Most of us, for most of the time, experience reality in the physical realm.
Our success is defined through numbers, dwellings, and doings.

We believe that people come into our lives when they voice their first cries, and leave our lives when they exhale their last breaths.

We dub natural and manmade objects according to their chemical formulae.

That is one side of the coin.

“What is the highest internal law? That we love one another. Because if we don’t, we will all die. As surely as a lack of oxygen will kill us, so will a lack of love.”

-Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

Reading this, I wondered, is Marianne’s statement verging on the melodramatic? Perhaps — from a biological standpoint. But then, a deeper layer of interpretation emerged.

If we spend our days inspired merely by a sense of hunger, sleep and lust, is it truly living, or just inhabiting a body?

Conversely, if we continue to enlighten people’s lives when we lack a physical body, is it truly death, or a bodyless presence?

If we describe death as “that state in which the body is unaware of itself” — that encompasses both physical passing and unconscious living.

As Marianne suggests, expanding the breadth of “death” might urge us to lead a more loving life.

One way to understand “spiritual death” is through pain.

In A Return to Love, Marianne describes her life before encountering the book that shifted her perspective — A Course in Miracles. She recounts feeling “frantic”, like she was “dying inside”, “seeking relief in food, people or whatever else [she] could find to distract [her] from [herself]”.

She is not the first, nor will she be the last spiritual thinker who links mental dysphoria to a lack of spiritual direction. In Marianne’s story, A Course in Miracles was a way for her to go back to herself.

Thus, a “return to love”, Marianne explains, is a return to what we are at our core. In other words: unconditional acceptance of what is. This is especially impactful when what is includes sorrow and pain.

A human body is sometimes depicted as a vessel.

There’s a story about a monk who uses an empty rice bowl to explain to a learned scholar that, in order to feed the mind, one must first empty their “bowl”.

In Zen Buddhism, this story is used to describe the “beginner’s mind” — an open-minded state, prior to forming conceptual systems.

“Your mind is like this rice bowl. It is so full of knowledge that nothing else will fit. In order for me to teach you wisdom, you must first empty your mind.”

Sometimes, our mental bowl is so saturated, it cracks. When it cracks, we experience it as unhappiness.

A “spiritual death” can also be a new beginning.

Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, describes the vessel of an unhappy mind as the “pain-body”. His view is that the pain-body is what activates the ego, making the acceptance of the present moment very difficult.

Like Marianne Williamson, Eckhart broadens the sense of the word “dying”. One of his uses is “the ego dies.” When responding to a person experiencing depressing thoughts, Eckhart says:

“I highly recommend surrender. […] No complaint about anything anymore, complete acceptance of everything as it is. […] You may find the peace that passes all understanding. That means you’ve died. The ego has dissolved.”

Thus, it is also possible for unconscious states in the human body to “die”. If we expand our definition of “death” to incorporate this, it becomes:

Death is “the shift from and towards a state in which the body is unaware of itself”.

Indeed, Marianne suggests this too in A Return to Love:

“We think there are different categories of life, such as money, health, relationships, and then, for some of us, another category called “spiritual life”. But only the ego categorizes. There is only one drama going on in life: our walk away from God, and our walk back.”

Can we shift our mindset from where we currently are?

Several religions, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity, teach that one’s spirit awaits judgement after death. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, propose that death is a gateway between lives.

Though not all of us are religious, humanity’s greatest spiritual leaders have influenced our delineations of life and death across cultures, literature, and media.

And while teachers such as Williamson and Tolle are not trying to create a new religion, they do suggest an alternative perspective.

What if a more expansive mindset on “death” brought us more peace?

What if we treated “spiritual illness” with the same rigour we treat physical illness?

This does not mean that we start neglecting our physical wellbeing to connect to our spiritual selves. It means that we focus just as much energy on our mental rice bowl as on our physical rice bowl.

It means that we give as much importance to breathing love into the world as we do to breathing air.

By expanding the word “death” to include shifts to and from unloving ways of living — it’s possible that we may live in others’ consciousness beyond our physical departure.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For an accurate diagnosis of a mental health condition, you may want to seek an evaluation from a qualified mental health professional.

This piece was originally published in The Spiritual Tree, a Medium publication.