an obstacle; and the consequent flow of energy that is dammed up hurts.

So, is change the enemy?  No, not really.  It depends upon how we cast the events in our conceptualization and interpretation.  We can see them as an opportunity for growth and renewal, or we can see them as something negative that is a problem.  Since the flow of change is part of our life energy, if we dam it up we hasten our own deaths.

What about the fear of death?  Many teachers have told us that fear of death is really fear of living.  That the two are mirror images of each other.  Life moves.  Death does not move, at least so far as we can observe with our senses.  If we allow ourselves to become afraid of changes in life, we initiate the process of death on a cellular level.  Heart attacks are more frequent among those who have recently lost a loved companion or partner.  Cancer is more prevalent among those who sacrifice themselves for others without a full commitment to selflessness.  On the other hand, those who have a vibrant and meaningful commitment to their goals in life generally enjoy good health.  Those who love live longer.  

So it appears that how we structure the idea of life in our minds has probably the most to do with how we experience both life and death.  They are both aspects of the spiritual journey; and, therefore, sacred experiences.
Death as a Doorway

“. . there lies between the heart and the gut a vortex in which the body waits quietly for death.”
– Stephen Levine (2005, p. 210)

Seen from outer space, death is like a gateway to a larger existence.  One of the major aspects of fear of death is that of annihilation, loss of existence.  Since we have no memories of previous lives (usually), we just do not know what lies beyond that passageway.  We must take what others tell us on faith.  This is one of the main roles of religion.  It promises eternal life.  It assures us that our souls are immortal and after death go to a better place.  Even the Buddhists, who do not conceptualize a personal god, speak of the possibility of dissolving into a great luminosity (Fremantal & Trungpa, 1975).  But since we cannot remember any experience of that, reassurance that it is so often does not allay the fears.  And the experience we have had with losses especially the deaths of our family, friends and animal companions tells us that usually it is final.


Let us consider, for a moment, the Buddhist idea that all of our domestic reality is a creation and projection of the mind.  We have already seen how this might work.  Then, if that is true, might not death simply mean retracting our projections back into the source from which they came?  We have been calling that dissolution.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Fremantle & Trungpa, 1975) gives us outrageous imagery of what happens after death as the mind sheds its constructions one by one.  If we have done this work prior to death during meditation and our spiritual practices, it is possible to avoid all the confusions and consequent terrors and go directly into the Light.  If we have not, there are instructions that can be read to the dying person to guide them into making the right choices.

Exercise: Tibetan Book of the Dead

Read The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Fremantle & Trungpa, 1975).  You may find this tough going because of the proliferation of deities and their consorts.  However, this is a classic work on death.  I found it helpful to outline the underlying teachings while leaving the details of the deities and their accoutrements alone.  You can process those if you wish, of course.

Death of Little Self in Life

The whole process of spiritual investigation and practice is directed toward bringing the ego into alignment with and service to the Higher Self or the Divine One.  We do this because we know that the One is our true identity. Therefore, all other entities that try to claim our allegiance are imposters especially the mind and ego.  It may take lifetimes to wrap our minds around this enormous fact.  Who am I to be God?  

Well, first of all, I am not all of God, but only a cell in Its body, as Swami Radha used to say.  Still I am undeniably connected and dependent upon the welfare of the whole Being for my existence.  I found the materials about the heart’s code (Pearsall, 1998 ) and molecules of emotion (Pert, 1997) very comforting because they spelled out just exactly how a cell was related to the heart and the rest of the whole body with all its parts and organs.  This provides us with an analogy for the realization that we are all part of the One Being.  As above, so below.

However, watching someone die, we see that the body does not survive.  Spiritual teachings tell us the mind and ego also fade away in time after death.  So all that is left is an inner conviction that I exist.  We can call this “soul.”  And there is a growing body of evidence beyond religious teachings to confirm the immortality of the soul along with its individual uniqueness and consciousness.  Out-of-body-experiences and near-death experiences indicate that there is a part of us that is separate from the bodymind (Moody, 1973, 1988).  True psychics confirm this.  Numerous, usually unknown, individuals have received visitations from beloved family members after death.  Native Americans and Chinese give homage and respect to their ancestors who have died.  We put flowers on graves and talk to the deceased.  But the entity that is being addressed is not the little ego self.  That has not survived.

What this means is that who you think you are is not real and will die with the body.  The very thought of this may make us panic.  The way I see myself, the face in the mirror, my personality, my accomplishments, my books, my home, all the things I hold dear are not going with me.  Control over my life is an illusion.  Even though I may make it work a good deal of the time in my day to day life, that is not going along either.

Given all this, it makes sense to try to deal with these illusions and their hold over us while we are still alive and able to focus attention on them.  Hence, the death of the little self in life.  The first snag we come upon is an unclear understanding of what constitutes egolessness vs insanity.  In western cultures, lack of an ego means insanity by definition.  So, if we get rid of our egos, will we not wind up in an institution?  Not necessarily, but the fear of insanity is something to acknowledge and be prepared for.  Keep in mind that we are talking about the part of personality that wants to keep us separate from others and to control our lives so we don’t get hurt.  Other functions of so-called ego are legitimate such as interfacing between the individual and the outside world or mediating interpersonal relationships.  However, even these will eventually give way to a higher order aspect of ourselves that is capable of living in the world but not being of it.

What is given to us by Grace, is the opportunity to gradually relieve the ego of its powers at a rate which is slow enough to be non-threatening, but fast enough to get the job done before we have to die.  At some point, this can result in a crisis in which we feel a bit schizophrenic because we have become aware of two selves that have completely different lives.  There is the ego and personality on the one hand and the increasing awareness of the True Self on the other.  We can experience death of the personality aspects of ourselves with all the attendent stages of death and mourning while the Higher Self watches dispassionately from a totally different place.  A dear friend told me that we do not experience this until we are able to handle it.


One of the things that I think is essential for a safe passage and the ability to stick with the program until it is completed is meaning.  Our society is in a chaotic crisis of meaning.  We are faced with the breakdown of the family and the consequent loneliness and isolation of single parents, children and the aged.  Our economy is cracking from intense abuse.  The planet is damaged almost beyond repair.  The Internet is creating virtual lives for people and depriving them of real relation-ships.  There is no stable focus for most people to which they can give their allegiance.  And there is little leadership in our political systems to help bring people together to find solutions.  There is spiritual leadership in such figures as the Dalai Lama and many of the spiritual guides who are emerging in this time, but their authenticity is often not accepted by the average person on the street.  Those who do find guidance either in a spiritual teacher or in the teachings may rediscover a higher meaning in their lives and along with it a sense of direction and the courage to disarm the ego self.

Consider the state of mind of the Dzogchen  master, Longchenpa, who sang the following at the time of his death:

          My delight in death is far, far greater than
           The delight of traders at making vast fortunes at sea,
           Or the lords of the gods who vaunt their victory in battle;
           Or of those sages who have entered the rapture of perfect absorption.
           So just as a traveler who sets out on the road when the time has come to go,
           I will not remain in this world any longer,
           But will go to dwell in the stronghold of the great bliss of deathlessness.
           (Verse from “The Immaculate Radiance”)(quoted in Gaffney & Harvey, 1992, p. 340)

Exercise: Dying to Former Life

Read chapters 9 - 12 in Beyond Fear by Ruiz (Nelson, 1997).  Do the meditation on page 119.  Then focus attention on your intent.  Do you have an intention that is informed by meaning?  If you wish, do The Ceremonies on pages 131-147 as you are able.  You may actually create the rituals for yourself, or you can do it all in your mind.  See which works best for you.  Ruiz is working with both the subtle body and the causal body.  So this work is leading up to mastery of awareness.

Preparation for Death

We are told that we will die as we have lived because the two processes are part of the same existence.  There is no sudden cutoff.  Life moves out of the body as we might take off a coat on a hot day.  And it continues without the physical presence.  We do not become something different but more of what we inherently are.  So it might be constructive to review our lives to date and see what kind of soul we really are.

Life Review

It is said that a dying person goes through a rapid life review.  It is also said that, after death, there is a life review.  Some religions teach that there is a judgment, but I do not think that is the case.  We might, as a soul, compare the mission we brought in with us to what was actually accomplished.  But we do not have to wait until after death to do this.  We can do it now while there is still time to rectify any mistakes we have made or complete any part of the mission that is still left undone.  Then there will be less confusion when the actual time of departure arrives.

Exercise: Life Review

You can do this with your journal or you can get a voice recorder to make observations.  Being visual, I would probably make a chart or a lifeline.  In fact, it might be interesting feedback to make another lifeline and then compare it with the first one you made back in Book I.  However, on this one, chart your soul’s mission.  State it in one sentence.  Then break it down into smaller parts that can be evaluated.  Put all the parts on a line in the order in which you have addressed them in your lifetime.  On the other side of the line or in another column in a chart, indicate the outcome.  How successful were you in achieving your goal?  What is still left to do?  For instance, which relationships are still in a state of woe or incompletion?  Then make notes in your journal about how this makes you feel.  Write a self-reflection paper about the experience.

How to Meet Death

Two years ago I had a cat who was dying of kidney failure.  He had been my companion for 18 years, and I was already grieving for him during Christmas.  I knew I would have to euthanize him, and so I dug his grave in the back yard under a flowering bush.  Early in January I called the vet and a dear friend, and they both came to the house.  However, the cat came out from under the Christmas tree to greet them, and the vet refused to put him down saying he was not ready.  Then, one night, the cat got out and I found him the next morning shivering by the doorstep.  It took nearly an hour of holding before the chills wore off.  And then I knew he had pneumonia, so I called the vet again.  She could not come but said I could bring him into the office and someone would help me.  I simply could not do that as he hated the vet’s office.  So I waited.  He woke me at 1:45 AM on January 14, and I got up to attend to him.  He died relatively peacefully about a half hour later, and my friend came the next day to help me bury him and begin my grieving.  Subsequently, I experienced the broken heart syndrome which entailed a stress test to make sure my heart was all right.  And I was guided to a passage in a book that explained to me what was happening.

From what I have read, it seems the best way to assist the dying person is to first make sure they know they are dying.  Then we sit and listen if they want to talk or just be with them if not.  Although the dying one may not communicate, it is fairly certain that they hear those around them.  So it is imperative not to admit noisy or self-indulgent persons who cannot control their emotions.

It does help for close family members, especially older children and spouses, to let the person know they are loved and that it is all right to depart; that those left behind will be all right without them.  Sometimes a person will wait for a beloved family member to arrive before dying.  If forgiveness issues are outstanding, they need to be resolved if possible.


Hospice enables a person to die at home with expert care and the necessary drugs for pain, etc.  Or, in some locales, there is a Hospice facility where a person can go to die once they have a medical diagnosis of terminal illness.  The staff includes medical personnel and volunteers who sit with the person and may keep a vigil.  Family members can receive help with their grief work, and there is usually followup with the family members until a year later.

Exercise: How to Meet Death

Read and study The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (edited by Gaffney & Harvey, 1992).  This is the most comprehensive book I know of that deals with the process of dying.  It includes a minute description of how the five elements leave the body and then what happens next.  It also includes rituals to assist the dying person in making the transition.  This is not a small book, but it is worth every minute of the time it takes to get through it.

Funeral and Memorial

Rituals are important for those left behind.  A funeral serves to convince the family that the person is really dead, and there may be comfort in the religious rituals provided.  Family and friends are available to comfort those bereaved and can themselves also find help for their own grief in the sharing group.  The activity around a funeral also serves to space out the shock of loss, so that the individuals who have lost someone can cope with it over a longer period of time.  Often, there is a celebratory collective meal or “wake” to remember the deceased and his/her life and what s/he meant to the family and friends.

A memorial service, if there is one, usually follows later and may be held in a different location, so that a wider collection of friends, acquaintances and colleagues can take part in remembering the life of the one who died.  Those who wish to may talk to the group about what they remember about the deceased, and there may be another meal or refreshments afterwards.

These are the two formal procedures with which I am familiar.  Every culture and social group has its own rituals to say goodbye that are designed to comfort the bereaved and to bless the departure of the one who has died.  I have to strongly insist on the importance of these rituals because of my own experience of loss of a close relative who insisted that nothing be done when she died.  It was very difficult for me and the others who loved her to deal with the transition.

“We meet most directly in the heart.” – Stephen Levine (2005, p. 76)

Grief settles painfully into the heart.  There is no easy way around this, but understanding how it works may help to reduce the suffering. Freud said that any relationship involves an energetic bond between the two individuals, and that loss or death of the partner requires that the bond be withdrawn back into the survivor.  This causes pain. The initial shock when discovery of the death occurs is analogous to the breaking of the bond.

“. . suffering, grief, disappointment and loss [are] due to holding and resistance to contents of the moment” (Levine, 2005, p. 164).  All forms of resistance to the loss including judgment, denial, anger, frustration, repression or suppression, rigidity, etc. tend to delay and obstruct the grief work that is necessary to enable us to let go and resume our lives.  Resistance submerges the sorrow and renders it unavailable to the forgiveness, love and mercy that can help to heal it.

“Loving kindness is a liberating, non-judgmental state of clarity that accesses the heart and calms the mind.”  –  Stephen Levine (2005, p. 116)

Levine (2005) says that there is a grief point in the heart.  If you are grieving, you can find this spot by feeling with your fingers.  It will feel sore to the touch, and the pain will respond to a gentle tapping on the place with your fingers.  So will pressure with a finger as if you were addressing an acupuncture point.  Maybe you are.  Another way of dealing with this pain is by breathing into the heart and by letting go of the pain on the outbreath.  This is very much like the breathing into clenched muscles that we do in Hatha Yoga.  Then, Levine says, bring loving kindness to the heart and all its many forms of suffering.  There is a Maitri practice which is designed to move loving kindness into oneself and then to be sent out to others.  You will find the reference to it in the following exercise.

Furthermore, the heart-to-heart contact we have with the deceased has not been broken, and we can speak directly to them in what is called “heart speech.”  We have already seen how the heart’s field of L-energy overlaps with that of others and with the greater “Field.”  This gives us a medium for communication with those who have gone beyond their bodies into another state of beingness.  Perhaps you have aleady experienced that. Levine’s (2005) book, Unattended Sorrow, is an excellent resource for us to learn more about the grief process.  Levine has a background in Buddhism so is able to bring bodhicitta (wisdom and compassion) to help support and heal those who are suffering.

Exercise: Grieving

There are any number of good books to assist those who are grieving to understand what they are feeling.  Select one or more of the following and then apply what you have learned to one of your own grieving processes.

Levine, Stephen.  Unattended Sorrow or Who Dies? or A Year to Live
Tatelbaum, Judy.  The Courage to Grieve.

If you are in need of Maitri instructions, they can be found in Appendix C or at www.buddhanet.net/metta_in.htm

Death is a spiritual rite of passage.  And, as such, it has a beginning, middle and end.  Bridges (1980) said that transitions such as death are like someone getting ready to make a trip across a vast, uninhabited and dangerous, desert.  There is the beginning or preparation, the actual journey which must be taken alone, and the arrival in a strange new land.

Unlike primitive peoples, we have the benefit of extensive teachings on how to make a journey into the unknown including that of leaving the body.  Since transitions involve change, we can apply what is known about it to our final journey in this lifetime.


Bridges, W. (1980),  Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes.  New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing.

Fremantle, F. & Trungpa, C. (transl.) (1975).  The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The great liberation through hearing in the Bardo.  Boulder: Shambhala.

Gaffney, P. & Harvey, A. (Eds.) (1992).  The Tibetan book of living and dying [by] Sogyal Rinpoche.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1975).  Death: The final stage of growth.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Levine, S. (1982).  Who dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying.  Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Levine, S. (1997).  A year to live: How to live this year as if it were your last. New York: Bell Tower.

Levine, S. (2005).  Unattended sorrow: Recovering from loss and reviving the heart.  Rodale.

Moody, R. A. (1973).  Life after life: The investigation of a phenomenon – survival of bodily death.  New York: Bantam Books.

Moody, R. A. (1988).  The light beyond.  New York: Bantam Books.

Nelson, M. C.  (recorder) (1997).  Beyond fear: A Toltec guide to freedom and joy. San Francisco: Council Oaks Books.

Pearsall, P. (1998).  The heart’s code: Tapping the wisdom and power of our heart energy.  New York: Broadway Books.

Pert, C. B.  (1997).  Molecules of emotion: Why you feel the way you feel.  New York: Scribner.

Tatelbaum, J. (1980).  The courage to grieve.  New York: Harper & Row.

Valle, R. & Mohs, M.  Opening to dying and grieving: A sacred journey.  St. Paul, MN: Yes International Publishers.


This concludes the series of guidebooks: Return to Spirit.  Although I am unknown in person to most of you, please know that you all have my prayers for a successful journey to your Self.  There is guidance and support for you from the Spirit  to whom this series is addressed.  You also have a guardian angel who protects and looks after your needs.  Either or both of these can be accessed through meditation.  Your dreams may also provide guidance.  Prayer and contemplation work to make a connection with the Divine One who only seeks to be recognized by you.  It wants to give you unconditional love, but must wait until you are ready and willing to receive it.  One of my spiritual teachers told me to “beg” for it.

           With gratitude for this journey and the ways toward our deepest healing
            within each of us.  Gratitude that we are able to go beyond what we know
            into the unknown where all growth occurs.  May all beings be free of
            suffering, may all beings be at peace
.  (Levine, 2005, p. 225)

In the end, gratitude is probably one of the most important spirtual practices.  It should be done daily both spontaneously and as a matter of intention.  Gratitude directs our energies back to the Source and closes the connection.

If you can do nothing else, meditateMeditateMeditate. . . forever.

This ends Unit 11. Death and the entire series, Return to Spirit.  I hope you have found it helpful on your spiritual path.  At this point, I recommend you go back to the Introduction to the series and to Book I. and reread them as a way of helping to consolidate your learning.  I did this myself, and found some interesting parallels.  Be advised that it will be under reconstruction soon because I have learned so much since I began the series.


Finally, I hold you, though your worldly identity is unknown to me, in my heart; and I pray for the safe passage of all sincere seekers into the Light.  I hope you can find a fellow traveler to share your journey and offer mutual support.  But, if not, know that the real guide is inside you and is always available if you get your mind quiet enough to receive It.

Furthermore, all of us have a responsibililty to do all we can to heal the earth in its travail.  So, whenever you can, send a prayer and intention for that outcome into the Light.  See the earth surrounded in brilliant, white Light and lift it up to join the Great Light of Oneness.  You may want to join The Intention Experiment initiated by Lynn McTaggart (2007) for that purpose.  See her book for information about how to join the global practices.

Many Blessings, Love and Light,

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