Over 200 people attended the one-day seminar “Shining Light on Death” held at Global Co-operation House in London. Guest speakers were Dr. Peter Fenwick, a London neuropsychiatrist; Ann Yeomans, a Soul Midwife who works in Sussex; and Sister Jayanti, European Head of the Brahma Kumaris. Threaded throughout the day were songs by Lucinda Drayton and poetry read by Dr. Craig Brown, Dr. Rachna Chowla and Suja Chandran. Dr. Sarah Eagger, Chair of the Janki Foundation, extended a warm welcome to the speakers and guests.
The seminar was planned to create greater understanding of the spiritual aspects of dying, death and bereavement and to make it less of a taboo subject.
Dr. Eagger explained that ‘… death is clearly something we all have in common. It is absolutely part of the cycle of life and yet we are quite afraid and have anxiety about dying. Most of us don’t know when and how we are going to die. So what role does death play in our lives and how do we feel about it? Maybe it is going to be painful. We also observe the grief of those left behind. It is clear how we have taken death out of our lives and we are a death-denying society. We wish to take the sting out of this, and today we are going to look at how we can make it more acceptable and a part of life.’
What are we afraid of?
Dr. Fenwick posed the question, ‘What happens when you die?’ As a clinician, he was fully aware of how, as a culture, we are primarily concerned with pain control and physical comfort. Yet we know so little about the dying process, and so it seems to be the same for those who care for us at the end. It is as if, understandably, we are so attached to life we can’t (or won’t) face the prospect of death. Few people wish to die and the rest of us for the most part are subject to feelings of fear, sadness, loss, anger and rejection; immeasurably so when hooked up to the technology of the 21st century hospital death bed, tended by healthcare professionals who have little training in end-of-life care.
As a specialist in human consciousness, however, Dr. Fenwick himself saw death as a ‘great adventure’, a process signposted with many fascinating phenomena including (for those who die consciously) visions, feelings of unity, wholeness and healing, love and compassion and, towards the very end, the peaceful experience of a new reality. He emphasised the importance of holding an attitude of curiosity with the willingness to explore and develop feelings of acceptance and an understanding that everything must be given up. These experiences, often described as a spiritual awakening, can and do exist independent of religious attitudes.
Dr. Fenwick reminded everyone to plan for the kind of environment they would like to have at the end of their life whether at home, in a hospice, or in a special hospital unit that offers a supportive environment.
He concluded that ‘we are never born and will never die … love, light, consciousness streams through us and this is what creation is. So what are we afraid of?’
Earth, Water, Fire, Air
Ann Yeomans as a Soul Midwife spoke about taking on the role of a compassionate and caring friend with the skill of ‘being present’ with someone who is dying and with their family.
Whereas Dr. Fenwick outlined three phases of dying—pre-transition, transition and post-transition, Ann Yeomans informed us of the dying person’s gradual withdrawal in terms of elemental energy. The first stage, represented by the energy of Earth, depicts physical withdrawal (e.g. loss of appetite, strength, changes in the senses and in appetite). The second stage of withdrawal, Water, is characterised by the emergence of old traumas and the need to come to terms with letting go of the illusion of power and control over one’s life and having to give up everything. Fire, the next stage, could be heralded by irritability and is particularly difficult for family members to witness. It is also the time when the dying may sense visitations of people from the past coming to meet and accompany them. The last element to withdraw is Air, characterised by drifting into unconsciousness – a time for all stimuli to be removed from the room and a corresponding need for family to let go. Ann Yeomans ended by highlighting the importance of ‘whole-body’ listening with posture, eyes and heart, therapeutic touch and presence.
After lunch participants went into 8 parallel workshops with two facilitators in each group of 15-20 to discuss ‘Exploring a compassionate presence with dying people’ and addressed the following three questions:
· What qualities of presence would you like in someone who is with you when you are dying?
· What would you like them to say or do that would be comforting?
· How could you use what we’ve done today to help you be with a person who is dying?
Experiencing contentment and gratitude
The afternoon ended with a response by Sister Jayanti to the questions put to her by Dr. Sarah Eagger about soul consciousness and about preparing for death by the way we live. Sister Jayanti spoke about the awareness of the difference between material consciousness (awareness of the physical self) and spiritual consciousness. So much more is now known about the latter through the scientific work being done by researchers such as Dr. Peter Fenwick on the phenomenon of Near Death Experience (NDE), where consciousness appears to reside outside the body as well as in the brain. She drew a parallel with experiences we can have in Raja Yoga meditation where we experience our inner being as having a separate identity from the brain and the body. The more she meditates, Sister Jayanti said, the more she is able to transcend time and space, go beyond the physical dimension, and connect and identify with ‘soul’ … the being that she truly is.
She then quoted Dadi Janki, the spiritual head of the Brahma Kumaris, who said ‘consider every moment to be your last moment and prepare for that.’ She has never postponed anything. ‘Do it now, for who has seen what tomorrow can bring…. not even later today… now!’ Our actions, our ‘karma’, Sister Jayanti went on to say, become the giving of love, wisdom and compassion, and these all impact on our final moments. We don’t want to be caught up with karmic accounts we have with people. We want to go into the experience of a better place, and become merged in God’s love. At this moment could I be ready to leave or are there things that are still pulling me? Attachments will pull me. Attachment brings suffering. Ego brings suffering and we all have layers of ego.
Can I detach from skin, colour, family, education etc.? If so, then I can be just pure consciousness and soul conscious. The more I practise this, the more I am able to deal with my ego and unfulfilled desires. Can I simplify and be content with what I have, or do I chase after what I don’t have? Can I experience contentment and gratitude? Can I forgive?
Why wait until later, why not experience this freedom now? This will also support a smooth transition. Transition is a very spiritual expression, as it signifies there is not an end, there is continuity. The phase when I leave one costume and move into a different one is a transition. I let go of what I need to let go of and, being prepared through meditation, I can experience peace and joy in this movement. When I understand and practise the stage of pure consciousness as a soul there is no more fear. Fear just dissolves. I know that I existed before I took this physical form.
The day closed with a reflective commentary by Sister Jayanti, and ended with Lucinda inviting everyone to join her as she sang a cappella, the final song ‘You’ve got a friend’ by James Taylor.