Friday, May 29, 2015

The Art of Dying 5 at the New York Open Center – A Review


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). 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Excerpt (On Loss) from "The Hardest Part is the Parting Part"



      At some point in our lives, we all may have to inhabit that peculiar bubble of time where we're called upon to witness the passage of a life. It's possibly the most difficult, but most essential, thing we have to do—showing up for an event we dread and knowing how to conduct ourselves through this unmistakably sacred time. A lot of odd feelings may get kicked up when we're called upon to be caregivers, or to be taken care of. Feelings like powerlessness and blame, or even resentment and anger at the "unfairness" of it all. But really, it is the fairest part of Life, that moment when we must come to terms with mortality. Intuitively, we know that we must be there for that—that we must surrender into our circumstances, experience our grief, and rise above our self-centered feelings. Our feelings are, after all, just feelings. They are directing us to our truths, but they aren't necessarily the truth themselves.

      It's just hard to find your footing, to find your proper place at that time, suspended in that sort of grace. But here's what you can always do to face the pain, to put your conflicting feelings in their proper place and make your role and purpose clear and comfortable: Push everything else aside, and join your heart to Love. Within the fundamental understanding that there is no death, Love will always provide you intuitively with sure sanity, support, purpose, and direction.

      Compassionate identification with one another is our connection to that healing power as part of the circuit—the circular, mutual, spiritual agreement between the person who needs the healing most and the person who has the chance to bring it to them. The truth is that everyone needs the healing, and so it's that identification we experience with one another that is the real key to supplying the aid and comfort—the "spiritual medicine"—that can only be passed from one being to another. We are the vehicles of this powerful spiritual energy. Like waterwheels, as we collect the energy of Love and compassion in our lives, Life brings us around into position to pour it out for another.

      You may just call it the Golden Rule, because that's what it is. (When something's given a name like "the Golden Rule," it's usually earned the name). We're always being given the chance to become the person who does unto another the very things that we'd be most grateful to receive ourselves. And given the circular nature of Life, we'll get our chance for that as well. Meanwhile, what might be considered one of Life's most painful episodes is really the opportunity to provide one of its greatest rewards—the fulfillment of that most sacred agreement that we’ve made with each other, somewhere, someplace in time.

      When we willingly (or even sometimes not so willingly) take part in this eternal cycle of caring, I think we become intuitively aware of the invisible spiritual machinery at work in the world and in our lives here on this planet. As so many revered spiritual texts have told us, giving—being of service to another, setting aside all selfish concerns we may naturally have—gives us more of Life's precious intangible rewards than anything else possibly can. Healing and comfort, and—here it is again—Love. And it works both ways—to care and to be cared for. 

      The Universe (God, if you will) suspends us in this bubble of grace at those times, especially at the end of one or another's life, when all materiality fades into insignificance and the pure spirit owns us completely and irrevocably. We are connected to the divine magic of Love and Life when we bear witness to that transition of the spirit out of the painful body, and back into that joyful light of being and bliss. 


The book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is now available everywhere, but ask for it it at your local bookstore! 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Synchronicity is Not a Coincidence, on GaiamTV




"Synchronicity is Not a Coincidence" is my new column for GaiamTV's Seeking Reality for this month. Check it out, and maybe it will make something wonderfully unexpected, but very timely, happen for you.