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Living, Dying, and Transformation
The shortest, the swiftest, and the surest way to plumb Truth is through a mortal leap into the Unknown.
I am an ordinary person working with ordinary people dying ordinary deaths. The people I work with are neither saints nor sages. Although occasionally devout, they are not spiritual adepts. These are the people who have been in line with us at the supermarket or in the next lane at the traffic light; they are our parents, our friends, our spouses, our children, ourselves. The deaths I observed do not include the sudden, violent ones of attack or accident or the unexpected ones of a heart gone suddenly awry. They are the routinely prognosed deaths of terminal illness, the final fading away of a body riddled with cancer or stilled by a failing essential physiological system: ordinary people dying ordinary deaths.
What I have observed in these deaths, however, and what I have experienced is most certainly not ordinary; it is profound, transcendent, and extraordinary. By and large, people die in solemnity, peace, and transformed consciousness, radiating energy that can only be described as spiritual. Death, as no other moment we encounter in life, announces itself in resplendent silence. Death is so absolute that anyone's encounter with it is transforming. It provokes the strongest of feelings: terror, sadness, rage, utter fascination, and an interior acknowledgment, an intuitive recognition, of liberation.
William James, the American giant of Psychology and philosophy, once observed:
It is my observation, after having been with hundreds of people who are dying, that death is most definitely one of those points where "higher energies filter in," where, as Mircea Eliade describes it, there is "a rupture of planes."
Wisdom traditions have acknowledged this for millennia. In the West, a series of treatises in the Middle Ages referred to as the Ars Moriendi, the "Art of Dying," set forth a cartography, a map, of the psychospiritual transformations of the dying process in Christian religious terms. At that time in that culture, there was confidence in the prevailing worldview that death, like life, is a pilgrimage. Dying persons, at the edge between life and death, were seen as beings glimpsing the mystery in a way that is rarely possible for those of us in the midst of life; they were seen as beings moving more rapidly in their pilgrimage into spiritual dimensions.
In the East, Padmasambhava gave a precise map and explanation of the dying process in the Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, in the eighth century. The essence of its teaching is that, in the dissolution of dying, we move beyond the personal sense of self and the delusions of ordinary mind. In the gap created by that movement, the nature of Reality is revealed, experienced, and entered into. Buddhist psychology sees dying as the moment when the fundamental nature of mind, the essence of who we are, sometimes called the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light or Immutable Radiance, naturally reveals itself in its vast glory'
These viewpoints contain great wisdom. Our culture -- America, at the turn of the third millenniurn -- has lost much of that wisdom and we are only now in the process of regaining it. A profound shift is occurring in human consciousness regarding the perception of death and dying. This shift was ushered in by the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and others who first turned to dying as a legitimate, heretofore unexamined, area of research. The shift gained further impetus from the hospice movement, the AIDs epidemic, and the advancement of medical techniques that increase the probability of near-death experiences. The limited, yet significant, resurgence of spiritual practice in the West as well as a general and evolutionary maturing of human consciousness have also contributed to the emergence of the study of death and dying as a field of research and interest. Unequivocally, death is coming to be seen as our final stage of growth.
It is to this study of death and dying that the ensuing observations and thoughts are offered, in the hopes that with careful examination, some understanding of the transformational possibilities of the human psyche, and the privilege of some inspiration, we might begin to articulate our own wisdom about this dying experience through which we all must pass. It behooves us as contemporary Westerners, who often react to images and concepts from other cultures and other times either by recoiling from them or by sensationalizing them, to mature our own wisdom tradition. It is time for us to observe and to describe the psychospiritual transformations normal and inherent in the dying process in precise terms that we can embrace as our own.
In this discussion, I describe the experience of dying by exploring the transformations that many of us who work with the dying are beginning to see. These transformations appear to be inherent in the dying process itself.
It has been said that death is a mirror in which all of life is reflected. 'When we look into this "mirror" of death and dying, we get a clearer image of ourselves, a clearer image of the inherent possibilities of human consciousness. Increasing our insight into what is generally considered to be the unfathomable nature of death and dying--particularly knowledge that reveals dying's transformative and transcendent power--helps us to understand our fear of death and to decrease that fear.