To understand the important things and live that knowledge, we need poetic clarity. When I was writing my Dreamer's Book of the Dead, I turned for that often to one of my favorite dead poets, W.B. Yeats.
Yeats’s fullest account of sleep and dream experience is in the 1925 edition of A Vision; unfortunately he dropped much of this in the greatly revised edition of 1937, where he substitutes an interesting but second-hand description of states of consciousness borrowed from an exposition of the Upanishads: “In the waking state the man uses all his faculties and is confronted by a real world, but the waking state is in reality a dream condition.” Beyond waking and dream, in this view, is dreamless sleep, in which the sleeper “desires no desires and sees no dream”, losing contact with desire. “Man passes from waking through dreaming to dreamless sleep every night and when he dies.”
The living and the dead inhabit all three worlds, and meet in the intermediate dream state. The dreams of the living are also the work of the dead, who use the living person to complete their life reviews – and, we might add, as vehicles to deal with unfinished business, satisfy appetites and desires and agendas they have not released, and for continuing enjoyment of the life of the senses.
Yeats describes an early phase in the after-death transitions that he calls Dreaming Back.
In the Dreaming Back the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again all the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion which accompanied them.
During this phase the “Husk” may or may not be discarded. His use of this term is blurry; sometimes he appears to be describing the dense energy body the Hawaiians call the “sticky self”, at other times an astral vehicle. Despite the confusions, Yeats is very clear on one point: "If the Husk…persist, the Spirit still continues to feel pleasure and pain, remains a fading distortion of living man, perhaps a dangerous succuba or incubus, living through the senses or nerves of others." This may be intentional persistence, which some have called avoidance of the “second death”
If there has been great animal egotism, heightened by some moment of tragedy, the Husk may persist for centuries, recalled into a sort of life, and united to its Spirit, at some anniversary, or by some unusually susceptible person or persons connected with its past life… If death has been violent or tragic the Spirit may cling to the Passionate Body for generations. A gambler killed in a brawl may demand his money, a man who believed that death ends all may see himself as a decaying corpse.
"Where the soul has great intensity and where those consequences affected great numbers”, the Dreaming Back may last, with diminishing pain and joy, for centuries. Yeats pictures souls in this state tapping into the minds of the living, and reading letters and books through their eyes. With the help of “teaching spirits” a soul in this phase “may not merely dream through the consequences of its acts but amend them, bringing this or that to the attention of the living”
During this phase the dead often appear to the living in dreams. “It is from the Dreaming Back of the dead…that we get the imagery of ordinary sleep. Much of a dream’s confusion comes from the fact that the image belongs to some unknown person, whereas emotion, names, language belong to us alone.”
Following Eastern thought, Yeats sometimes seems to suggest in his later work that the dead we encounter in dreams are those who are still undergoing purification or re-education. But he accepts that the living also have contact with those who are on higher level, as his own life experiences amply confirmed. The idea of the Fourth State, turiya comes in (from the Mandukya Upanishad). In the state, reached through contemplation and wakefulness, “the soul is united with the blessed dead”.
Text adapted from The Dreamer's Book of the Dead by Robert Moss. Published by Destiny Books.
Art: "Yeats in the Magic Cottage" by RM.