Washington Post On Faith: Can Dying Be a Peak Experience?

Does end-of-life care prolong life or does it prolong suffering? Should it be a part of health-care reform?

As a humane gesture, comforting people at the end of their lives is valuable and has been part of the hospice movement, not to mention pastoral care, for a long time. As anyone who has spent time with the dying knows, it’s the family who is most distraught; the person who is actually nearing the end has generally come to terms with his situation and found some measure of peace.

In a perfect world I’d like to see this area of compassion carried further. If every person, and not just the dying, became convinced that there is no end of life, the experience surrounding death would change radically. We tend to assume that only the most extraordinary people, like Gandhi or Socrates, can die with peace and equanimity, and far away in exotic places like Tibet, preparations for a spiritual transition are complex and esoteric.

But I’d like to argue that peace in the face of death is possible for everyone. It requires two steps only: getting past the fear of physical extinction and turning one’s focus to consciousness instead. In the Judeo-Christian tradition death has become a kind of risky lottery where the soul discovers, to its delight or horror, that it’s headed for heaven or hell. But many wisdom traditions around the world make a different argument, that the afterlife is an extension, in non-physical terms, of present life. In other words, wherever consciousness goes when you die, you can go there now. There is no life more intense than what you can experience here, this very moment, because all modes of living come down to consciousness.

If near-death experiences teach us anything, they reassure us that consciousness is continuous even when the physical body ceases. It may be that some forms of suffering continue, but they aren’t a kind of divine punishment. Rather, the everyday demons of guilt, shame, anger, and fear remain to haunt us. The good news is that these enemies of peace can be confronted now, long before dying is an issue. Similarly, any spiritual work done today will benefit you tomorrow, even if that tomorrow happens to coincide with dying.

The general rule here is that whatever you do to raise your consciousness — meaning, to acquire more clarity, peace, love, compassion, centeredness, and silence — cannot be taken from you, even in death. Indeed, those who claim that life never ends speak from experience, having done the work to raise their consciousness. I can think of no great sage, saint, or spiritual guide who has said anything but this.

The sad truth is that most people never think about dying in any positive sense. They learn a few folk tales about God and the devil, heaven and hell about age five, after which they forget the entire subject. This reliance on primitive, unfounded beliefs makes the dying process immensely more difficult. In the face of fears hidden in the shadows of the psyche, what can a few weeks of counseling do, however compassionate and well-intended? But for anyone who has seriously begun to approach dying with clear sight and a willingness to explore consciousness, there is no reason why this aspect of the human life cycle cannot offer peak experiences as genuine as those we hunger for when we pursue love and peace our entire lives.

Published in the Washington Post OnFaith