Dying While Living

Author: Brian Walsh
Publisher: MSAC Philosophy Group
Publication date: 1991

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.

Dying While Living

The history of philosophy and religion abounds with descriptions from romantics and visionaries who vehemently proclaim that "man's common consciousness is only a shadow of reality": witness Plato's Cave, Dostoevsky's Underground, and Plotinus, who said, "Insofar as the soul is in the body it rests in deep sleep" ( Plotinus III, V.6.).

What does Plotinus mean by this statement? Does he echo Euripides, who would have us consider physical death and thereafter as "life" and corporeal existence no more than a dream? Or is Plotinus emphasizing that knowledge is primarily attained through disembodied experience? If the latter is true, what is the significance of Gautama Buddha's "Death conquers all, so conquer death"; Mohammed's "Die before ye [*NOTE: Frederick Holch, Death and Eastern Thought (New York: Abingdon Press, 1974), page 122. *] die" ( Sura 3:27 ); and Christ's "Learn to die, that you may begin live."

The issue put forth by mystics, philosophers, and legendary religious figures is that humans are not conscious of their very selves--the soul, or that principle of divinity which is in tune with the One. For if one were to have this knowledge, the mysteries of life and death would become apparent. If one knew oneself as spirit, death would lose its surprise--its sting. Hence the mystical dictum "die while living."

Enigmatic as this phrase, "die while living," may be, it is claimed by philosophers and mystics alike to be the solution to end human suffering and the riddle of consciousness. As we shall see, this precept is interpreted in various ways, and each of these symbolizes a stage on the path to enlightenment. For instance, "dying while living" can be said to represent the struggle to attain virtue, i.e., thought to enhance humility and compassion, as well as grounding one in the ethical base--so crucial to spiritual development. "Dying" in this instance suggests detachment from desires of sensate living.

Dying while living can mean a release from the psychological boundaries of mind and matter and a spiritual flight into the transcendental regions of the sublime. Here the pilgrim sees himself apart from the body and begins to acquire self-knowledge. Lastly, this maxim denotes the imagery of merger, annihilation, and complete surrender of identity in bhakti. It is at this stage of union between lover and Beloved that the ultimate death or culmination is realized.

To begin the task of illustrating the above components of dying while living , a systematic review of surat shabd yoga (lit., "union of the soul's attention with the sound current") will serve to organize the esoteric features involved with the art of withdrawing the soul from the body. This yoga was introduced by Kabir and the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak. [*NOTE: See W.H. McLeod, Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), page 157. Although the actual physical meeting of Kabir and Nanak is doubtful, they are placed in the same spiritual tradition. *] Sant Kirpal Singh (1894-1974), a contemporary master of this school whose writings constitute the theme of this paper, will be consulted repeatedly for clarification on the subject.

After a comparison of the tenets of the yoga of dying while living with several traditions, an attempt will be made to align these principles to a universal view of immortality and salvation. That is, to translate the aspects of dying while living into prerequisites for the reception into eternal life.

Surat Shabd Yoga

In his works on comparative religion, Sant Kirpal Singh traces [*NOTE: See Kirpal Singh, The Crown of Life (Delhi: Ruhani Satsang, 1970) and Naam or Word (Tilton, New Hampshire: Sant Bani Press, 1974). *] the evidence of the spiritual principles Light and Sound to be the primary manifestations of God into created form. These two principles are said to sustain creation as well as the human body through varying degrees of spirit and matter. In sant metaphysics there are five main sounds, or melodies ( panch shabd ), which represent the inner planes of consciousness. A sant (saint) is one who has contacted the shabd (sound or word as divine communication) through the grace of the guru and, reversing the action of creation, follows the sound current to its positive-pole or fifth plane, Sach Khand :

Kabir, the Guru hath shown the current issuing forth from the Unapproachable; Turning that current back and joining it to the Lord remember Him. [*NOTE: P.D. Barthwal, Tradition of Indian Mysticism Based Upon Nirguna School of Hindi Poetry (New Delhi: Heritage Publishers, 1978), page 93. *]

The negative pole is the material universe, a region where the spiritual light and sound vibrations are veiled by gross matter. The human body is a microcosm in which these two "poles" operate as soul and body. The light and sound energy is held to radiate from the intangible soul which has its seat behind and between the two eyebrows (known as tisra til ) and spreads itself downward into the body. Like a battery, the power-pack of the soul uses two currents to sustain its charge in the body. These are the motor and sensory currents. The motor current is responsible for nourishing the bodily tissues and growth of hair, finger-nails, etc. This current is said to be the product of subtle or pranic energy used in the disciplines of hatha and kundalini yoga. The method of surat shabd yoga , however, does not involve the motor current, as this energy and its intensification is thought to be burdensome on the physical body as well as extremely difficult to master or control. [*NOTE: Another argument presented by Sant Kirpal Singh is that the current radiating from the "third eye" reaches the body chakras (literally, wheel, pockets of nerve ganglia situated at vital points of the body which function as pranic energy transducers for the vitalization of the individual. These centers are the focal point for various Tantric Yoga methods) from above, not below. Kundalini Yoga, for instance, begins at the base of the spine and works its way upward. Masters of surat shabd yoga maintain that if the goal is to go inside the soul, one should only focus at its seat. Further, prana is not pure spirit and thus not as easily withdrawn as the sensory current (Kirpal Singh, The Crown of Life , page 163). *] Therefore, sants teach the withdrawal of the sensory current. This current is best understood when considering the fact of surat (attention) as the outer workings of the inverted soul. The sensory current gives stimulus to feelings and perceptions, emotion, and brain-mind consciousness. It is the life-breath which withdraws slowly from the body at death, leaving numbness in its exit.

The practice of inverting one's gaze at the point between the eyes is the art of directing the sensory or soul currents to one point (the seat of the soul) for collection and penetration into the esoteric "tenth gate" (the aperture within the head at the back of the eyes as opposed to the "nine doors" or lower bodily orifices). Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of the Sikhs, comments: Closing down the nine doors, seek ye the tenth that leads to thy True Home. There the ceaseless Music plays round the clock and can be heard through the Master's Dispensation. [*NOTE: Majh M3, Guru Granth Sahib, translated by Kirpal Singh in Naam or Word , page 153. *]

Sant Kirpal Singh sums up:

We have, in brief, to stop the energy flowing out through the sense organs, particularly the eyes, ears, and tongue and concentrate it at the still-point in the body, the center of the soul, leaving the mind high and dry, before we can listen to the Music of the soul in its fullness. [*NOTE: Kirpal Singh, The Crown of Life , page 151. *]

Surat shabd yoga is often called sehaj or the "easy way." It is held to be the most accessible and natural of yogas, as anyone can become a practitioner and enjoy its fruit. As Kirpal Singh points out:

The method of transcendental hearing is only an extension of our normal daily practice. When we are faced with some knotty problem, our entire conscious energies tend to focus at one point--the seat of the soul--without affecting pranic-motor energies functioning automatically in our body. [*NOTE: Kirpal Singh, op. cit., page 164. *]

A Comparative Overview Of The Soul

Withdrawal or dying to the body in meditation is found in a variety of traditions, both East and West. Of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus believed the soul to move all the parts of the body at will and compared the soul to a spider which rushes to any part of its web which is damaged. [*NOTE: Kirk and Raven, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers (London: 1957), page 207. *] Socrates said "I am not my body," and it is clear from Plato's Phaedo that the soul is what animates the body; however, it is not completely immersed in it, for a part of psyche always remains in the world of the intelligible. Plato hints that the soul dwells in the head and the separation of body and soul is a process which brings about the transformation to the world of the intelligibles.

For Plato, the aim of philosophy is to gain experience in loosening the bonds of the soul in order to prepare oneself for death. [*NOTE: C.A. Van Peursen, Body, Soul, Spirit: A Survey of the Body-Mind Problem (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), page 38. *] Plato's characterization of philosophy as "learning to die," is voiced by Socrates:

Those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for death and dying. . . A man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished. [*NOTE: In "Phaedo," The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), page 46. *]

The true philosopher pursues the soul as if rehearsing for death. Knowledge of the soul's condition after death may be experienced presently through withdrawal and detachment from the body. For Plato, the epistemological issue is clear: sense perception restricts and defiles the soul and keeps it away from contact with truth, as truth cannot be known by way of the physical senses. Freedom is to be found in dying to the desire of worldly allurements. The practice of philosophy (withdrawal) keeps the soul pure and worthy of virtue.

Turning to the East, in Jainism the jiva (soul) is thought to be the size of the body it occupies, as it fills the body in a manner similar to a lamp light a room it occupies. Shankara, the great Indian non-dualist philosopher, speaks of the Atman as a controlling witness: That Reality sees everything by its own light. No one sees it. It gives intelligence to the mind and the intellect, but no one gives it light. Because of its presence, the body, senses, mind and intellect apply themselves to their respective functions, as though obeying its command. [*NOTE: Shankara's Crest Jewel of Discrimination , translated by Swami P. and Christopher Isherwood (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1947), page 52. *]

Parrinder (1973) points out that in Samkhya belief, the Bhagavadgita , and the Upanishads , an "embodied self" dehin (formed or molded) represents the individual soul as opposed to the Atman , or universal soul. Writes Parrinder: This embodied soul can be deluded or led astray by desire, or bound by the three Qualities of Nature, though in essence it is unchanging and can gain immortality by overcoming these bonds. [*NOTE: Geoffrey Parrinder, The Indestructible Soul (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), page 31. *]

Lord Krishna in the Gita explains: Holding all these in check let him sit, controlled, intent on me: for he whose senses are restrained possesses steadfast wisdom. [*NOTE: The Bhagavadgita , translated by W. Douglas P. Hill (Madras: Oxford University Press, 1966), page 92. *]

Persian mystic Jalalu'ddin Rumi gave the analogy between body and soul as that of milk and butter: "The butter is invisible, and becomes conspicuous and tasty only after separating it from the milk by different tribulations and finally death." [*NOTE: Annmarie Schimmel, The Triumphant Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalalu'ddin Rumi (London: Fin Books Ltd., East-West Publishers, 1978), page 141. *]

The spiritual aspirant must conquer or master the senses, as it follows that without such discipline one has little hope for self-realization. The Katha Upanishad emphasizes that reason and discrimination are the tools one must use for such control. The following excerpt illustrates the process where manas (mind) and buddhi (intellect) facilitate control: Know thou that Jiva Atma as seated in the chariot, the body even as the car; the Buddhi, as the driver and Manas as the reins. The wise say that the senses are the horses and the objects their roads; they also say that the Atma, joined with the senses and the mind (only, but devoid of Buddhi) is the sufferer. But he who discriminates, and has Manas always harmonised, his senses are controlled, like the good horses of the driver. [*NOTE: "The Katha Upanishad," in The Sacred Books of the Hindus (Volume One, Second Edition, 1974), pages 166-167. *]

Prem (1955) comments on the Katha Upanishad : As long as we allow our Light to flow out into objects of desire and bind ourselves to them by the bonds of attraction and repulsion, so long that Light is identified with the objects and seems to share in their transiency. [*NOTE: Sri Krishna Prem, The Yoga of the Kathopanishad (London: Pitnam Press, 1955), pages 166-167. *]

The problem, as shown in the Sant and Sikh conception of the "nine doors" and "tenth gate," and further expressed by Rumi in his notion of the soul as a lamp which illumines the "spouts" of the senses, [*NOTE: Schimmel, op. cit., page 264. *] is that the soul's light is primarily identified with the senses and does not gather its wits to know its own substance. This light, as depicted in the Katha Upanishad's analogy of the horses (senses) swaying from one side of the road (sense-objects) to the other, can hardly enjoy a smooth ride (i.e., the knowledge of self) without first controlling its course.

Eliza Gregory Wilkins (1979), in her study of the Delphic maxim "Know Thyself," attributes several Socratic interpretations to the inscription, yet regards the notion of "knowing one's soul" as central to its true meaning. [*NOTE: Eliza Gregory Wilkins, "Know Thyself in Greek and Latin Literature (New York: Garland Publishers, 1979), page 60. *] As Socrates taught: As the eye can see itself by looking into another eye, so the soul to know itself must look at soul, and especially at the part of it in which the virtue of soul exists, namely wisdom. . . This part of the soul is like to God, and anyone looking at this and knowing all that is divine. . . Looking to God we would use Him as the fairest mirror, and looking also into virtues of the human soul--in this way would we see and know ourselves best. [*NOTE: Wilkins, op. cit., page 61. *]

Socrates was emphatic about such vision and felt one must be able to distinguish between soul and body, or "the self, and things of the self," in order to speak about such matters and "be a competent leader of men." [*NOTE: Ibid. *] In the same context, Porphyry is quoted: Unless thou dost keep thy body joined to these only as the outer membrane is joined to the child in the womb, and as the sheath is joined to the sprouting grain, thou wilt not know thyself. [*NOTE: Ibid., page 65 *]

Philo Judeus, the Alexandrian Jew who through the use of allegory depicted the Torah as a guide to inner realization and transcendence, suggested that God's command to Abraham to migrate meant in symbolic terms to "depart from his country and his kindred, the outward senses, which means to be alienated from them in one's thought--to treat them as subjects, to learn to rule and not be ruled by them." [*NOTE: Wilkins, page 62. Also see Philo: Questions and Answers of Genesis , translated by Ralph Marcus, Ph.D., (Loeb Philo supplementary volume, London: Harvard University Press, MCMLIII). *] Here Philo combines the aforementioned "puritanical dying" with the "withdrawal dying" to illustrate the former necessitating spiritual flight: Depart out of the earthly matter that encompasses thee: escape, man, from the foul prison house thy body, with all thy might and main, and from the pleasures of lusts that act as jailers; that thous hast lent and to have thine own possession about thee, letting no portion of them be alienated and fall into other hands, thou shalt claim instead a happy life, enjoying in perpetuity the benefit and pleasure derived from good things not foreign to thee but thine own. [*NOTE: Hans Lewy, Philo (Great Britain: Phaidon Press, Ltd., MCMXLVI), page 72. *]

Philo interprets "See, see that I am" ( Deut. 32.39) as proof that God resides within one's soul and wishes us to "Behold my subsistence." Jesus exalts his disciples to seek the Kingdom of God within, for "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" ( John 16.24). Similarly, saints and mystics from every tradition have beckoned man to "SEE," or open the windows of the soul. Sant Kirpal Singh observes: The highest aims of all religions is to see God, and that you can do only in the (human form) man-body and nowhere else. It is a matter of seeing, not of emotions, feelings, or drawing inferences, which are subject to error. Seeing is above all. [*NOTE: Kirpal Singh, Man! Know Thyself (Delhi: Sawan Ruhani Mission, 1976). *]

As the ethical life of the spiritual aspirant prepares and precedes withdrawal from bodily consciousness, so too does self-knowledge lead the way to God-realization. Once one sees by way of practical self-analysis that he not the body, subtler deaths, i.e., false notions of self, must ensue.

Each tradition has esoteric jargon which describes the inner regions. For instance, the Sufis call them "stations" with two main stages: Fana-fil-Sheik , or merger with one's Murshid, or Spiritual Master, and Fana-fil-Allah , which is the ultimate union with God. In Buddhism we find "Buddha-fields" and the lofty goal of Buddhahood. St. Paul's ecstatic experience described as "whether in the body or out of the body" he was "caught up to the third heaven" ( 2 Cor. 12.2-3). Typical to such merger mysticism is self-surrender. The idea that one must know oneself before one can lose self-identity is epitomized in the anecdote of the necessity of the fruit being ripe before falling to the ground. Likewise, ego-death, or fana (annihilation) precedes baqa (eternal life) in Sufism. The apostle speaks of this way in the Bible: For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me ( Gal. 1:19-20).

The devotee surrenders his own will to become a participant in the Divine Will. The imagery of lover lost in the Beloved is a feature common to many spiritual paths. Rumi describes the submission involved: The one whose neck the Beloved cuts, will become long necked; The one whose harvest He burns, will gain a rich harvest. [*NOTE: Schimmel, op. cit., page 324. *]

Of paramount importance is the Spiritual Master; The Godman is the guide to the formless Creator, as Kabir states: The master and the Lord are one and the same. It is only the form that makes the difference; Obliterate the Ego, die while living and ye shalt find the Creator. [*NOTE: Barthwal, op. cit., page 121. *]

The spiritual guide is well-documented in religion and need not be a central focus here except to point out the theme of a divine go-between from God to man. Such Masters lead the way homeward as in Mahayana Buddhism, which describes the attainment of nirvana as a "crossing-over" with aid of the celestial Bodhisattvas who "ferry-across" those beings still caught in samsara (rebirth). [*NOTE: Alfred Braunthal, Salvation and the Perfect Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979), page 44. *]

The contemporary field of Comparative Religious Studies is reaching a period of economical scope not thought possible in times past. The East meets West, but with careful scrutiny regarding both dogmatic authority and literal simplification. The pattern which consistently weaves together schools of religious thought is the often cryptic and always mysterious esoteric thread. David Goleman, in his Varieties of Meditative Experiences , notes a commonality throughout: The goal of all meditative systems, whatever their ideological orientation or source, and whichever of the three main types (insight, concentrative, and interactive), is to transform the waking state through the fruits of practice-- to die to the life of ego and be reborn to a new level of experience. [*NOTE: David Goleman, Varieties of Meditative Experiences (New York: Dutton, 1977), page 155. *]

In the World Religions, the Eastern cultures teach a path of enlightenment or discovery through inner liberation. On the other hand, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are predominantly focused on revelation and the path of discovery through relationship with the deity of salvation. Both obviously share aspects of these general distinctions. Oxtoby (1973) asks the pertinent question of whether we can speak of salvation as primarily a quest of man or as an act of God. [*NOTE: William G. Oxtoby, "Reflections on the idea of salvation," in Man and his Salvation , edited by Eric J. Sharpe and John Hinnells (London: Manchester University Press, 1973), page 36. *] Although it is true that the Savior, Satguru, Avatar, Prophet, etc., is inherent to and ultimately responsible for the individual's salvation in many traditions, we are concerned here with man's role in the ordeal of positioning himself to be saved or liberated.

The Great Liberation, or release from the human condition, in Eastern religion may be at least metaphorically related to the Western concept of salvation. Oxtoby traces the the etymology of the Hebrew root "to save" as involving "breath or spaciousness, hence ease or lack of constraint." [*NOTE: Oxtoby, op. cit., page 18 *] In this connection, it could be said that similar descriptions of heaven or paradise are found in both revelatory and liberational traditions. The discontinuity between the concepts of salvation and liberation are based, among other things, on the notion that in certain Buddhist and Hindu thought one is not perfecting one's personality, but eliminating it by extinction. Vesci (1970) states, "To speak about "redemption," reconstruction, rehabilitation, has no meaning at all in such cases." [*NOTE: Uma Marina Vesci, "Man's Salvation: The Goal of All Religions," Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Temple University, Volume Seven, Number One, 1970), page 104. *]

Undoubtedly, mortification and asceticism can be viewed as the negative way or the path of extreme denial. Such practice is a part of history in both the East and the West. It should be noted that the Buddha recommended the "middle-way," the path of "living in the world but not of it," as did the medieval sant Dadu Sahib: Neither we abandon, nor we attach ourselves (to the world), such is our enlightened thought. Saith Dadu, we reach the door of salvation by following the middle course. [*NOTE: Barthwal, op. cit., page 100. *]

The extinction of personality in Buddhism can be traced to the Pali Canon's descriptions of the Arhat , or perfect disciple, who was said to cease to exist after death, neither reborn in heaven or hell, becoming inconceivable and indefinable. [*NOTE: Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (London: Kegan Paul, 1932), pages 2-4. *] Buddhist leaders led a reform movement against the ascetic arhats who, they felt, did not practice the ideal of Buddha's "middle-way." Thus started the birth of the Bodhisattva doctrine and revitalization of second century Buddhism. [*NOTE: Ibid. *]

The general motif of liberation in Eastern tradition, although couched in vernacular terms such as "annihilation," "extinction," "an ego-death," and so on, is certainly one which must also be "released" or "delivered" from illusion through a process of "redemption" or "rebirth." The very foundation of yoga and meditation in Hindu and Buddhist conceptions must be aligned to the most fervent of moral and ethical development. Mircea Eliade (1958) explains Yoga as a means of transcendence which is found whenever the goal is "experience of the sacred or the attainment of self-mastery." [*NOTE: Mircea Eliade, Yoga , translated by Willard R. Trask, page 360. *]

Yogic self-mastery is indeed a process which perfects the personality. If virtue is a criterion, one could argue that surat shabd yoga is a practice of raising one's attention to perceive and become one with the source of it. Likewise, it appears the East seeks to lost the false self through the imagery of dying into a greater Self, whereas the West prefers to pierce false assumptions to be "reborn" in the revelation of God. The lives of saints and seers of all faiths bear testimony to this contrast in semantics.


This paper has observed that those steeped in knowledge of self and God meet on the road to transcendence. Great distinctions can be drawn, however, if one chooses to look with fixed eyes on the concept of salvation. The crucial one, as far as attempting to establish universal stages to immorality such as the idea of truth and virtue being principles derived through inversion, is the danger of accepting "The Judgment Day" as a statement which says "I must wait til then." Although the doctrines of Islam and Christianity maintain that salvation may not be obtained in this lifetime, "redemption" and the bounties of spiritual grace can. Buddhists, in this regard, distinguish two types of nirvana : one attainable during embodiment, the other upon death. [*NOTE: Holch, op. cit., page 129. *] Schweitzer (1931) points out that "Being in Christ," "the prime enigma of Pauline teaching," is conceived as "having died and risen with Him, in consequence of which the participant has been freed from sin and from the Law, possesses the Spirit of Christ, and is assured resurrection." [*NOTE: Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle , translated by William Montgomery (New York: Holt and Company, 1931), page 3. *] The point made here is: if one can earn, bring to be, or receive heaven on earth while living a simple life of earnest spiritual practice and detachment (while remaining in the world--having a job and a family, etc.), one should do it . Whatever salvation may ultimately be, the unity of spiritual teaching rests in the day-to-day alchemical ordeal of "dying while living." The unity of humankind is bonded through the advances made to uplift consciousness (which manifests in personality). These inner steps are rewarded universally by the presence of the Immortal Spirit within.

E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.