Mystical and spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg provides a meticulously written account of what he claimed were visions of a realm beyond. This material was based on what he heard and saw internally when he experienced altered states of consciousness. The awareness occurred daily for the last twenty-seven years of his life.
I think it’s worth sharing what he wrote about these extraordinary experiences because it sheds light on what I see as common mistakes in thinking about death.
We read that after our departure from this life, we woke up in a ‘spiritual body’ like a normal human body we have on earth. In this afterlife it is said that we are aware of people and things, but not those that are still present in the material universe. We do not seem reincarnated into the world in a physical body. However, each of us retains our individuality in a ‘spiritual body’, one that can see, hear and smell as well as think and feel.
Swedenborg’s idea of a ‘spiritual body’ may resemble the idea of a ‘subtle body’ which is believed to be a psycho-spiritual part of living beings according to various esoteric, occult and mystical teachings. For example, in yoga, practitioners claim that the “subtle body” consists of “chakras”, connected by channels, which transmit “subtle breath”. Through breathing exercises, it is claimed that a person can direct “subtle breathing” to achieve immortality.
What is Swedenborg’s view of human contact after death?
For Swedenborg, with our ‘spiritual body’ we can be in contact with others who are also not alive in the physical body. We can communicate and interact socially as we usually do. He says that life after death is a spiritual dimension of existence. It is real with sensations even more vivid than what we experience in the natural world. This is so even though our environment is not part of the physical universe. Writing in Latin three hundred years ago, he called this environment ‘mundi spiritualis’. I like to translate this phrase for the afterlife as ‘spirit world’. Most translators have used the term ‘spiritual world’.
Furthermore, we learn that the individual’s mental state is projected onto what he sees and hears. For example, if after death we seek kindness and consideration, then beauty surrounds us. But if we prefer crime and corruption, then ugliness is everywhere.
Is there time and space in the afterlife?
Swedenborg’s view of the afterlife is that time and space do not follow the laws of physics. Instead, they reflect our internal mental states. He would point out that, in the material world, time is measured objectively, for example by clocks and the rotation of our planet. But he imagines what it would be like if these physical measures were no longer possible. We would be left with a ‘subjective time’ that depends on our state of mind. Some of this idea can be seen when we are bored or sore because time lengthens. But, if we continue with things and are committed to what interests us, time passes before we know it.
Swedenborg says that how far things seem to be from us depends on psychological rather than physical rules. For example, if you and another person feel emotionally close, then in the afterlife, both of you will seem to be located close to each other. So what matters is psychological time and distance.
Are there other descriptions of an afterlife?
It is not only Swedenborg who presents this picture. There is a constant wealth of similar information from mediums regarding what spirit communicators are supposed to say through them about the afterlife of spirits. The way the world views mediums and psychics varies greatly. Some have been exposed as con artists and there remains general scientific skepticism as to the validity of their experiences.
However, psychologist David Fontana summarized many of the mediums’ reports in his book ‘Is There Life After Death?: A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence’.
“(Spiritual) communicators tell us that how each individual experiences the next world, at least at lower levels, is shaped not only by their own thoughts, but also by the thoughts of others who think similarly. ways.” (Professor David Fontana)
Apparently, we will gravitate towards that part of the next life where there are like-minded people. Those who love trees and flowers, peace and harmony, go to a realm where the thoughts of others who love these things will have helped to create such an environment. On the contrary, if violence and fighting attract us, then we enter that kind of social sphere. Consequently, our own environment would change accordingly.
Swedenborg claims to have had direct access to this dimension of the afterlife. To a certain extent he depended on what the spirits told him but also much of this was verified by his own inner experiences. If true, the source of much of his information is first-hand and contrasts with that of mediums whose accounts are based solely on information passed to them by spirit communicators. Despite this, however, the content of both the mediums’ account and Swedenborg’s agree.
Is the next life a happy life?
Professor Fontana writes that spirit communicators describe an environment called the “Higher Astral.” It is an idealized version of what this earthly world could become. One where we treat him and others with more love and respect. The spirits speak of landscapes of enchanting beauty, of mountains and rivers, of beautiful towns and cities, etc.
This sounds like Swedenborg’s vision of a part of the afterlife that he calls the “spirit world.” The part he calls in Latin “caelo”. For him, this social sphere of the afterlife gives him deep happiness.
He does not see this state of consciousness as a reward for a selfless life on earth. On the contrary, for him it is the fulfillment of what has already begun to grow in a person. He doesn’t mean it for someone who has simply gone through the motions of living a good life: he seems to be honest and generous for the sake of social approval. Instead, he reserves the “fall” sphere for the person who genuinely wants to act this way. One who tries to live by his deeper awareness of what is good and right.
In the next podcast we explore what we could take with us when we die. What will our individual character look like?