Die before ye die Hadith attributed to Nabi
If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die Inscription over a door at St. Paul’s monastery in Mount Athos
The death and rebirth motif in religion is really the key and the sum total of spiritual experience, from per-historic shamanism to modern-day NRGs (New Religious Groups). “Death” here clearly doesn’t refer to physical death, and neither can it refer to loss of consciousness, since the process of death and rebirth is experienced by a conscious subject. If “feels” like a death, even though nobody can possibly know what death feels like, if anything. And it “feels” like a rebirth, even though no one can remember what their birth was like.
There is a mystery here, which is, appropriately enough, the mystery of the mystics. The anonymous fourtheenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing didn’t speak in terms of death and rebirth, but in terms of forgetting and remembering. This is perhaps a more realistic, although less dramatic metaphor. By forgetting who you are in a “cloud of forgetting”, you enter a “cloud of unknowing” between you and God, which is the only way to gnosis, the direct experiential knowing, the anamnesis or “unforgetting”, of who you are and who God is, which is ultimately found to be the same thing. In other words, you forget your identity as a human being and remember your identity as God, or in the stronger language of death and rebirth, you die as a human being and are reborn as God.
Mysticism is dedicated to exploring this process of theosis or deification. For those who are open to such heights of spiritual ambition, it is presented as the pinnacle of human achievement, as the final goal of the spiritual quest. However, since you don’t physically die, you inevitably come back down to Earth (what goes up must come down). You forget that you are God and remember that you are a human being.
But you are changed. You’re not exactly the same human being as you were before your death and rebirth escapade. You feel refreshed, revived, rebooted. It’s as if your operating system was running sluggishly and someone turned you off and on again. Perhaps part of your brain has been temporarily shut down, perhaps your left hemisphere or your default mode network. Who knows? The important thing is that you feel more alive than you did when you started.
The way up is not easy, but neither is the way down. Both need to be mastered if religion is to make any real difference in your life. The way up depends on the classical spiritual disciplines of meditation and prayer, in other words, mysticism, which could be summed up as “the way of self-forgetting”. The way down is “the way of self-remembering” or “self-re-membering”. That is, the art of putting yourself back together again.
When you forget yourself, when you can say with Dogen Zenji, “bodymind dropped!”, awareness is clear and pristine with no intermediary thoughts, feelings or sensations separating you from the world. But as body and mind return, they can either do so in a confused, chaotic rush, or in an orderly, controlled and disciplined unfolding.
The controlled return passes through five distinct stages: first to return is the inner experience of being alive, the inner somatic movements of energy and sensation; next the musculature of the body and the rediscovery of physical movement; then feelings and emotions; then thoughts; and finally a sense of self. These five stages correspond to the hierarchical organisation of the nervous system and brain, passing through the reptilian brain stem through the limbic system and the neo-cortex.
In other words, we re-member ourselves step-wise, in a bottom-up fashion. From absorption in the pure awareness of the mystic (dhyana yoga), we re-emerge from the cloud of unknowing, are reborn, as a shaman (through kundalini yoga), a warrior (karma yoga), a monk or nun (bhakti yoga), a philosopher (jnana yoga) and a king or queen (raja yoga). We rediscover our energetic beingness, then our bodies, then our hearts, then our minds and finally our souls. Except that all of these aspects of who we are are made new, cleansed and purified of toxicity, of ego, of sin. We are reborn not of the flesh, but of the spirit.
So if you’re feeling sluggish and cramped in your own skin, if you’re feeling less than fully alive, as if you were carrying around the accumulated rubbish of the past, you know what to do.