For at least 2,500 years, religious teachers, prophets, and mystics have spoken about a veil between the world of the living and the dead. It’s said that the veil is particularly thin as death approaches. While words can point to it, experiencing it is another matter, and one not easily forgotten.
Many of us have already brushed against it. Some, by being at the bedside of a dying loved one. Others through devote prayer, prolonged meditation, or a dedicated yoga practice. In addition, the boomers have other guides to thank.
The Doors of Perception
Through Aldous Huxley’s written account of his experiences with mescaline, The Doors of Perception, and the widespread use of hallucinogens in the 1960s and 70s, the boomers have been busy exploring the outer (and inner) reaches of consciousness.
In 2013, the National Institute of Health reported that an estimated 32 million adult Americans have used either mescaline, peyote, psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), or LSD. When the federal government outlawed these hallucinogens in 1970, they went underground, yet they have continued to be available both for recreational and therapeutic use.
Over the years, a growing number of intrepid researchers and psychologists have insisted that these hallucinogens allow the user to overcome the mortal fear of death, often with a transcendent, lasting effect. Thanks to celebrated author Michael Pollan’s in-depth study, How to Change Your Mind, mescaline and its first cousin, psilocybin, are once again topics of mainstream conversation.
Why now? In part, because a new generation is moving into position to question how we die and is suggesting a better way with less fear and more awareness.
To help connect the dots, it was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who invited the relatively unknown meditation teacher, Stephen Levine, to join her workshops on death and dying in the 1970s. Levine went on to write his bestseller, Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying, which points beyond the veil and has endeared him to many.
A memorable aspect of Levine’s later workshops was his standing invitation to attendees who had had a near-death experience, to address the group. Invariably, humble, and ordinary people would recount having been pronounced dead, only to be resuscitated and regain their faculties. With few exceptions, these people did not “peek” through the veil, but stepped through to the other side.
Their accounts are remarkably consistent. What they experienced when separated by “death” from their bodies was profound. As near as words can describe, they experienced peace, beauty, and light. Most relevant here, they reported that their fear of death had vanished and not returned.
By acknowledging and sitting with our fear of death—by not running for cover—we each have an opportunity to understand and transform ourselves at the deepest level. To bear witness to another’s dying time, or to anticipate our own, can be to stand in wonder, not knowing, in awe of life’s greatest mystery. As you’ve already glimpsed, this has the power to not only transform how we die, but—perhaps more importantly—to transform how we live.
If we fail to look at the emotional, psychological, and spiritual components at end of life, then we’ve truly missed the boat on providing whole person care.
—Dr. Patrice Richardson
Cicely Saunders’s original model of hospice care addressed her patients’ “total pain,” which included emotional and existential distress. Spiritual care was an integral component of the holistic support Dr. Saunders and her team provided and has remained a foundational part of hospice and palliative care to this day.
Spiritual care is the heart of a chaplain’s calling, and invites attention to one’s faith, however it might be experienced. Typically, when a chaplain first responds to a palliative or hospice referral, a spiritual assessment is in order. Usually this takes place quite informally during conversation.
This approach is designed to identify how the patient describes their faith, or lack thereof, and to begin to understand how the patient is coping with their illness. In this context, religious beliefs and native spirituality are viewed as tools that can ease fear and discomfort, while fostering connection and peace of mind.
Faith, religion, and spirituality refer to the ways we seek and find meaning and purpose in our lives. It’s the way we deepen our connection to the moment, to others, to nature, and to the Sacred, however we define it.
Over the course of a lifetime, most of us experience an ebb and flow in our faith and spirituality. As the end of life approaches—or perhaps more accurately, as we come to face and accept our mortality—faith often takes on a deeper importance. Whether one’s faith is expressed outwardly in a religious manner or as a quiet, inward spirituality becomes uniquely personal.
From what I’ve seen at well over 10,000 bedsides, those who experience and allow themselves to rest in their faith are calmer, more accepting, and even expectant of what’s to come.
As a spiritual care provider, it’s a privilege to be welcomed into the room, to offer a calm presence, and to accompany a fellow traveler through some of life’s most difficult terrain.
Spiritual care isn’t too complicated. With clear intent, most anyone can muster the tools of listening from the heart, providing undivided attention, and offering the gift of quiet companionship.
Whether you’re a religious or secular person, please ask yourself, what are my core beliefs? What do I hold to be true? Which of these truths will serve me right now and as life presents its closing chapters? What do I need to remember? To invite? To deepen? And to savor? Our saving grace, whatever it might be, waits on our welcome.
For many of us, going to church is no longer attractive or practical. Yet there may still be a “house of worship” somewhere inside us. Visualize or imagine, if you will, your old connection to church, synagogue, mosque, or the great outdoors, coming alive again in your mind’s eye. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and let yourself be transported there. Allow your senses to rekindle and fully experience this place again. Picture brilliant light, or sacred darkness, enveloping you. Are there comforting sounds or smells? What feels most alive within you? Offer whatever prayers might come to you, allowing the peace of this place to wash over you. Imagine kneeling or bowing in gratitude, giving thanks for the comfort and refuge this place still offers you.
Next Week: ?? (‘Not Sure Yet : )
A Medical Advice Disclaimer
The content of this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. No aspect of its contents is intended to substitute for professional medical advice, consultation, diagnosis, or treatment. The author is a spiritual care provider, not a doctor. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it based on something you have read here.
* * *
Feel free to comment on the “Contact” page to let me know what’s on your mind and what you’d like to hear more about. If you’d like to forward this Post to family or friends, please click on one of the blue links below.
Until next week, ‘Safe Journeys,