“And after dinner, our topic will be death.” Imagine you are on a weekend retreat/workshop and you hear these words. Those of us who found ourselves in this situation groaned and laughed nervously as we realized that our Saturday evening was going to be anything but typical. What happened to chocolate, wine, or even an after dinner mint?
I was recently in California for immersion training on “Conscious Aging,” a program designed to help us grow older in a positive way. The goal of this particular segment on death is to transform our fear of death so that we are able to live well and die well. A part of me dreaded what was ahead. It was NOT what I wanted to be doing on my Saturday night.
Hours later I found myself completely captivated while watching an award-winning documentary called “Death Makes Life Possible.” The film explores the mysteries of death and life from a variety of perspectives and world traditions, including agnostic and atheist. It features some of the world’s leading scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, spiritual teachers, and thinkers of our time. The imagery, stories, and insights were fascinating, including research about near death experiences, mediums that claim to communicate with the departed, and evidence suggesting the possibility of reincarnation from decades of research conducted by the University of Virginia. So intriguing!
One particular interview really resonated. Dr. Rudolph Tanzi is a Harvard neurologist who has done groundbreaking research with Alzheimer’s disease. He has impressive credentials and gravitas and was recently named one of “TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World.” He explained that from a scientific viewpoint, there are two approaches to consciousness, memories, and identity. First, there is the view that all consciousness is held by the brain and is purely physical. This certainly is what most of us have grown up hearing and adheres to conventional science. The other, an emerging theory, is that consciousness is part of evolution and eternal, not subject to birth or death. Having spent his career mapping molecules and studying the human brain, Dr. Tanzi has come to believe that consciousness – which he describes as “soul” – is the keeper of our identity, and that consciousness transcends the physical parts of us. I love when a scientist confirms something I believe intuitively.
At the end of the evening a few of us decided to meet together in one of our tiny bedrooms with wine and snacks (alas, no chocolate) to discuss this death thing further. We shared stories about our own experiences with death, including communication from loved ones who had passed. We asked each other questions, listened to each other’s stories, and offered our perspectives on what we believe happens to our souls after death. It was a comfort and a relief to be able to discuss this in a safe setting.
What is it about death that freaks us out so much? After all, it is going to happen to all of us. It is universal to being human. As my brother says, it’s happened to billions of people so far in our history. Yet, society treats death like it is a disease to be cured. What if we got intrigued about it and didn’t treat the topic like it was taboo?
You have probably met people who seem to have a remarkable peace as they face death. I remember my mom telling me that after she confronted her fears of death and wrestled with them, she was able to tap into gratitude and live more fully. That peace allowed her to live her last years with a zest for life that was awe inspiring given her dreadful cancer diagnosis and the toxic effects of chemo.
So what can we do about this death concept? Death is not going away. What if allowed time and space to understand it better? I purchased a copy of the film to leave at Well for the Journey. Perhaps we could put together a “Death After Dinner” party bag with popcorn, and discussion questions so that people can gather their own group and explore these issues. You can supply the chocolate and/or wine. We certainly need one another to give us the courage to discuss these life and death matters. Stay tuned.
Schlitz, Marilyn. Death Makes Life Possible. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2015 (book)