John White – USA
[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUEST books in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.]
...so few know the art of dying. For dying, like living, is an art and if only most of us mastered the art of dying as much as we seek to master the art of living, there would be many more happy deaths.
The fact of the matter, how-ever, is that the art of living is not different from the art of dying; in fact, the one flows into the other, and cannot be separated one from the other. He who has mastered the art of living has already mastered the art of dying; to such, death holds no terrors.
M.V. Kamath, Philosophy of Death and Dying
The Difference between Death and Dying.
Most people are so afraid of dying and death that they’re scared to live. And that is the difference between death and dying.
Death is a biological process, a function of the body. Dying is a psychological process, a function of the mind.
As a biological process, death is part of the wisdom of the body. It is given by nature to every living thing and occurs without their having to learn anything or do anything. As Ecclesiastes said, “To every thing there is a season ... a time to be born and a time to die. . .” The laws of physiology which produced the organism are the same laws which terminate it, and even though the termination may appear inexplicable or absurd, death is an undeniable “fact of life.”
Only humans are afraid to die. All other organisms expire without fear. That’s not to say they don’t straggle to live if they find themselves in life-threatening circumstances. The rabbit flees the fox, the fish fights the hook, the bayed panther slashes at the hunter, the bird tries to escape the snare. But these actions are instinctive and unpremeditated. Among animals, there is no gnawing anxiety in advance of death.
There is a special reason for this. Animals don’t have a sense of time with which to anticipate their future demise. They live strictly in the present, the here-and-now. Nor do animals have a sense of self – an ego – which can be mentally projected into future circumstances. It is, therefore, psychologically impossible for animals to fear the loss of their life as humans do. Just as it instinctively fights to live in life-threatening circumstances, when an animal reaches the end of old age, it instinctively goes off by itself or die or allows itself to be killed, without fighting the circumstances and without fear.
Animals live in the simple present; humans do not. Animals have no self-image or self-identity;
humans do. And that is the crux of the problem. That is the difference between death and dying. That is the source of human suffering and misery. “Will you realize once for all,” said the Greek philosopher Epictetus, “that it is not death that is the source of all man’s evils, and of a mean and cowardly spirit, but rather the fear of death? Against this fear then I would have you discipline yourself.”
The Scientific Evidence for Life After Death.
Evidence suggests that death can be compared to the change of state H2O undergoes when water turns to steam. The real importance of the evidence for life after death is that it can affect the quality and style of your life here and now.
Let’s look at the evidence for life after death. This evidence is what lends credence to the ancient idea of soul. The evidence falls into eight major categories. Each category is derived independently of the others. The eight categories are: (1) Mediumship; (2) Apparitions of the dead; (3) Out-of-body experiences; (4) Reincarnation memories; (5) Spirit photographs and spirit voice recordings; (6) Possession cases; (7) Deathbed observations; (8) Near-death experiences.
Mediumship has been investigated since the beginning of psychic research in the information coming through, apparently from the deceased themselves.
Apparitions of the Dead.
Apparitions of the dead is the official term for ghosts. Apparitions are real, although apparently nonphysical. They are seen fully clothed; they often appear in conjunction with material objects (such as holding something); they have been known to move physical objects; and they have been seen reflected in mirrors. Thus they appear to occupy real space while nevertheless being nonmaterial.
The older terms for out-of-body experiences are astral projection and astral travel. They all refer to an experience of seeming to be in a place separate from one’s physical body while fully and normally conscious. The experience can be either spontaneous or induced and is frequently associated with crisis situations in its spontaneous form. OBEs are a universal human phenomenon, having been experienced in every time and culture. The effect on a person who has an OBE is almost always a conviction of survival after death.
Reincarnation means that a human soul comes back to earth in a human body, either because it hasn’t fully learned the lessons it is supposed to or because, in the case of a highly spiritual person, it has a special task to perform in helping others.
Spirit Photographs and Spirit Voices.
Spirit photography has been occurring since 1861, and now more than two dozen people in half a dozen countries have claimed to obtain pictures of a variety of types of images that seem to be permanently visible proof of an afterlife.
When the word possessionis mentioned, most people probably think of The Exorcistand cackling demons. There are a number of interesting cases indicative of demonic possession, but there are others – the ones we’re concerned with here – that appear to be due to the spirit of a deceased human rather than a nonhuman entity.
Dr. Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research conducted several studies of the dying, based on observations made by almost 1800 doctors and nurses present during the last hours of terminal patients who were conscious to the end.
Osis went on to specify the findings of this monumental study, which is the first truly scientific examination of this category of survival evidence. I will quote from my interview:
“We found that the dying went through some startling experiences – experiences that were not due to the patients’ medical condition. For one thing, there were frequent instances of elevation in mood. I mean that the patients became happier at the very time when the doctor was usually saying conditions were desperate. They died with feelings of serenity, peace, elation, and religious emotions. And this mood change was not due to any medication, sedation, lack of oxygen to the brain, or the nature of the illness. The patients died a “good death” in strange contrast to the usual gloom and misery commonly expected before expiration.”
Another remarkable thing that terminal patients experienced was deathbed visions. These visions were of two kinds: one was where they would see a person or a religious apparition – a hallucination that no one else could see. An invisible visitor would come into the hospital and the patient would talk with it. Usually, it was a close relative or friend, but it might also be a religious or mythological figure such as Jesus or Krishna. The doctors and nurses knew of these apparitions only because the patient talked about them.
The other kind of visionary experience was where the patient saw surroundings as if it were another place, another reality.
You could call these scenes non- human nature. Again, only the dying saw them. In almost every case, whether it was a figure or a landscape, the visions were of a positive sort. The hell- and-brimstone sort of place simply didn’t appear.
In these studies care was taken to see if the hallucinations were due to expectation, wish fulfilment, belief, worry, mood, or some normal factor, including, as mentioned, the patient’s medical condition. Osis and Haraldsson found that these were not the cause. The experiences were generally the same in both cultures, and show that the information from the dying is consistent across cultures with the idea of life after death.
Near-Death experiences refer to an experience in which a person is clinically dead but is somehow resuscitated. All vital signs are missing in the person – no breath, no heartbeat, no brainwaves. There have been many such cases recorded, with some people dead for up to half an hour. Of interest to us here is a special subgroup – those who claim to have been conscious throughout their death experience and who remembered what went on.
A typical case would be someone who dies on the operating table. While the doctors are frantically working and telling the nurses and other staff to do things, the “dead” person experiences himself as being outside his body, floating in the air near the ceiling, invisibly observing the hearing with clear perception. The best-known source of information on near-death experiences is Moody’s Life After Life.
The Meaning of Life After Death.
All the world’s major religions and spiritual traditions, from ancient times to the present, maintain that human existence does not end with death. Some see consciousness reuniting with a cosmic intelligence or universal soul. And some see both happening through a continued process of spiritual evolution.
The foundation of these traditions is the mystical experience. That is, an experience in which knowledge of our cosmic origin and destiny is obtained directly through insight or revelation or enlightenment, rather than through intellectual analysis or philosophic reasoning. One of the best-known writers on mystical experience was the Canadian psychiatrist, R.M. Bucke. In his classic book, Cosmic Consciousness,he noted that hundreds of historical figures who had experienced cosmic consciousness were unanimous in saying that with mystical illumination the fear of death which haunts so many people “falls off like an old cloak.” He adds that this is not a result of reasoning – the fear simply vanishes. It vanishes because they saw that death was an illusion, something they’d been tricked into thinking or conditioned into believing by the world. The enlightened person knows that the universe is not a dead machine, not a lifeless mechanical process, not a threatening conspiracy to swallow up people into annihilation. Rather, Bucke remarks, the universe is a “living presence” and the enlightened person experiences this directly, thereby knowing that existence continues beyond what is called death.
From the point of view of mystics, death is a transition, not a termination. It is an adventure in consciousness – the beginning of a further state of development in the continuum of consciousness stretching from the inorganic world to the cosmic intelligence which created it, God.
Equally important, the experience of the mystics shows that we do not have to wait for physical death to enter into eternal life. Rather – and this is quite paradoxical –immortality is ours alreadyand we can realize it now, in the flesh, the moment we are born again into the spirit, the living eternal spirit of the cosmos. And you can obtain this knowledge, this enlightenment, now,in this lifetime, and thatis what truly and finally frees you from the deadening idea that you are only a body or – equally bad –only a pawn-like soul bound to a wheel of endless deaths and rebirths.
Dealing with the Pain of Dying.
There are, in my judgment, five principal aspects to the fear of dying. They are:
- Fear of pain — i.e., torture to the physical body.
- Fear of loss — i.e., both separation from loved ones and companions, and loss of one’s faculties.
- Fear of meaninglessness — i.e., not being needed and loved any more, and therefore having been a failure.
- Fear of the unknown — i.e., journeying into the unfamiliar, often with a sense of foreboding about eternal damnation and punishment for sinful behavior.
- Fear of nonbeing — i.e., self- annihilation or the total disappearance of your identity
The Fear of Pain.
Fear of death is not rational – it’s emotional, and emotions aren’t so easily changed by logic and information. These are necessary, but it also takes more emotional experience to supersede the emotions that are draining you of vitality and joy.
Consciousness research shows that humans have a marvelous capacity to modify their nervous system and, hence, their pain threshold. Yogis, for example, have demonstrated total insensibility to pain.
Another thing to consider about pain can be seen in a comment by Ramana Maharshi, a great Indian saint who died of cancer in 1950. Some disciples thought that Maharshi had, in his consciousness, separated himself from his body and hence did not feel the pain of his flesh being eaten away.
“Perhaps you don’t feel the pain?” one asked.
Maharshi replied, “There is pain but there is no suffering.”
This is a very important point that Maharshi made – an important lesson for us: pain is physical, but suffering is psychological. Suffering is fearful anticipationof pain. Eliminate the fear and there is no suffering.
Various “mind control” courses such as Silva Mind Control and Alpha Dynamics include pain control as part of their curriculum. You should be aware, however, that these courses have had some justified criticism because the instructors are not in all cases well- qualified to lead you in the varied mental exercises they offer.
The last thing to consider in dealing with fear of pain is the easy availability of pain-relieving drugs. This is a controversial subject in some quarters.
Saying Goodbye to Your Body.
Some learn precise yogic techniques for dying painlessly, consciously and voluntarily. Swami Rama, who is perhaps the best-known yogi in America because of his remarkable feats of physiological control performed under scientific observation in various laboratories, writes:
“In the ancient yogic scriptures, it is said that there is a definite way of leaving the body. Eleven gates are described through which the pranasor subtle energy can exit. The yogi learns to leave through the gate called Brahma Rundhra,located at the fontanelle, the crown of the head. It is said that he who travels through this gate remains conscious and knows about life hereafter exactly as he knows life here.”
Lest you think this morbid, Rama explains elsewhere in the book that from the yogic point of view, death is a habit of the body, a necessary change. The dying man, he says, should be educated psychologically for this moment. Why? “The . . . change called death is itself not painful, but the fear of death creates miseries for the dying man.” Modern people, Rama writes, should explore yogic ways of gaining freedom from that fear which is called death.
A Contemporary American spiritual teacher Da Free John, in his autobiography, The Knee of Listening,reports how he, too, overcame the fear of death by “dying.” Like Maharshi, when his fear of death became almost overwhelming, he discovered the ancient wisdom of giving in (which is quite different from giving up) and cooperating with the process, flowing from the pressure, letting “death” take its full and natural course.
There is a saying that applies here: If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude. In other words, acceptyour death rather than deny it because that acceptance – that change of attitude – is what will free you from fear of death.
To be continued