For Chapter 2, click here.
After we die we initially go back to an outward lifestyle similar to the one we had before we died. But that doesn’t last long. Soon our outer layers start getting peeled away one by one, like an artichoke, until we reach the heart. The “heart” is what we love most of all. It is made of our true inner feelings and thoughts. It is the real us underneath the surface mask. Depending on how well we had covered our true self, this process of unmasking may take a shorter or longer time.
Near-death experiencers who have a life review as part of their experience gain a taste of this. They relive the passages of their lives, but from an inner view. They see not only what they did, but what they were thinking and feeling as they did it— and often what the people around them were thinking and feeling too. This unmasking of the deeper levels within our everyday conversations and actions is the next step in our spiritual growth.
Removing Our Mask
From Heaven and Hell #499–511
by Emanuel Swedenborg
Our second stage after death is called our inner stage. In this stage we are introduced to the inner parts of our mind: our motivations and thoughts. The outer parts of ourselves that we were aware of in our first stage go to sleep.
If we think about our life—what we say and what we do—we can recognize that we each have an inner and an outer part. By this I mean an inner and outer part to our thoughts and motivations.
Here is how we can recognize this: When we are involved in the life of our community, we think of other people based on what we have heard about their reputation, or from what we have heard and noticed while we are talking with them. Yet we do not tell them what we really think of them. Even if they are bad people we talk to them politely and act in a decent way toward them.
This is especially obvious from frauds and flatterers, who talk and act completely differently than they think and feel. Hypocrites talk about God, heaven, saving souls, spiritual truths, the good of the country, and the people around them as if they had faith and love, when they believe something completely different in their heart, and love only themselves.
We can see from this that we have two levels of thought: one outward and one inward. We talk one way from our outward thought, while feeling differently from our inward thought. These two levels of thought are kept separate. We take care not to let our inner thought spill into our outer thought, so that it will not have any chance of appearing to anyone else.
We are created so that our inner thought works together with our outer thought through correspondence. If we are in a good state of mind we have this kind of single-mindedness since we think and speak only good things.
But if we are in a bad state of mind, our inner thought does not work together with our outer thought, since we think bad things but say good things. The order of things is turned upside-down, since the good in us is in our outer self and the bad is in our inner self. This means that the bad parts control the good parts and force them to become a means to attain our goals, which are the things we love.
Since there are then bad goals within the good things we say and do, you can see that the “good” we have is not good, but is corrupted by the bad motives inside us—no matter how good it appears outwardly to people who do not know what is inside.
It is different when we are in a good state of mind. Then the order of things is not upside-down. The good things from our inner thought flow into our outer thought, and from there into what we say and do. This is the way we were created. When we are like this our inner self is in heaven and in the light there. Since the light of heaven is the divine truth coming from the Lord—for it is the Lord in heaven—we are led by the Lord.
I mention these things to point out that we all have inner and outer thought, and they are distinct from each other. When I say thought I also mean motivation, since our thinking comes from our motivation. No one can think without a motive behind it. From this we can see what our outer and inner stages are.
When I say motivation and thought, by motivation I also mean feelings and love, plus all the enjoyment and pleasure that come from our feelings and love. These relate to motivation as their basis, since whatever we are motivated by we love, and we feel enjoyment and pleasure in it. The reverse is also true: whatever we love and feel enjoyment and pleasure in we are motivated by.
When I say thought, on the other hand, I mean everything we use to reinforce our feelings and what we love. Thought is nothing but the form of motivation, or a way that what we want can appear in the light. This form is brought about by various rational analyses that come from the spiritual world and are a part of the human spirit.
We should realize that we are completely like what we are like inwardly, and not what we are like outwardly separate from what we are like inwardly. This is because our inner self is our spirit. Our life is our spirit’s life; that is where the life in our body comes from. This also means that whatever we are like inwardly, we will stay that way forever.
The outer part that relates to our body is separated from us after death. Anything from it that stays connected to our spirit goes to sleep and only serves as a base for the inner parts.
So we can see what parts really belong to us and what parts do not really belong to us. If we are bad, our outer thought from which we speak and our outer motivation from which we act do not belong to us; only what is part of our inner thought and motivation is part of us.
After the first stage is over—the stage of living in our outer self that I covered in the last chapter—we are brought as a spirit into a stage where we are in our inner self. This is a stage of our inner motivation and the thought that comes from it.
In the world we were in this state of mind when we were by ourselves in freedom and without anything bridling our thoughts. Just as in the world, we lapse into this state without realizing it when the thought closest to our words—meaning the thought from which we speak—withdraws toward our inner thought, and we linger there. When we are in this state of mind we are in our real self and in our real life. Our real life, our real self, is thinking freely from our own feelings.
As a spirit, in this stage we think from our own motivations. This means we are thinking from our own feelings and from our own love. Then our thinking is united with our motivation as if they were one. It hardly even seems as if we are thinking—only that we are intending things.
It is almost the same when we speak. But there is still this difference: we speak with some fear that the thoughts from our motives will go out naked. This had become a part of our motives through our community life in the world.
Every single one of us is brought into this stage after death, since it is what our spirit is really like. The previous stage was what we were like in spirit when we were with other people, which is not how we really are.
There are many things showing that the outer stage we are in at first after we die is not our real self. For example, spirits not only think from their feelings, they also talk from them, since what they say comes from their feelings.
We think the same way in the world when we are thinking within ourselves. When we are doing this we do not think in physical speech, but only perceive what we are thinking about; and we can think more in one minute than we could say in half an hour.
We can also see that our outward state of mind is not our real self or spirit from this: in the world, when we are with people we talk according to the ethical and civil laws. At these times our inner thought rules our outer thought the way one person rules another, so that it will not go beyond the boundaries of decency and honesty.
We can also see it from this: when we think within ourselves, we also think about how we should speak and act so that we will please people and get their friendship, good will, and favor. We do this by outward means, and it is different from what we would do if we acted from our real motivations.
We can see from these things that the stage of our inner self that we are led into as spirits is our real state of mind. This means it was also our real state of mind when we lived in the world.
When we are in this inner stage, what we were like inside ourselves in the world is clearly visible, since we then do things from our real self. If we were inwardly focused on good things in the world we act sensibly and wisely. We act even more sensibly and wisely than we did when we were in the world because our link with our body is broken. This breaks our link with the worldly things that had dimmed our thinking as if it were wrapped in a cloud.
But if we were inwardly focused on bad things in the world we act unwisely and crazily. We act even more crazily than we did when we were in the world because we are free and not under any compulsion. When we had lived in the world we had been outwardly sane, since that was how we pretended to be a reasonable person. So when that superficial part of us is taken away, our craziness appears.
Bad people who act outwardly as if they are good are like a shiny polished vase covered with a cloth, with all kinds of filth hidden inside. As the Lord says:
They are like whitewashed graves that appear beautiful outside, but inside are full of dead people’s bones and all kinds of unclean things. (Matthew 23:27)
If we have lived well in the world and acted from our conscience, when we come into the stage of our inner self it seems to us as if we have been awakened from sleeping. (When I say “living well” I mean recognizing the Divine and loving God’s truth—especially when we use it in our life.)
We then think from heavenly light, meaning from deep wisdom, and we do things from goodness, meaning from deeper feelings. Heaven flows into our thoughts and feelings with a deep happiness and joy that we had never known before, since we are in touch with heavenly angels. We also accept the Lord and worship him from our own life, since we are in our real life when we are living in our inner self. And we accept and worship him in freedom, since freedom belongs to our deeper feelings.
We also withdraw from outward holiness and enter inner holiness, which is the nature of real worship. This is our state of life if we have lived in a Christian way according to the teachings of the Bible.
It is exactly the opposite if we have lived badly in the world, with no conscience and in denial of the Divine. Whenever we live in a destructive way we deny the Divine inside ourselves even if we think we are not denying but accepting God while we are living at our surface level. Accepting the Divine and living in a destructive way are opposites.
If we are like this, when we arrive at the stage of our inner self in the other life we will look foolish to others in what we say and do. Our craving for destructive things will cause us to break out into hellish behavior: contempt for other people, ridicule, profanity, hatred, revenge, and underhanded scheming, all with such deceitfulness and malice that it is hard to believe anything like it could be within any person. This happens because we are then free to act out of the thoughts that come from our motives, since we have gotten away from the outward factors that had bound and restrained us in the world. In short, we are deprived of our rational ability, since in the world this ability had not been in our inner self but in our outer self. Even so, to ourselves we still seem wiser than other people.
Because we are like this, when we are in this second stage we are allowed back into our stage of outer life from time to time. Then we remember what we had done when we were in the inner stage. Some of us are then ashamed and admit that we had been crazy. Others are not ashamed. Some of us become furious that we are not allowed to be in that outward stage all the time. But then we are shown what would happen if we stayed in this stage indefinitely: we would think up similar secret plans, and by pretending to be good, sincere, and honest, we would entrap people of simple heart and faith. We would also totally destroy ourselves, since eventually the same fire that is inside us would blaze out into the open and burn up our entire life.
When we are in this second stage we appear outwardly just as we were inside ourselves while we were living in the world. Whatever we had done and said in private becomes public knowledge. With no outward constraints, we say openly and try to do openly what we had done only privately before, without the fear for our reputation that we had in the world. We also progress through many stages of our own destructiveness so that angels and good spirits can see what we are like.
What was private is revealed, and our secret actions are exposed, as the Lord said:
Nothing is covered up that will not be exposed, nor hidden that will not be known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the light. What you whispered in someone’s ear in your bedroom will be shouted from the rooftops. (Luke 12:2, 3)
And in another place:
I tell you the truth, you will have to give a reason for every casual word you say to anyone. (Matthew 12:36)
We can all judge for ourselves what we would be like if we could live without any fear of the law or for our life, and without external boundaries on our behavior such as the fear of damaging our reputation and then losing status, money, and pleasure.
Still, if we are inwardly destructive the Lord will put boundaries around our craziness so that we do not break out beyond the limits of usefulness. Even when we are like this, every one of us provides some useful function. Good spirits see in us what is bad, what our destructiveness is like, and what we will be like if we are not led by the Lord. Also, by having our destructiveness come out, those of us who are involved in similar bad things are gathered together and separated from good people. Plus, the good and true things we had pretended and made an outward show of are taken away from us and we are brought into our own destructive life, and the falsity that goes with it. This is how we are prepared for hell.
We cannot get into hell until we are living out our own destructiveness and thinking our own false thoughts. In the spiritual world we are not allowed to have a divided mind by thinking and talking one way while wanting something else. If we are bad we will think false things from that badness, and say what comes from these: both from our own motives, meaning from our real love, and from the happiness and pleasure we get from it. It is just as we were in the world when we were in our own spirit, thinking within ourselves from our deeper feelings.
This is all true because our motivation is our real self, and not our thinking except when it comes from our motives. Our motivation is our real personality and our inner character. When we turn to our motivation we turn to our real personality and character, and also to our real life. We form our personality by the way we live. After death we keep the personality we had acquired through our life in the world. If we have formed a destructive personality we can no longer fix and change it through contemplation and understanding what is true.
If we are bad we are punished severely and often in this second stage because we keep breaking out into all kinds of destructive behavior. There are many different kinds of punishment in the spiritual world, and there is no consideration of what our status had been in the world: high officials and menial laborers are treated the same.
Every destructive action carries its own penalty with it; they are bound together. When we become involved in any kind of destructive behavior, we also become involved in its punishment.
However, in the spiritual world we are never punished for the bad things we had done in the world. We are punished only for the bad things we do there. Yet it boils down to the same thing whether you say we pay the penalty for the bad things we did in the world or we pay the penalty for the bad things we do in the other life. We always revert to our own real life after death, so we revert to the same types of destructiveness. We have the same inner character that we had in our physical life.
We are punished for our bad behavior because fear of punishment is the only way to control destructive behavior at this stage. Warnings do not work anymore. Education does not work anymore. Fear of the law and of a bad reputation does not work anymore. We act from our own nature, which cannot be forced or broken down except by punishment.
However, if we are good we will never be punished even if we have done bad things in the world, since bad parts of us do not come back. We are shown that the bad things we had done were different, since we did not do them purposely to oppose the truth, or from a bad heart. It was simply what was passed on to us from our parents, which we fell into from thoughtless pleasure when we were engrossed in superficial things and separated from our inner self.
After we die we each go to our own community: the one we had been in spiritually while we were in the world. Each of us is spiritually connected to some heavenly or hellish community. If we are bad it is a hellish community. If we are good it is a heavenly one. Our spirit is led to that community step by step, and finally we move into it.
If we are bad, when we come to the stage of our inner self we gradually turn toward our community, and finally face directly toward it before this stage is over. When this stage is over we throw our own selves into a hell where there are spirits like us.
Good and bad spirits are separated in this second stage; they had been together in the first stage. When we are in the stage of our outer self it is just like being in the world; so good and bad people are together with one another. It is different when we move into our inner self and are left to our real character and motivation.
* * * * *
People who have had near-death experiences often feel that a higher and deeper level of human existence has been opened up to them. They no longer think that the material world is the most important or even the most real part of their existence. For most, the spiritual level—the level of love and understanding—becomes central to their lives.
This is exactly what happens to us when we reach the second stage after death as described by Swedenborg. At first we had lived the same way we did in the world, with the same outward concerns. Now our inner self is gradually opened up, and we realize that it is not our body and our outward actions that make us human, but our spirit and our inward love and understanding. We recognize that these have been the real “us” all the way along. The outer part was there simply so that we could express what was inside.
However, if our outer expression does not correspond well with our real inner thoughts and feelings we have a sorting out process to go through until our outer self is in complete harmony with our inner self. In heaven, and in spiritual life, we are not allowed to have a divided mind or a divided life. Everything we do must come from within, and be completely expressed outwardly. Only then can we be in the kind of “flow state” that characterizes deep, full, human life. Author and psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow this way:
“Flow” is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.
Swedenborg was talking about this same state of mind and spirit when he wrote:
Divine order is for the Lord to flow through our inner levels into our outer levels, which means through our motives into our actions. This happens when we are governed by good—that is, when we are guided by a love for doing good for its own sake, and not for selfish reasons. When we do good for selfish reasons and not for its own sake, our inner levels are closed, and we cannot be led by the Lord through heaven, but only by self. (Arcana Coelestia #8513.2)
The key to this state of mind is that whatever we are doing, we must be doing it for its own sake and not for some ulterior motive. If we are good to other people not simply for the sake of being good to them, but because we hope to get something from them in return, we have a divided self: our actions are expressing something different from our feelings. But if we are good to other people simply because we love being that way, we have a unified self: there is an uninterrupted flow from our love through our understanding into our actions. And, Swedenborg would say, that flow comes into our spirit from God, so that we are also at one with God.
We can fully experience life only when we are in this kind of flow state. In the spiritual world, where everything inner flows into outward expression, we will sooner or later come into this flow state if we have chosen to love and understand others. Our happiness will become their happiness, and there will be mutual harmony. A heavenly community is one where there is a free, spontaneous flow of love and understanding among all the community members.
If we have chosen to hate and misunderstand others, our pleasure will be their pain; and in the clash of conflicting desires we will only sometimes be able to experience the destructive kind of pleasure that we have chosen. In hellish communities there is continual competition for possessions and for dominance; the “flow” is constantly broken. Instead of flow, there is turbulence.
If we have chosen a spiritual path we are heading in the direction of a flow state. But we have a long way to go until we can be in that flow state for any sustained period of time. We have too many inner conflicts that must be resolved first. The next stage of our process after death, and of our spiritual path here on earth, is when we work toward that resolution.
In the spiritual world this sorting out and resolution is helped along by wise angels who perceive what we are like and help us to see it.
If we have been caught up in destructive behavior even though we have a good heart we may go through rough passages. If we cling to our destructive behavior we will be dragged down with others who are caught up in the same things, until we realize in the “school of hard knocks” that this is not how we really want to be.
There are parallels to both of these experiences in our life here on earth. One of the best helps along our spiritual journey is to find a well-trained and sympathetic counselor who can help us understand our own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and work through them to a healthier way of living.
On the negative side, we may have to reap many painful consequences from some of our destructive habits before we fully realize how damaging they are, and resolve to leave them behind. Beginning on a spiritual path may not immediately make things better. In fact, it may bring on a crisis as our old ingrained habits fight back vigorously against the changes we are attempting to make. The path of spiritual growth is often a rocky one.
If we do resolve to follow a spiritual path and to overcome the obstacles in the way, how do we go about making the changes that are needed in our life?
First, for any spiritual path we need a goal: an ideal of human life that we are moving toward. We each have to determine this for ourselves. But we can get help from people such as counselors or ministers who may serve as our spiritual guides, from sacred literature, and from secular literature dealing with human psychology and community.
From a spiritual perspective the ultimate goal is God. In embarking on a spiritual path we are beginning a journey toward God. Thus the deeper and more universal our understanding of God is, the farther our spiritual path will take us. If we put our sights on God, and always allow our understanding of God to grow, we will never reach a dead end on our spiritual path . . . because God is infinite.
When we are mapping out a trip we need to know not only where we are going but also where we are now in order to plan the best route. We usually know where we are physically, so finding the starting point on a map for a road trip is not hard. Spiritually, though, we may have very little concept of where we are. So the next step is to take stock of our inner, spiritual self and discover where we are so that we will know our starting point, and be able to start out on a route toward our goal.
Those who have had a deep NDE that includes a life review have a head start on the rest of us—especially if the being of light guided them through the life review. But we can take some guidelines from the being of light in our own self-examination. What the being of light looks for with NDEers when they have a guided life review is times when the person has shown love to others, or failed to show love, and times when the person has learned new things, or failed to learn. These are the things we can look for in ourselves when we are determining where we are spiritually right now.
Swedenborg gives some suggestions to help us figure out what we really love to do. In the section from Heaven and Hell that begins this chapter, he says:
We can all judge for ourselves what we would be like if we could live without any fear of the law or for our life, and without external boundaries to our behavior such as the fear of damaging our reputation and then losing status, money, and pleasure.
In other words, Swedenborg says, “Think what you would do if nothing whatever prevented you from doing anything you wanted. What would you do?” If we think carefully about this question and clear away all the things we do because we have to or think we ought to, we will begin to see what, underneath it all, we really love. This can give us a starting point.
Another suggestion to help us figure out what we really love comes in the segment from Swedenborg given in Chapter 2:
The main way to distinguish between good and bad spirits is to notice what they pay attention to. Bad spirits eagerly listen when people talk about superficial matters, but hardly listen at all when the conversation is about deeper things that have to do with spiritual and heavenly truth and goodness. They do listen to these things, but with very little attention or enjoyment.
What do our ears perk up for? What leaves us yawning? These are good indications of where our real interest and love lies.
Some of the things we really love will be good. Others will not be so good. Our task for the good ones is to bring them out more, and to be sure we are doing them for their own sake and not for some hidden motive that blocks the flow. Our task for the not so good ones is to recognize them, confront them, and overcome them.
For Swedenborg, doing good things without resisting bad ones is meaningless. If we do not overcome the bad parts of ourselves they will always be there, tainting our seemingly “good” actions. We will do good things when they benefit us or when we happen to feel like it, not consistently and for the sake of the good itself. This prevents us from entering a spiritual flow state.
Once we have recognized the areas where we need work, we need to confront them. This means admitting that they are a part of ourselves and taking responsibility for them. We may see them in ourselves, but if we pass the buck by blaming some outside person, group, event, or influence, we have not confronted them.
It is true that we have been influenced in many ways by people and experiences in our lives. We arrive at the beginning of spiritual maturity when, recognizing this, we still take responsibility for our own life, and no longer pass the buck. It is like the time of our lives when we first leave home and begin supporting ourselves.
Along with the work of responsibility for ourselves comes the power to change our own lives for the better. Now that we recognize that our spiritual and emotional life is in our own hands, we can begin to put behind us the negative habits that are blocking our path.
This is not something to do all by ourselves, but with the help of God, and of people we trust. One goal of spiritual living is to build communities based on mutual love and understanding. By asking others for help, we begin to build this kind of community in the very act of healing ourselves spiritually.
The help we need may come from a counselor; it may come from a spouse, close friend, or trusted family member; it may come from a minister or spiritual guide; and it always comes from God. With this help we can put aside our negative and destructive habits and begin a new and more spiritual life. We will always have shadows from our past life; but those shadows can be moved more and more to the edges of our consciousness and our life.
As we go through this process we will be unifying our spirit, mind, and actions. We will be clearing away everything that does not fit with our deepest motives and loves, so that our words and actions will express our real thoughts and feelings. This is what is accomplished during our second stage after death, as Swedenborg describes it.
It is also the longest stretch of our spiritual path here on earth. If we recognize that this is not a quick and easy process, but the work of years, we can avoid some of the discouragement of the long struggle. As long as we are on the path, we are making progress, even though it may seem slow. God will give us periods of rest along the way, and send us the people and experiences we need at each step.
Eventually there comes a time when the greatest part of our struggle is over. We have overcome the major spiritual obstacles within us. We have come to a point where we know what we want to do, we know how to do it, and we love doing it. This is the beginning of the more sustained flow state that we were aiming for when we first started out on our spiritual journey.
We still have work to do; the flow will not be unbroken. But we will spend much of our time doing what we love to do. This may happen here on earth, or it may happen in the spiritual world after we die.
At this point, says Swedenborg, all that is left for us to do before finding our permanent spiritual home is to shake off any remaining misconceptions we had about spirit and life, and learn any of the basics of spirituality that we may have missed along the way. That is what happens in the third and final stage after death, near the end of our journey to our spiritual home.
Note that Swedenborg was writing for a Christian audience. Elsewhere Swedenborg stated that both Christians and non-Christians will find their place in heaven if they care about others and do their best to live according to their own religious beliefs.
 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) p. 6.
(Note: This is Chapter 3 of my book Death and Rebirth, first published in 2005 and currently out of print. This text and associated artwork are copyright 2005 by Lee Woofenden.)
For Chapter 4, click here.