FROM THE ARCHIVES: Terminal illness can make it tempting to skip the pain and rush death. But there is another way — other than assisted suicide — to give those last moments some meaning and detach from the suffering.
BY DAVID RICKEY — Nagui Morcos witnessed the slow, agonizing death of his father from Huntington’s disease. So when he, too got the diagnosis, he knew he preferred to die with dignity. The disease hasn’t quite caught up with his ability to speak yet, so he recently shared his views on Canadian radio.
Nagui, a man in his mid-fifties, knows he will reach a point where he will want to end his own life, before his brain disorder destroys his movements, speech and emotions — and before his wife or another decision maker is forced to “play god” for him.
The ongoing debate continues to polarize public opinion on the right to choose quality of life, and what constitutes life and death in today’s functionally-obsessed, goal-oriented society.
I want to explore this debate from a different perspective than the present media is taking. I believe that each individual has the right to choose when he or she dies. The problem is that most people haven’t been given enough information to make a wise choice. This information has to do with the depth and richness of life and of dying. This is a spiritual issue, not simply a medical one.
Most people that I have heard about, or actually talked to, who are considering suicide or assisted suicide, are looking at the question of the quality of their physical and emotional life. They are either in deep physical pain with little awareness of the possibility of relief, or they are experiencing depression and/or a loss of meaning. “Why am I still here?” is being asked as a rhetorical question, indicating that they have no answer and don’t believe there is one.
Especially in modern society, meaning is measured by usefulness. I’ve heard so many people say, “I feel so useless.” Usually this comes after a life of productivity, either in business or in active play. When this is no longer possible, they can’t find any reason to continue.
What is missing is the awareness of the richness to be discovered by going inward, by finding a deeper place for identity beyond external factors. Most of us define ourselves by what we do. Few of us have evolved consciously enough to define ourselves by being aware.
I am not my body, I am not any of my professions, I am not my thoughts or feelings. What I am is that which is aware of these transient qualities. As the Bagavad Gita says, “Not the seeing but that which is aware of seeing. Not the hearing but that which is aware of hearing.”
From this point of view, I am not dying and I am not in pain. Rather I am that which is watching the process of dying and that which is being aware of the pain.
Pain itself is a very interesting phenomenon. Most of us, when we experience pain, first of all tighten around it, then try to make it go away, either through some chemical, even aspirin, or by consulting a physician and having corrective surgery. An additional factor that intensifies the pain is the fear that it will be permanent.
Stephen and Ondrea Levine have done remarkable work with people in severe pain, relieving pain by changing the person’s relationship to the pain, through meditation and spiritual teaching. ( See “Who Dies” by Stephen Levine, for examples.)
By breathing into the pain, by dis-identifying with the body, (I am not in pain, my body is experiencing pain) and observing the pain, as it were from a distance, people are actually able to reduce the intensity. Another technique is to expand awareness even to a global awareness. “I am experiencing part of the world’s pain. I have just this much.” This brings about a shift in consciousness from the angry “why me?” to the compassionate “why not me?” I am not alone in suffering. This is my part of what life on this planet is experiencing. In “communion” I can bear my share of it.
This not only reduces the felt pain, it also brings a level of meaning, even, if you will, a sense of “usefulness”.
Another layer of the dying process is the expansion of awareness and consciousness. There have been many reports of increased precognition, a heightened sense of participation in the whole of LIFE, and expanded powers of extra-sensory perception. What is actually happening is the expansion of consciousness so the identity expands to being an expression of the ONE, ultimately Kosmic Consciousness, to use Ken Wilber’s term.
We should be offering more education into both the nature of living and the process of dying. Or to use the actual terms of the spiritual path, “conscious living and conscious dying”.
With this awareness, people would not only live more fully moment to moment, but would approach death with equanimity as a natural part of the whole journey. There may then be no need for assisted suicide. People would actually be able to “drop the body” (the description of death in Eastern mysticism) when “the time” has come, that is, when the lessons of this present form of existence have been completed. Then we would just graduate to the next level of classes, eventually to join the “teachers” who are helping others through the lessons.
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.
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