A Fearful Ignorance in the Face of Death
Much like the ebb and flow of tides in nature, the miraculous cycle of life continues to unfold in each breath, where both life and death reside hand in hand. For most Westerners, our human experience keeps us at bay from embracing death on a moment to moment basis, maintaining the illusion of permanence and immortality. As our fast paced Western scientific world continues to dig its heels into the ground of materialism, we may be called to open our hearts and minds to ancient Eastern traditions to illuminate a deeper perspective of death which is steeped in an experiential wisdom.
Our fearful ignorance in the face death has kept our Western society frozen in denial. Becker (1973) speaks of the fear of death as universal and essential to the nature of man. For most in the West, our experience of death comes by surprise and is perceived as somewhat unnatural. Without rules, death shows up at our doorstep inconsiderately and irrationally, as a thief, a dark power that cannot be controlled or understood. For others, the conceptions of death and its connection with the whole of our existence are based on a one-sided incomplete experience into which only few hold a greater understanding.
Our Western perspective of death has greatly evolved over the centuries. Originally rooted in an ancient religious understanding, the perspective and related problems of death and dying in Western society was addressed in the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying) (Grof, 1994). Here, not only “the European eschatological workings addressed the issues related to death, but also the fundamental problems of human existence in the face of impermanence” (Grof, 1994, p. 23). In parallel, when philosophy took over from religion it also “took over religion’s central problem, and death became the real muse of philosophy from its beginnings in Greece right through Heidegger and modern existentialism” (Becker, 2007, P. 12). Along the way, this resulted in a fundamental split where spiritual embodied understanding was replaced by rhetorical debate and cerebral discourses. This influence led to the development of a medical scientific model of death and dying where, as suggested by Groves and Klauser (2005), death became the enemy. Science became the all mighty savior, capable of prolonging life and dodging death, and “our unqualified confidence in science created the illusion that death is an option” (Groves & Klauser, 2005, p. 18). This eventually led to the exclusion of a spiritual understanding of dying, where existential pain and a higher order of consciousness is honored and respected.
It was not until the arrival of the aging baby boomers in the last quarter century that a re-exploration of a holistic perspective of death and dying is re-introduced in our Western culture. Despite this slow introduction of a whole person approach to death and dying, the medical model continues to grasp death with its interventionist methodology. This is primarily witnessed by a trend in the way people die in our modern culture. “Until the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, virtually everyone died at home” (Armstrong, 2007, p. 224). Today, although 90 percent of people report that they would rather die at home, 80 percent of deaths take place in hospitals hidden from the people closest to them (Armstrong, 2007). This discrepancy speaks of the failure of collective Western understanding to comprehend death as a natural process and should be respected as such. Doctors are trained to treat illness and to never give up. Only 4 out of 125 medical schools require course on death, according to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (Armstrong, 2007), indicating a lack of consciousness of the interpsychic dynamics that take place at the moment of death. This has led to an “almost complete lack of spiritual help for the dying that exists in modern culture” (Sogyal Rinpoche, 2002, p. 213). Spiritual chaplain Thomas Moore addresses this issue directly:
The medical world glides over the basic needs of patients to be listened to, comforted, and inspired. It trains it eyes on its numbers and machinery and fails to see the need for conversation, for tender guidance and spiritual inspiration. Families often get crumbs of attention, space and time, and this is because we see illness as a problem of the body, not of the entire person, especially not for other people who are within a patient’s intimate boundaries. (Cited in Jones, 2011).
In the West, death was understood as the absence of a heart beat or the cessation of breathing (Armstrong, 2007). It was not until 1968 that the Western medical community changed the clinical definition to signify the absence of electrical activity in the brain, i.e. “clinically brain dead”. This redefinition of death led to greater confusion as moral and ethical concerns demanded reconsideration. As a consequence, the prolongation of life was accomplished, leaving individuals artificially alive with iron lungs and synthetic feeding systems, with little spiritual assistance.
Death is as Psychologically Important as Birth
As presented by Carl Jung, “death is as psychologically important as birth…and to shrink away from it is both unhealthy and abnormal because it robs the second half of life of meaning and purpose” (Groves & Klauser, 2005, p. 20). It is in this context that our Western society is given an opportunity to reclaim its relationship to death. Hospice movements have introduced a new awareness of dying to incorporate a more conscious approach, where body, mind, and spirit dynamics are embraced at the moment of death. “Spiritual care is not a luxury for a few; it is the essential right of every human being, as essential as political liberty, medical assistance, and equality of opportunity” (Sogyal Rinpoche, 2002, p. 213). A renewed understanding of the importance of lovingly provided emotional and spiritual support is slowly growing in momentum in the West. “All of the modern world’s pretensions to power and success will ring hollow until everyone can die in this culture with some measure of true peace, and until at least some effort is made to ensure this is possible” (Sogyal Rinpoche, 2002, p. 214).
Peaceful Soul Transitions is founded on the recognition that a fundamental need to cater to the interpsychic (within the psyche) and spiritual necessities of the dying. Peaceful Soul Transitions is different in that I offer educational, counseling, and bed-side assistance based on the ancient traditions of soul crossing understanding. To find out more, visit: www.peacefulsoultransitions.com.
Grof, S. (1994). Books of the dead. Singapore: Thames and Hudson.
Groves, R. F. & Klauser, H. A. (2005). The american book of dying. Lessons in healing spiritual pain. Berkeley, CS: Celestial Arts.
Jones, S. (2011). The medicine we carry: A portal of social-model hospice care. (Doctoral Thesis) Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Longfellow, H. W. (18821882). The tide rises, the tide falls. Poetry Foundation. The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls
1882 Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173917
Rinpoche, S., Gaffney, P. D., & Harvey, A. (1994). The Tibetan book of living and dying. San Francisco, CA: Harper.