This work is written with evident authority by a well-known clairvoyant of the last century. It has stood with me through the death of my parents, my first child, and many close relatives, and now gives me guidance again as I face the evidence and meaning of my own mortality. I would like to share an excerpt with you, in hopes that it might also strengthen you on your journey. I came across it at the age of 15.
“The Soul in the Soul World after Death
…as the spiritual self proceeds from incarnation to incarnation, its orientation is meant to be provided increasingly by the spirit, its knowledge determined by the spirit of eternal truth and its activity by eternal goodness.
Death is a fact of the physical world that signifies a change in the functioning of the body. At death the body ceases to be a vehicle for a soul and a spirit, and from then on its functions become totally subject to the physical world and physical laws. It passes into the physical world in order to disintegrate in it. Our physical senses can observe only what happens to the body after death; what happens to the soul and spirit eludes them. Even when a person is alive, the soul and spirit can be observed only to the extent that they take on an outer manifestation in physical processes. After death, this is no longer possible. Therefore, sciences based on physical sense perception do not apply to the destiny of the soul and spirit after death. At this point a higher form of knowledge appears, a knowledge based on the observation of processes taking place in the soul and spirit worlds.
After freeing itself from the body, the spirit is still linked to the soul. Just as the body bound it to the physical world during physical life, the soul now binds it to the soul world. But the spirit’s ultimate being is not to be found in this soul world, whose purpose is only to link it to its field of activity, to the physical world. To be able to reappear in more perfected form in a new incarnation, the spirit must draw energy and strength from the spiritual world. Through the soul, however, the spirit has been entangled in the physical world, bound up with a soul being permeated and colored by physical nature, and it also took on this orientation itself.
After death, the soul is no longer bound to the body but only to the spirit. It then lives in a soul environment, and only the forces of this soul world can influence it. To begin with, the spirit is bound to the soul’s life in the soul world, just as it was bound to the body during physical incarnation. The moment of the body’s death is determined by the body’s own laws. In general, the soul and spirit do not leave the body; it is rather dismissed by them when its forces can no longer function as the human physical organization requires. The same thing applies to the relationship between soul and spirit. The soul will release the spirit into the higher world, the spiritual world, when the soul’s forces no longer function as the human soul organization requires. The spirit is set free as soon as the soul surrenders to dissolution everything it can experience only in the body, and retains only what is able to live on with the spirit. This remainder, although experienced in the body, can be imprinted on the spirit as the fruits of a lifetime, and links the soul to the spirit in the purely spiritual world.
To become familiar with the soul’s fate after death, we must observe the process of its dissolution. Its task had been to orient the spirit toward the physical, and as soon as this task is fulfilled, the soul itself moves in the direction of the spiritual. Because of the nature of its task, it would actually be immediately obliged to be only spiritually active once the body falls away from it and it can no longer be a connecting link. This would happen if the soul had not been influenced by the body for a whole lifetime and had not been drawn towards the body in its own inclinations. Without the coloring it assumed through being bound up with the body, the newly disembodied soul would immediately start to obey only the laws of the spirit and soul world. This would be the case if the person in question had lost all interest in the earthly world before dying, if all the desires, wishes and so on linking that individual to the physical existence left behind had been satisfied. But to the extent that this is not the case, what remains of this orientation clings to the soul.
To avoid confusion at this point, we must clearly distinguish between something that binds a person to the world in a way that can be resolved in a future incarnation, and something that binds that individual to one particular incarnation, namely the most recent one. In the first case, the situation is resolved by karma; in the second, it can only be discarded by the soul after death.
For the human spirit, death is followed by a time in which the soul strips itself of its inclinations toward physical existence so that it can once again obey only the laws of the spirit and soul worlds and can set the spirit free. Of course this takes longer in cases where the soul has been more tightly bound to the physical. It takes little time in cases of individuals who have not been very attached to physical life, longer in cases of those whose interests were totally bound up with that life and who therefore still have many desires, wishes and so on present in their souls at death.
Gaining an idea of the state in which the soul lives during the time right after death will be easiest if we take a fairly crass example—for instance, the pleasure of a gourmet. This pleasure, of course, is not of the body but of the soul, in that both the pleasure and the desire for this pleasure belong to the soul. However, satisfying this desire requires the corresponding bodily organs—palate, taste buds and so on. After death, the soul does not immediately lose its desire, but the physical organs that used to be the means of satisfying it are no longer there. The person in question then experiences something similar to suffering from extreme thirst in an area where there is no water for miles around. (Although the reason for the suffering is different, its effects are similar but much stronger.) Because of the lack of the physical organs through which pleasure was experienced, the soul suffers burning pain at being deprived of this pleasure. The same applies to any of the soul’s desires that can be satisfied only by means of physical organs. This state of burning deprivation can be called “the place of desires,” although of course it is not an actual place. It lasts until the soul has learned to stop craving what can be provided only by the body.
When the soul enters the soul world after death, it is subject to the laws that prevail there, and their effects determine how the soul’s inclination toward the physical will be eliminated. The effects will have to be different according to the types of soul substances and forces involved, but each type will make its cleansing and purify- ing influence felt. The process is such that any antipathy in the soul is gradually overcome by the forces of sympathy, and the sympathy itself is taken to the ultimate degree. At this highest level of sympathy toward all the rest of the soul world, an individual soul merges with the rest, so to speak, becomes one with it, its self-seeking exhausted. It ceases to exist as a being inclined toward physical, sensory existence, and through this the spirit is set free. The soul undergoes purification in all the regions of the soul world described previously, until in the region of perfect sympathy it becomes one with the soul world in general.
Because the spirit has spent a lifetime in intimate association with the soul, it is bound to it until the very last moment of liberation. Having been directly linked to the soul, which was its very life, the spirit is much more closely related to it than to the body, to which it was linked only indirectly, through the soul. The spirit is bound to the soul that is gradually freeing itself, but not to the disintegrating body. Because it has a direct link to the soul, the spirit can only feel free of the soul once the soul has become one with the soul world in general.
As the human being’s residence during the time immediately after death, the soul world can be called the “place of desires.” The different religious systems that have incorporated an awareness of this situation into their teachings know this “place of desires” under different names such as “purgatory,” “the fire of purification,” and so on.
The soul world’s lowest region is the region of burning desire, where the soul’s crudest self-serving desires, those relating to the lowest aspect of bodily life, are eliminated after death. Through such desires, the soul can experience the effect of this region’s forces. These forces take as their point of attack all the unfulfilled desires that remain in the soul from physical life. The sympathy in such a soul ex- tends only to what will nourish its own self-seeking being, and is far outweighed by the antipathy in it, which pours out over anything else. However, after death its desires focus on physical pleasures that cannot possibly be satisfied in the soul world, and this impossibility intensifies its greed to the greatest possible degree. At the same time, however, this impossibility gradually extinguishes the greed. The burning lusts and desires slowly consume themselves, and the soul learns from experience that eliminating these lusts is the only way to prevent the suffering that must stem from them. During physical life such desires are repeatedly satisfied, effectively concealing the pain of burning greed behind a kind of illusion. After death, however, in the “fire of purification,” this pain is fully exposed, and the corresponding deprivation must be suffered to the full.
This is indeed a dark state of affairs for the soul. Of course, only individuals whose desires focused on the coarsest things in physical life fall into this state. Those with few desires, on the other hand, have little connection to the region of burning desire and pass through it without noticing it. It must be stated that the souls spending the longest time under the influence of this region are those who became most related to its fire during physical life and therefore have the greatest need to be purified in it. Since the soul actually longs for its own purification after death, we should not regard this purification as suffering in the sense of any comparable experience in the world of the senses. It is the only way the imperfection remaining in the soul can be eliminated.
Processes of a second type take place in the soul world, processes in which sympathy and antipathy are in balance. A human soul in this condition will be influenced after death by these processes for a period of time determined by the extent to which it gave itself in life to superficial frivolities, to the pleasures of transitory sense impressions and to the influence of daily trivialities that typify this condition. People live in this condition as long as they are affected by inclinations of this sort. They let themselves be influenced by every daily triviality, but the influences fade quickly since their sympathy is not extended to any one thing in particular. Anything not belonging to this trivial realm is antipathetic to them. After death, when a soul in this condition lacks the sense-perceptible physical things needed for satisfaction, the condition must slowly die off. Naturally, the deprivation that prevails before it is fully extinguished in the soul causes suffering. In the school of this suffering, we learn to destroy the illusions in which we wrapped ourselves during physical life.
Processes of a third type in the soul world are those in which sympathy and a wish-like character prevail. Our souls experience the effects of these processes through everything that maintains an atmosphere of wishing after death. This wishing, too, gradually dies off because of the impossibility of satisfying it.
The region of pleasure and displeasure in the soul world, designated above as the fourth region, subjects the soul to special trials. As long as the soul occupies a body, it takes part in everything that affects that body, such as the interweaving of pleasure and displeasure that determines the body’s comfort and well-being, its discomfort and displeasure. During physical life, a human being feels the body to be the self, the basis of individual identity. The more sensuous a person’s inclinations are, the more his or her feeling of identity takes on this character. After death, however, although the feeling of identity persists, the body that was its object is gone, and as a result the soul feels hollow and empty, as if it had lost itself. This lasts until the recognition dawns that the true human being is not physical in nature. Thus the effects of this fourth region destroy the illusion of the bodily self. The soul learns to no longer perceive this bodily basis as essential, and is purified and cured of its attachment to bodily existence, overcoming what used to bind it so strongly to the physical world. It can now fully unfold the forces of sympathy, which move outward. The soul has broken free from itself, as it were, and is ready to pour itself actively into the soul world in general.
At this point, we should note that suicides, having left their bodies by artificial means while the feelings bound up with their bodies remain unchanged, undergo the experiences of this region to an exceptional degree. When death is due to natural causes, the disintegration of the body is accompanied by the partial demise of the emotions that cling to it, but for suicides, in addition to the anguish caused by feeling suddenly hollowed out, all the unsatisfied desires and wishes that prompted them to undergo disembodiment in the first place are still present.
The fifth level of the soul world is the level of soul light. Here, sympathy for others already carries considerable weight. Souls are related to this region to the ex- tent that they took joy and pleasure in their surroundings during physical life, rather than giving themselves up to satisfying their lower needs. What undergoes purification here includes, for instance, a sensuous over-enthusiasm for nature, which must be distinguished from a loftier living-in-nature that is spiritual in character and seeks the spirit that reveals itself in the things and processes of nature. This higher feeling for nature is among the things that contribute to the development of the spirit and establish something permanent in it; this must be distinguished from a sense-based pleasure in nature which leaves the soul in need of purification as much as any other inclinations based on purely physical existence do.
Many people idealize practical arrangements that serve our sensuous well-being, such as a system of education that leads to sensuous comfort above all else. We cannot say that these people are serving only their own self-centered impulses; nevertheless, their souls are still oriented to the sense-perceptible world and must be cured of this tendency by means of the power of sympathy that prevails in the fifth region of the soul world, where any external means of satisfaction is lacking. Here, the soul gradually recognizes that this sympathy must take other directions; sympathy for its soul surroundings must prompt the soul to pour itself out into soul space.
Those souls who expect their religious observances to enhance their sensuous well-being are also purified here, regardless of whether they yearn for an earthly or for a heavenly paradise. They find this paradise in the soul world, but only in order to recognize its worthlessness. Of course, these are all only individual examples of purifications undergone in this fifth region; many more could be added.
The purification of the part of the soul that thirsts for action takes place in the sixth region, or region of active soul power. Although this action is not egotistical in character, it is still motivated by the sensuous satisfaction that it provides. The kinds of people who develop this pleasure in activity give the outward appearance of being idealists and self-sacrificing individuals, but on a deeper level they are still motivated by the heightening of sensuous pleasure. Many artistic people, as well as those who devote themselves to scientific activity for the pleasure of it, belong in this region. What binds them to the physical world is their belief that art and science exist for the sake of such pleasure.
The seventh region, that of the actual soul life, frees us from our last inclinations toward the sensory, physical world. Each preceding region has absorbed that aspect of the soul that is related to it. All that is left surrounding the spirit is the belief that its activity should be totally de- voted to the physical world. Many extremely gifted people think about little else than events in the physical world; their persuasion can be called “materialism.” In the seventh region, these beliefs must be and are destroyed. Our souls realize that, in actual reality, a materialistic point of view is without object, and their materialistic beliefs melt away like ice in the sun. The being of the soul is now absorbed into its own world, and the spirit, free of all restraints, wings its way upward into regions in which it lives only in its own element. The soul has completed its most recent earthly task, and in the time that has elapsed since death, any aspects of this task remaining as bonds for the spirit have dissolved. In overcoming this last earthly remnant, the soul is returned to its own element.
From what has been described, we can see that experiences in the soul world and the circumstances of soul life after death become less and less repellent as we dispose of more and more of what still clings to us from our earthly union with, and affinity for, material existence. Depending on the circumstances created during its physical life, a soul will belong to the different regions for longer or shorter periods of time. Wherever it feels an affinity, it remains until the affinity is wiped out, but where no affinity exists, it passes through without feeling any of the possible effects.
This section was intended to describe in broad strokes only the most basic features of the soul world and the nature of the soul’s life within it. ….”
(Next Section: Spirit land)
Excerpt from Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos, Rudolph Steiner, 1904