Monday, October 30, 2023

Dying can be a dance, not a battle


CC Jean Stimmell

Why do so many obituaries praise the dead for waging a heroic battle against their fate? Why does death have to be described as such a heavy-weight brawl when, in the big scheme of things, death is part of the circle of life? 

Like it or not, we’re all part of nature. Why can’t we view our death like a falling leaf in autumn, not as a desperate ending but as the promise of rebirth in the spring? Or, for religious-minded people, serenely entering into the Kingdom of heaven.

Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in near-death studies, wrote, “Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star; one of a million lights in a vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever.⁠1

I’ve always had an interest in understanding death but don’t consider it to be a morbid subject. Quite the contrary: I believe you can only understand life if you first pick apart your attitudes toward death. I am now reading another book about it recently on the NYT Best Seller list: The In-Between: Unforgettable Encounters During Life’s Final Moments by Hadley Vlahos. 

Vlahos is a hospice nurse. I found her portrayal of eleven of her patients, while sometimes sad and tragic, to be comforting on the whole because their last hours were often mundane and peaceful without hand-wringing hysterics. 

But, beyond that, the author explored an intervening spiritual element!  Death was not black and white as she had previously believed. “There was certainly an in-between…Patients from all different religious and non-religious backgrounds were having spiritual encounters that I couldn’t ignore.”⁠2

Vlahos describes herself as spiritual but not a member of any religion. 

One of her observations stuck close to home for me. When her patients have these in-between experiences, she’ll ask what they are experiencing. They might say something like: “‘Oh, I’m going on a trip,’ … So the conclusion I’ve come to is whatever is next cannot be explained with the language and the knowledge that we have here on Earth.”

I had a similar experience with my mother when she was dying. While sitting with her, I saw her eyes moving and asked what she was looking at. She said she was transfixed by the flickering candles on the mantle, but the candles were merely standing there, motionless and unlit. She hesitantly confessed to me that she felt like a little girl waiting at a bridge for someone to come to take her hand and take her across.

Like Vlahos, I am spiritual but not a member of any organized religion.

My mother was an Episcopalian and did a lifetime of terrific work through the church to help others. But she was a hard-headed Yankee who would never buy into any New Age woo-woo. While I could see her vision transported her, I had to prod her to tell me what she was experiencing because, as she sheepishly confided, it seemed like such a silly idea.  

A silly idea or not, she passed shortly after that. 

To me, my mother’s death experience, like that Vlahos writes about, points to the likelihood that the universe is way more profound than we can ever imagine. A reality that has always been self-evident for practitioners in the spiritual realm. Now, at last, it is becoming true for scientists.

Working with Complexity Theory– one of the three most important discoveries of the 20th century – along with Quantum Physics and Relativity – scientists have discovered that, as human beings, we have more in common with each other, living or dead than we ever could imagine.

Rather than priding ourselves on being the dominant force on Earth above all others, it would be more accurate to see ourselves as part of the “Earth itself, whose atoms have self-organized to form these transitory beings that think of themselves as self-sufficient and separate from each other, even though they only ever arose from and will inevitably return to the atomic substance of the planet?”⁠3

I know this is extremely difficult for us to understand – like trying to comprehend Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But if these scientists are proven correct that consciousness resides in every atom in the universe, not solely in our separate brains, then, truly, we are all connected as one.

And, if that’s the case, talking about life after death should be a piece of cake.



1 On Death and dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. The MacMillan Company, New York: 1969. Page 246-7.

2 R.N., Hadley Vlahos . The In-Between (pp. 36-37). Kindle Edition.

Page 53

3 –Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity (p. 73). Spiegel & Grau. Kindle Edition

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Mindful Forgetting

CC Jean Stimmell: 2015

The cricket’s persistent song of autumn used to haunt me, reminding me how brief life is, especially now I’m old. But it doesn’t have to if we follow David Henry Thoreau’s example and  reframe “the cricket’s song: Turn it into an “earth song,” a reminder not of life’s brevity but of eternal return.”⁠1

Reimagining things as Thoreau does is crucial to being truly alive: The secret to doing so is forgetting old stuff. That’s the topic of Lewis Hyde’s award-winning book, A Primer for Forgetting. While a Wall Street Journal reviewer claimed his book shocks the mind like leaping into a cold lake, to me, some passages threw me into free fall like I’d fallen off a cliff.  

The book was powerful without any guiding narrative, just an accumulation of what often feels like unrelated anecdotes.  The glue that holds it together is Hyde’s celebration of forgetfulness. On a single page, Hyde summarizes Plato’s claim that an oral culture is best because knowing how to write “strips forgetfulness” from the minds of the people. 

“Relying on writing, they will cease to exercise imagination, calling things to mind no longer from the quick of present attention but from a past frozen in ink. What you have discovered is a recipe not for the mastery of living speech but for dead speech to master the living.”⁠2 

The statement, “Dead speech to master the living,” seemed dead-on to me, reflecting to my jaded eye the true nature of today’s 24/7 media circus consisting mainly of political double-speak about how black is white and advertising brainwashing us to “shop until we drop.”At the same time, our world is imploding from income inequality, escalating wars, and climate doom.

Maybe Plato was right: Perhaps our most unheralded trait is the most important: our unequaled ability to dance spontaneously in the present moment. Unfortunately, during our Modern age, this essential human spark has been lacquered over with an impenetrable layer of media, written and otherwise. 

It’s like we have become encased in amber, like those fossils we visit in the museum.

To regain our mojo, it is necessary to go back to the future: Forget (delete) the chirping virtual crickets projected upon us by our new high-tech masters and, instead, seek out actual crickets as Thoreau did, singing in the present an authentic “earth song.” 

Today, going back to the future means revisiting science!

Old science could be viewed as part of the problem, doing its part to encase our living world into an impenetrable armor of abstract facts and blockish equations. Science today is different: it is flying high, pursuing theories dealing with relativity, quantum mechanics, and complexity –  not static notions from the past but the infinite probabilities that exist in the present moment.⁠3

Contemporary science rejects the notion that we are living beings moving about on this rock called Earth. Instead, we are “Earth itself, whose atoms have self-organized to form these transitory beings that think of themselves as self-sufficient and separate from each other, even though they only ever arose from and will inevitably return to the atomic substance of the planet?”⁠4

As Neil Theise states in Notes on Complexity: “At the atomic scale, each one of us is both our own separate self and, in complementarity, also just walking, talking Earth.⁠5

David Henry Thoreau would certainly agree.




2 Hyde, Lewis. A Primer for Forgetting (p. 285). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.


4 –Theise, Neil. Notes on Complexity (p. 73). Spiegel & Grau. Kindle Edition

5 Ibid.