Fearsome Thanatos, harbinger of death,
With Hypnos, his brother, conveys man to rest.




Contemplation of death conjures up images of disintegration, dismemberment, flying apart.  In consciousness journeys, the dreamer may be sucked through a swirling vortex into a profound blackness--black that is blacker than black--cold and utterly empty.  This state of nothingness feels different to individuals, depending on their personal experience with various aspects of death.

Thanatos-consciousness may be an encounter with an apocalyptic whirlwind which rends one limb-from-limb, then fragments the sense of self even further down to cellular, genetic, and atomic consciousness.  The imagery of apocalypse and natural disaster surfaces as the ego glimpses its immanent doom.  The dance of Death is a whirlwind of transformation.  Ego-death is a requirement for opening to the broader realm of transpersonal reality.  It heralds a change in the form of consciousness.

The crux of this consciousness process is reaching the creative state of undifferentiated consciousness.  It is in this state that old primal self images dissolve, and from it the new ones form.  It is a death because at the deepest levels we define ourselves by this image and what it has created and frozen into our lives.  It ultimately means the dismemberment of our former personality and life patterns.  We are it and it is our death when it dissolves into the infinite possibilities of chaotic consciousness.  This unformed consciousness--which we often mistake for death-- is really the essence of our vitality and life force.  It is the energy we can use to recreate ourselves in every instant of time.  It reaches our awareness through dreams (Hypnos) and the flow of our imagination.

Yielding to ego-death leads to this consciousness, whether it comes through therapy or a spontaneous near-death experience (N.D.E.) or a closely witnessing death. This consciousness can result from a brush with one's own death or that of another.  Dissolving is a death that opens into a field of unformed consciousness with infinite creative possibilities.  But we must go through the fear and pain which surrounds this experience to reach this consciousness state.

There may be sensations of falling, or floating-falling, or flying off in all directions at once.  Eventually all parts of the self are dismembered by the centrifugal forces experienced in the vortex.  With a sweep of His scythe, the unseen specter of death cuts us down utterly.  Sensations of spinning and being drawn deeper create intense dizziness and disorientation, even nausea.  Dismemberment in the spiral often leads to a sense of being "no-thing."

The experience of another's natural death is awesome, as is that of birth.  Being there, one finds that at that amazing moment there is a giant dilation in the flow of time; a window opens into that other vast realm which is slow to close.  It may capture part of oneself for a time, creating a mini-death, or death-in-life.  The changes which ensue may be voluntary or involuntary.  It may trigger a regression as well as a profound opening to transpersonal awareness.  Particularly when a parent or child of ours dies, we are permanently changed in ways we may never have imagined.  Some of them have to do with what we imagine or believe the nature of death and an afterlife to be.

In myth, Thanatos or Death, naturally supplied Hades with his subjects.  Thanatos is the son of Night, who in turn was born from Chaos.  The godform of Thanatos is pictured alternatively as dressed in a black robe holding the fatal sword, or as a winged spirit, resembling his twin brother Hypnos, or Sleep.  Hypnos also lives in the underworld.  He induces the little death of sleep with his magic wand or by fanning his dark wings.

In eastern mysticism, death is personified in feminine form as the dreaded and dreadful goddess Kali.  Her cult was portrayed in the blockbuster movie INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  Graveyards or cemeteries are the haunts of this bloodthirsty goddess.  Her image is built of a myriad of skulls and bones.  Tantric Buddhists contemplate her, and their own personal demise, by visualizations of rotting corpses, or meditating in graveyards where the remains are strewn about.  They seek liberation of their human souls through immortality.

Shiva, the Destroyer, consort of Kali Ma is the masculine form of this force.  Shiva is the prince of demons, who brings pestilence and death. Paradoxically, he is also the slayer of demons.  He is the dissolver of outworn forms--destroyer of all things.  Shiva's dance is a process of universal creation and destruction, a symbol of the reconciliation of opposites. This powerful unbridled erratic force also carries archetypal healing capacity within its pattern.  This archetypal drive was the theme of Gore Vidal's KALKI.

In our modern society, questions of life and death create issues such as moral positions on suicide, abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment.  These questions bear directly ont who we are and shall be.  Mankind is also wiping our entire species from the face of the earth daily.  The Biblical injunction "Thou shalt not kill," has been misinterpreted as "Thou shalt not murder thy fellow human beings," while the pointless slaughter of animals for exploitation continues.  Spiritual teachers tell us that all life is sacred.

As an archetype, Thanatos represents a fundamental soul-quality present in the psyche.  From this perspective all life aims toward natural transformation and recycling through the process of death.  The soul gains knowledge of itself, not only through love, intellect, and madness, but also by reflection on the great unknowable which lies past the gates of death.  The sorcerer's apprentice Carlos Casteneda was cautioned to keep death as his constant companion, always referring any powerful decisions to this touchstone of meaning.  How differently we might act if we reflected on our actions in light of the constant possibility of immanent death.

Psychologist Sigmund Freud spent as much of his career reflecting on death and the physical pathology of the body as he did obsessing on sexual motivation.  He not only contemplated it in his patients' behaviors and fantasies, but in his own as well.  He was phobic about cancer, which he later contracted in the mouth and jaws from years of smoking.  As the father of depth psychology which focuses on the symbolic underworld, he introduced us to the world of Thanatos and Hades.

Freud pointed out that "pathologizing" is a metaphorical language of the psyche, allowing it to deliteralize the events of our daily life.  Psychopathologies had been considered trivial, but Freud showed that they contained a previously invisible depth of meaning.  The nature of that meaning revealed the profound relationship of death to life. Dreams, symptoms, and afflictions became the inroads into the dark realm of the subconscious.

Freud resurrected the intimate symbolic connection between soul and death for Westerners. Eastern religions had never lost this connection.  He showed how the perspectives of Hades and Thanatos dissolve the organic, social, and emotional aspects of human life.  Fantasies of putrefaction, decay, sickness, compulsion, and suicidal impulses disclose this psychological perspective which seeks deepening.  Freud ended his own life enraptured or fascinated with this train of thought.

In Tarot, the Death card means being stuck in old patterns, needing to eliminate restrictive habits, beliefs, blocks and outworn ways.  This painful uprooted may involve eliminating people or things from your past.  The uprooting of habits is surgically cutting yourself free for entrance, assimilation and integration into a new state.  It is liberation and renewal which makes new growth possible.  Deep emotions can be like a "little death", as in intense sexual experience.  Giving up one's sense of self means merging with another or Cosmos, cutting through superficialities, butting to the bone.  Our energy is radically transformed from one shape or form to another.


The food-chain extends beyond the notion of  "Nature red-in-tooth-and-claw" to the cosmic and intergalactic levels.  As in the sea, the 'little fish' are eaten by the 'bigger fish,' and Death awaits all forms in their own time-scale.

By 1998, astrophysicists were fairly confident they had detected a massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and they dubbed it the Great Annihilator.  Black holes are massive stellar objects whose gravitational fields cause the space and time around them to fold in upon itself—creating a so-called singularity from which nothing, not even light, can escape.  Fountains of ejected antimatter were detected by 2001, and despite competing theories, such as gravastars, black holes are now widely presumed to lie concealed in the hearts of most, if not all galaxies.  The galactic core is viewed from Earth through the constellation Sagittarius, and the Annihilator is known as Sgr A Star.

Something hugely massive is at the center of the Milky Way, acting like a galactic puppeteer by providing the tremendous gravity needed to tug at stars with invisible strings. If it is in fact a black hole, then it must meet the technical definition laid out by Einstein's general theory of relativity: All its mass must be locked and hidden inside a sphere known as an event horizon, beyond which nothing -- not even light -- can escape. Just before the matter swirls into a black hole, scientists predict it will approach the speed of light and become superheated, giving off X-rays prior to entering the event horizon.

The Annihilator, a gravitational monster, has the mass of 2.6 million suns, and is smaller than an atom. The temperatures in its vicinity top 10 billion degrees.  It creates vast luminosities in its area, accelerating matter to .5 the speed of light.  But once that matter crosses the black hole's "event horizon," not even light can escape the violent gravitational well.

Tidal force creates a whirlpool, a giant accretion disk of "snacks" to feed the hungy gaping maw -- sending the "hole food" into the veritable jaws of Death.  Magnetic fields ripple through the large clouds of dust.  Antimatter shoots up from the core straight out of the disk for around 5,000 light years, then annihilates with ordinary matter in gargantuan bursts of energy.  It sucks in matter and belches radiation.

Depending on the rate of matter flow, the massive pressures also create a nursery for new stars, which is more or less active at various points in our galactic evolution.  There are what are called "Seyfert" and cosmic jewel "starburst phases" in that cyclic process.  The black hole provides star-forming shocks which compress surrounding gas and dust clouds to the point of star formation.  In Morris' theory, the galactic core goes through Seyfert, starburst and quiescent periods, which might mythopoetically be related to the cosmic cycles known as Days and Nights of Brahm.  The Milky Way is now fairly quiescent.

The Annihilator is 24,000 light-years from Earth. But astronomers had not been able to rule out another possibility, a dense cluster of dark stars.  Then, in 1999, NASA launched the Chandra X-ray Observatory.  Chandra is a telescope that orbits the earth in space.  Instead of seeing light like our eyes do, Chandra sees X-rays. The astronomers knew that as stars fall into black holes, they give off X-rays as they're being ripped apart. The hapless matter, before plunging into the abyss, becomes super dense and hot, releasing intense X-ray emissions.

So if they looked at the Milky Way's center with Chandra, and saw the right kind of X-rays, they could feel sure there was a black hole.  By September, 2001, direct observations offered the first authoritative evidence that a black hole resides in the heart of our galaxy, The Chandra detected an X-ray flare leap from the center of the Milky Way, presenting almost conclusive proof of the scientific oddity.

Large flares periodically erupt from the black hole as chunks of matter fall into it. The intense burst, heralding the fatal plunge of matter into oblivion, allowed astronomers to estimate the size of the black hole lurking in the central Milky Way at no larger than the distance between the sun and Earth.  But astronomers had not been able to rule out another possibility, a dense cluster of dark stars.  The Milky Way's black hole has been described as the 'Holy Grail' of astrophysics. Its edge, the event horizon, "separates our Universe from another world", says Melia. "Some say that when you cross the event horizon, time becomes space and space becomes time."

The Great Attractor is another cosmic structure, drawing or apparently devouring matter.  During the 1980s, a group of astronomers, dubbed the "Seven Samurai," examined these peculiar velocities and determined that a "Great Attractor" is pulling on every galaxy within a region of space 300 million light-years across. The Great Attractor is believed to be located in the direction of the constellation Virgo. The local galaxies, including the Milky Way, appear to be rushing toward it at approximately 700 kilometers per second. On the opposite side of the Great Attractor, the Samurai have identified several galaxies moving toward us, which indicates that the source of the gravitational pull is a relatively small, supermassive object.

In the 1980's, astronomers Alan Dressler, Sandra Faber, David Burstein and Gary Wegner had investigated thee motions of the Virgo cluster of galaxies, the Local Group (which contains the Milky Way), and the Hydra-Centaurus supercluster, and discovered that these vast collections of thousands of galaxies were also being tugged, gravitationally, by what appeared to be an even larger collection of matter. This collection of matter, which they estimated was located 3 times farther away than the Virgo cluster (which is 77 million light years distant) in the direction of the constellation Centaurus, was dubbed the Great Attractor.

The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are the dominant structures in a galaxy cluster called the Local Group which is, in turn, an outlying member of the Virgo supercluster. Andromeda--about 2.2 million light-years from the Milky Way--is speeding toward our galaxy at 200,000 miles per hour. This motion can only be accounted for by gravitational attraction, even though the mass that we can observe is not nearly great enough to exert that kind of pull. The only thing that could explain the movement of Andromeda is the gravitational pull of a lot of unseen mass--perhaps the equivalent of 10 Milky Way-size galaxies--lying between the two galaxies.

The team of astronomers even found that galaxies located on the other side of the Great Attractor were being pulled in by it. In other words, rather than these collections of galaxies expanding with the rest of the universe, they were being held back very slightly by the gravitational pull of the Great Attractor. Unfortunately, much of the predicted mass in the Great Attractor is hidden behind the obscurring dust and gas in the plane of our Milky Way, so it is very hard for astronomers to study this collection of objects directly; or to independently confirm that it is indeed there in the first place!

Somewhere behind the Milky Way disk, for example, are crucial parts of the two biggest structures in the nearby universe: the Perseus-Pisces supercluster of galaxies and the "Great Attractor," a gargantuan agglomeration of matter whose existence has been inferred from the motions of thousands of galaxies through space. Observations also show a tantalizing number of bright and nearby galaxies in the general direction of the disk, suggesting there are many others that go unseen.

Without knowing what lies in our blind spot, researchers cannot fully map the matter in our corner of the cosmos. This in turn prevents them from settling some of the most important questions in cosmology: How large are cosmic structures? How did they form? What is the total density of matter in the universe?  The unseen mass inhabiting the voids between the galaxies and clusters of galaxies amounts to perhaps 10 times more than the visible matter.  Even so, adding this invisible material to luminous matter brings the average mass density of the universe still to within only10-30 percent of the critical density needed to "close" the universe.

Might the universe be "open" after all? Cosmologists continue to debate this question, just as they are also trying to figure out the nature of the missing mass, or "dark matter." and "dark energy."  A River of Galaxies, to rival that of the River Styx is flowing through interstellar space.  This mass migration includes the Local Group, the Virgo Cluster, the Hydra -- Centaurus Supercluster, and other groups and clusters for a distance of at least 60 Mpc up and downstream from us. It is as if a great river of galaxies (including our own) is flowing with a swift current of 600 km/s toward Centaurus.

Calculations indicate that ~1016 solar masses concentrated 65 Mpc away in the direction of Centaurus would account for this. This mass concentration has been dubbed the Great Attractor. Detailed investigation of that region of the sky (see adjacent image of the galaxy cluster Abell 3627) finds 10 times too little visible matter to account for this flow, again implying a dominant gravitational role for unseen or dark matter. Thus, the Great Attractor is certainly there (because we see its gravitational influence), but the major portion of the mass that must be there cannot be seen in our telescopes.

Are these megastructures contemporary analogies of those from the Bible?  John describes the constellation Virgo and Hydra in Revelation 12:14 evidenced by the description he (John)used in the second half of the sign that he describes in the heavens. Indeed the constellation Hydra, sometimes called "Hydra the Serpent or the Dragon" stands before the constellation in the early morning hours in Israel in the months of September/October (see Job 26:13; Ps. 74:14; and Is. 27: 1). Here John also describes how a third of the stars of the heavens are drawn by the tail of the dragon and cast to the earth.

     [Job 26:13 By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.

     Psa 74:14 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

     Isa 27:1 In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.]

Is this mythopoetic or just a meaningless bit of information or was John given some insight to the powers and design of the cosmos? In the July, 1993 issue of Astronomy Magazine there is an article entitled, "Cosmic Tug of War" by David Burstein and Peter L. Manly. In the article, they describe this hidden force found in the constellation Centarus.  This "Great Attractor" of hidden dark matter is located in and at the very tail of "Hydra the Serpent or the Dragon." But what is most interesting is how they describe just what this "Great Attractor" is attracting or drawing to it. "Whereas galaxy clusters contain many galaxies in a small region, the Great Attractor has its many galaxies spread over an enormous volume of space. As we see it, over five thousand galaxies in the Great Attractor splay across 60 degrees of the sky, covering one-third of the southern hemisphere."

This truth about the "Great Attractor" was not officially discovered and released by scientists until 1987, but John describes this sign in the heavens the same way exactly 1900 years earlier (Rev. 12:1-4). "Our local group of galaxies, which consist of our galaxy, Andromeda, and some 30 smaller galaxies is moving at about 630 km per second towards this Great Attractor." That is about 391.5 miles per second or about 23,488.25 miles per hour.  We are being drawn toward the constellation Centarus at the tail of Hydra, which is also toward the southern Crux (The Cross). As the seven discoverers of this Great Attractor have concluded, "we will not stop falling into Virgo Supercluster and the enormous mass of the Great Attractor will increasingly draw us towards it." As we get closer and closer to the Great Attractor, it will increase its pull upon the earth. The earth and the local group that it is part of, will be caught up in this celestial tug of war. The powers that are at work in our universe are absolutely awesome.

The Great Attractor is about 200 million light-years away [see "The Large-Scale Streaming of Galaxies," by Alan Dressler; Scientific American, September 1987]. The Local Group seems to be caught in a cosmic tug of war between the Great Attractor and the equally distant Perseus-Pisces supercluster, which is on the opposite side of the sky. To know which will win the war, astronomers need to know the mass of the hidden parts of these structures. Both are components of a long chain of galaxies known as the Supergalactic Plane. The formation of such a megastructure is thought to depend on the nature of the invisible dark matter that makes up the bulk of the universe. Chains of galaxies should be more likely in a universe dominated by particles of so-called hot dark matter (such as massive neutrinos) rather than by cold dark matter (such as axions or other hypothetical particles). But astronomers cannot distinguish between these two possibilities until they map the structures fully.

The true richness and significance of this cluster has become clear in the recent searches. Kraan-Korteweg, with Patrick A. Woudt of the European Southern Observatories in Garching, Germany, has discovered another 600 galaxies in the cluster. The observed velocities of the galaxies suggest that the cluster is very massive indeed--on par with the well-known Coma cluster, an agglomeration 10,000 times as massive as our galaxy. At long last, astronomers have seen the center of the Great Attractor. Along with surrounding clusters, this discovery could fully explain the observed galaxy motions in the nearby universe.

The Milky Way, too, has its prey:  in 1994, when Rodrigo A. Ibata, then at the University of British  Columbia, Gerard F. Gilmore of the University of Cambridge and Michael J. Irwin of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge, England, who were studying stars in our Milky Way, accidentally found a galaxy right on our doorstep. Named the Sagittarius dwarf, it is now the closest known galaxy--just 80,000 light-years away from the solar system, less than half the distance of the next closest, the Large Magellanic Cloud. In fact, it is located well inside our galaxy, on the far side of  the galactic center.

Because the Sagittarius dwarf lies directly behind the central bulge of the Milky Way, it cannot be seen in direct images. Its serendipitous detection was based on velocity measurements of stars: the researchers spotted a set of stars moving differently from those in our galaxy. By pinpointing the stars with this velocity, looking for others at the same distance and compensating for the light of known foreground stars, they mapped out the dwarf. It extends at least degrees from end to end, making it the largest apparent structure in the sky after the Milky Way itself. Its angular size corresponds to a diameter of at least 28,000 light-years, about a fifth of the size of our galaxy, even though the dwarf is only a thousandth as massive.

Though it rarely comes through participation in the food chain nowadays, at the human scale, annihilation through natural or accidental death is the obvious physical expression of this Thanatos force.  DEATH has often been avoided or glossed over by Tarot commentators, who would prefer to stick to the symbolic meaning rather than stark reality; and yet somehow our culture is obsessed with death.  Our society is making strides towards overcoming the phobic or denial response through such infrastructures as the hospice movement.  Death and Dying is not surrounded by such taboo as it once was.  The fact is that death is a natural part of life, and contains its own beauty, meaning, and vision.

Symptoms associated with this archetype of being seized down into the underworld, not only include death, but also appear in coma and the sleep disorders of Narcolepsy and Catalepsy.  In narcolepsy, a person falls profoundly asleep with no warning during any activity.  It is characterized by specific brain patterns.  Catalepsy literally means "to seize down."  Consciousness and feeling are suddenly and temporarily lost, while the muscles become rigid as in rigor mortis.  There is no response to external stimuli, so in the past cataleptics were mistaken for dead and sometimes buried.  Edgar Allen Poe used catalepsy as the theme in PREMATURE BURIAL, playing on the horrific primal fear of "living death."

In physics, Thanatos may be symbolized in the natural universe by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Entropy or Disorder.  Briefly, this law describes how in the long-run there is certainty that order will give way to disorder in any closed system, macrocosmic or microcosmic.  All earthly life involves organisms which function as closed systems, which are subject to the loss of order.  Therefore, physical death is inevitable.  That which takes form, ultimately dissolves that form and dies.  In thermodynamics, entropy means that all energy seeks to become evenly distributed.  It diffuses toward a neutral condition of "heat death."  In human and universal terms, warmth means life.

To retain the will to live as humans we resist diffusion, attempting to remain orderly, organized, stable, and solid.  Spiritual practice and discipline is one means of increasing order, or tapping into the life-promoting forces of negentropy (see XI THEMIS).  On more mundane levels we watch our diets to be sure we take in enough life-giving nutrient to sustain mental and emotional stability.

Yet, despite our conscious efforts, the reaper comes closer each and every day.  There is a primal instinct within us which yearns for that final goal of life, that great moment when eternity yawns wide to receive us.  Freud called it Thanatos, and contrasted it with life-promoting Eros.  Freud noticed the "longing" and drivenness toward death, which appears as self-destructive tendencies and aggression toward others.  This destructive urge is primal.  Both Jung and Freud recognized the archetypal "murderer and suicide in us."  It surfaces in images of grisly, destructive acts.

Thanatos functions within the cellular and genetic level.  Every day thousands of worn out cells die and are replaced through the process of tissue regeneration.  Our entire body is replaced about every seven years.  Another little "death" comes as sleep each night.  Thanatos inhabits our dreams as well, with images of death, torture, mutilation, and rotting.  Then in the morning we are resurrected to a seemingly new life.

Occupations associated with Thanatos include:

hospice worker

sleep therapist


The term `threshold' evokes images of entering and leaving, passages, crossings and change. It marks the point at which choices and decisions must be made in order to move on, and it would be unusual to think of it as a place to stay, a place of permanent existence. There are, however, situations in the lives of people in which transitions from an old situation to a new one, one social position to another, are hampered or cannot be completed successfully. Individuals who are caught in between two stages of development, who do not hold clearly defined positions within their social system, feel marginal, excluded, without identity nor influence.

A number of anthropological studies (by Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner and Mary Douglas) have provided insight into forms of threshold existence (liminality) in modern society and have accounted for the difficulties that individuals have to face in these positions. They have also shown, however, that individuals who are caught in such positions are usually provided with a clear view on the social structure from which they are excluded, and that they carry the potential for critique of the norms that prevail within that structure.

The threshold symbolizes an in-between position. For individuals in in-between positions, as well as the conflicts that are caused by such positions, the literal meaning of `threshold' hardly needs any specification: it is the sill of a doorway, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, which has to be crossed when entering a house. It indicates the point at which the public outside world ends and the private, familial inside world begins. In more general terms it marks the place, line or border at which a passage can be made from one space to another. Such a spatial structure has an essential influence on social interactions: relationships and social status are negotiated at the threshold, one is either rejected from or welcomed to the other side. To gain admission and step over the threshold into someone else's space means to submit to the rules that are in force in that place Social organisation decides whether we are included in or excluded from a social group, and political or religious reasons or social rank can account for the identification of a person with a certain group and space

As these examples show, the threshold can be interpreted as a symbol of division, which determines social structure and our notion of `self' and `other'. As a literal and figurative point of passage, however, the threshold also stands for change: one can step over the threshold, enter new territory and leave everything else behind. Such a change can be a shift in time, as in the expression `at the threshold of a new century'. It can also designate a decisive moment in one's personal development (`on the threshold of womanhood'), which means that one separates from a familiar situation and enters a new stage in life. In a religious context the threshold is a crucial element in initiation rites, indicating the passage from the profane to the sacred. `Initiation,' furthermore, is a term that is not exclusively used in a religious context, but appears in all fields of social life, referring to a special ritual that opens the door, as it were, to a social group or new period in life.

In a psychological context the threshold symbolises a point at which a decision must be made. Decision-making can be experienced as the overcoming of a difficulty or crisis, as the necessity to take a decisive step. The eventual change will provide the protagonist with new knowledge, he or she will undergo a development and be different from the person that he or she was before the change.

A famous example of such a change can be found in the Book of Genesis: because of their decision to eat from the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve are driven out of the Garden of Eden, which is both a territorial passage and a figurative transition as their status changes through their loss of innocence.  This is the mythological threshold where mankind lost its immortality and entered the dominion of the Lord of Death, time and mortality.  One is either "in" the paradisical garden, or "out" of the Garden.  And it is guarded by the Dweller on the Threshold whose sword will cut one down for trying to enter without mystic cache.

Decision-making is also an essential narrative element in fairy tales, where a vast number of princes or dragon killers or Bluebeard's wives have been standing in front of gates, caves and locked doors and have been losing their nerves about a decision that would bring either life or death, disaster or eternal happiness. It is interesting to note that decisions usually trigger off an irreversible process, which in many cases turns the threshold into a point of no return.

Last but not least one might also think of the magical component of the threshold in superstitious beliefs. In some cultures the threshold is considered to be a dwelling place of ghosts and the souls of the dead, who lead an existence in between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This is probably one reason why in some cultures and religions it is forbidden to step on it. In the majority of the examples above the threshold represents a point or border that divides two different elements and at which a passage can be made from the one to the other, or which simply marks a change or development in time or status.

That a passage or a change is in fact a much more complex process has been argued by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957), who investigated changes in the lives and statuses of people and the cultural or religious rites related to these changes. Van Gennep distinguishes between different sorts of changes in the life of a person and classifies them as `separation' (such as death), `transition' (e.g. pregnancy) and `incorporation' (e.g. marriage). Van Gennep points out that actually every change consists of these three forms, or phases:

phase 1


phase 2


phase 3






(from an old situation)




(into the new situation).

To perceive death, for example, as a separation (from life) rather than an incorporation (into an afterlife) clearly depends on the point of view that ascribes to one phase more importance than to the other, and also on cultural and religious beliefs.

Van Gennep shows a special interest in the transitional phase: it is the period in which a person is in-between the former and the future social position or magico-religious state. In order to illustrate his point he refers to those early times in human history when countries did not border directly on each other but were divided by a neutral zone. In this zone travellers found themselves in a special situation as neither laws of the adjoining countries applied - they "wavered between two worlds", as it were (Gennep 18). Like this territorial passage, non-territorial transitions also consist of a moment or period of uncertainty, a liminal period.  Such a period is accompanied by, or equal to, a life-crisis. `Crisis' in this context is an interesting choice of vocabulary and could easily be misinterpreted.

Van Gennep does not refer to the term in a strictly psychological sense. He uses it to indicate the unstable social or magico-religious position of the person who undergoes a change: during the transition the state of that person remains uncertain as he or she has been separated from a clearly defined state in the past and has not been incorporated yet into a clearly defined future state. Such a state that evades definition is potentially dangerous, because it represents a moment or period in which the routines of life are disrupted. As one of the consequences, the person undergoing the change has no guidelines anymore to hold on to, which might not only have a disturbing effect on that person but also on his or her surrounding. As the title of his work, The Rites of Passage, suggests, Van Gennep was not only interested in the changes in the lives of people but also in the rituals that accompany these changes. These rituals have the function to give personal, social and cultural significance to a transition. They cushion the disturbances (such as a definition vacuum) that are caused by a change and help to incorporate the individual into a new group and return him to the customary routines of life (Kimball, introduction ix).

Van Gennep's theories were further elaborated by the anthropologist Victor Turner. Turner, however, did not only focus on the investigation of ritual processes in the lives of individuals but developed a more general theory of socio-cultural processes which he applied to changes and generative processes in modern societies. He primarily concentrated on the aspect of structure in Van Gennep's concept of passage. Parallel to Van Gennep's distinction between separation - transition - incorporation, Turner differentiates between structure - anti-structure - structure.

Turner does not define structure in the Lévi-Straussian sense as a system of `unconscious' logical categories, but refers to it simply as "social structure", that is, a differentiated system of mutually dependent institutions and structural positions which may or may not be hierarchically ordered (Turner, Ritual 166). Individuals who are part of social structure are defined by their social positions, statuses and roles. Due to their position in a social network they are expected to act in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards bound up with their social position and the social system as a whole.

As soon as the state of a person is subject to change, such as in the process of maturation or at the initiation into another social position or group, this person is detached from its former position in the social structure, undergoes a process in which his or her structural attributes become temporarily ambiguous or neutralised, and finally re-emerges into social structure, usually (but not generally) at a higher status level. Turner describes the attributes of a liminar (i.e. a person in a threshold position) as necessarily ambiguous, since this condition and these persons elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. (Turner, Ritual 95)

Turner describes liminars also as structurally "invisible", by which he means that they are "no longer classified and yet not classified" (Turner, "Betwixt" 6) and therefore hard to grasp by a mind that is trained to perceive only clearly-defined objects: The subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, "invisible." As members of society, most of us see only what we expect to see, and what we expect to see is what we are conditioned to see when we have learned the definitions and classifications of our culture. A society's secular definitions do not allow for the existence of a not-boy-not-man, which is what a novice in a male puberty rite is (if he can be said to be anything). (Turner, "Betwixt" 6)

The anti-structural period described by Turner is clearly identical with Van Gennep's definition of a transitional period. In his analysis of anti-structure Turner goes a step further than Van Gennep, however, when he starts to focus on other forms of liminality. Basically, he distinguishes between three forms of liminality. The first is ritual liminality, which forms the major point of interest in Van Gennep's works. Ritual liminality forms the central element in transitional processes (such as maturation) and in any kind of initiation ceremony. Ritual liminality always implies the re-incorporation of the liminar into social structure. The two other forms of liminality are outsiderhood and marginality. Unlike ritual liminality, outsiderhood and marginality usually are semi-permanent or permanent forms of anti-structural existence, which means that the re-incorporation of the liminar (i.e. the outsider or marginal) back into structure is often difficult, impossible or unwanted.

Outsiderhood is defined by Turner as a condition in which the individual is either permanently or temporarily "set outside the structural arrangements of a given social system, (...) or voluntarily setting himself apart from the behaviour of status-occupying, role-playing members of that system" (Turner, Dramas 233). Monastic orders, for example, show characteristics of anti-structure in that they emphasise the unimportance of status, property and other cultural differentiae. A monk has in common with a pilgrim that both retreat from social structure to enter "a stage of reflection" (Turner, "Betwixt" 14).

A pilgrimage, however, is a ritual process which is usually limited in time and ends when the pilgrim returns to his or her everyday life. A monastic retreat, on the other hand, is a liminal form of existence which has become a permanent condition. According to Turner, also shamans, prophets, hippies and gypsies count as outsiders, because they lead a life at the boundaries of or opposed to the prevailing social structure. Another representative of outsiderhood is the artist (whom Turner also calls `edgeman' Ritual 128), who is careful not to be associated with established social structures and tries to resist classification. Outsiderhood, in short, is a condition in which an individual is located outside social structure, usually with no intention or ability to re-integrate.

Marginals, on the other hand, are "simultaneously members (...) of two or more social groups whose social definitions and cultural norms are distinct from, and often even opposed to, one another" (Turner, Dramas 233). Turner's definition of marginals is mainly based on an earlier sociological study of marginality by Everett V. Stonequist, who describes a marginal person as an "individual who through migration, education, marriage, or some other influence leaves one social group or culture without making a satisfactory adjustment to another and who finds himself on the margin of each but a member of neither" (Stonequist 2-3). Migrant foreigners, persons of mixed ethnic origin or women in a changed, non-traditional role, to name but a few, belong to the group of marginals. Due to their special social condition, marginals are highly conscious/self-conscious individuals who produce a high number of writers, artists and philosophers. The social significance of the marginal is summarised in Stonequist's work as follows:

The marginal man is a personality type that arises at the time and place where, out of the conflict of races and cultures, new societies, new peoples and cultures are coming into existence. The fate that condemns him to live, at the same time, in two worlds is the same which compels him to assume, in relation to the worlds in which he lives, the rôle of a cosmopolitan and a stranger. Inevitably he becomes, relatively to his cultural milieu, the individual with the wider horizon, the keener intelligence, the more detached and rational viewpoint. (Robert E. Park, introduction, Stonequist xvii-xviii)

Marginals, like ritual liminars, are betwixt and between clearly defined social states, but, unlike them, they have no prospect of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity: they will never be fully integrated into the one side or the other (Turner, Dramas 233). This ambiguous position distinguishes marginals from outsiders: while the former is situated in between different or opposing social groups, the latter retreats to a position at the boundaries of the established social system.

Even though anti-structure might show in different disguises (as ritual liminality, outsiderhood or marginality), its characteristics are often identical: liminars are symbolically or virtually bereft of status, which, consequentially, implies that they are also bereft of all the rights that go with status. This has two implications: first of all, due to the absence of a hierarchy of status positions, there is equality among liminars. This means that the occupants of one and the same anti-structural zone (such as monks in a monastic community, or hippies, or initiants in an initiation ritual) are aware of their equal positions.

Secondly, Turner ascribes to ritual liminars, outsiders and marginals a positive force, because liminal existence, whether temporary or permanent, forces the liminar to reconsider central values of his or her culture. Especially art, which best develops in the interstices or on the edges of society, is a medium which questions the prevailing social structure, and which is provoking, paradoxical, unusual, and above all, stimulating critical thought. The social counter-position allows liminars to have a clear view on the structure from which they are excluded, and although these individuals are usually bereft of privileges and in a condition of powerlessness, they carry the potential of critique of the norms of exactly that social structure. The danger that was ascribed to liminal personae by Van Gennep, in that they have lost their social attributes and therefore their guideline, takes a different shape in Turner's concept: anti-structure is not only "a stage of reflection" (Turner, "Betwixt" 14) but a "realm of pure possibility" (Turner, "Betwixt" 7) in which new ideas and concepts are stimulated and generated, representing a danger to those who hold positions of power and command in social structure.

Babbitt argues that in many cases, people must undergo personal transformation in order to conceive of themselves as fully human. Babbitt uses the term "personal transformation" to mean a transformative liberatory shift in consciousness. She thinks that the necessity of such shifts is particularly clear in cases of systemic oppression, where members of oppressed groups must think outside the (oppressive) interpretative framework provided for them. Babbitt argues that in order for members of deeply oppressed groups to gain access to their objective interests they must sometimes undergo liberatory personal transformation. Such a transformation would include the sort of change that a person who has been deeply discriminated against might have to undergo in order to think of herself as possessing inherent dignity.

Knowledge is a road to some practical or theoretical success while understanding is necessary for mastering any situation either in a real or a virtual world. At the same time understanding is only one of the hypostases of reflectivity, that is why not understanding is to be taught but reflectivity. In this connection another metaphor could have been used: anti-reflectivity, defence of impulsivity against reflectivity is the road to the wrong. And as soon as that second road enters our consideration, the term `reflectivity' and the corresponding notion begin approaching the topics of Law and Morality. It is only reflectivity that brings man to an experience of living with dignity, the idea of meeting death with dignity, an experience of loving concrete human beings along with loving one's own life and the whole human race.

Life, Death, Love make the experiential nucleus of our individual existence (Ustin, 1997), and this nucleus being present, the other few central meanings of existence will be manifested: Truth, Freedom, Beauty, the Good as the opposition of the Evil, maybe Fate as one's inevitable Future. To come to mastering all these existential meanings it is not enough to live one's natural life hoping for all this coming to the subjectivity of a "myself" as an individual. Just the opposite: one is to exercise hard, but exercise hard not in a ready-made knowledge, not even in a ready-made understanding but in reflectivity as the link connecting the lived experience with the gnoseological image under mastery (Kornienko, 1991). In reflectivity the image is tinted by man's individual experience, and as for experience, it does not immediately change while something more important is happening to it: it is our attitude towards it that is getting changed. In this way we are changed ourselves, and this change is one to the better if the process of reflectivity serves socially and morally adequate aims. Reflectivity is the only instrument for an individual and a collective to become wiser, kinder and purer.


In alchemy, the images of figurative death appear during the operation called mortificatio.  This symbolic experience of death has to do with darkness, defeat, torture, mutilation, death, rotting, penance, and abstinence--denial of the body.  Emotionally it means the primitive, violent outbursts, resentments, and pleasure and power demands of Poseidon-consciousness must die for the process of transmutation to occur.  Paradoxically, we must make ourselves miserable for the process of transmutation to proceed.  Then the dark images change to positive ones of growth, resurrection and rebirth.

In consciousness journeys, we find fear is the primary agent of mortificatio.  Moving toward the fear and pain--deepening it--brings one closer to the tranformation.  Images of feces, excrement, overflowing toilets are found in dreams and during spontaneous journeys in Thanatos-consciousness.  It feels like defeat and failure.  Yet, to resist seems like madness--in fact, it induces madness.  Those with near-death experiences tell us that to embrace death brings about deeper meaning and purpose in life.

Rotting corpses, decapitation, amputation, creeping, crawling worms and snakes, and particularly noxious odors like the stench of graves are images which are reported again and again.  It is truly a journey through "the Valley of the Shadow of Death."  Thus the psyche depicts the decay of outworn forms in preparation for new.  It can be a voluntary death, giving up the old order for the sake of wholeness, the incorruptible body that grows from death.  The infantile, personalistic ego is eclipsed.  The journey to the land of the dead (collective unconscious) opens one to transpersonal life.

When we sit quietly we notice that images come--and images go, of their own accord.  They are spontaneously created and destroyed through the psychic process.  Some of these images are projections.  When we withdraw them from their external "hooks" and re-own them, reabsorb them, they dissolve and "die."  This furthers individuation.  Plato said that "true philosophers make dying their profession," referring to the wisdom inherent in this process.  What is natural and instinctual is allowed to die and transform.

Western attitudes toward death and dying have changed markedly in the last few years.  There is talk of "dying with dignity," and efforts toward assisting suicide for the terminally ill.  It is a reaction to the dehumanization of dying.  The Hemlock Society has been in the forefront of this debate, advocating free choice.

There is much more talk about near-death experiences (NDE) and so-called astral projection or out-of-body experiences (OOBE).  Astral projection follows the same process described by those who report NDEs.  They say attention is withdrawn from the limbs and trunk to the pineal area in the brain.  Then consciousness passes out of the body through the top of the head.  Many then report traversing a winding tunnel, and heading into the Light.

Those who experience NDE find new purpose and meaning in life; they usually seek to render service to others, becoming more selfless, humble, and confident in the future.  Having faced the ultimate fear they gain a sureness on the path of life.  Frequently they receive some "message" about their duties in life, what they are to devote this "second chance" to achieving.  They are infused with wisdom--simply knowing what they must now do.  It is the death of selfishness.

Some report seeing other entities; they are met there by "others."  Reports of this nature have offered some comfort or solace to the living, who inherently feel that these accounts offer descriptions of the passing into an afterlife.  Others stoically feel that death is a final annihilation of the soul.

The hospice movement, initiated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., approaches the care of the terminally ill with respect.  Her books, ON DEATH AND DYING; QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ON DEATH AND DYING; and DEATH, THE FINAL STATE OF GROWTH are now classics on the subject, as is Feinstein and Mayo's RITUALS FOR LIVING AND DYING.

Kubler-Ross and other have developed therapeutic programs using psychodrama to free up the negative aspects of the personality.  This provides a means for the old personality to die, leaving room for the emergence of the new while life goes on.

Psychodrama allows the survivors of the terminal patient, as well as the patients themselves, a means of expressing and grieving old wounds and pains.  This facilitates development of new patterns of living.  The goal is to allow a fresh sense of personal well-being and contentment.  For most, there is the discovery of new values and a deeper sense of appreciation for the gift of life--whatever life remains.

Keywords for Thanatos include:



mystical meditation
near-death experience (NDE)
capital punishment


Psychologically, Thanatos is the concept known as "ego death"--the death of the old self which creates the conditions for rebirth.  The phenomena of rebirth may mean a "born again" Christian, or the "twice-born" of philosophy which also implies the spiritual, yet non-religious renewal of one's purposiveness in life.

The major mystery of Masonic initiation includes the death-rebirth mystery.  The initiate is symbolically murdered, sealed in a ritual tomb, later to arise as a resurrected soul and brother of the Order.  Israel Regardie quotes from the ceremony for Minor Adept grade in THE GOLDEN DAWN.

"Buried with that Light in a mystical death, rising again in a mystical resurrection, cleansed and purified through him our Master, o brother of the Cross of the Rose.  Like him, O Adepts of all ages, have ye toiled.  Like him have ye suffered tribulation.  Poverty, torture and death have ye passed through; they have been but the purification of the gold.  In the alembic of thine heart through the athanor of affliction, seek thou the true stone of the wise."

The organic, regenerative process of "re-creational ego death" is common to mysticism, experiential psychology, and psychedelic journeys.  Spiritual exploration, or soul travel, is shared by all three modes of immersion in the universal stream of consciousness.  They are all variations on the theme of the consciousness journey, and echo our shamanic roots, and the mythemes of eternal return and hero/heroine.  Participants reach a deep, integral level, and direct experience of Higher Power, often merging with the Creation or the Creator.

All these modes facilitate psychedelic consciousness, though any given experience may vary in duration and depth.  Their prescribed frequency varies: meditators are advised to "die daily;" in psychotherapy once a month may be enough for regenerative therapy; psychedelic use varies from single experiences, to monthly, to annually.  Despite different modes of induction, all these experiences reflect the illusory nature of time, space, and ego as reality constructs.  The primary nature of consciousness is revealed.

The word psychedelic has its roots in the Greek psyche, soul, and delos, visible, evident.  It is direct evidence of the soul, the pure manifestation of soul.  Stace (1960) identifies nine qualities of the psychedelic experience as follows: 1) unity of all things; 2) transformation of space and time; 3) deeply felt positive mood; 4) sacredness; 5) objectivity and reality; 6) paradoxicality; 7) alleged ineffability; 8) transiency, and 9) persisting positive changes in subsequent behavior.

In the practice of mysticism there is identification with progressively more subtle "bodies" or vehicles of consciousness, culminating in a transform from a mental or causal body to a vehicle of pure Light.  In experiential psychotherapy, transformation results from deepening within the flow of psychic imagery, progressively identifying with more primal forms, and ultimately with formlessness.  In psychedelic experience, expansion of consciousness dissolves ego boundaries leading to morphological transformations and ecstatic communion.

In alchemy, one sought not only to find or create the Stone, but also to apply it, or use it creatively in the everyday world.  Now, we might speak of integrating or actualizing the results of our transformations in daily life.  Thus, self-actualization or self-realization implies the grounding of the spiritual fruits of inner exploration.

The liquid form of the Philosopher's Stone was known as the UNIVERSAL SOLVENT.  According to the alchemists, the operation of solutio (liquification) has a twofold effect: it causes old forms to disappear and new regenerate forms to emerge.  To a rigid consciousness, the primal ocean of the unconscious is experienced as chaotic, violent, irrational processes of generation and destruction.

Through "creative regression," the generic form of ego death, consciousness recycles, recursively bending back upon itself.  The direction is a recapitulation of, a re-experiencing of sequences from earlier life, conception and birth experience, ancestral awareness, genetic and physiological recognitions, molecular and atomic perception, and quantum consciousness.

As consciousness explores and expands, ego dissolves.  Pure consciousness, the fundamental luminosity, is the ground state of unborn form.  The generic purpose of ego death is to liberate our embodied being, precipitating communion with and re-patterning by the Whole.  When all forms finally dissolve into unconditioned consciousness, the ground state of the Nature Mind is revealed as the mystic Void, the womb of creation.

When the constructed forms which hold personality together are voluntarily relinquished, consciousness "liquifies" and rapidly moves toward the unconditioned state.  Though easy to say, it is sometimes difficult to achieve such liberation from the mental-conceptual activity of the nervous system. When we do, the quiescent nervous system is open and receptive to the conscious recognition of pure energy transforms with no interpretations.

The Universal Solvent dissolves problems, heals, allows life to flow in new, creative patterns.  These new patterns embody the evolutionary dynamic.  According to chaos theory, free-flowing energy is capable of self-organization.  In consciousness this means that the obstructions to free flowing energy must first be dissolved.  Through re-creational ego death, consciousness dissolves into healing communion with the whole of existence, renewing itself, emerging with a new creative potential.

The need for the periodic destruction of outmoded systems implies the value of recycling consciousness through death/rebirth experience. The universal solvent is not ordinary water, but "philosophical" water, the water of life, aqua permanens, aqua mercurialis.  It is also the panacea, "elixer vitae," "tincture," or universal medicine.  To periodically dip into these healing waters has a tonic, rejuvenating effect which pervades all aspects of being, like a soothing balm.

Solutio implies the liquification of consciousness through the dissolution of rigidities which inhibit free flow.  They include roles, game patterns, defense strategies, rigid attitudes and beliefs, interpretations, complexes, "old" myths, and "frozen" energy surrounding traumas which manifests as fear and pain.  Fossilized or ossified energies create obstructions to free flow, like boulders in a stream produce turbulence.  Destructuring transformative processes can dissolve them, increasing the sense of flow.  This "liquified" consciousness is psychedelic, a nonordinary expanded awareness which dissolves fixations and habits, and loosens cramped attitudes.

Mystic ecstasy, or the psychedelic state is mind-manifesting, consciousness expanding.  It dissolves the identification of our consciousness with our histories, bodies, emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs.  We are free to explore myriad forms, structures, and patterns, and/or become formless, resting in that unborn, unconditioned, unmodified healing state.  We experience the essence of other forms of existence.  The Oneness of all life and existence is directly experienced through a variety of transformations ranging from plant and animal identifications to planetary and universal consciousness.

Entering the turbulent flow of the stream of consciousness, we can ride its currents back to the Source, pure unconditioned cosmic consciousness.  We can imbibe the life-giving qualities of this "water" through mind-expanding experiential contact with this deep consciousness.  The transformative process is also reflected in our modern physical worldview as chaos theory, which we can view as a modern "myth," a new metaphor for the dynamics of consciousness.  Chaos is ubiquitous in nature, pervading all dynamic processes, perturbing them unpredictably.  Chaos theory shows us that nature is continually unfolding new forms from the chaotic matrix of creation.

Our dynamic consciousness is an essentially chaotic process.  Chaos tracks a time evolution with sensitive dependence on initial conditions.  When we "return" experientially to the "initial conditions" of our existence, our whole being is holistically repatterned.  Our historical limitations are superceded by the creative power of the eternal Now.  We can allow chaos, as the universal solvent, to liquify consciousness and re-create ourselves.  This presumes a therapeutic atmosphere, a "safe" set and setting, because each phase of the journey is an encounter with uncertainty.

The journey into deep consciousness appears inherently chaotic because the state of uncertainty pervades each moment of transition.  Underlying moments of transience there are momentary blanks in awareness--little voids--flickering microstates which repattern each phase.  Whether the experience is one of loss of personal boundaries or direct perception of stark, raw reality, or visionary dreams, there is no predicting where the chaotic orbit of consciousness will roam next.

To embrace chaos in our consciousness journeys, therefore means to cooperate and flow with the transformative process, opening ourselves to our deepest emergent potential.  It's O.K. to let go periodically and temporarily become unstructured nothingness and open to holistic re-patterning.  Chaos is self-organizing, self-iterating, and self-generating.  It is an evolutionary force.  The tendency of new forms emerging from chaos is toward a higher degree of adaptation, hence evolution (Kauffmann, 1991).  This "recycling" of consciousness leads to a self-referential vortex.

Chaotic systems revolve around nexus points, known as strange attractors, because of their unpredictable quality.  Rather than being "point-like," they are more like vortices within vortices.  The Philosopher's Stone is like a psychic lodestone (or vortex).  It acts like an inner magnet, ordering the contents of our consciousness around it (through feedback loops) in chaotic, yet meaningful fashion.

The Philosopher's Stone may thus be seen as a "strange attractor" in the life of anyone engaged in the quest for transformation.  It is an instinctual attraction toward processes which dissolve the ego and liquify consciousness, leading to transpersonal experience after symbolic death/rebirth.  Freedom in the exploration of imagery comes from the creative capacity to experience loss.

Experientially, it appears as being channeled into the swirling mass of interacting symbols, an overwhelming vortex of pure information.  We are sucked inexorably into interaction with the self-symbol, sucked into ourselves, like flotsam is pulled into a whirlpool.  This is the vortex of the system, the vortex of self, where all levels cross.  It overwhelms or tangles the mental processes, the self-imaging processes that maintain the illusion of stable personality and individual boundaries.

The classic text of re-creational surrender or sacrifice of self is THE BARDO THODOL, or THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.  It is explicitly for the living who undertake the death-like regression into the unconscious, as well as the dying.  Because of their orientation toward consciousness journeys, THE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE and THE AMERICAN BOOK OF THE DEAD are useful translations or contemporizations of the transformational classic.

The realm of death is the twilight zone between consciousness and matter.  Here psychoid phenomena manifest through the mingling of these modes.  Here mind/matter duality ceases, creating enchantment, uncanny synchronicities, time warps, psychic experience, revelation of the mind of matter, the Nature Mind.  The moment of ego death is heralded by certain symptoms of transition.  Resistance by the mind to this creative dissolution brings about physical symptoms which range from shaking and a sense of increasing pressure and anxiety, to paradoxical flashes of hot and cold, to extreme dizzyness and disorientation.  As the classic psychedelic manual says, "The hard, dry, brittle husks of your ego are washing out; Washing out to the endless sea of creation." (Leary et al, 1964).

Distressing or disturbing symptoms symbolize the violence of the passage of consciousness from form to formlessness.  Images of the body disintegrating or being blown to atoms (fear of exploding = fear of expanding) are characteristic psychedelic experiences.  Perhaps the very elements of our bodies "remember" their formation in the crucible of some supernova.  There may be identification with merciless destruction, the Dance of Shiva, the raging elements of nature, a variety of forms of explosive discharge.  Here are visions of fires, floods, raging storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, turbulent lakes of magma.

Consciousness "breaks up" into its elemental forms, manifesting as overwhelming imagery.  This first phase of dissolution may be characterized by the futility of resistance, magnetic downward spirals, gravity wells, loss of morphological identity.  E.J. Gold describes the second stage of the voyage as one of being overwhelmed by illusions produced by conditioning.  Yet the primal element of pure forms breaks through and the voyager recognizes "the basic component of consciousness which when combined produces what is called the element Water."

In consciousness journeys, chaos functions as the universal solvent, that which dissolves all patterns and forms including the rigid, outmoded aspects of the self.  In the dream journey, one might enter a spinning vortex and become dismembered by centrifugal force, torn limb from limb.  We remain in this state of dis-integration until we re-member our essential self, embodying the wounded healer.

That sense of disintegration comes as the ego gives up its "unified" linear perspective (bivalent) to the multiple consciousness or awareness (multi-valence) of the deep self.  Fear makes it feel like fragmentation, but in truth there is nothing in that imagery that is not us.  The death throes of the ego prepare it for rebirth, through communion with cosmic consciousness, a new incarnation of the spirit, death and resurrection.  The nature of universal consciousness is oceanic.  When the ego is in danger of "getting in over its head," it panics as if faced with drowning in the depths of this vast ocean of consciousness.  It overwhelms the ego which cannot fathom this abyss.

This aspect of solutio brings mythic images of the dying god, of violent death and sacrifice, and of the isolation of the hero.  It means nothing less than the sacrifice of the old self.  The dissolution phase may mean myths of the triumph of darkness; myths of floods and the return of chaos, of the defeat of the hero.  In Gold's words, "Death comes to all forms; everything eventually is broken up by dissolution, so there's no point clinging to yet another biological form out of desire, longing for stability, or from fear and weakness."

The death-rebirth sequence typically opens a person to the transpersonal domain with its virtually infinite creativity.  It reveals and unfolds our future potentials.  In dreamhealing, chaotic consciousness is also creative consciousness.  Terence McKenna reminds us that, "Riverine metaphors are endlessly applicable.  They represent the flowing of forces over landscapes, the pressure of chaos on the imagination to create creatively. . .The key is surrender and dissolution of boundaries, dissolution of the ego."

When we immerse ourselves in that creative energy, we find healing on many levels of our being.  It may feel tingly or effervescent, or like streaming energy.  Direct experience of this level brings a true sense of oneness with all that exists, the seamless fabric of existence.  It opens us to re-patterning by the whole--a re-construction or re-patterning of personality through holistic change at the most fundamental level.

Immersion in the oceanic experience of universal consciousness is a life-changing experience.  It is experience of the web of life, the biological life flow, an ineffable current of bliss.  Once we experience that larger world and self--the rhythmic pulse of all life--we are never the same again, so long as we remember.  Communing with this energy, experiencing these states of consciousness, has been the practice of shamans since the dawn of man.  Shamanic consciousness means the ability to enter and exit altered states at will.  This power is connected to the liquid expression of life--the sap of life--the vegetable forms of the liquid Stone, and its identity with psychotropic plants.  This notion reiterates that of the "greening of consciousness."

Spiritual reincarnation means bringing to life that which was formerly dead or unawakened, through connection with the original creative power.  It is the theme of the Quest -- the greening of the Wasteland.  The process of rebirth is the mythic enactment of "the one story" whose pattern is found in every narrative.  Beneath the differences, the meaning -- having to do with the loss and recovery of identity -- does not change.  This story of the loss and regaining of identity is the framework of most literature, from which comes the hero with a thousand faces.  Some variation of the hero's adventures, death, disappearance, and marriage or resurrection are the focal points of most stories.

The original sense of identity (romance and comedy), its loss (tragedy and irony), and its recovery in the regenerate world of romance and comedy is mirrored in the mythic quest.  Myths of the birth of the hero, revival and resurrection, creation and defeat of the powers of darkness and death are perennial themes.  The descent and subsequent ascent, going deep into the consciousness journey and emerging transformed, is a form of death/rebirth, a powerful archetypal theme which is initiatory in character.

There is more than one form of rebirth.  The notion emerges from the "belief system" level of psyche, which combines mythical, archetypal, and personal elements.  Carl Jung detailed five specific types of rebirth with a variety of psychological aspects.  In ARCHETYPES OF THE COLLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS, he listed the forms of rebirth known to mankind as follows:

 1. Metempsychosis.  This means the transmigration of the soul from one body to another at death.  The soul is believed to have the ability to transmigrate among plant, animal, or human forms.  The change is not under the dominion of the will, but is the result of karma.  The form is earned through one's deeds or misdeeds during life.

 2. Reincarnation.  This belief implies rebirth in human form, with some continuity or recall of personality.  This is not only an eastern or Indian concept.  At various times, it was embraced by the Hebrew and Greek cultures.  It was expunged from THE BIBLE by Justinian and Theodora in Byzantine times.  The soul is believed to migrate from human form to human form with some purposeful development.

 3. Resurrection.  Here the idea is the re-establishment of human existence after death, either through resurrection of the physical body, or in the glorified or "subtle body" of pure Light.  It signifies a perpetual state of incorruptibility. It is a transformation of one's essence or essential being; a transport to a new dimension of existence.

 4. Rebirth (renovatio).  When we experience renewal or improvement through self-development, or even a vacation which revivifies us, we go through a kind of psychological rebirth.  This rebirth takes place within the context of our individual life span.  It may use magical, though not miraculous means of effecting change.

The functioning of the personality may be enhanced, and we might feel rejuvenated, healed, or otherwise strengthened.  We can face the daily grind with renewed zeal and effectiveness.  Rites of passage frequently involve a ceremonial form of rebirth, such as that of the adolescent into the adult world.  When rebirth involves the transformation of the essence of our individuality, we are transmuted, or lifted from the human to the divine realm of being.

 5. Indirect Rebirth.  This implies witnessing or taking part in some transformative rite, such as the Catholic Mass, or the Eleusinian Mysteries.  A modern example is psychotherapy which initiates the process of individuation, hastening the process of natural transformation.  By focusing on dreams and self-awareness we can speed up nature's process of internal transformation.  Our higher Self is revealed and we come to know our soul as a special "inner friend."  Meditation is the spiritual means most frequently used to bring this change about, outside of the therapeutic setting.

All forms of rebirth, in the psychological sense, are experiences of the transcendence of life.  Transcendence is a natural progression from the finite, mortal frame through space, time, and the personal ego into infinite, immortal life beyond.  It gives us access to the experience of Cosmic Consciousness.  The experience may be induced by ritual means, with or without direct participation.  It may be a spontaneous, ecstatic revelation, or a subjective transformation only.  It frequently brings an enlargement of the personality, bringing richness and depth to life.

Rebirth is experienced more easily, but not as deeply, through group participation or identification.  In this case, the changes do not last, and one regresses to the former condition.  Only spiritual exercises, or yoga, provide a clearcut means to the fullest, permanent experience of personal transformation, and access to the higher Self.  To experience this, one goes through total annihilation of the old self--self-surrender.  The old ego dies to be revivified as part of a greater whole.

Further reading on the concerns of Thanatos, death and rebirth include:

ANATOMY OF THE PSYCHE, "Mortificatio," Edward Edinger, 1985.
DEATH AND EASTERN THOUGHT, Frederick Holch, Ed., Abingdon Press, New York, 1974.
ON DREAMS AND DEATH, Marie-Louise vonFranz, 1986.
RITUALS FOR LIVING AND DYING, David Feinstein and P. Mayo.
DIE TO LIVE, Huzur Maharaji Charan Singh.
SUICIDE AND THE SOUL, James Hillman, Spring Pub.
THE HUMAN ENCOUNTER WITH DEATH, Stanislav Grof & Joan Halifax, 1977.
LIFE AT DEATH, Kenneth Ring.


The God of Death haunts us all, consciously or subconsciously.  Particularly the elderly are subject to a state which may be like a death in life--a paralysis from fear of what is to inevitably come.  This event is a great moment, and some follow a natural urge to die at the right time, relinquishing heroic life-prolonging efforts.

Our culture makes valiant attempts to repress the awareness that life is based on death.  Our overactive physical fitness binges are heroic attempts to deny that the telos, or goal, of psyche is death.  This is not the case in all cultures.  They prepare throughout life for death by putting dayworld notions to sleep.  This radical shift in consciousness is expressed through metaphorical descriptors of death.

Mystical philosophies encourage the aspirant to "die daily" by withdrawing into meditation.  They recommend anywhere from 20 minutes to 1/10 of the day (2 1/2 hours).  The idea is to tithe a tenth of one's time, rather than money to experiencial spiritual practice.  This admonishment to "die daily" was also the advice of magician Aleister Crowley commenting on the Tarot Trump XIII, DEATH.

Spiritual Masters, or Adepts, speak of the "gates of death."  They aid and teach the student to pass these gates and return to this plane at will.  They help us solve the problem of what lies beyond.  Coming and going at will through these gates is the process of dying while we live.  This internal journey during meditation is routine to advanced students.

During meditation consciousness is withdrawn from the external world and concentrated inside at the pineal gland, or eye center.  This is what happens at the moment of death also, according to these teachers.  The difference is that an adept who meditates never loses consciousness when passing out of the body.  He retains complete memory of his experiences which happened during absence from the body, in higher spiritual planes of existence.

Spiritual Masters, or Saints, describe four distinct classes or groups of people who meet with different sorts of experiences after physical death:

 1. This group includes the bulk of mankind who have no living guide or spiritual teacher.  They meet death unsupported, in great fear, helpless in the face of their own karma.  They are judged immediately after death, sometimes quite severely.  They return on the wheel of rebirth, born into the type of body which they created through their strongest desires in their past lives to fulfill their wishes.

 2. This group have initiation from a living spiritual master, but didn't put much active emphasis on spiritual discipline or meditation (which balances or pays off karma).  They indulged in many passions, and will be reborn to continue their training on the path.  However, their teacher informs them when their time of death is near and accompanies them during the transition.

 3. Faithful devotees of a spiritual guide have made good progress, but haven't yet gained liberation from the wheel of life.  Since they are familiar with death through dying daily, they pass over without difficulty or distress; they understand and accept death calmly.  They are also escorted by their Master, and rejoice at their homecoming.  They need take a physical form no longer, and proceed to higher planes via their body of Light.  Between initiation by a Master and liberation, there is a maximum of four human incarnations, instead of the eternal wheel of rebirth in various forms.

 4. The final class consists only of Masters themselves.  They leave the body when their work is done, simply putting it aside like soiled and worn clothing, and their souls merge back into God.  Their duties and responsibilities fulfilled, they merged back into the Supreme One, who sends the great teachers here as embodiments of the Way.

Perhaps one of the oldest traditional accounts of the western perennial philosophy concerning death and immortality comes down to us in The Hermetica, the Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs (Freke & Gandy, Tarcher, 1997).  In the ancient texts, Hermes Trismegistus explores the nature of death and the fate of the soul which survives it.

From our human point of view, time is a destroying force, for we all age and die.  But from the cosmic perspective, it is an endless cycle.  We can participate in that eternal realm through the spiritual quest, by learning to accept the inevitable transitory nature of forms, including our own.  Death is just the discarding of the worn-out body.  According to ancieent wisdom, pure souls are assinged to the heavenly realm while ignorant sould get recycled in the material realms.  The Body of Light is recogized in East and West as the godlike form which transcends mortal death.  According to The Hermetica:

The end of becoming
is the beginning of destruction.
The end of destruction
is the beginning of becoming.
Everything on Earth must be destroyed,
for without destruction
nothing can be created.
The new comes out of the old.
Every birth of living flesh,
like every growth of crop from seed,
will be followed by destruction.
But from decay comes renewal,
through the circling course
of the celestial gods,
and the power of Nature,
who has her being
in the Being of Atum.

For man, time is a destroyer,
but for the Cosmos
it is an ever-turning wheel.
These earthly forms
that come and go
are illusions.
How can something be real
which never stays the same?
But these transitory illusory things arise
from the underlying permanent reality.

Birth is not the beginning of life -
only of an individual awareness.
Change into another state is not death -
only the ending of this awareness.
Most people are ignorant of the truth,
and therefore afraid of death,
believing it to be the greatest of all evils.
But death is only the dissolution
of a worn-out body.
Our term of service as guardians of the world
is ended when we are freed
from the bonds of this mortal frame
and restored,
cleansed and purified,
to the primal condition of our highest nature.

After quitting the body,
Mind, which is divine by nature,
is freed from all containment,
Taking on a body of Light,
it ranges through all space -
leaving the soul to be judged and punished,
according to its deserts.
Souls do not all go to the same place.
Nor to different places at random.
Rather, each is allocated
to a place that fits its nature.

When a soul leaves the body
it undergoes a trial and investigation
by the chief of the gods.
When he finds a soul to be honorable and pure,
he allows it to live in a region that corresponds to its characteristics.
But if he finds it stained
with incurable ignorance,
he hurls it down
to the storms and whirlwinds,
where it is eternally tossed
between sky and earth
on the billowing air.

Only a godd soul is spiritual and divine.
Having wronged no one
and come to know Atum,
such a soul has run the race of purity,
and becomes all Mind.
After it leaves its physical form,
it becomes a spirit in a body of Light,
so that it may serve Atum.

At the dissolution of the body,
first the physical form is transformed
and is no longer visible.
The vital spirit returns to the atmosphere.
The bodily senses go back to the universe,
and recombine in new ways
to do other work.
Then the soul mounts upwards
through the structures of the heavens.
In the first zone,
it is relieved of growth and decay.
In the second,
evil and cunning.
In the third,
lust and deceiving desire.
In the fourth,
domineering arrogance.
In the fifth,
unbalanced audacity and rashness.
In the sixth,
greed for wealth.
In the seventh,
deceit and falsehood.

Having been stripped
of all that was put upon it
by the structures of the heavens,
the soul now possesses
its own proper power
and may ascend
to the eighth sphere -
rejoicing with all those that welcome it,
and singing psalms to the Father.
The gods that dwell above the righth sphere
sing praises with a voice that is theirs alone,
call each soul to surrender to the gods,
and so each one becomes itself a god
by entering communion with Atum.
This is Primal Goodness.
This is the consummation 
of True Knowledge.
Having been initiated into immortality,
a human soul,
now tranformed into a god,
joins the gods who dance and sing
in celebration
of the glorious victory of the soul.


TYPHON-APEP (Egyptian)
NERGAL (Babylonian)


Coroners, such as L.A. County's Thomas Niguichi, or the fictional pathologist, Quincy.  Hitler for instigating W.W.II and the Nazi death camps.

Jack Kavorkian, Dr. Death, who created suicide machines to aid the terminally ill.


Mortification, burial rites, cremation, miserable, pestilence, portal, recycle, resuscitate, wrathful, skull, suffering, rotting, stench, decapitation, remission, recycle, transformation, apocalypse, stiffness, inflexibility, destruction, demolition, reclusiveness, stillness, final rest, mystical death, confusion, skeleton, exposure, reassembling, devastation, self-denial, delusion, sorrow, submission, disintegration, utter emptiness, disassociation, withdrawal, elimination, perpetuity, limitations, detachment.


Greet the Reaper who is dressed in his black robe, holding the fatal sword in his hand, or in his gentler form as a winged spirit.  Perhaps he comes in tandem with his brother Hypnos, and the son of Hypnos, Morpheus (god of dreams).

Enter that dream world consciousness--that twilight underworld realm--and see what happens.  It requires letting go, letting go of all outworn forms, all preconceived notions.  Move with reverence and awe into the Valley of the Shadow of Death--for it is truly and always with us, our closest companion who will never abandon us.


 1. Have you ever had a close-call or brush with death, or perhaps a full near-death experience?

 2. What are your views on abortion, capital punishment, and mercy killing?

 3. Have you ever been compulsively or impulsively self-destructive?

 4. If you could imagine death sitting on your shoulder as a consultant, how would you change your priorities?

 5. Have you ever been present at the moment of death of anyone?  What did you feel?

 6. Have you ever felt reborn, resurrected, or rejuvenated with new life and meaning?  What was your purpose at this time in your life?

 7. If you have experienced ego-death through natural transformation or with mind-altering drugs like L.S.D. describe the visceral sensations associated with this process.  Where did you feel it?  How were your emotions and mind responding?

 8. Have you ever had a formal initiation, such as the symbolic death and rebirth of baptism, or in a fraternal or service group?

9. What are your beliefs about the prospects of an afterlife?

10. Can you remember any images of the mortificatio in your dream life?

11. What do you need to let go of?  What is your basic support system through this transition?  What is being transformed?  What new groth is now possible?

12.  What are you feeling so deeply and intensely about?


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  Jaron Lanier, Department of Computer Science, Columbia University, 
500 W 120th Street, New York, NY 10027, USA. jaron@well.com
                    Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4, No.2, 1997, pp. 181-5

Part I: Consciousness and Death

The role of consciousness in contemporary scientific thought is similar to the role of death in everyday emotional life. It is usually  ignored or denied outright, frequently obsessed over, and is sometimes the inspiration for uncharacteristic breaches of common sense.

It is time to state the obvious. The problem of consciousness is deeply interwoven with the problem of death. And yet death is rarely mentioned in relation to consciousness studies. Consciousness is the thing of consequence that dies. Surely this explains a great deal of why there is such an energetic conversation about consciousness, and why passions are so often raised concerning a subject whose basic nature is so elusive and disputed.

The spectrum of attitudes in consciousness studies is strikingly similar to the variety of coping mechanisms for the existence of death.[1] There are those who imagine they already somehow possess more knowledge about it than they have means to achieve. There are those who believe nothing can ever be said about it. And then there are those who seem to wish to deny its existence. It is these latter who interest me the most.

 Life would certainly be simpler without consciousness. If consciousness did not exist, much of philosophy would not exist.  Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who claims not to be conscious, has already announced the end of ontology, and there have been numerous predictions from like minds that other branches of philosophy are mere stand-ins awaiting more developed science.

So why won't consciousness just go away? What gives consciousness legs is the existence of subjective experience, something persistently elusive and of unclear consequence. Interminable constructions of thought and image have been created by countless generations of people in response to what is nothing more than a perfect point, a thing with no quality and no content.  It is a tale out of Borges. A shelf of mathematics books devoted to one numeral alone. A vast museum that displays only one pixel.

With a sufficiently advanced neurotechnology, it should presumably be possible to reliably and repeatably construct mental phenomena, such as qualia, in detail by setting values in neurons. This would be an experience confirmable by anyone who plays with the gadgets that accomplish it. `Brainoramas' would no doubt be the new consumer electronics blockbusters; pure experience machines. These machines would not claim to become conscious themselves, but rather would allow human users a precise technological route to controlling the detailed content of their own subjective experience.

 A brainorama would consist of three parts. One would be a hat that contains sensors capable of reading and writing the states of each neuron in your brain at a rapid rate. There would also be a display that shows you what's going on in your brain, and allows you to edit it. Connecting these would be a computer capable of recognizing and synthesizing neural patterns. I won't attempt to guess at what future century might be capable of producing this device.

A lazy customer could be given an adventurous experience or deep wisdom, according to the current fashion. One can predict that the use of these machines might follow the pattern set earlier by psychedelic drugs and music synthesizers. Synthetic experiences that were initially fresh and extreme quickly become banal, as intensity is maximized in all directions until it becomes meaningless. Following that will be the realization that `there is no free lunch', that the construction of creativity in thought, beauty in creation, or depth in character requires as much or more work in the purely informational world of brainorama as it does in real life.

In the end, however, the nature of these exotic new objectively controlled subjective experiences will still remain a nagging mystery. Why must experience be there at all? How can one prove if it is or isn't there? Nothing will have changed in these questions, except that we'll be able to observe the questions themselves as brain phenomena directly for the first time using brainoramas.

Imagine watching your thoughts on the philosophy of consciousness go by on the screen [2] of a brainorama. Suppose you start to think that maybe consciousness is everywhere, and that is why you can't capture it — and at that moment you see a familiar cloudy squiggle in your cortex, above your ear, similar to the last time you thought the same thing. The pattern recognizer in the brainorama computer catches it too, and a `Chalmers' alert starts blinking. Instead of thinking from the inside, you decide to use the stylus to sketch some narrower loops on your Chalmers squiggle and feel what the thoughts are like. Suddenly you don't find consciousness credible anymore, and indeed a `Dennett' alert is flashing on the screen. But thoughts have a way of springing back to their original form, like memory metals. Other parts of your cortex are automatically alerted into action to repair the damage and soon you see your familiar thought squiggles appear on the screen, just as you find yourself thinking, `But wait a second, consciousness IS there!'[3] I suspect that trying to track down consciousness [4] with a brainorama will feel like trying to find the butterfly whose wing flutterings are to be the cause of a hurricane on the other side of the world.

As you browse through your brain, you are able to see the full extent of your memory. It is as if, after living your whole life inside a great canyon of unknown dimensions, you are able to climb to a lookout point on the rim for the first time. For a moment you are impressed with the vastness of what you see. But soon an overwhelming sense of the finitude of your own brain appears as a particularly murky and awkward squiggle. A blinker signals that you are beginning to think about death.

The nature of consciousness should reasonably be expected to explain the nature of death. For example, if Penrose is right, then consciousness simply ceases when the microtubules dissipate. If Dennett is right, consciousness wasn't there in the first place, so death isn't such a big deal.  The mysteries of death and consciousness are not the same, though. Death cannot tell us as much about consciousness as consciousness can tell us about death. If we knew that consciousness did not survive death, for example, we still wouldn't know what consciousness was before death.

Consciousness has historically been linked with the idea of the soul, primarily in order to substantiate an afterlife. This was not exclusively among excitable religious types. By Plato's account, Socrates' precise mind found subjective experience axiomatic enough to suggest that it must reside in a realm all of its own, which must be revealed in death. Among the religious, of course, consciousness has generally served as an intuitive confirmation of elaborate articulated fantasies of the hereafter, especially in the West.[5] The difference between the religious and the secular has often been no more than the degree of elaboration and specificity in these fantasies.

Alas, the fear of death has been exploited to create empires. For this reason, scientists and political liberalizers have often been allied to combat dogmatic religious authority. The twentieth century saw the rise to prominence of a culture that was in large part a reaction against the arbitrary and sometimes exploitative nature of death-denial fantasies.

In the late twentieth century a bizarre and inverted form of death-denial has been gaining ground. It is the ironic grandchild of an earlier generation of rational thought that sought to quell all such sentimentality. In this new fantasy, technology will conquer death.  In the literature of cryonics and nanotechnology one frequently comes across arguments that we are already within shooting distance of the goal. Nanotechnology might be used to create a supercomputer that will quickly figure out how to make nanomachines that can repair the human body and make old age an anachronism. Or cryonics will preserve our bodies until a happy time in the future when they are expected to be thawed by gentle enthusiasts for antiquity. Or, perhaps most tellingly, the contents of our brains will be read into durable computers, so that our minds will continue after our bodies cease to function.

Consciousness is at best a wildcard, and at worst an outright affront to these fantasies. Subjective experience is undeniably present, for those of us who have it, anyway. (I've proposed elsewhere that some philosophers just don't have it. See Lanier, 1995.) It is the only thing that would be just as real if it were somehow shown to be an illusion or a mistake; if it is there in any way whatsoever, it is fully there, undeposable, the most primary thing. And yet it has no definitive measurable effect on anything else. The coincidence of these two qualities makes it awkward. It is utterly unclear how consciousness `binds' to the empirical universe.

There is absolutely no way to know what the subjective experience of having one's brain state transferred into a computer, leaving the body to be disposed of, or even of being frozen and thawed, would be. Even if these things were tried, those who hadn't themselves had the experience would only be able to rely on the reportage of the purported survivors who did, and the readouts of their brainoramas. The cold truth is that you have to die to test these ideas.[6] The living are unable to know if technological reductions of consciousness are valid.

We have come to the fundamental problem for the new death-denialists: if consciousness exists, then technological forms of avoiding death are absolutely as uncertain as old fashioned death itself. The `hard problem' kind of consciousness is the enemy of the new death-denial fantasy, and there is no stronger source of passion than the defence of such a fantasy.  So consciousness is made to not exist. Here is the engine under the hood of consciousness denial. A literature already exists of the new death-denialists. The theorists are Minsky, Dennett, Hofstadter. The authors of new romantic liturgies are Tipler, Moravec and Drexler.

The tragedy of traditional death-denial based on a religious fantasy is that the fantasy must have specific, yet ultimately arbitrary, content. Therefore it is frequently the case that people find themselves holding mutually exclusive death-denial fantasies. This is why traditional religion is divisive. Christianity and Islam cannot both be true in their most literal sense. This provides a potential ethical advantage for the new death-denialists. If people can agree on one simple tenet, that subjective experience, the pea, does not exist, then they can share in the objective world of empirical confirmation on all the other points that matter. They can agree, for instance, on whether a brain has survived its cryo-, nano-, or cyber-transition into immortality.[7]

Nonetheless, the new and old styles of death-denial are even more in disagreement with each other than any old-styled pair have ever managed to be. The chasm between death-denial fantasies provides a worthwhile approach for understanding some of the most frustrating current events. Is it a coincidence that religious fundamentalism is experiencing a resurgence at just the time that science is starting to touch some of the most intimate aspects of human identity? Today's social conflicts are more likely to be about technologies that challenge our definition of death, such as abortion, than about the distribution of wealth.


1 Certainly the fear of death has been one of the greatest driving forces in the history of thought and in the formation of thecharacter of civilization, and yet it is under-acknowledged. The great book on the subject, The Denial of Death, by ErnestBecker (1973), deserves a reconsideration. Even as the psychoanalytic tradition seems to be on the wane, this book holds upremarkably well.

2 The screen is what we are most familiar with in 1997, but make no mistake, any upmarket brainorama will actually have avirtual reality interface, so that you find yourself inside a three dimensional representation of your own brain.

3 You might wonder how you avoid becoming lost in an infinite regress of watching your thoughts of watching your thoughts.That is simple. The brainorama computer is programmed to filter out this kind of resonant feedback.

4 Just to be clear, I am talking about the `hard problem' kind of consciousness. The `easier' kind of consciousness (thatanaesthetists can make go away) is undoubtedly localizable, since it is an empirical phenomenon, and it would seem to beprimarily associated with the core areas of the brain rather than with the cortex.

5 Christianity, a post-platonic religion, was primarily founded not on the exceptional emanations of burning bushes, demons, orother extraordinary objects, but on the reports of people of apparently ordinary form, Jesus and Lazarus, who could confirmthe continuity of consciousness after death. (While reports of Jesus' life do contain some other supernatural events, like walking on water, these are surely not as vital to the religion.) In Christianity the physical world became more ordinary and the hereafter more baroque, especially as the religion developed over the centuries.

6 Note that you do NOT have to die to test a Brainorama, so long as you use it gingerly.

7 This only provides a potential unity in the understanding of facts — it certainly doesn't suggest any unity of motivation. In fact, the cliché would seem to be that conciousness-free people face a crisis of meaning and lack grounds for motivation in any shared direction.


Becker, Ernest (1973), The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press)

Lanier, Jaron (1995), `You can't argue with a zombie', Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2 (4), pp. 333–44.

Manuscript received November 1996

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