FROM Phaedo in Plato’s Dialogues
Just hours before Socrates drank the poison that resulted in his death, his friend Crito asked him;
“…in what way would you have us bury you?“
“…be of good cheer… my dear Crito;
and say that you are burying my body only,
and do with that as is usual,
and as you think best.”
Socrates was able to consume the hemlock that killed him in a calm and peaceful manner, while urging his students and friends to “be of good cheer”. Socrates was ready for death to take his physical body and indeed he was an active participant in his own passing. Most of us are not quite so well prepared.
This past year has been one in which several people I know well have died. I’ve been thinking about death. This post presents an imagined dialogue between Socrates and the late Kathleen Dowling Singh, a dharma teacher who sat with hundreds of people who were nearing death. The words attributed to Kathleen Singh come directly from her book, The Grace in Dying. Socrates questions are my own…
John M. Gerber
Socrates: Thank you for joining me here today Kathleen for a dialogue on preparing for the death experience – the stage of life you call “nearing death”. You contend in your writing that if we are more prepared for death while living, we are more likely to live full and rich lives and not suffer quite as much prior to and during the Nearing Death Experience (NDE).
Too many of us are either afraid of death or perhaps live in denial that they will indeed die someday. Your book, The Grace in Dying, might be useful to those who have the courage to explore this difficult but very natural life experience.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a bit about your work?
Kathleen*: I have labored with devotion over this work, attempting to shed light on the intimate relationship, the essential unity, of dying. I am an ordinary person working with ordinary people dying ordinary deaths. The people I work with are neither saints nor sages. The deaths I observed do not include the sudden, violent ones of attack or accident. They are routinely prognosed deaths of terminal illness, the final fading away of a body.
Dying, remarkably, is a process of natural enlightenment, of finally coming home to our true self. It charts how we gradually open to deeper levels of our being, how we re-merge with the Ground of Being from which we once emerged. I have come to believe that the time of dying effects a transformation from perceived tragedy to experienced grace.
Socrates: So why then are so many of us afraid to die?
Kathleen: Death is the ultimate threat to ego. The mental ego cannot even conceive of its own nullity. Our fear of death arises with and coexists with the mental ego. Virtually all of humanity spends its adult life in a fragile and fragmented state of being, protecting and attempting to prolong the illusion of the separate, personal self. We live… in fear, attachment, anxiety, and loneliness. As soon as a person imagines his real self to be exclusively confined to a particular organism, then concern with the death of that organism becomes all-consuming.
Socrates: Why do you think most people have such a difficult time understanding that they are part of a unity consciousness and that the dissolution of the physical form is but one step in a very natural psycho-spiritual transformation of the limited mental ego to the eternal and universal spirit?
Kathleen: The ego is strong and clever and resists change. And so, movement beyond the stage of ego into transpersonal realms is an infrequent occurrence. We believe in a personal, unique and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it: our name, our biography, our partners family, home, job, friends, credit cards. We have been born into and shaped by a spiritually impoverished culture, a culture that worships many things other than Spirit. The transpersonal realms have been shrouded in myth, denial, and sensationalism that is sometimes bizarre.
Socrates: Yes, but that has not always been so. And surely there are some humans living in your time who have experienced the Divine or what you call the Ground of Being?
Kathleen: Each of us has a fault in our nature, the fault of believing self to be separate from the Ground of Being (the Holy Spirit, Unity, Source, Mind, Love, Light, Noumenon, Ein Sof, Tao, Dharmadhatu, Sunyata, Brahman, the Void, Allah, or the One). Our Original and Essential Nature is the Ground of Being. We will consciously re-merge with that from which we have unconsciously emerged.
Socrates: And you claim that unless a death is sudden and unexpected, most people do experience the transpersonal journey you call moving from tragedy to grace?
Kathleen: The process of dying accelerates the natural, sequential, and radical transformations in consciousness that occur… as our sense of separateness begins to melt. Expansion of the identity into transpersonal levels seems to occur universally. For some people, this transformation occurs several months or weeks prior to the death of the body; for others, it may be hours or even minutes before death that the surrender — which is the fulcrum of the psychospiritual transformation — occurs. The tragedy of the loss of “me”, violently at first, and then with increasing gentleness, is transformed into grace. Dying is the quintessential spiritual teacher and experience.
Socrates: You speak about “Surrender” as an essential step in this transformation. Can you describe what happens as we enter the Nearing Death Experience phase of life?
Kathleen: This movement from “you are going to die” to “I am dying ” is the act of surrender into the experience of death. With terminal illness and the process of dying, appearance, abilities, activities, attachments, appetites, and aversions all shift and transform. The movement is always and inevitably from the inessential to the essential, from the periphery to the Center, from the surface to depth.
It is not so much that we renounce the world in the course of dying — the world simply slips away. The sense of self slips away. Mental ego… ceases believing in itself . . . for it has become only a mask, a persona, a disguise. If we have never done so before, we begin now, while waiting for death seriously and usually silently, to contemplate, to confront with more depth and intensity than ever before, the questions, “what is this life all about? ” and “who am I?”
Socrates: And what do people experience during the Nearing Death phase?
Kathleen: During the dying process , people seem to develop stability in the capacity to just sit, to just be. With the acknowledgment that they have absolutely no control over the situation, they let go of “knowing” and they enter “being.” The time of sickness is a time of withdrawal from the world, a time of isolation. The frenzied pace of life continues for friends and family of the one who is ill, but he or she can no longer participate. The person acquiesces to the expanding power of the physical disablements that subtly increase separation from the life he or she has always known.
Many people have told me that terminal illness brought them to the recognition that a far higher Power was “ running the show ” and that they were finding it increasingly easy to stay connected with that Power. In the Nearing Death Experience, dead loved ones may visit. I have been with many, many people who have experienced the presence of deceased loved ones prior to their own deaths.
Socrates: Sounds like the death experience can be peaceful. It surely was for me. But I suspect many people put up a fight! What have you observed among people just prior to the Surrender?
Kathleen: Death is a vortex of great magnitude, matched only by birth. Changes beyond our control assault our consciousness, our first line of defense is denial. We try to anesthetize ourselves. Denial is a powerful tendency of the mind. It pulls back and withdraws from the truth of impermanence. When denial cannot be maintained any longer, it is replaced in rapid succession by feelings of anger, rage, envy, and resentment. It seems to be universal that everyone who enters the dying process goes through at least one time of deep, dark, and silent depression.
For human beings , transformation seems to most often occur at the last moment of a transition, when resistance is recognized as no longer even possible. It is not until the transpersonal realms themselves are known in the Nearing Death Experience that hope for recovery entirely disappears. As Kübler-Ross notes: “all patients have kept a door open to the possibility of continued existence”. This powerful tendency, the will to live, is operative at every stage in the psychospiritual transformation of the dying process until we reach the stage of complete Surrender.
Socrates: And following Surrender, there is healing of the illusion of the separate self, the limited mental ego?
Kathleen: Healing involves the restoration of our integrity, the mending of all the previously created dualisms… boundaries between self and parts of self, between self and others, self and world, self and God. As Meister Eckhart puts it: “the eye in me which is seeing God – is the eye in God which is seeing me.” With the awareness that there is no difference, no boundary, between experience and experiencer begins Unity Consciousness: the highest stage of realization, transpersonal integration with the Ground of Being.
The direct experience of truth comes from radiant absorption in Spirit, with the complete psychic integration of the individual with Reality. Truly, the transformation from tragedy to grace is the transformation from the loss of the lesser self to the realization of (Absolute) Self. This powerful transformation involves the death of the ego and the rebirth of the self as a vehicle of Spirit.
Socrates: I wonder if you’d add a “word of warning” about timing. You contend that the Nearing Death Experience happens shortly before the dissolution of the physical body. Prior to that, it is natural to help someone with a terminal illness do everything possible to keep the door open to the possibility of continued existence in this lifetime.
Kathleen: May we learn to discriminate between “the time of sickness” and “the time of dying” and to act appropriately. “For every thing there is a season” – a time to help a loved one fight to stay alive and a time to help a loved one face death. May we let our loved ones know, when it is appropriate, that it is okay with us for them to stop fighting, it is okay to begin to turn toward death and the profound passage awaiting them. May we let our loved ones know that they may die in their own absolutely unique way—not according to our expectations. When it is time to help a loved one face death, may we not distract him or her from the natural process of enlightenment, of dying into grace.
Socrates: Thank you for sharing your experience Kathleen. Any last words for us today?
Kathleen: If you are facing death… know that you are safe… your mind will come to know this soon. Dying is safe. You are safe. That is the message of all the words here. Know that you are safe. All these words are just to tell your mind that you are safe. Love will endure. In fact, beyond the personal self, love just gets stronger, purer, freer, deeper.
If your loved one is facing death… know that your loved one will be safe. Dying is safe. Go there with your loved one. Speak softly and hold lightly and let him or her know that dying is safe. Pray or sing or mediate with your loved one; so that as he or she enters realms beyond this one of bodies and words, your loved one is fully opened to Spirit.
Let us create the environment and conditions that nurture movement through the transformations of dying. Let us be the silent and understanding companion to the voiceless time of Surrender. Sit and breathe with your loved one, matching your rhythms. Sit and meditate with your loved one, matching your visions. Sit and pray with your loved one, matching your deepest longings. Let us share, far beyond the last breath and even through a breaking heart, in our loved one’s Transcendence: the entrance into the peaceful, resplendent Center – into Spirit.
After the dialogue:
Me: Okay Socrates, you have asked Kathleen about what happens just prior to the death of the physical body. But what happens to me after I leave my body? You have experienced this – so how about letting us in on the secret?
Socrates (with a slight grin on his face): Sorry John, but you will have to find out for yourself! Don’t you remember that Plato wrote in the Phaedo, I have said “it would be unreasonable for a philosopher to fear death, since upon dying he is most likely to obtain the wisdom which he has been seeking his whole life.” Well you will too….