A Long, Personal, but Necessary Introduction Explaining How I Came to Write This Book
Few kids like going to bed. But when I was a kid, I really didn’t like it. That each day should have to come to an end with the closing of the door of my room and the (usually) all too long wait for unconsciousness to arrive seemed not only unfair; it seemed downright absurd. The darkness and separation that night brought with it filled me with a pure childish anxiety that I can still conjure up today.
It was while lying in bed as a young child and waiting for sleep to come that I remember doing my earliest significant thinking about death. One night, at about age five, I awoke in a cold sweat from a dream in which the people I knew had appeared as one-dimensional paper cutouts. My father, my mother, my teachers—everyone was reduced, in the dream, to these simple paper shapes, each wearing a single, static expression, some smiling, some frowning, but all equally shallow, all equally empty of true human presence.
In its simple, straightforward way, this dream summed up all the deepest anxieties I had about life as a kid. The notion that the human world was really just a surface event with nothing real beneath it, that the people I knew and the world I lived in had, in fact, no true or lasting substance… Wasn’t that what the concept of death—impossibly remote and hard to understand, yet at the same time hugely, intimately close and ever-present—really suggested?
The more I thought about death as a kid, the more strange it seemed to me that most people in the world around me had so little to say about it—or at least, so little of any real usefulness. In 1970, when I was eight, my mother read E. B. White’s children’s book Charlotte’s Web aloud to me. At the end of the book, when Charlotte the spider died, I struggled to get my head around the idea that Wilbur the pig could have gotten any happiness or consolation from the fact that Charlotte had left a nest of baby spiders behind to keep him company. Babies or no babies, Charlotte was still gone. Wasn’t that what really counted?
That same year, I began suffering a new series of nightmares turning around the theme of being kidnapped. In most of these scenarios, a group of malevolent but otherwise unidentifiable men crept up on me while I was sleeping, stuffed me into a sack, and dragged me away to a cabin in the middle of a dark forest.
In an effort to find out what lay at the root of these fantasies, my father enlisted the help of a Scientologist friend of his named Rebecca. For several months in the spring of that year, I made regular visits to a small office in downtown Washington, DC, where Rebecca hooked me up to an E-meter—a lie-detector-like device that Scientologists use to measure electrical fluctuations at the surface of the skin. Over the course of half a dozen of these visits, Rebecca attempted, through a series of questions and a close study of the E-meter’s reactions to my answers, to lead me back to my previous lifetimes on earth. For, my father maintained, it was during one of those lifetimes that the event or events that were secretly causing my kidnapping anxieties had actually occurred.
A writer who specialized in occult and esoteric subjects (1971’s Secrets of the Great Pyramid and 1973’s The Secret Life of Plants are, today, his chief enduring claims to fame), my father wasn’t a card-carrying Scientologist. But he was a great believer in the idea—common to Scientology, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and many of the other new or semi-new spiritual movements that seized so many people’s attention in the sixties and seventies—that the human soul preexisted the body, and will outlive it as well. My father revered the great early architects of new age thought. People like Helena Blavatsky (the controversial Russian mystic and founder of Theosophy), Rudolf Steiner (the Austrian philosopher and educator and founder of Anthroposophy), Edgar Cayce (the American clairvoyant famous for predictions he made while in a state of trance), and Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, came up on a daily basis in our household. Different though the teachings of these thinkers were in certain of their specifics, my father believed that they had all made important contributions to a new way of looking at human beings and their place in the universe: a way that was, he felt, going to have a growing influence on the hopelessly confining antispiritual view of the world that more and more people in the West had been abiding by ever since the scientific revolution had occurred three hundred years earlier.
Like many early enthusiasts of what was just then starting to be called new age thought, my father was strongly suspicious of conventional science, believing that most scientists spent most of their time covering up the real truth about the world rather than revealing it. He distrusted the proponents of traditional religious faith—most especially Christianity—even more, and never missed an opportunity to warn me against believing what the more conventional voices of wisdom in the world I lived in (teachers, school friends’ parents, people on TV) had to say about the way things really worked. To my father’s way of thinking, conventional science and conventional faith were both roadblocks to experiencing who and what each of us really is: a free spirit living in a cosmos that is not purely material, but material and spiritual: a cosmos that humankind was on the verge of seeing and experiencing in a new and infinitely larger way.
At the center of this new picture of the universe was a vision of the human being as an essentially spiritual entity: a being that had taken on a physical body as part of a process of growth, or evolution, that had begun far in the past and would continue far into the future. That humans were more than their present physical bodies wasn’t simply interesting news to my father, it was revolutionary news. For when one took this view, human life was transformed in a moment from the painful, puzzling, and generally pointless exercise it so often seemed to be into a story that is going somewhere. When you held to the kind of worldview that my father and his new age friends did, at no single moment, no matter how futile and pointless life might seem, was it ever really so. Even on the bleakest days and in the lowest of circumstances, one need never feel totally lost or totally without hope. Instead, even at those points when life seemed to make least sense, one was simply like a football player so disoriented in the confusion of a scrimmage that he has momentarily lost sight of the end zone.
“We’re not bodies,” my father liked to say, summing up this entire new view of life and the human place within it: “we have bodies.”
My father (correctly, I would later discover) pointed out that the basic notion of reincarnation—that is, that we are souls, not bodies, and that as such we have each inhabited more than one of the latter over the course of time—had been the norm rather than the exception for most of human history. It was still an accepted reality for the cultures of the Far East, and even the more mystical elements of Judaism and Islam continued to make room for it as well. When you got down to it, it was really only Christianity—that most ideologically thorny of all the world religions—that had said a definite “no” to the possibility that we are born more than once upon the earth.
And yet it was possible—indeed, said my father, even probable—that in their earliest days even Christians had embraced this doctrine as well. Jesus himself, said my father, knew that we move from body to body, taking birth time and again. But for various reasons, the early Church fathers had proclaimed the doctrine of rebirth a heresy, thus removing from Christianity one of the most genuinely useful tools to help us earthbound humans make sense of how and why we had ended up getting (momentarily) trapped in the web of material existence to begin with. Instead of spiritual evolution, instead of a cosmos where people dropped into and came out of earthly incarnation like a line of butterfly-stroking swimmers gracefully plunging into and surging out of the water as they moved down the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool, Christians believed that each of us had come to birth once and only once, created out of nothing at conception and consigned, after a single, short, and (usually) all too painful and confusing life, either to a choking, smoke-filled hell, or to an almost equally undesirable heaven full of clouds, halos, and not much else; a heaven where bad people weren’t allowed and where good people went for all eternity—to do what, exactly, it was hard to say.
I had actually been named for one of those early, reincarnation-espousing Christians. Though people tend to assume that my namesake is the ancient Greco-Roman astronomer famous for proclaiming earth the center of the universe, my father always gave a mildly derisive laugh when people suggested this. In fact, I got my name from Ptolemy the Gnostic, an obscure metaphysical philosopher whom my father happened to have been lying in bed reading about when my mother went into labor next to him in early May 1962. “Here comes Ptolemy!” my father had said cheerfully and decisively, shutting the book and reaching for his car keys.
Not that my father thought my mother was necessarily giving birth to that one and the same Ptolemy he was reading about in his book. But my father would have been the first to point out that she certainly might have been. For like many advocates of the theory of reincarnation, he believed that we choose our parents each time we leave the light-shot realms of spirit behind and sink back to earth for another go-round. So whoever this new player entering the game board of his personal life was—whichever particular soul had tired of the freedoms of the spirit world and opted for another temporary dive back down into the bracing murk of physical existence—he knew it was someone who, for better or worse, had made the conscious choice to do so as his son.
One might think that having a father with such a positive spiritual philosophy would have prevented me from suffering the kind of anxieties about death and darkness that plagued me so consistently through my childhood. But rather than curing me of my fears about death, my father’s philosophy actually put them into sharper focus. For the fact was that though my father talked a good game in the spiritual department, the actual details of his life often fell far short of the ideals he painted so glowingly in his conversation. He and my mother fought a good deal, and the fights did not lessen in number when, in that same year of 1970, my father brought his new mistress, a woman named Betty, to live in our house along with my mother and father and me. The social and sexual experimentation that the late sixties and early seventies are remembered for today took an especially heavy toll on our household, and while peace and love and harmony were the ostensible goals of that experimentation, in our house they tended to produce very different results.
Why bother going into all this personal stuff in a book that’s supposed to be on the afterlife, not my personal life? The short and simple answer is that I believe the details of my upbringing are strangely well suited as a vehicle for introducing certain key questions about the afterlife and how we go about understanding it today. One of the main reasons I’m interested in the afterlife—and it has been my central interest for all of my adult life—is that the world I grew up in taught me to be interested in it.
When I say “the world,” what I am really saying, I suppose, is: my father. Whether he meant to or not, my father doomed me, in a way, to be taken up with the subject of where we were before we were born and what becomes of us afterward, and the details of my life with him provide a kind of synopsis of how our culture got to where it is in terms of its relationship to the world that might or might not lie in wait beyond the body.
My father loved movies, and taking me to them was his primary means of educating me. Whatever film we ended up seeing—usually at one of the Washington, DC, theaters across the river from our (at that time still quite rural) Northern Virginia house—he almost always had something significant to say about it on the drive home: something that put whatever action we had seen on the screen within a larger—usually cosmically large—context.
Many of the movies we went to see together were fairly adult in nature. In 1972, when I was ten, my father took me to a British film called Tales from the Crypt. Based on the ’50s EC comic book of the same name, it was, like the comic, broken up into several segments, each one featuring a story based on a tale originally published in the magazine.
The film begins with the protagonists of the different episodes all gathering together, apparently by happenstance, in an underground crypt. A groundskeeper singles out each character and tells their story—seemingly as if it hasn’t happened yet.
At the end of the film, it is revealed that the characters are in fact all already dead, and that the crypt they have found themselves in is the first section of the underworld, where each has been sent as payment for the bad—the very bad—actions they committed while alive.
In the first story segment, Joan Collins plays a woman at home with her husband and daughter, a girl of about eight, on Christmas Eve. While the daughter lies in bed upstairs awaiting Santa, Joan sneaks up on her husband from behind and bashes him in the head with a poker from the fireplace. She then cleans up the mess and stows the body in the basement. As she is finishing up with this, the Christmas carols on the radio are interrupted by an announcement that a homicidal maniac has escaped from a nearby asylum. Everyone in the area, the radio says, should be on the alert for a six-foot-three man with dark eyes, weighing 210 pounds.
Joan locks the door and gets back to what she was doing. Moments later, a very sinister outside shot shows a giant Santa walking through the snow up to the door, a little Christmas bell in hand. He bangs on the door and then peers through the window—eyes bugging, Santa hat askew. Joan hides on the floor just under the window. Does he see her? It’s uncertain, but somehow we sense that Santa knows Joan is in there: that he has, in fact, come precisely for her.
Will Santa get Joan before she can clean up the evidence of the murder and call the police? More perplexingly, do we even care if he does? For perhaps, given how awful a person she clearly is, we might actually want Joan to get a comeuppance of some kind. Perhaps even one as bad as perishing at the hands of the psychotic Santa.
These questions play in the viewer’s head as Joan continues to get rid of the last of the evidence. Just as we think Joan might have things completely under control, her daughter—who by this time we had assumed was asleep—calls out from the living room.
“Mummy, Mummy! It’s Santa! I let him in.”
A gust of wind—evidence that the elements are now free to enter the house—parts the curtains in front of the door. Then a man’s hand pokes through, ringing a little Christmas bell. With a cruel, lustful, slightly animalistic grunt, Santa rushes into the house, pushes Joan to the ground, and strangles her.
The rest of the film follows the fates of the other members of the group in the crypt, detailing the gruesome end each had come to as the result of some bad action committed. But that initial Santa segment was the one that lingered in both my father’s and my mind on the drive home.
“Did you notice,” he asked me, “that the shot of the Santa Claus character killing that woman was photographed from inside the fireplace?”
Now that he mentioned it, I recalled that the final image of Joan, with Santa strangling her, had indeed been shot from behind the fireplace’s burning logs, so that the two figures appeared to be playing out their life-and-death drama within a bed of flames.
“That was a very artful shot,” my father said. “And it shows how that film was largely about karma—about why the things that happen to us happen at all, and why they happen to us in the specific way they do.”
“It was?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said my father. “All of those people, supposedly, ended up in that crypt—had gone down to hell, essentially—for the bad things they’d done, right?”
“Well, maybe they did. But a hell you go to for eternity just for something you did wrong in this one, single life is really an outmoded Christian idea. In fact, from a more sophisticated perspective, it’s actually this world, right here, that’s the real hell. I mean, look around you! People killing and eating other creatures to stay alive, people fighting and torturing each other constantly, suffering from jealousy and anger and all the other feelings that make them do all the terrible things they do… It’s unspeakable. But of course, that’s only half the story.”
“What’s the other half?”
“The one that appears when we realize there’s a way out of the horror—that we’re not stuck in it forever. That film didn’t explain why the man in the Santa suit murdered that woman, but she may very well have murdered him in a previous life. Or they could have been husband and wife, or parent and child. That’s the way the game goes—on and on, life after life, with one person doing something to another person, only to have the roles switched the next time around. But it’s all really just a play, a movie… In the final analysis, it isn’t real. When a scene in a movie is over, the director shouts ‘cut!’ As soon as he does, the actors stop what they’re doing, dust themselves off, and that’s the end of it—at least until he shouts ‘action’ and the cameras start to roll again. The mark of a good actor is his ability to actually believe he’s the character he’s playing. When he takes on a role, he feels the emotions—the loves and fears and rages and joys—that his character feels. But at the same time, there’s always a part of him that stays apart from it all—that doesn’t forget that it’s really just a role he’s playing. A good actor has a bit of all of the characters he’s ever played in him. He’s all of them, but at the same time he’s none of them. Some of his roles were more memorable, some less. But they all mattered while he was playing them. That’s what makes him a good actor in the first place. He can completely immerse himself in a character for a while, then, when the movie’s over, he can go back to being the person he was beforehand. But that’s also the key to living life successfully. All of us are really just actors. When you understand that none of the things that happen to you down here can touch the being you truly are behind the momentary identity you’ve assumed in your current body, life loses all its terror. And once you become free of the fear that comes along with believing you’re just your body and nothing more, you can start to really learn the lessons that you incarnated to learn to begin with—you can start to see what the movie script of your life is really all about.”
“How come more people don’t know that then?”
“We all do know it,” said my father. “It’s just that we forget it when we come down here. The Greek mystery traditions say that each time we come back to earth we take a drink from a river called Lethe. That water gives you amnesia—it makes you forget where you came from. Then, when we die and leave this world again, we take a drink from another river called Mnemosyne. The waters of that river are the waters of memory—of anamnesis, a Greek word that means the opposite of amnesia. The first swallow we take brings us back around, snaps us out of it, and we suddenly remember who we are. Good God, we say to ourselves each time, how could I have forgotten? But even though that larger sense of who we are is given back to us each time we leave an incarnation behind, we forget it all over again next time around, just like we did the last time, and the time before that. Sometimes, when you’re watching a really good film, you can forget where you are for a moment, forget that you’re even sitting in a theater, because you’re so tied up in what’s happening on-screen. You become whatever’s happening up there. That’s what each of our individual incarnations is like. We plunge so deep into whatever life we’ve ended up in that we forget all about where we originally came from. Plato once said that ordinary people—people who don’t understand this—are like a bunch of cave dwellers, watching shadows on the wall. There’s a whole world of blazing sunlight right outside the cave, but instead of going out there, they fix their attention on those dim, flickering shadows, mistaking them for reality. Well… that’s precisely the position most people today are in. They have no idea of where they came from, where they’re going, or how many times they’ve been through this business already.”
“So is there really a river called Lethe in the afterlife?”
“I doubt it. Those are just images—a poetic way of talking. The people in those days weren’t stupid in the least—despite what I’m sure your history and science teachers have to say on the matter. They knew that there was much more to the world than the material level we see around us. They were also aware that there was more to each of us as well—that at heart we’re not at all the limited, powerless little beings we feel like most of the time. You can see that old knowledge everywhere in our language. Do you know where the word person comes from? The Latin persona—‘mask.’ That’s another hint that the ancients knew full well that we’re all just playing roles down here, and whether the roles are good or bad or horrible or wonderful, eventually the movie will end and we’ll remember who and what we truly are. But if you’re smart, you’ll come around to all of this before you die. Discover—or rather, remember—who and what you really are right now, while you’re still down here in this life, and nothing—absolutely nothing—can ever get the better of you.”
Needless to say, this conversation didn’t unfold exactly as I’ve typed it out. I’m doing my best to re-create it from memories that are now more than thirty years old. But in its essence it is accurate, and the points it describes my father making are points he made numberless times to me over the years. This view of the universe as a kind of grand schoolhouse is, of course, the basic vision of new age thought, and its appeal was immediately apparent to me.
But over time, so were its shortcomings as well.
The results of my E-meter sessions with Rebecca the Scientologist were inconclusive. Though I enjoyed the ritual of coming to the downtown office where the readings were made, allowing her to attach, doctor-like, the two small clamps to my fingers, and letting my mind rove around in answer to her questions (“Do you see yourself wearing any special kind of clothes?” “Do you see yourself living by the ocean or water of any kind?”), at no point during these visits did I ever feel like the answers I was giving were coming from anyplace other than my present, child’s imagination, with all its familiar quirks and limitations. My kidnapping fantasies and nightmares continued, and when they finally faded away a year or so later, they were supplanted by other terrors and anxieties, and then by others after that.
But some elements of my situation did change. As the years went on and I moved from childhood to adolescence and then on to my teenage years, I began to get a suspicion as to why my father’s cheerful, no-need-to-fear philosophy had so failed to allay my anxieties about life:
My father didn’t really believe it.
Or at least, he didn’t believe it completely. Sure, it was something he wanted to believe in, and it was certainly something he was good at talking about. But anyone who lived in such close proximity to my father day after day could see that he didn’t really see earthly life as a play or a movie—as something that couldn’t touch the deeper being that he truly was—at all. Try telling him that each year in early April, for example, as tax time approached; or, for that matter, try telling him any number of times in the course of just about any day at all, in one of those many moments when things weren’t going exactly his way.
It wasn’t just that my father forgot about this larger philosophy of his when he lost his temper, however. It was also that at other moments he had a habit of using it in questionable ways. In 1980, the year I graduated from high school, my father had a brief affair with a woman whom he had ostensibly met up with to discuss a new book project. When my stepmother took him to task for this (my mother, by this point, having long since retreated—literally—from the central action of my father’s life by moving to a small house out behind our main one in Virginia), he responded with his usual indignation that he had no choice but to get sexually involved with this woman.
“She believes,” my father told my stepmother, “that we knew each other in Elizabethan England. She suspects you were involved with us as well, and that the only way you’re going to get past the emotional blocks you built up in that life is by overcoming your jealous impulses in this one.”
One day that same year of 1980, my father lost his balance at the top of a steep staircase at the rear of our house and fell down its full length. He fractured his spine and was laid up for several weeks. When he could finally walk again, it was only very slowly and with the aid of a brace.
All that stationary time put him in danger of getting a blood clot. One day that summer I was in my room reading when my father called out from the other end of the house. I dropped my book and ran to see what was up. He was standing in the doorway of his study in his bathrobe, his face pale.
“Get me to the hospital,” he said. “My leg hurts terribly. I think I’ve got a clot.” I helped him to the car and
A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come
The Modern Book of the Dead
A Revolutionary Perspective on Death, the Soul, and What Really Happens in the Life to Come
It remains perhaps the single most important question we can ask, one that still inspires thousands to turn to the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead for hope and comfort. But we can no longer rely solely on ancient wisdom for truly useful answers about our own mortality. We must find explanations for the afterlife in the fruits of modern experience.
Critically acclaimed author Ptolemy Tompkins grew up in a family where questions about the shape and fate of the human soul were discussed on a daily basis, but it was only after his father’s passing that he began to consider death in a genuinely concrete way. In this boldly unconventional book—part memoir, part history of ideas, part road map to what might truly await us—Tompkins approaches the question of the afterlife with refreshing intimacy. Weaving together philosophy, science, stories of near-death experiences, and theology, he offers readers a new perspective on death and comes to an amazing and uplifting conclusion: that, somehow, human consciousness lives on.