One of the most confusing and perhaps misunderstood terms in Spiritism for those who are beginning their studies is “umbral”. The term itself appears in many different books and is often used in texts or conversations related to one’s passing from the physical body and into full spiritual (discarnate) life. Yet, some confusion remains about what it may actually be. So, what is “umbral”, anyway?
The word “umbral” is not at all common in the English language. The closest we get to a more easily recognizable word is “umbra”, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as a “shaded area”. Umbrella, for instance, is derived from the root “umbra”, meaning a tool or device that creates shade and thus protects us from the sun; that we also tend to use that same contraption to shield us from rain is an added bonus. Under normal circumstances, by adding the “l” at the end of “umbra” we would be in fact making “umbral” the adjective of “umbra”; that is, we would be using “umbral” to describe something that is umbra-like. Understandably, we would be left with the impression that any place that is umbra-like (umbral) is not a particularly happy or enlightened one; on the contrary, this interpretation of umbral seems to stir negative feelings and connote a dark place. Transferring that to a spiritual context, one sees why newcomers to Spiritism may naturally equate umbral with a dark place of suffering, akin perhaps to our ingrained pre-conceptions of hell or purgatory.
However, we must look a little further to better grasp the meaning of “umbral”. In this particular case, we must also revisit the origin of the word within the Spiritist context: the book Nosso Lar, published in 1944 in Brazil. It is in this inconic Spiritist book written by the spirit Andre Luiz and psychographed through the mediumship of FC Xavier that the term umbral is first used in Spiritism. Nosso Lar tells the story of Andre Luiz and his experiences in the spiritual realm immediately following his physical death — or, as Spiritists prefer to call it, discarnation. In it, the author narrates his passage through lower spiritual zones he calls “umbral” before eventually finding a home in the spiritual colony “Nosso Lar”. Although Andre Luiz goes on to learn great new things in the life beyond, it is the eight unpleasant years he spends in these lower zones that interest us today because they teach us about “umbral”. After a first reading of Nosso Lar, it is only natural that his troubling experiences along with the English definition of the word umbral may leave the novice reader with a strong impression umbral is only a place of suffering.
Learning from Nosso Lar…
Yet, as it is often the case with more nuanced ideas, it pays to acquaint ourselves with additional context to fully appreciate the term in its intended meaning. Otherwise, by stoping here we rob ourselves of a fuller appreciation of the concept — and of greater understanding of the spiritual laws of the universe. Instead, we need to dig deeper to find another layer of meaning: we must also look at the definition of the word umbral in Portuguese, the language in which Nosso Lar was originally written. In Portuguese, we soon realize the word has a different meaning altogether: it connotes an entryway, a door, or threshold. This key layer of meaning is absent in the English definition. With such understanding in mind we may fundamentally change our appreciation of the term “umbral”; instead of a necessarily dark or sinister place where one may find oneself in after death, we begin to see it as a temporary place in the spiritual realm we may or may not go through on our way to full spiritual awareness.
To further validate the idea that umbral is only a temporary stop for some on the way to a greater awareness on the other side of life, we need to look no further than to chapter 12 of Nosso Lar itself. Intrigued by the concept himself, Andre Luiz seeks clarity with Instructor Lisias who sheds some light on the nature of umbral:
“Umbral works as a region for the removal of foul mental residues; it is a type of purgatorial zone, where one slowly burns away the unhealthy fuel of illusions acquired through the misuse of an opportunity for learning while alive.”
With this complex but clarifying answer, spiritual instructor Lisias explains not only the nature and purpose of such transitional zone, but also hints at why some of us could find ourselves in a situation similar to that of Andre Luiz when of his passing. As long as we continue to feed the illusion that the materialistic values we learn from our society are also suited to guide us in our spiritual evolution, we will miss an important opportunity for learning. Further, the more we insist on holding on to them, the more we will be cementing in our minds this skewed view of life — which will have to be eventually undone before we truly awaken to the higher truths of spiritual existence. And if we do not undertake this “unlearning” consciously, the cosmic law of affinity will lead us to connect with other beings in a similar range of vibrations who are also struggling in dealing with the selfish and short-sighted actions, habits and notions that suited them while on Earth. The result of such interactions can only be friction amongst creatures and, consequently, suffering — which is magnified in intensity in the spiritual realm, where everything is felt more deeply. Until we renounce this way of thinking, we may find ourselves struggling — here or in the afterlife.
If this seems to paint a somber picture of things to come, we should consider that Lisias also provides us with some guidance as how to avoid this unfortunate state altogether: if we adequately use the experiences for learning we are presented with on Earth, we will not build up this unhealthy mental worldview that hold us back from higher spiritual awareness. That is: if we are able to focus on our spiritual priorities instead of the unhealthy illusions we feed ourselves while in this material world, we will find ourselves better prepared to handle life outside of the physical body instead of trying to hold on to the detrimental values and expectations that for now still rule our evolving planet. Our mental construct will be one that values the spirit over the misleading values of physical life; our mental energies will be more attuned to life in the spiritual realm instead of trying to recreate the imperfect physical world we currently live in, with all its flaws, in the afterlife. As a consequence, we will be freer to fully transition from the earthly existence we are currently experiencing into our true spiritual reality. Rather than being bogged down or still stuck in the life we are leaving behind, we will feel liberated and ready to continue on our spiritual journey towards happiness.
Thus, a more comprehensive understanding of the concept of “umbral” can greatly benefit those seeking a greater awareness of life and of the spiritual realm. By understanding umbral is not a place of suffering and punishment for all those who have passed but a transitional entryway to the greater realities of the afterlife, we are taking a simple but powerful step towards internalizing that we are immortal beings; that life is never-ending; that it is up to us to decide how we define our priorities and shape our reality; and that the choices we make today are of utmost consequence to our happiness tomorrow. Then, we will have made good use of the opportunities for learning this life affords us and will be well prepared to, when our time comes, transition into the spiritual realm in ways more gentle and pleasing than did Andre Luiz. After all, that is exactly the reason why he reached back to us from the so-called great beyond with Nosso Lar — so that we may learn from his experiences and have a better entryway into the one true reality that awaits us all: that of the spirit.
Those interested in learning more about the topic are encouraged to read the book.