Continuing with our reincarnation thread, I keep meaning to discuss in greater depth the actual experience of consciousness after death, or as Michael Newton calls it in the title of his book, "Life Between Lives". As I said earlier, the only serious problem with the picture Newton describes of the afterlife is the result, I believe, of his method: hypnotic regression. This method is quite sound for the purpose Newton originally used it, which is to find the past-life patterns that appear in an individual's present life seemingly without causal foundation in this life, and which result in unconscious stress and pain that can be relieved to some degree, or at least put on the plane of conscious awareness that allows us to deal with it directly, by bringing certain memories of past lives, or the period between lives, into our awareness.
The problem comes in not realizing that this method tends to compress and edit our memories through the same medium that suppressed them originally - our bodily brain and nervous system. We can't take too literally the testimony of Newton's patients, therefore (not that we can take literally the testimony of religious people, even traditional mystics, in describing the experiences we might have after this life). We have to keep in mind that we naturally suppress memories of past lives and subtle afterlife experience for good reasons - to start each life anew, with the opportunity for new experience that is free of the burdens of conscious memories and patterning. Hypnotic regression bypasses some layers of this natural repression, but it does not, and cannot, bypass all of them. Thus, when Newton's patients describe the death process and the afterlife, a good deal of important detail is still left out, especially those parts which can be traumatic and difficult or just plain incomprehensible from the material perspective.
For example, Newton's patients often describe that after death, or even just before it, they quickly pass out of the body and go into the subtle realms of after-death life, without any serious difficulty or "rites of passage" so to speak. This simply isn't true in virtually anyone's case, but I can see how memories of the death process could easily be edited down to the bare bones, compressing the process into a simple transition to the subtle worlds that seems just like walking through a door to another room. In reality, separating from the physical body simply doesn't happen in an instant, it requires a process of slow disentanglement as the connections to the body are released. That process involves the processing of a lot of difficult thoughts and feelings and emotions, as the body begins to decay and our subtle layerings of mind are stripped down to their bare essentials. Likewise, the "journey" back to the subtle worlds, in which attention moves from the material universe back to its subtle origins, involves a fair amount of traumatic processing and realignment. It doesn't happen in an instant. It may happen in a day, more commonly a few days, although from the perspective of the spirit transitioning out of the body all such temporal references may become entangled as well. The confusions in hypnotically recalled memories of this death process are the result of the patient's mind compressing that whole experience into a single, summary "event", as if we really did just pop out of the body and land in a subtle world, when in reality it was much more complex than that, and often much more of an ordeal.
A similar problem occurs in the memories recalled by Newton's patients of the subtle worlds themselves. There's a great deal of compression, and the substitution of symbolic metaphors for literal experience. For example, Newton's patients almost universally describe the afterlife worlds as a kind of "school", with actual classes, classrooms, teachers, guides, lectures, lesson plans, a structured hierarchy, grades, levels of maturity, graduations, seminars, reviews, libraries, and so forth. This isn't even untrue, to be sure, in a certain basic sense. However, much of this recollected structure is in fact the result of modern westerners trying to fit these subtle memories into a form that's immediately comprehensible to their own brain's experience of this world, not the subtle worlds. Virtually all of us have the experience of going to school for years on end, and thus we tend to translate subtle experience into that extended metaphor because it's familiar to us. The mind tends to interpret the past based on its present conception of reality, and thus many of these recalled memories are not as direct as they seem to be, but are in fact still processed through our present structure of mind, which interprets them through symbols and experience we are familiar with.
On the other hand, the symbolic metaphor of the afterlife as a "school system" isn't a bad one at all, and probably serves us quite well in trying to understand what that world is like. The truth is that the subtle worlds simply aren't much like the material worlds at all. They don't even have the same fundamental structure of time and space. Our experience of them is simply not like our experience of this physical realm, and our senses in the subtle world don't obey the same kinds of laws as they do in the physical world. Nor do our subtle minds structure experience in the same way that our brains structure the experience of the material world. Much of the confusion is natural, in that while alive our subtle minds submit themselves to the physical brain's experiential structure to a significant degree. Thus, the picture in our mind that develops of the material world is largely governed by the brain itself, and its particular functioning. But that doesn't mean that our minds are actually, at root, structured this way. In fact, it's an unnatural experience for the mind to be confined to the experiential dimensions of the physical brain and its relationship to the material world. A lot of our anxiety and difficulty in functioning psychologically is due to this sense of confinement and disorientation that reincarnation brings about, and can't altogether be undone without profound growth in spiritual awareness - and even then, it's hardly a done deal.
That said, Newton's patients do seem to recall a good deal of valid data about the afterlife, as long as we keep in mind the notion that it's a loose translation of symbolic information rather than a direct memory. For example, they describe various processes of reviewing the most recent life in some detail, going over the details of how we lived, the decisions we made, and trying to learn from this experience. That's all quite valid, even something of a cliche because so many people have said similar things it's almost redundant. Likewise, the notion that we re-unite with the souls of people we were close to in this and other past lives is also true, and again, something of a universal cliche, yet for good reasons. So is the description of what could be called "karmic groups", souls that generally associate with one another both in this life and the afterlife, and who engage in a series of pre-planned encounters in this life which enable them to retain some sense of familiarity and continuity even within the chaos of the material world.
The basic lessons drawn from this are also quite valid, the first being that our lives here, no matter how miserable or traumatic, have real meaning and value to us as souls. The second would be that we literally chose the life we have led, and even the basic outlines of the events that occur within it, even when they might seem random or accidental. The purpose of this life is not to be found within its own structure, however. We are not here to literal attain worldly success, but to hone ourselves as spirits through the various trials and tribulations and challenges offered by material life.
One of the best points made in Newton's books is that from the point of view of our own spiritual selves, the material world is simply not our home, the subtle world is. This is of course a natural bias for spirits, and yet that is just who we are as living beings. We are not material bodies, even in the functional sense. We are always spirits who are connecting to material bodies for a purpose that serves us spiritually, regardless of how it seems to turn out within the material world. A man might be quite the failure in worldly terms, and yet be learning tremendously from this life, and benefiting spiritually in great ways, and this is what matters to us most, bottom line. Likewise, those enjoying material success may not be doing so well in their spiritual growth and understanding. One funny comment Newton's patients often make is that there are a number of "young souls" who just like to have fun lifetimes, incarnating as pretty people with lots of money, and they don't really grow much or gain any wisdom, but just move from life to life like the party-goers they are. Even this, of course, serves them, just more slowly, as they gradually begin to realize the futility of this, and eventually start to get serious about making use of the potential in the reincarnation process for much more profoundly expanded spiritual experience and understanding. At that point they will actually choose lives of great difficulty or even tragedy, because of how it actually benefits them.
That aspect of our lives is very easy to forget, for the same reason that we forget our past lives and subtle experience when we incarnate. In the first place, incarnation means attaching ourselves to physical bodies and physical brains, and the physical body has no past lives. It is simply built from the constituent material of the physical world. It's only "past" is its genetic inheritance through evolutionary processes, Darwinian and otherwise. As long as our subtle awareness is subsumed in the experience of the physical body, that seems to be the defining structure of our minds and life. And seeing the experiences of this world purely from the perspective of the physical body makes much of it incomprehensible, meaningless, and even downright cruel and hopeless.
The problem of theodicy, of why God would have created a world with such obvious suffering in it, haunts those who only look at the world from the physical perspective, and imagine God as some creator who put us here whether we liked it or not. This simply isn't the case in any respect at all. First, we are not here because anyone put us here but ourselves. The decision to incarnate in the physical worlds is ours alone, and no one else is to blame. Second, the sufferings of this world are precisely "designed", you might even say, to trigger deep spiritual crises in us that offer us the ability to grow deeply in the midst of them. Tragic deaths, sufferings of all kinds, separations, fearful situations, sorrowful losses, angry frustrations, all of this serves a real spiritual purpose in us, as spirits. And yes, knowing this does in fact make it a bit easier to deal with these nightmares. It allows us to position ourselves properly in the midst of whatever is going on in our lives as a spiritual witness to these events, as someone who is learning to expand their primal feeling-capacity through both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, love and hate.
Ramana Maharshi once said that the biggest mistake most people make in their lives is to thank God when good things happen in their lives, but not to thank him when seemingly bad things happen. He said that true wisdom is to thank God regardless of what happens, to treat both the good and the bad as expressions of God's love for us, and to value them equally. By valuing all experience equally, we are able to go beyond experience itself to the very heart of our own spiritual awareness.
It needs to be mentioned that spirits are also simply struggling to come to the point of understanding themselves and know their real nature and origin. We might tend to think that recognizing ourselves as spirits and knowing that we come from the spirit realms to incarnate here is some kind of great accomplishment, but it simply isn't. Being a spirit in the afterlife worlds is still an experience of conditional bewilderment of a kind, just not as complicated for us as reincarnational bewilderment. Spirits themselves don't fully comprehend their own nature or spiritual origin, and have trouble feeling the depths of their own being. That's precisely why they choose to incarnate, because the experience of incarnation helps expand and deepen their spiritual sense of themselves. So of course it's good to recognize ourselves as spirits, but it's merely the beginning of learning how to grow as spirits here, not itself some final goal.
There's a mistake many make who get involved in spiritual paths that our purpose is to get out of here, to ascend into the subtle worlds and put our attention on the various yogic processes which might seem to offer some kind of relief here. Many of these paths have it exactly backwards. The whole point of incarnating is to incarnate, not to disassociate from the physical, but to experience the physical spiritually. this means making use of physical experience as a means of spiritual deepening, which primarily means learning to feel to the depths of our being. The physical itself is not the depth of our being, it's fairly superficial, but the spiritual capacity to feel the physical has great potential to deepen us. Thus, the human experience of sensuality has profound spiritual value to us. It's not something to turn away from because the physical is not, itself, spiritual. It's certainly true, however, that sensual experience is not, in itself, meaningful to us spiritually. But it does offer a way of being spiritually awake that would not be available in the spirit realms themselves. However, this doesn't mean that the pursuit of exaggerated sensual experiences are terribly valuable. We are having a sensual experience at this very moment, and the point of that is to recognize it and experience it spiritually, since that is what we are in this moment. There is no need for exaggerated experience. In fact, that can often be a distraction from the spiritual purpose of sensuality and physicality. Often, it's the sign of someone who is simply unable to find the spiritual significance of our ordinary sensual experience. They try to experience great or overwhelming sensual pleasure, or pain, in the attempt to feel more deeply. In many cases, some of that is even necessary or useful. But maturity comes with the recognition that the most ordinary of sensual experiences, of simply being alive through a physical body, relaxed and at ease with itself, is actually the most profound. We are able to grow most dramatically through a lack of drama, we are able to learn the greatest lessons through the smallest of lessons, and we are able to experience the most moving pleasures through the simplest of pleasures. And the same is true of pain itself, which teaches us just as much as pleasure does.
The point of all such experiences is to be turned back upon our own real source and nature, in consciousness, not in experience itself. When we do so, experience begins to unfold and reveal itself to us in a different mode entirely. We begin to see and appreciate everything around us as a manifestation of our highest spiritual influences, as God working through the world, rather than the world as some foreign place we have fallen into through sin. Our experience of the world transforms, and we see the universe itself as conspiring to make us happy - not to fulfill us materially, but to make us happy spiritually. Existential suffering, it slowly dawns upon us, is a matter of perspective, and a simple flip in our perspective can completely transform and undo the chronic patterns of misery which we have seemed bound to. The purpose of our spiritual journey is to gain this perspective, which liberates us from suffering in many important ways even if barely touched and glimpsed. If embraced and surrendered to, it turns our very being inside out, and the entire universe also, on every level we surrender to this process.