If we avoid thinking about death or do not accept death as part of life then we run the risk of not being able to live fully. Much of the environmental destruction and exploitation of humans and other beings present in the world right now could be said to be so prevalent partly because of people acting out of fear of death or from a point of trauma from holding onto this fear (see for example 1, 2). In part 1 of this article series, we looked at the importance of accepting death as an integral part of life if we are to practice living in a holistic and balanced way.
Acceptance of death and dying is dealt with in different ways by different cultures. As I mentioned in part 1, to find balance in a ‘permanent culture’, it seems appropriate that, though we can take ideas from traditional societies, we should develop our own techniques which are fitting for the particular context of the time and places we are living in. This part explores some current evolutions of dealing with death and the dying in a practical way, while subsequent parts will go into more detail about death as related to grief and ways to relate to this; as well as the particular environmental impact of different practices.
Bringing Death Into The Light
One way that the idea of death is encouraged to be accepted is with ‘Death Cafes’ (4). These may sound morbid but are in fact informal meetings where “people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death” (4), with no agenda or particular conclusion, but simply offered as a space for the sharing of different opinions and experiences (4). The aim is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives” (4).
Death Cafes were first developed in East London, UK in 2011 by Jon Underwood and his mother Susan Barsky Reid (4), and since Underwood’s death in 2017 have been continued by Reid and Underwood’s sister, Jools Barsky (4). The Death Cafe website has many resources for holding your own Death Cafe event (5), as well as a world map of previous and upcoming Death Cafes, which have so far been held in 66 countries (6).
Letting Go Of The Body
As I mentioned in part 1, many traditional practises include the idea of ‘letting go’ of your physical body, even while you are still in it, so that you can be prepared for the time when you will actually have to let go. Some practical techniques for doing this include any kind of yoga or meditation, particularly meditation which is based on stillness and silence such as the Vipassana tradition (7).
Many readers may already be familiar with such practices. One thing to be aware of when ‘letting go’, however, is that if we ‘let go’ too much we may be in danger of detaching ourselves prematurely from our physical bodies and thus from the natural cycles of ageing and illness which affect them. In this way, the ‘letting go’ would probably have a detrimental effect, in much the same way that by letting go of the idea that we are connected to the natural world, we more readily engage in environmental destruction because we do not feel that we are a part of the ecosystem (2, 8).
Author Ram Dass (whose former name as a Harvard psychiatrist was Dr Richard Alpert) speaks very candidly about finding this balance in his book ‘Still Here: Embracing Ageing, Changing and Dying’ (9).
Dass, who himself passed away just 2 weeks ago (10), was a very outspoken spiritual teacher, who in the past, urged people to ‘Be Here Now’ (also the title of probably his most famous book, published in 1971 (11)). However, it was not until he had a stroke in his 60s that he realised “I distanced myself from my body. I saw my body as merely a vehicle for the soul. I ignored it as much as possible and tried to spiritualise it away” (9).
Coming to terms with the stroke helped him to be more present in his body as well as his soul. The fact that it took such a crisis, however, could be seen as part of our society’s lack of tools for different stages of the ageing process. As Dass said;
“Getting old isn’t easy for a lot of us. Neither is living, neither is dying. We struggle against the inevitable, and we all suffer because of it. We have to find another way to look at the whole process of being born, growing old, changing, and dying, some kind of perspective that might allow us to deal with what we perceive as big obstacles without having to be dragged through the drama”. (9)
Dass was apparently surrounded by friends and family as he found his own way to die peacefully on December 22nd (10). My thoughts are with those he left behind.
Easing The Passage
One way that we can encourage a new perspective on death is assistance with the passage from life to death. We have midwives who assist with the passage from the womb into this life; so it follows that it might be helpful to have assistance on the way out as well. This is put into practice in many traditional societies such as with the Tibetan ritual of guiding a dying person’s consciousness through the ‘bardo’ or “intermediary world” (12, 13). A modern English interpretation of this and manual for putting the ritual into practice was written by the then Dr Richard Alpert and his colleagues, Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner (14).
Another way that guidance at the time of death is being encouraged is with the rise in popularity of Soul Midwives, who are “non-medical, holistic companions who guide and support the dying in order to facilitate a gentle and tranquil death.” (15). There is a Soul Midwives School in Dorset, UK, run by Felicity Warner (16).
Death In Your Life
This article offers just a few ideas to help with the acceptance of death as part of your own life. How you put this into practice of course depends on you. The next part will look at ways we can honour those dead and dying beings in our lives, including parts of ourselves. We will also look at the connections between death and grief.
3. Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Permaculture and Death part 1: A Reflection on Natural Cycles’. Permaculture News, 4/11/19. https://pmnlive.wpengine.com/2019/11/04/permaculture-and-death-part-1-halloween-and-permaculture/ – retrieved 9/11/19
4. Death Cafe, 2019. ‘What is Death Cafe?’ https://deathcafe.com/what – retrieved 9/11/19
5. Death Cafe, 2019. ‘Holding Your Own Death Cafe’. https://deathcafe.com/how/ – retrieved 9/11/19
6. Death Cafe, 2019. ‘Map’. https://deathcafe.com/map/ – retrieved 9/11/19
7. Dhamm.org, 2019. ‘Vipassana Meditation’. https://www.dhamma.org/en/index – retrieved 9/11/19
10. Andrew, S, 2019. ‘Baba Ram Dass is Dead at 88’. CNN, 22/12/19. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/23/us/baba-ram-dass-death-trnd/index.html – retrieved 31/12/19
15. Soul Midwives, 2019. ‘About Soul Midwifery’. https://soulmidwives.co.uk/what-is-soul-midwifery – retrieved 9/11/19
16. Soul Midwives, 2019. ‘Soul Midwives School’. https://soulmidwives.co.uk/soul-midwives-school – retrieved 9/11/19