by Diane Linsley
I once sat in a three-hour session with a Zen teacher in Boulder,
Colorado. He led me through the Mondo Zen process, which helped to dissolve my ego boundaries until I experienced a kensho,
which is a short-lived but profound experience of the Transcendent.
When the kensho came to an end, I watched with fascination as my
ego gradually reconstructed itself. I started crying, and the teacher asked me what I was thinking.
I told him that I was seeing my ego as a visual metaphor. It looked like a huge building. I could see many things about the building that I wanted to change, but I didn't know how, and I felt ashamed. At the same time, I was experiencing a profound feeling of self-compassion.
He replied that this is why we do spiritual work. We don't go into the Transcendent to escape from the suffering of the ego. We do it in order to see the ego more clearly. It's a humbling experience to see what we need to change. Each time we go through this cycle, the ego matures a little more.
The Different Parts of Ourselves
We are each made up of different parts or layers. When we incarnate, we put on these layers, as if we are putting on clothes. When we die, we remove these layers again in reverse order.
Various spirtual traditions use different systems and terminology. In this article, I'm using very basic terms and concepts, and I'm only describing what I have personally experienced.
1. Pure Awareness - Also known as Spirit, the Absolute, or the Ground of Being. This is hard to describe because it has no physical, mental or emotional aspects. It is pure awareness without any content. You can tap into this when you have an experience of "witnessing."
2. Soul - Also called the individuality or the individual spirit. The experiences from your past lives and life between lives are stored in the soul. The soul progresses as it acquires more experience.
3. Astral - Before incarnating, the soul creates an astral body. This body includes emotions, images and creative potentials. During an out-of-body experience (OBE or astral projection), your awareness moves from the physical body to the astral.
4. Etheric - The etheric body (or energy body) contains your life force or chi. The etheric body maintains the health of the physical body. Within days after death, the etheric body dissolves.
5. Physical - Now it's time to incarnate in a physical body.
6. Ego/Personality - The ego isn't a body. It's a construct like a map. I like to call it your map of reality, which includes all of your beliefs about yourself and the world. This map was created by you. It's not your "true self." You are the map maker - the person holding the map.
Ego and Personality
"I am always conscious of myself as two - my soul and I." ~Walt Whitman
Your personality is unique to this lifetime. Along with your physical body, it was created for one lifetime to house your soul as it experiences mortal life. The soul is a unique individual, but it's not the same as the personality. You can verify this by doing spiritual work that takes you beyond the ego/personality.
The ego is not the "bad guy," as some people believe. It is simply the most recent step in evolutionary development. For this reason, it's still immature. The ego is what distinguishes us from animals. Animals lack the problems of the ego, but they also lack the corresponding freedom. The goal at this stage of human development is to mature the ego. You can't get rid of the ego, but you can experience moments of egoless awareness, as I did in the Zen experience, which can help you separate from the ego long enough to see it more clearly. You create ego "voices" to help you function in the physical world. These voices have jobs to do, but they are in various stages of maturity. Immature voices cause many problems. This becomes clear when you do Voice Dialogue, which is a highly effective spiritual practice.
Incarnation and Death
"The ego is frightened by death because ego is part of the incarnation and ends with it. That is why we learn to identify with our soul, as the soul continues after death. For the soul, death is just another moment." ~Ram Dass I once asked a friend who is a student of Rudolf Steiner, "If all the bodies dissolve after death and are recreated for the next lifetime, how does my soul progress? I've done such an incredible amount of spiritual work in this lifetime. I don't want to forget it all and be reborn as an idiotic narcissist!"
He laughed and reassured me that, according to Steiner's teachings, no experience is ever lost, and the work we do in this lifetime impacts our future. This is called karma. Here's what I've concluded after studying the writings of many teachers, combined with my own experiences:
After death, you enter the astral realm, where you process your life experiences. This is the long version of the "life review" that near-deathers (including me) have experienced. When this work is done, you release your astral body and dissolve into the Ground of Being, which is like a resting place.
Eventually, you come back to your unique soul identity, which contains all of your memories. Then, with the help of spiritual guides, you create new astral, etheric and physical bodies for your next lifetime. These bodies are designed to help you accomplish your soul's purpose.
The Soul's Purpose
"Call nothing thy own except thy soul. Love not what thou art but what thou may become." ~Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha
The purpose of life is to bring into physical reality the potentials that we have, which were created in the astral body before incarnating. These potentials begin with the experiences and knowledge gained in previous lifetimes. We grow as we work on bringing these potentials to fruition.
In a podcast called Is Free Will an Illusion?, Ken Wilber says that the work of each lifetime begins at the level to which you rose in your previous lifetime. This is your set point. This starts happening sometime after childhood. Childhood is the time for forming the ego and maturing the physical body in preparation for your life's work.
When you mature enough to reach the level of development that you achieved in your previous lifetime, your life may suddenly become very challenging because you have hit a temporary ceiling.
Many clients have told me that life was relatively easy until they suddenly hit the ceiling. Ever since then, it's been one challenge after another. They are upset by this phenomenon because they think it means they did something wrong. But it simply means that you are being stretched to grow beyond the comfort zone of your previous level of development.
Which character traits came naturally to you, and which ones did you struggle to develop? This can be a clue to understanding your past lives and what your soul is trying to accomplish now.
The Soul's Journey
After my diagnosis of Graves' disease in 2016, I read the Soul Journey books by Michael Newton. I then found a way to connect with my soul (without having an LBL regression). I developed a new paradigm for my life, which involves aligning the desires of my ego with the goals of my soul.
I realized that my soul chose all the circumstances of my life. Obviously, my ego didn't choose to suffer. Speaking from the perspective of my soul, I saw how I planned this life in order to accomplish my goals.
Until we accept that our souls chose the circumstances of our lives, we think that we are victims, and we believe that something went wrong. The ego can't take responsibility because it didn't choose the experiences in the first place.
It can be difficult to believe that your soul has your best interests at heart, especially when it asks you to do things that are very challenging. Faith is the willingness to experiment. If you want to know if you are on the right track, you have to do an experiment. Knowledge comes from experience.
The Higher Self
The soul needs the ego/personality in order to progress. This is contrary to the common teaching that the ego is bad and should be gotten rid of.
My experience of enlightenment in the Third Rank of Tozan was profound, and it was difficult to come back to the ego afterwards because I could see its dysfuntion so clearly, which was painful. Eventually, I came to understand why my higher self loved me so much. This gave me more insight into the mirror kensho that I had many years before.
The higher self is the soul's highest potential - what the soul is working towards. An encounter with your higher self is a life-changing experience that helps you understand what you are capable of.
As the soul struggles with the ego, it learns and grows. Our job is to help the ego mature. It's like a parent helping a child to mature. The qualities of the higher self are what we are reaching for.
"Soul development should take precedence over all things." ~Edgar Cayce
You came into this world with nothing, and you will leave with nothing except for a more developed soul.
Working on All The Bodies
We can work on the physical body with diet and exercise. We can work on the etheric body by doing energy work, chakra balancing or Qi Gong. We can work on the astral body by practicing lucid dreaming and out-of-body experiences. OBE practitioners lose the fear of death as they practice separating their awareness from the physical body in order to explore the astral plane.
It is even possible to experience pure awareness. This was a profound experience for me. I put myself into a trance and deconstructed myself until everything vanished except for pure awareness.
I started by repeating the question over and over, "Who am I?" Physical sensations vanished as I went into the state of "body asleep, mind awake." I kept going deeper and deeper. Finally, the last sounds and images of the astral plane vanished as I went beyond the astral into pure awareness.
This state was absolute "no-thing-ness" - like outer space with no stars. There was awareness, but no objects of awareness. I don't know how long I was in this state because there was no sense of time.
Then I saw a flash of light like a supernova exploding out of the darkness, and everything began to come back in reverse order, piece by piece, until I was "re-incarnated" as my whole self again. When the last layer (the ego) came back, I exclaimed, "Oh, my gosh! That was amazing!!"
Having an intellectual understand and having an experience are two different things. I often have spontaneous experiences first, and then I go looking for explanations.
You can also read about a concept and then have your own experience to verify the truth. I wrote this website in the hope of encouraging you to have your own experiences.
The concepts and terminology in this article came from a variety of sources, including the Zen tradition, Western philosophy, anthroposophy, and the writings of Ken Wilber and Michael Newton. Here's a video with Dr. Michaela Glockler that covers many aspects of anthroposophy from anthroposophical medicine through past lives and karma. Here's a video by Matt Kahn that explains the purpose of the ego and how to help it mature through multiple lifetimes.
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