Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Death Cafes

I heard on the radio of a new old idea. People are getting together for coffee to discuss death. It might sound macabre at first but it’s philosophically ancient and uplifting. In Medieval days there was even the notion of a 'good death'.  This was before 'physician assisted suicide'.  A 'good death' was about the completion of a 'good life' . This was before the age of amorality.  Relative truth was not a thing of the day and death was considered an absolute.
So many people live today ‘lives of quiet desperation’.  So much depends on our perspective.  The first path of the Noble Truth 8 fold path of Buddhism is 'right view.'  There is a certainty about the relativity of perspective. But there is also the perspective  of the future too.  No one knows.  The pseudoscientists and materialists ever loud as children would have you believe as they do.  But death has no simple answer and each view has it’s own unique reward and loss.
I believe in death as a time of transition.  There is ‘afterlife’ for me just as there is ‘morning after’ when I go to sleep. So far I’ve not ‘died in my sleep.’  Not that I know of.  Not that I would know either. This is 'belief'.  This is an 'idea'.  Even the great Houdini apparently didn't 'escape death' as he said he would.
The epistemology of knowing is itself frought with constant hazard.  Naturally knowing death, a purely private and subjective matter distinct from the public and objective event is too.  I’ve held the dying and felt the end of the body with relative certainty.  The works of Psychiatrist Dr. Moody about Near Death Phenomena and later works quoted by Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven even challenge the notion of the ‘time’ of death.  As physicians we once used the idea of the death of the heart and loss of pulse and EKG reading, but with EEG advances Brain Death, where available,  has been used as ‘best time of death’ practice.
This is a long way from the days when one felt air around the nostrils and if it wasn’t moving declared a person dead.  Fakirs and yogis long ago developed methods of slowing breathing and heart to the point of ‘appearing’ dead with the subsequent apparent miracle of reanimation.  However even today there are those who have ‘revived’ after being declared ‘brain dead’ and that certainly challenges our ‘cutting edge’ perceptions of the simple ‘timing’ of death.  Science continues to expand our knowledge of the ‘event phenomena’.
What counts most is whether one believes death is a permanent or temporary end.  Is consciousness tied to the body and brain. Is there instead as Socrates believed a distinct body and soul separation, the joining of which occurs in this life whereas death releases the prisoner soul to rise or travel on.  Neuroscientist Dr. Mario de Beuregaard in his book Spiritual Brain does a superb job of debunking the prevailing myths of consumer society and the propaganda of "he who has the most toys wins".  He studied Carmelite Nuns meditating with PET Scans and showed the extreme ecstatic capacity inherent in the process which defies the reductionist egotism of the ultimately fearful.
Time is even a working principle but something which studied more in depth becomes the thing of Einstien and the perception of the "now'.
The Mathematician philosopher Pascal postulated a gamblers approach to belief in god which might well apply to belief in afterlife.  He said that if there was no god and one believed in God there was indeed no loss. However if there was a God and one believed in God there was a potential considerable win.  Not believing in an infinite possibility would by Pascals reasoning be an overwhelming loss.  "Pascal’s Wager" has gone down in history as one of the simplest approaches to positive thinking.
It’s challenged however by the Neitziean Superman complex who would do acts in life for which they’d not want potential consequence in afterlife. The very idea of a relationship between present life and after life is a posit itself.  The Superman who makes his own rules and lives without the restraint of the world might still be hampered by the ‘still small voice’ which somehow disturbs the sleep of the Caligula’s of the world.  Addicts and alcoholics who have done ‘monstrous’ things and tried to ‘numb’ themselves and overcome the ‘anxiety’ and ‘insomnia’ and ‘nightmares’ which accompany the obscene and offensive, don’t seem to find enough ‘sedation’ and seem haunted desperately desiring a subjective certain end to their own miserable existence. It’s not surprising that many world leaders even today involve themselves in philanthropy in later life not just for tax havens but rather to expiate guilt about earlier transgressions.  The Mob was notorious for it’s support of children’s hospitals.
Death being an end would appeal most to those most guilty whereas those most worthy might well have nothing to fear of an afterlife. Prevailing theories commonly might reflect the morality of an individual as much as unbiased observation.
Certainly world leaders and the elite might fear the afterlife and hoarding wealth this life seek immortality by any medical means.  The advances in stem cell research and body part transplants is not driven by the young as much as it is by the old and wealthy whose behaviour might in this life time be considered suspect.  They do not seem to wish to meet their maker quickly in the eyes of those who lack wealth or such choice.
Amazing Grace, the great testimony, written by a hardened slave dealer contains the memorable phrase, "I once was lost but now I”m found.'  The end of life 'conversion' is so common as to be a thing of movies and stories.
 The young have been given visions of glory and virgins with death to entice them to do the will of the old who cling to life fearing death.  Do they know more or by the way that they lived missed out on the life that sees some walk peacefully to their ends as if fulfilled. Thomas wrote the great poem for his father, "do not go gentle into that still night."  
How one lives superficially, fearfully or in depth, passionately, might well ‘fill’ one with respect to life that one is ‘ready’ for death whereas another might be ‘frantic’ and ‘lost’ at the prospect.  So many people live lives like ‘happy cabbages’ not ‘aware’ and seemingly distracted repeatedly say before death ‘if I’d only known”.
Jesus taught ‘be watchful’.  His parable of keeping the lamps lit speaks to the same message as the Buddha's which was to "be awake" .  Today's image of the 'zombie " is a contrast to the spiritual direction of the wisdom teachers.  Richard Rohr describes the wisdom fathers as generally teaching that this world is one of people asleep, sleep walker.   Dr. Scott Peck described it as a kindergarten for the soul.
What metaphor rules ones life, i.e. that life is a journey, a bowl of cherries, a place of suffering, a waiting for Godot, whatever,  defines the ultimate meaning one gives to death and may well create the nature of existence itself. The Secret and the Law of Attraction suggests that there comes a time where our very thoughts manifest our actual reality. This isn’t necessarily so or without discipline of mind but might well be an explanation for death.  Is one ever ‘ready’ for death.
Talking with a WWI vet who survived the trenches and countless opportunities for death, he told me once quite simply, " we all knew ’the bullet must have our name on it.'”  There’s the whole issue of ‘freewill versus fate’. The shallow 21st century opportunist speaks eloquently of genetics and ‘determinism’ but cranks out ‘selfies’ like the next one. The 'selfie' is the ultimate facile seeking of some form of timelessness or immortality.
The idea that ‘no praise, and no blame’ goes with fate is alien to this millennial culture which wants ‘all praise, and no blame’ no different from my OO7 culture which wanted a ‘license’ to kill because we all have ‘freedom’ to kill but don’t wish the ‘consequences’ that come with 'freedom'.  Death is a consequence.  Hence the success of the insurance agencies and all the silliness of individuals to sacrifice so many rights and freedoms for ‘safety’ as an ultimately illusory goal.
Life is temporal.
But is death different?  Again is it temporal or permanent?
I applaud the return of ‘death cafes’ . Can one truly celebrate life without discussion of death.  The whole cultural art forms of the zombie, vampire and the living dead suggest we cannot.  Might we not in kind embrace the angels if we shed some light on death rather than leave it to the nether regions.

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