Mystic and spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg provide a meticulously written up report of what he claimed were visions of an afterlife realm. This material was based on what he inwardly heard and saw when experiencing altered states of consciousness. The awareness occurred on a daily basis throughout the last twenty-seven years of his life.
I believe that what he wrote about these extraordinary experiences is worth sharing because it throws light on what I see as common errors of thinking about death.
We read that following our departure from this life, we wake up in a ‘spirit body’ like a normal human body we have on earth. In this afterlife existence we are said to be conscious of people and things but not those still present in the material universe. We are not it seems reincarnated back in the world in a physical body. Nevertheless, we each retain our individuality in a ‘spirit body’ – one that can see, hear and smell as well as think and feel.
Swedenborg’s idea of a ‘spirit body’ may resemble the idea of a ‘subtle body’ thought 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, that convey ‘subtle breath’. Through breathing exercises, it is claimed a person may direct the ‘subtle breath’ to achieve immortality.
What is Swedenborg’s vision of human contact after death?
For Swedenborg, with our ‘spirit body’ we can be in contact with others who also are no longer alive in the physical body. We can communicate and socially interact like we usually do. He says the afterlife is a spirit dimension of existence. It is real with even more vivid sensations than we experience in the natural world. This is so even though our surroundings are 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 afterlife as ‘spirit world’. Most translators have used the term ‘spiritual world’.
Furthermore, we learn that the individual’s mental state projects itself on to what they see and hear. For example, if after death we are looking for kindness and thoughtfulness, then beauty surrounds us. But if we prefer crime and corruption, then ugliness is all around.
Is there time and space in the afterlife?
Swedenborg’s vision of the afterlife, is that time and space do not follow the laws of physics. Instead they mirror our inner states of mind. I would point out that, in the material world, time is objectively measured for example by clocks and the rotation of our planet. But imagine what it would be like if these physical measures are no longer possible. We would be leave with ‘subjective time’ which depends on our mood. Something of this idea can be seen when we are bored or in pain for then time drags. But, if we are getting on with things and engaged with what interests us, then time passes before we know it.
Swedenborg says how far things seem from us depends on psychological rather than physical rules. For example, if you and someone else feel emotionally close, then in the afterlife, both of you will appear to be located near to each other. So what matters is psychological time and distance.
Are there other descriptions of an afterlife?
It is not just Swedenborg who presents this picture. There is a consistent wealth of similar information from mediums regarding what spirit communicators supposedly say through them about the afterlife of spirits. How the world views mediums and psychics varies a lot. Some have been exposed as fraudsters and there remains a general scientific scepticism as to the validity of their experiences.
However, psychologist David Fontana summarised many of the reports by mediums in his book ‘Is there an afterlife: a comprehensive overview of the evidence’.
“We are tell by (spirit) communicators that the way in which the next world. – at least at the lower levels – is experienced by each individual is shape not just by his or her own thoughts but by the thoughts of others who think in similar ways.” (Professor David Fontana)
Apparently, we will gravitate to that part of the next life where there are people of like mind to ourselves. Those who love trees and flowers, peace and harmony, go to a domain where the thoughts of others who love these things will have helped to create just such an environment. By contrast if violence and strife attracts 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 afterlife dimension. To some extent he depended on what spirits told him but in addition much of this was verified by his own inner experiences. If true, the source of a lot of his information is first hand and contrasts with that of the mediums whose accounts rely only on information conveyed to them via spirit communicators. Yet despite this, the content of both – the mediums’ and Swedenborg’s account – tally together.
Is the next life a happy one?
Professor Fontana writes that spirit communicators describe an environment called the “Upper Astral”. It is an idealised version of what this earthly world could become. One where we treat it and each other with more love and respect. Spirits speak of landscapes of enchanting beauty, of mountains and rivers, of beautiful towns and cities etc.
This sounds like Swedenborg’s vision of one part of the afterlife he calls the ‘spirit world’. The part he terms in Latin “caelo”. For him this social sphere of the afterlife gives a deep kind of happiness.
He does not see this state of consciousness as a reward for an unselfish life on earth. On the contrary, for him it is the fulfilment of what already has begun to grow in a person. He doesn’t mean it is for someone who has simply gone through. The motions of living a good life: appearing to be honest and generous for the sake of social approval. Instead he reserves the sphere of “caelo” for the person who genuinely wants to act in these ways. One who tries to live by their deeper conscience of what is good and right.
In the next podcast we explore what we might we take with us when we die. How will our individual character be see?
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in. Cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.