If one leaves aside the last three hundred years of historical experience as it unfolded in Europe and America, and examines the phenomenon of death and the doctrine of the soul in all its ramifications - Neoplatonic, Christian, dynastic-Egyptian, and so on, one finds repeatedly the idea that there is a light body, an entelechy that is somehow mixed up with the body during life and at death is involved in a crisis in which these two portions separate. One part loses its raison d'etre and falls into dissolution; metabolism stops. The other part goes we know not where. Perhaps nowhere if one believes it does not exist; but then one has the problem of trying to explain life. And, though science makes great claims and has done well at explaining simple atomic systems, the idea that science can make any statement about what life is or where it comes from is currently preposterous.
We are not primarily biological, with mind emerging as a kind of iridescence, a kind of epiphenomenon at the higher levels of organization of biology. We are hyperspatial objects of some sort that cast a shadow into matter. The shadow in matter is our physical organism. At death, the thing that casts the shadow withdraws, and metabolism ceases. Material form breaks down; it ceases to be a dissipative structure in a very localized area, sustained against entropy by cycling material in, extracting energy, and expelling waste. But the form that ordered it is not affected. These declarative statements are made from the point of view of the shamanic tradition, which touches all higher religions. Both the psychedelic dream state and the waking psychedelic state acquire great import because they reveal to life a task: to become familiar with this dimension that is causing being, in order to be familiar with it at the moment of passing from life.
The metaphor of a vehicle--an after-death vehicle, an astral body--is used by several traditions. Shamanism and certain yogas, including Taoist yoga, claim very clearly that the purpose of life is to familiarize oneself with this after-death body so that the act of dying will not create confusion in the psyche. One will recognize what is happening. One will know what to do and one will make a clean break. Yet there does seem to be the possibility of a problem in dying. It is not the case that one is condemned to eternal life. One can muff it through ignorance.
Apparently at the moment of death there is a kind of separation, like birth--the metaphor is trivial, but perfect. There is a possibility of damage or of incorrect activity. The English poet-mystic William Blake said that as one starts into the spiral there is the possibility of falling from the golden track into eternal death. Yet it is only a crisis of a moment--a crisis of passage--and the whole purpose of shamanism and of life correctly lived is to strengthen the soul and to strengthen the ego's relationship to the soul so that this passage can be cleanly made. This is the traditional position...