Following the Day Star

“To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
– Cicero

Night comes softly following the glory of sunset. The sun dies in a blaze of color, hues of gold and magenta, blood orange and dusty rose. When the sun sinks below the horizon it is as though it has taken hold of all the colors of the waking world and pulled them from out of the landscape, like dye extracted from cloth, and trailed them in streaming splendor toward the dying sun. The landscape bleeds out its colors, fading to a twilight gray, while the dying ember of the sun shines forth in one final burst of magnificence. At last, when the day star appears to sink beneath the wine-dark horizon, the colors depart with it, the inky black of night oozing out across the open canvas of the sky.

Moon and Venus SunsetWait patiently. The liminal space seems to be most still now, in this time that is neither day nor night. The world seems to hold its breath. Then, with a gasp of wonder, the dusk is pierced by the first white star of the evening. It is there, where it was not a moment before, yet the exact moment it appeared is unknown. In cooling quiet the sky bedecks herself in jewels, webs and nets of storied interconnection, shapes that have walked the sky since before ever human eyes beheld their patterns.

Socrates drank the hemlock at sunset.

No sunset is ever the same. If you are present to witness one, you cannot bring yourself to look away. The sunset is like a moment out of time; yet it is the moment that makes time be as well.

In the period of time right before to his execution, Socrates spoke to his students of the rhythms of life and death. “Well then,” he spoke, “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is the opposite of being awake?” “Being dead,” one student answers.[1]

Sleep follows waking, waking follows sleep. Dawn comes after each long night. Does death too birth into new life? How can we know? How do we prepare ourselves for our own sunset, the inevitable ending of this life? Plato’s dialogue Apology tells of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, in which he says

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.[2]

Here Socrates claims that no one knows if death is a great blessing, yet in the dialogues that lead up to his inevitable demise he seems to have an increasingly clearer understanding that death is indeed a gift.

Many of Plato’s dialogues carry implicitly the theme of death in their tone and setting. Plato was just crossing into his third decade of life when his teacher Socrates was condemned to death by the city of Athens. He did not begin writing the dialogues until some time after the execution of his mentor, but the impression of that pivotal moment underlies nearly every dialogue composed. Socrates’ death is imprinted upon each of Plato’s dialogues as words and images are upon the face of a wax tablet. Other philosophies may be engraved over the initial impression, but through the palimpsest can often be read the echo of this early, defining tragedy.

In the Republic, as Socrates and his students are choosing how best to educate the future guardians of their ideal city, they decide the young guardians should “be told stories that will make them least afraid of death.”[3] Socrates begins reciting lines that must be expunged from the poetry of Greek tradition, censoring and editing to find the tales that will shape the future guardians into the philosopher-kings they are meant to become. But in his dialogues Plato is not only editing the old myths; he is bringing forth new myths as well, illustrating them with images that have since been impressed up the philosophic imagination of the Western world for two and a half thousand years.

While some dialogues literally recount the story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment, and execution, others carry the weight of his death more symbolically. The Republic opens with Socrates saying “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday. . .” in language echoing Odysseus’s “I went down to Hades” in Homer’s epic. One of the first characters we meet is the aging Cephalus, who seems rapidly to be approaching death. Yet the dramatic date of the dialogue is set some twenty to thirty years after the historical Cephalus passed away. Plato’s dialogue is evidently not taking place in the land of the living.

At Socrates’ request Cephalus begins speaking of what it is like to approach death:

When someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there—stories he used to make fun of—twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true . . . . he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examines himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone.[4]

These are the stories that Socrates later refers to that he wishes to censor: stories that ignite a fear of death. Yet it is these very stories that inspire an examination of justice in one’s life. Does not this indicate that the stories do some good?

In the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends in Socrates’ execution, the philosopher says to his gathered students, “I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked.”[5] Here too, Socrates gives reference to myths of Hades for his understanding of the underworld. But Socrates also has his own assurance that death is the right course for him, that it is nothing to fear. During his trial, as laid out in the Apology, he refers to his “familiar sign,” the daemon that accompanies and guides his actions by negating what he ought not to do. Socrates comes to find that his daemon has not opposed anything that he said during his trial.

What do you think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what is right.[6]

His absolute trust in the guidance of his daemon is remarkable. This assuredness appears to come from an inherent trust Socrates has in the way he has spent his life; if the guidance of the daemon has led him to follow a just life, this guidance must be true. Furthermore, his daemon is one whom Socrates chose himself, if indeed the myth that ends the Republic is meant to be read in such a way. As depicted in the Myth of Er, reincarnating souls choosing their next lifetimes are told “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[7] The guidance one receives in life is freely chosen by each individual before birth.

In the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea that there might be but a single path to Hades. Rather, he says,

I think it is neither one nor simple, for then there would be no need of guides; one could not make any mistake if there were but one path. As it is, it is likely to have many forks and crossroads; and I base this judgment on the sacred rites and customs here.[8]

The many paths to Hades can also be read symbolically: there are many paths one can choose in life; if there were but one then leading a just life would not be a free decision made with the help of one’s chosen daemon, rather it would be predetermined and unchangeable. One’s lot would be cast and there would be naught to strive for.

Within the prison Socrates tells his gathered followers that “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”[9] Considering all that philosophy seems to cover in its practice, this statement carries significant weight. But Socrates goes on to explain exactly what he means by this statement. He defines death, saying that it is, “namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul.”[10] The action of the philosopher is to contemplate the divine Forms or Ideas, and to do this he must reach for the Ideas not with his bodily senses but through thought alone, with the soul. The philosopher is therefore in a state most closely related to death, a separating of the soul from the body.

If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.[11]

As a philosopher, Socrates does not claim to ever have attained wisdom, and here we see that he does not believe it to be possible while one is alive and incarnated in physical form. Yet not much earlier in this same dialogue he emphasizes to his disciples that one must not end one’s life to attain the wisdom that is accessible after death. “There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries,” he says, “that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away.”[12] A reason exists for incarnation, for this being one with a body.Venus Sunset

The Myth of Er in the Republic tells of how souls after death are led to heaven or hell and, after a specific amount of time in one or the other place, are brought forth again to choose new lives and to be born anew. Socrates notes that most of the souls who come from heaven choose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time in hell are able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they have witnessed and experienced.[13] Only the philosopher is able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,

he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.[14]

The philosopher’s ability to discern a good life is presumably because, as said in the Phaedo, it is only after death that one is able to directly perceive the Forms and to attain wisdom. Yet it seems that not any soul is able to attain wisdom after death, otherwise all of the other souls coming from heaven to choose their new lives would not be plagued by ignorance and choose difficult new lives. Plato seems to be indicating that it is only one who has been a philosopher in life that has the ability after death to reach wisdom.

Plato has often been accused of being a dualist who denies the value of the body, instead privileging the soul and the abstract realm of the Forms. While a soul-body dualism seems to be implicit in Plato’s dialogues, the utter denial of the body may not be a full reading of Plato’s project. The philosopher in life is not one who has attained wisdom; he is a lover of wisdom and not in possession of it. Only by being a philosopher, one who loves but does not possess wisdom, can one choose a just life when one reincarnates. And it is only by being in a body, and therefore at a certain distance from the Forms, that one can actually become a philosopher.

The doctrine of the Forms indicates that an archetype exists for each thing that we experience in the earthly realm, from the more concrete Ideas of Bed, Horse, and Tree, to the more abstract Ideas of Justice, Truth, and the Good. Would this not also indicate that there must be an Idea for Death? Is there an archetypal expression of the mysterious transition that ends all lives? In the ancient Greek world Cronus, later to be named Saturn by the Romans, was the god of Time who ruled endings, mortality, finitude, old age, and death. Saturn was the outermost planet known to the ancients, the furthest celestial body visible to the naked eye. Saturn was the guardian of the threshold, the last circle of the wandering planets inside the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars that encircled the cosmos.

The nature of the Forms is such they can be approached by the philosopher in thought, but never attained while he lives. So too it is with death, that direct knowledge of death is unattainable while alive; as one is dying one comes ever closer to death, yet does not ever fully know what it is until one has actually died. Just as Saturn represents the guardian of the threshold, death too may be such a guardian, standing at the gateway to the realm of Forms: the first Form to be attained by the soul may be Death itself.

How then does one spend one’s life preparing to cross this threshold, cultivating the philosophic way of life? If, as Socrates said in the Phaedo, there is a mirroring between sleeping and waking, death and life, what further insight can be drawn forth from these parallels? After death Socrates says we are released from our bodies and the soul is able, without hindrance, to contemplate the eternal Forms. In embodied life the philosopher strives for the Forms in thought, never fully attaining them but coming ever closer with practice. In the Apology Socrates describes what he sees as the two options for what comes after death: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.”[15] Death is either “like a dreamless sleep”[16] or a “change from here to another place”[17] where one would encounter the “true jurymen who are said to sit in judgment there” and the “other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life.” [18] If death is the former, Socrates says “it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night”[19] and if it is the latter he says, “I am willing to die many times if that is true.”[20] In the parallel between sleep and death, if the former is like a dreamless sleep then the latter, in which one meets gods and heroes, and encounters the realm of eternal Ideas, may be likened to a night rich with dreaming in which one encounters images strange and familiar, beings of all kinds from humans and animals, to mythic creatures, the living Earth, and gods and deities. Dreaming too is like entering into a realm of archetypes.

If death can be likened to entering a realm of dreams, what is it that the philosopher does in life to bring himself closer to that realm? The philosopher contemplates the eternal Forms, but what does this in practice look like? In the Symposium, as Socrates and Aristodemus are walking to the home of Agathon for dinner, Socrates begins to get lost in thought. “As they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought, and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead.”[21] When Aristodemus arrives Agathon asks of him, “‘But where is Socrates? How come you didn’t bring him along?” So I turned around (Aristodemus said), and Socrates was nowhere to be seen.”[22] Once Socrates has been located, standing still in contemplation on a neighbor’s porch, Aristodemus says, “‘Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be. I’m sure he’ll come in very soon, so don’t disturb him; let him be.”[23] What is it that Socrates is doing? He is clearly lost in thought, but to a degree beyond what most people do. He has the air of one lost in a dream but in waking life; perhaps in contemplating the realm of eternal Forms the philosopher becomes a daydreamer, meditating upon dreams more real than common life.

The Symposium takes place over the course of a single night, the story bookended by sunset and sunrise. Socrates is the only one to stay awake through the entire course of the night, departing quietly at dawn to go about his day. Within the narrative of the dialogue, another story is told of Socrates when he slips into one of his daydreaming states. The tale, spoken by Alcibiades, is worth quoting at length, as it gives a beautiful character picture of Socrates, this man who “as a whole . . . is unique; he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present—this is by far the most amazing thing about him.”[24] So Alcibiades describes:

One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they all told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.[25]

The imagery of the sun in this story is prominent, with the period of thought or daydreaming beginning at dawn and not reaching completion until the following sunrise. In the Republic, Socrates gives the image of the sun as a metaphor for the Good. “This is what I called the offspring of the good,” he says, “which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.”[26] But, from an earthly perspective, the sun dies every night, descending below the horizon in a flaring forth of color. The sun pulls the clear definition of all that has illuminated, the bright hues of the landscape, into the underworld with it. To follow the images of the sun we must dream, or learn to contemplate them in thought or dialogue through the night.

Socrates, the only member of the Symposium to stay awake through the entire night, was in the same way caught in thought all through the long night during the summer campaign of which Alcibiades speaks. The work of the philosopher takes place within the embodied realm, for once he has passed the threshold of death he is no longer a lover of wisdom; he has attained wisdom and is no longer a practitioner of philosophia. To be a philosopher is to prepare to cross the threshold of death by always striving to remain in a state closest to death. Thus Socrates, the true lover of wisdom, stays awake through the night to try to consciously understand the Forms in their completeness, so he might recognize them once he too crosses with the Sun below the horizon. “As long as I draw breath and am able,” he says in the Apology, “I shall not cease to practice philosophy.”[27]

The death of Socrates was a literal event in the life of Plato, but the dialogues that poured forth afterwards are a mythological eulogy that has elevated Socrates from human status to that of mythic daemon, a mentor and conscience to guide the dawning philosophical tradition as it walked across Greece’s borders and began its criss-crossing journey throughout the Eurasian continent, leading it eventually to cross the encircling seas and make its wanderings throughout other continents as well.

Socrates was executed at sunset. It is those who remain who are asked to contemplate the long night. It is those who remain who must await the dawn. But in that quiet twilight moment between the sun’s departure and the descent of dark night, we wait for the arrival of that first shining star, the wanderer who appears in the metaxic realm of dusk. As night deepens, the star known by the ancients to be the shining symbol of Love blazes forth ever brighter in the darkening western sky. Never far from the sun, this brightest of planets circles sometimes closer, sometimes further from the celestial image of the Good. It stands as a guide for those called to follow, to be lovers also of wisdom.

“Evening star, you bring all things
which the bright dawn has scattered . . .”
– Sappho

 Moon, Venus, Jupiter

Work Cited

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.


[1] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 62, 71c.

[2]Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 27, 29a-b.

[3] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1022, 386a.

[4] Plato, Republic, 975, 330d-e.

[5] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 63c.

[6] Plato, Apology, 35, 40b-c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.

[8] Plato, Phaedo, 92, 108a.

[9] Plato, Phaedo, 55, 64a.

[10] Ibid, 56, 64c.

[11] Ibid, 58, 66e.

[12] Ibid, 54, 62b.

[13] Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.

[14] Ibid, 1221, 618d-e.

[15] Plato, Apology, 35, 40c-d.

[16] Ibid, 40d.

[17] Ibid, 40e.

[18] Ibid, 41a.

[19] Ibid, 40e.

[20] Ibid, 41a.

[21] Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 460, 174d-e.

[22] Plato, Symposium, 460, 174e.

[23] Ibid, 461, 175b.

[24] Plato, Symposium, 503, 221c.

[25] Ibid, 502, 220c-d.

[26] Plato, Republic, 1129, 508b.

[27] Plato, Apology, 27, 29d.

At the Cosmic Midnight Hour: Karma and Rebirth in Rudolf Steiner and Sri Aurobindo

When one has an encounter in the world, be it a deep sense of familiarity or peace in an unknown landscape, an attraction to an area of study, or a strong desire to make a connection with a newly met individual, that experience of novelty can often be intermingled with a quality of memory. Yet, while this remembering may have no connection to one’s present life, it still has an inexplicable air of destiny; this may be no memory of the mind, but of the spirit. It is a reencountering of the result of one’s own actions, but the actions of a previous lifetime. It is a lesson learned by a former self, a fruit nourished and watered by one’s prior being, to be plucked and savored in this lifetime. It is a seed of the past, a representation of one’s karma.

The spiritual understanding of karma and reincarnation has been central to numerous cultures worldwide, and still flourishes in many religious and spiritual communities. Interpretations of both rebirth and karma differ greatly from tradition to tradition, and even person to person, as the fundamental questions of human existence are repeatedly asked by each generation. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the purpose of the universe? Are there spiritual realms? Who, or what, is divine? While many answers have been given, those of two of the great spiritual and philosophical thinkers of the turn of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo and Rudolf Steiner, speak not only to the unity of the divine in the universe, but also of the reality of the seeking and striving human individual.

For Steiner and Aurobindo the roles of karma and rebirth are central to their philosophies and spiritual practices. Although Steiner hailed from Europe, Aurobindo from India, their views of reincarnation were either contrary to or differentiated from the prevalent beliefs established in their regions, but also deeply resonant with each other’s perspectives. Aurobindo brought to India a more Western view of the reality of the individual, and Steiner was given the weighty task of reintroducing the ideas of karma and rebirth to the West, from which they had been absent following the widespread establishment of Christianity (NES, 6). They both saw the cycles of human reincarnation as an evolutionary process, an evolution of the individual and of the whole of humanity, the universe, and the divine.

Rebirth, for Steiner and Aurobindo, could be defined as the joining of spirit to life and matter (EA, 92). Steiner called the moment when one karmic life ends and the new karmic life begins the “cosmic midnight hour” (NES, 47). Rebirth is a joining of the old with the new, the eternal spirit with a newly formed body, mind, and personality (EA, 265). Sculpting each life is one’s karma, one’s self-created destiny, which is formed by the prior actions of one’s spirit inhabiting other bodies during previous lifetimes (NES, 197). Our karma shapes not only the bodies, families, and cultures we are born into, but the road we travel and the obstacles and turns we will meet. How we will journey down this road, and interact with what and whom we meet upon it, is within our own freedom to choose, yet will lay the foundations for our future life’s karma as well. Both Aurobindo and Steiner emphasized the importance of one’s personal experience, how we choose to travel our path; it was through their own personal experiences that they each came to their spiritual understandings of karma and rebirth.

Aurobindo writes that “if the soul enters this life with a certain development of personality, it must have prepared it in other precedent lives here [on Earth] or elsewhere” (EA, 95). Each human comes into the world with a fully unique personality, which cannot be reduced merely to physical heredity or one’s familial upbringing. Such a materialist perspective implies that the only part of us that persists beyond death would be our genes in our descendents, and possibly the fading memory of our actions in the minds of others (EA, 93). While we inherit the shape of our physical bodies from our parents, according to Steiner we inherit the shape of our spirits from ourselves. Although Homo sapiens is one biological species of which we are a part, each human individual is a spiritual species of which we are the whole (NES, 186). For Steiner this spirit is called the “I,” for Aurobindo the “psychic being” and it is this part of us alone which reincarnates (NES, 48, EA, 265).

Unlike the Advaita Vedantist and Buddhist beliefs prevalent in India, Aurobindo held the understanding that the human individual spirit was truly real, just as Brahman, also called Satchitananda, the divinity that is everything, is also real. In Advaita Vedanta, while all is Brahman, the human self is merely an illusion created by Maya (EA, 101). Similarly, the ultimate truth in Buddhism is that there is no self; therefore rebirth, and also the karma that drives rebirth, must also be an illusion. A soul which is merely an illusion cannot be eternal (EA, 96). Yet, if all is Brahman and Brahman is real, how is it that each human being also can have an eternal soul that is real? Aurobindo writes, “If the soul is real and immortal, not a constructed being or figure of being, it must also be eternal, beginningless in the past even as endless in the future…” (EA, 95). Brahman and the individual self can both be real because all of existence is in a process of evolution. According to Aurobindo, Brahman, or Satchitananda, involved itself in Matter, and has been in evolution through the levels of Life, Mind and Spirit, a process that is only possible because of the reality of each individual who is evolving (EA, 109, 258). While the involution of Satchitananda may be regarded as the beginning of existence, it seems to be a beginning outside of time, therefore all souls can be “beginningless in the past” of time and “endless in the future.”

The reality of the individual spirit is as central to Steiner’s philosophy as it is to Aurobindo’s. The levels of Aurobindo––Matter, Life, Mind, and Spirit––have many similarities to the four bodies of Steiner: the physical body; the etheric, or life, body; the astral, or soul, body; and the “I,” or spirit body (EA, 109, NES, 129). The bodies Steiner describes also relate to the levels of minerals, plants, animals, and humans. For both Steiner and Aurobindo each level carries with it the characteristics of the prior level, which are all ultimately divine. Each human being has a spirit body, or an “I,” which participates in a greater “I;” this greater “I” could be called the divine, God, Brahman, Satchitananda, or the universe, and it too is in a process of evolution, in part because of the evolution of the individual human “I”s.

Reincarnation of the human spirit is key to both Steiner’s and Aurobindo’s understanding of evolution. The spirit is shaped by not only its life between birth and death, but between death and new birth as well. Steiner described the period between death and new life as like the period of sleep we enter into each night. During sleep the astral and “I” bodies depart the physical and etheric bodies to spend time in the spiritual realm (NES, 44). After death a similar departure from the physical takes place and, according to both Steiner and Aurobindo, the human spirit enters the spiritual world (EA, 100).

In his writings Steiner goes into far greater detail than Aurobindo on the journey of the human spirit, or the three non-physical bodies, after death occurs in the physical realm. The etheric body remains with the astral body and the “I” for three days after death to present the life that has just been lived to the astral body (NES, 44). The astral and “I” subsequently undergo the two-fold experience of kamaloca, in which first the astral body is purified by moving through the frustration of no longer experiencing the pleasures of earthly existence. Upon full purification, which takes up to one third the length of the life just ended, the astral body is able to dissolve (NES, 45). The second stage of kamaloca is the period in which only the “I,” or psychic being, remains, and relives its entire life in reverse from the perspectives of the recipients of all its actions (NES, 45). It is during this stage that the karma for the following life is laid, the final moments before the “cosmic midnight hour.”

The “I” relives its life in the presence of the greater spiritual beings of the universe. It is with the help of these beings that our lives are guided, as they whisper wisdom to us during sleep, and help us shape the karma of our future lives after death (NES, 46). “We first become aware of what our last evil or good deeds signify for the world. Our experience of them while on Earth is now eliminated; what we now experience is their significance for the world” (NES, 45). Although in some passages Steiner writes of the effect of our deeds only upon other human beings, in the previously quoted sentence he broadens that view to encompass the world. This holds particular significance for the karmic structures being laid down by humanity today, as the destruction many human beings have been unleashing upon the earth becomes rapidly more apparent.

The spiritual beings in whose presence we re-experience our lives “rain down their sympathies and antipathies” upon our actions. We release our good deeds into the universe to further its evolution, but we retain our evil deeds as the new work for our future life (NES, 46). Thus it is that we take our progressive steps from one lifetime to the next, building upon the lessons we learned that will guide us toward new ones.

The new life begins with the formation of our astral and etheric bodies, which are created with the help of spiritual beings and planetary forces. These bodies are formed as the “I” passes the spheres of the Sun and the stars, and are determined by the limitations and attainments of the former life (NES, 47). These three bodies join the physical body, which, like the parents, has also been karmically chosen, in the womb a few weeks after conception. Similar to Steiner, Aurobindo writes, “The human birth in this world is on its spiritual side a complex of two elements, a spiritual Person and a soul of personality; the former is man’s eternal being, the latter is his cosmic and mutable being” (EA, 109). For Aurobindo, even the form of the physical body is dependent on the condition of the human soul, and Steiner writes that what is unique about our physical bodies––rather than what is inherited from our ancestors––is shaped by our soul body (EA, 92, NES, 189).

Upon emerging once again into earthly existence we find it is much like awakening from a long night’s sleep. The results of our previous life actions have the effect of memory upon us, unrolling our karmic destiny before us (NES, 187). We even reencounter the same human individuals from one life to the next, as our actions throughout our lives connect us to each other (NES, 196). We do not do our work upon the earth alone. During the life between birth and death the astral body, which is the carrier of memory, “receives impressions from the outer world and carries them to the spirit, which extracts and preserves their fruits” (NES, 193). It is the spirit that carries the attainments of these fruits from lifetime to lifetime, which furthers not only the evolution of the individual but the evolution of humanity and the universe (NES, 191).

This work is far beyond the span of a single lifetime, which is the reason that many human lives on earth are needed for this process (EA, 112). However, although the spirit of the individual is real and eternal, the complete human born each lifetime is unique, and work done in one life cannot be achieved in the same way in another. The imminence of death is as real as the eternal spirit, and can serve as a powerful impetus to do the work and learn the lessons this particular life has to offer.

Because the divine involved itself in matter and is in a process of evolution, every rebirth is a unique expression of the divine (EA, 259). In each human being the divine is born with the inner qualities of that person. Therefore, every action is an action of both the human and the divine, and it is those divine actions which forge our karma. For karma to be real, the individual, and the divine that is the individual, must both be real as well. Through the individual the divine is thus able to come to consciousness (EA, 105). Aurobindo writes that “A spiritual evolution of which our universe is the scene and earth its ground and stage, though its plan is still kept back above from our yet limited knowledge––this way of seeing existence is a luminous key which we can fit into many doors of obscurity” (EA, 259). Existence has a true purpose if reincarnation is seen as an evolutionary process, in which the human spirit and the world evolve together toward consciousness, and ultimately, toward bliss (EA, 267, 268).

Aurobindo and Steiner both developed spiritual practices with which to accomplish our tasks during our lifetimes; for Aurobindo this was Integral Yoga, for Steiner it was Spiritual Science, also called Anthroposophy. Steiner said that our task was to connect to our life before birth through free thinking; for Aurobindo our task was to know our previous lives and to connect to the unity of which we are a part (NES, 48, EA, 265). Both of them are offering spiritual practices that can connect us as individuals to the spirit realm in which we exist between lifetimes, the realm in which we can understand our unity with the whole. The spiritual practices of both these great thinkers are ultimately actions of love through freedom, and love can only be real when it emerges between entities that are real beings. As such, the evolution of the divine through the evolution of the universe is a process of love, as the real individuals that are each unique expressions of the divine are reborn again and again, and learn to come into true loving relationship with the whole.

Works Cited

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 1987.

McDermott, Robert A, ed., The New Essential Steiner. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2009.

The Unmanifest Realm: Potentials in Myths, Dreams, and Past Lives

Visions and dreams reside in a realm beyond our waking conscious mind, and pour forth into our lives at key moments through the portals of sleep and non-ordinary states of consciousness. This realm could be referred to as the unconscious, a domain greater than us, in which our egos participate to create our fuller Self.[1] It could also be the Underdream, a current of the cosmos and the earth, in which we swim each night once we fall asleep.[2] This realm might be compared to the unmanifest realm of physics, the realm in and out of which all material particles vibrate constantly as they exist in time and space.[3] It is the archetypal realm that speaks to us through myth and symbol; as Joseph Campbell wrote, “…myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.”[4]

During our five-day course Nature and Eros, I was given the opportunity to work deeply with my own dreams and visions in a natural setting; it was an atmosphere where we were able to sink into the silence, a silence so pregnant that at last we could hear the full chorus of our dreams sing forth. The pivotal vision with which I worked during this time was a past life memory, which had been surfacing over the last few months leading up to this retreat. The memory was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by one of the dreams I experienced during the course. Working with our facilitator, Kerry Brady, I was able to reconnect with, and fill in more of, this past life experience to help incorporate my understanding of it into my waking life.

I have had a hazy awareness of my past life traumas since a young age, when I experienced severe night terrors that would leave me screaming and unable to recognize anyone around me. Bill Plotkin writes that “The earliest remembered dreams of our lives, the ones from early childhood, say age three to five, represent especially clear and portentous glimpses of the Underdream.”[5] Stanislav Grof describes past life memories as

…sequences that take place in other historical periods and other countries and are usually associated with powerful emotions and physical sensations…. Their most remarkable aspect is a convincing sense of remembering and reliving something that one has already seen (déjá vu) or experienced (déjá vecu) at some time in the past.[6]

Knowing that I carried these memories, I began to explore them recently to reach a better understanding of the experiences that have informed my psyche this lifetime.

In the memory, I am a woman in Mexico several centuries ago. The central moment of the memory is the sensation of my body dropping from a scaffold and hanging by the neck from a rope. For the last few years I have had intense pain in just that area of my neck. Grof points out that, as past life memories surface, “…incomprehensible emotional and psychosomatic symptoms now seem to make sense as karmic carry-overs from a previous lifetime.”[7] It is dark and raining in the memory, and the rain and my tears drench my long hair, which is hanging in my face. I understood that my execution was a martyrdom in relation to Christianity, but whether I was a Christian or was executed at the hands of Christians I do not know. Among the dark figures surrounding me one is especially clear, a man kneeling in the forefront who I could strongly sense was the same soul as my beloved partner this lifetime, with whom I only recently became connected. Such recognition of others is a frequent aspect of past life recollections. Grof writes that

…it might suddenly seem that a certain person in one’s present life played an important role in a previous incarnation, the memory of which is emerging into consciousness. When this happens, one may seek emotional contact with a person who now appears to be a “soul-mate” from one’s karmic past.[8]

During the Nature and Eros course my past life vision was dominating my mind one morning following a series of intense, vivid dreams. Many of the dreams took place in a harem, or whore house, in Mexico or Polynesia that was ruled by a tyrannical white man. The native women were treated horribly, and were abused and mutilated. One woman hung herself, although she took on the form of a pink crab when she did so. I witnessed this hanging from the same visual angle as in my past life experience. The emotional quality of this dream triggered a need to process my past life memory while I had the support and knowledge offered in this retreat.

I recounted my experience with Kerry while she asked me where in my body I felt it. I seem to carry the physical pain of the event in my neck and throat, but the emotional pain I carry in my jaw, which is the hardest to release. I came to recognize that the knowledge of my execution must have come suddenly, with little time to assimilate my approaching death. I felt the panic of those last moments, but the hardest part was after my body had dropped, knowing the action of my death had been completed, but my soul and life force had not yet departed my body. I felt the helplessness and sadness of those moments, and I kept repeating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know this would happen.” I could see my partner kneeling before me, possibly my beloved in that lifetime also, and felt such pain at leaving him behind.

With Kerry’s assistance I moved to lying flat on my back, which finally allowed the tension in my neck and jaw to relax. An image came to me of looking at my body lying in a field of wildflowers, my body melting into the Earth. There was deep comfort in that scene. The manner of my death was unnatural, but my body was laid to rest like all others and was able to dissolve back into the Earth.

I honored the suffering of my former self, and also felt gratitude: her sacrifice allowed my soul to incarnate into my present life and body, to enter into such a good, nourishing womb and family. After lying for some time on the ground, I decided to go to the flower garden on the property where our retreat took place. I wanted to feel held in a womblike space, safe once again amongst the flowers of my final vision. Carl Jung’s archetypal interpretation of this image is that “The flower is in fact like a friendly sign, a numinous emanation from the unconscious.”[9] Coming into this blossoming garden gave me a sense of healing and wholeness, a unity with my surrounding earth environment.

My sense of being embedded in a womblike unity transcended that of the physical womb in which I was nourished this lifetime for nine months. It had a feeling of cosmic wholeness without any physical boundaries, perhaps a realm between incarnations. Could this place be the same realm from which dreams come? If so, it is a realm of infinite potential, comparable to the unmanifest realm, or quantum vacuum, of physics. According to Brian Swimme, this vacuum is not a place in the physical world, but rather pure, underlying, generative creativity. The unmanifest realm contains all that exists and all that could potentially exist. Elementary particles manifest from this place, then vanish back into it. The whole of the physical world constantly vibrates in and out of the unmanifest realm.[10]

Our waking conscious, for the most part, takes place in the physical, manifest world; however, in sleep our consciousness transcends our bodies and enters this realm of pure potential. Like physical particles, our consciousness may vibrate between realms as well, pulling narratives from our waking lives into the unfolding stories of our dreams. Our dreams tend to carry a thread of our own personality throughout, but in ways unexpected or contrary to our waking selves. Jung describes the dream realm as the unconscious, which “…remains beyond reach of subjective arbitrary control, in a realm where nature and her secrets can neither be improvised upon nor perverted, where we can listen but may not meddle.”[11]

Dreams are one form of communication between this realm and our waking conscious. According to Plotkin, “every dream is an opportunity to develop our relationship to soul, to who we are beneath our surface personalities and routine agendas.”[12] Because we lose the control that we have while awake as we dream, we remain open to the truths that dreams can reveal. By accessing this realm I was able to recover my final memories of a life that ended violently; but this death also allowed my soul to completely enter the timeless place between lifetimes.

Painting by Becca Tarnas

On the final night of Nature and Eros I slept with the plant mugwort under my pillow, which is said to stimulate dreams. When I awoke the next morning I felt positive energy coursing through me in a way I have never felt after a dream. Much of the dream took place in rich, green gardens, echoing my experience the day before in the flower garden. A symbol also emerged from the dream, shaped like the glyph for the planet Venus, but with two long leaves on each side. The symbol represented the “Metaphysics of Mythology.” This was not a term with which I was familiar, and I could find no definition in my research, so I began to create my own definition.

A metaphysics of mythology would be an understanding and knowledge of the fundamental nature of cultural stories and beliefs pouring in from the archetypal realm of potential. Myths and dreams are two different storytellers sharing the same life-forging narratives with our souls. Joseph Campbell, whose work with mythology implies a metaphysics of the subject, compared these two languages of the unconscious: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche.”[13]

Myths are the translators of dreams, and the symbols of dreams are the messengers from our unconscious, from the unmanifest realm, the realm between lifetimes. Dreams are the mediators on behalf of our souls between the personalities of our current and previous lifetimes. They carry our soul narratives between the waking realms, whether it is between day to day in our present life, or between this lifetime and our past lives. As Plotkin writes, “Each dream provides a snapshot of the unfolding story and desires of the soul, and a chance for the ego to be further initiated into that underworld story and those underworld desires.”[14] In this case, Plotkin refers to the underworld as the place of soul, to which we descend to uncover our true purpose in this lifetime.

My integration of my past life memories is the first leg of a journey that I imagine will take me a lifetime. The initial step was learning to bear witness to the suffering of someone who is both myself and an other. Part of my soul journey this lifetime is to connect with the previous journeys of my same soul, and to assimilate those lessons left by past experience. These experiences come to us in the language of dreams and myth, which we can slowly learn to read by understanding the role they play in our development as individuals. Ultimately these languages connect us, during sleep and between lifetimes, to the same place: a realm of infinite creative potential teeming with the possibilities of all that we are, have been, will never be, and someday will eventually become.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976.

Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.

Swimme, Brian. Nature and Eros lecture. Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011.

[1] Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell, trans. R.F.C. Hull (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1976), 329.

[2] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003), 134-135.

[3] Brian Swimme, Nature and Eros lecture (Tunitas Creek Ranch, CA: September 9, 2011).

[4] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 1.

[5] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 135.

[6] Stanislav Grof, Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 162.

[7] Grof, Psychology of the Future, 162.

[8] Ibid, 162.

[9] Jung, The Portable Jung, 349.

[10] Swimme, lecture.

[11] Jung, The Portable Jung, 329.

[12] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.

[13] Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 14.

[14] Plotkin, Soulcraft, 129.