We live in a rather confusing time when our commercial and cultural institutions willfully force us forward towards a difficult future, while insisting on remaining ignorant to our past – or our actual present.
Fortunately, along the same timeline, there are spiritual institutions springing up everywhere – evidence of the deep wave of consciousness being newly perceived in our world…once again, and always. These schools are providing us with opportunities to reestablish ourselves in the deeper real and miraculous world we occupy. To reach back and realize a limitless potential that's been constrained and monopolized by materialism and technology for far too long.
One such school is the New York Open Center, in Manhattan, which last month hosted "The Art of Dying 5: Spiritual, Scientific & Practical Approaches to Living & Dying," a conference devoted to everything we are currently learning about death and dying, everything our ancestors knew, and everything our current culture apparently tries to hide, make us forget, or inappropriately profit from.
Brilliantly curated by Messrs. Ralph White and Tom Valente, and expertly produced by the staff of the Open Center, the three day event featured a range of expert speakers, qualified to address every aspect of our (inevitable) sacred passage: from the care of those at the end of their lives, and options for their more consciously humane treatment; to possibilities of the 'afterlife,' as suggested by 'near death' and 'end-of-life' experiences, and the timeless wisdom of the Tibetans; to explorations into the very nature of consciousness itself, and our relationship to it, in this life and beyond. All profound and necessary topics which can pull our myopic, self-obsessed culture back towards the more graceful state of being, and "ending," that's been understood and practiced by ancient and indigenous people the world over for thousands of years.
For me, some brief highlights, gleaned only from the plenary sessions and the talks I was able to attend (among a terrific menu of choices), included:
The opening keynotes by Robert Thurman, expert teacher of Tibetan Buddhism (and his following seminar on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead"), and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul; both of which introduced us to the larger ideas of death, the life of the soul, and the obstacles to our understanding the subject that have been unconsciously advanced culturally, in the light of our growing need to return to a kind of sacred practicality.
A rousing retelling by Eben Alexander, M.D., of his remarkable near death experience, and the Harvard-trained neurosurgeon's follow-up seminar on "Transcendent States of Conscious Awareness," where he ventured into one of the conferences many strong areas – the exploration of consciousness as a kind of field that we participate in, through whatever form we happen to be taking. (This is one of my favorite themes, having experienced Consciousness in this way myself, a few too many times perhaps…)
This exploration of Consciousness, as it is related to by 'near death' and 'end-of-life' experiencers was beautifully expounded upon in excellent presentations by the Dutch physician Pim Van Lommel, whose many years of hospital-based research into the phenomenon of transpersonal (out-of-body) consciousness provide powerful evidence for the skeptic; and as well by Dr.Peter Fenwick (the author of the book bearing the same title as the conference), a neuropsychiatrist with stacks of data from his hospice studies in the UK and Holland, proving likewise profoundly convincing that our lives do carry on beyond "this mortal coil."
Along with the establishment of The Art of Dying Institute, the Center and it's conference designers offer a Certificate in Integrative Thanatology, which enables recipients to learn how to further explore and exercise a range of options in compassionate end-of-life care – including the "Working With the Dying" tools and techniques of becoming an end-of-life "doula," or compassionate mediator to the terminally ill and dying, as practiced by another excellent presenter, Henry Fersko-Weiss.
The compassionate options for end-of-life care were also provocatively and comprehensively explored in presentations by both Judith Kennedy Schwarz, R.N., with "Suffering & Choice at the End-of-Life," focusing on 'death with dignity' options, like Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSOD), and assisted suicide; and Stephen Ross, M.D., of the NYU Psilocybin Project, with his talk about the efficacy of psychedelic palliative therapy, death anxiety, and addiction treatment.
With all the risky, and what could (or should) be criminal forms of potentially killing ourselves that this crazy culture encourages us to participate in, from poor diet to motorcycling to Second Amendment insistence, it's particularly crazy that this culture criminalizes the act of actually killing ourselves (in a responsible manner), when called for by protracted and undignified end-of-life conditions. Ms. Schwarz's talk shined a light on this fallacy of our 'freedom,' and called for solutions that have already been proven effective where they've been made legal.
Dr. Ross' presentation was also very provocative in it's exposure of how really effective psychoactive drugs (like LSD or psilocybin) can be in the treatment of depression and death anxiety by giving the recipient a sense of the the ineffable – an experience and lasting connection with a spiritual reality that practically eliminates all of the fear, and much of the pain that dying can bring us. Ironically, these harmless, non-addictive drugs are a crime to possess or prescribe, while the two most destructive drugs statistically, alcohol and nicotine, are legally available (and advertised) everywhere. (Watch my FB, Twitter, and GaiamTV pages for an upcoming article on this subject for GaiamTV)
The fear, greed, and collective ego at the root of the destructive cultural ignorance these two talks exposed are exactly what the Open Center stands to confront and reform with programs like those featured at The Art of Dying 5 Conference, and in many of their other course and event offerings.
Probably the most meaningful moment (in a weekend that played like one long meaningful moment), came when Mr. White asked the audience how they came about their interest in the usually-to-be-avoided subject of death and dying. Somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of those attending were people who worked with the dying – people who gave of themselves to carry out this sacred pact we are all called upon to be present for, at some time in our life (or death). It's a sacred pact that the Open Center certainly kept in this all too short, very meaningful weekend.
I look forward to the next incarnation of The Art of Dying 6; and give my eternal thanks to the staff of the Open Center for extending me a special invitation.
You can find out about the nature of my own involvement in my book, How to Survive Life (and Death), from Conari Press, based on my three near death experiences and what I learned about living (and dying) from them. It's available everywhere books are sold (so ask for it at your local Mom n' Pop bookshop).