O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?
(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)
In the last post, looking at Solomon et al’s treatment of death in The Worm at the Core, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I had to admit they are making an important point.
They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.
Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):
It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life
The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.
Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.
Perhaps because they lack a spiritual perspective, they seem blind to the possibility that, for example, there are positive aspects to psychosis (I will be exploring this more deeply in later posts).
Richard House (in Psychosis and Spirituality – page 94) quotes Levin, who ‘finally, succintly and beautifully sums up [this] position:
[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related to the person’s effort to break out of the standard ego-bounded identity: trials of the soul in its spiritual journey. The modern self is nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence… It is time for a real paradigm shift. (Levin, 1987)
This idea of a paradigm shift or tipping point is something I have explored at length elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it again here. A summary of one aspect of the Bahá’í position will have to suffice here.
We urgently need a sense of the transcendent if we are to be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:
. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.
(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)
The Bahá’í perspective shares Matthieu Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):
No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.
What might death have to do with our connection with the transcendent?
In a recent documentary on Down’s Syndrome, Sally Phillips, the presenter, exclaims towards the end, ‘Cracks are where the light gets in.’ What if death itself is some kind of light, as Bahá’u’lláh suggests, and not simply an intolerable crack in the fabric of our world view?
I’d be the first to admit that this is not an obvious option. It certainly hasn’t been for me.
I was studying for my ‘A’ levels when I heard about what someone from our school had done. His father was a farmer. He took his father’s shotgun, so they said. All we knew for sure was that, after his girl friend had dumped him, he turned up where she worked and with the first barrel killed her before turning the second on himself.
A few of us who knew him left the library and went to the nearest coffee bar in shock. The conversation settled nothing, least of all our nerves. Nothing we knew of him before explained his final acts. In the end, we shrugged it off and went back to our books.
Five years later in the second term of my first teaching job the common room was stunned after the Christmas break. Even the bridge fanatics stopped their game. A young man who had started at the school the same time as me last summer wasn’t coming back. He had thrown himself under the wheels of a tube train. Again none of us had seen it coming.
We knew he had been struggling a bit keeping his classes under control. No big deal, we thought. But we were obviously wrong. A mixture of shame and guilt now stopped us in our tracks at least for a short time. And again it was too late. The bidding at the bridge table began once more. Newspapers shuffled, teaspoons rattled in our cups, and piles of exercise books to mark took our minds off what could not be undone or understood.
In my second teaching job there was the sister of a student. On leave from hospital she booked into a hotel, where staff found her dead the following morning of an overdose. This was harder to understand. She had been in hospital for depression, and they knew she had plans to kill herself sometime. They clearly didn’t think it would be now.
These were not the only times in my life up to that point that I’d had to deal with death. There had been others – my sister’s mainly, whose lungs gave out before I was born, but the shadow of whose passing hung over my childhood. Also the war dead, like those in my father’s book – black and white images of uniformed corpses spread across the mud – and the victims of the concentration camps everyone was talking about as I grew up.
In addition, as the youngest child of youngest children, for me relatives were scarce. I knew more family graves than family members. And even some of those who had survived, were scarred by life or war. One uncle had had his right arm damaged in the First World War so he carried it rather than used it, and another had a tumour on the brain, whose pressure, they told me, had been eased by a plastic flap they’d cut into his skull. It would wear out one day, they said, and when it did he’d die. They couldn’t operate again, it seemed.
Every time I went to see him, because my mother asked, I looked anxiously at the deepening bowl in the side of his head, worried in case it wore out when I was there. I don’t remember my mother ever seeing him either with me or alone. I was her unwilling surrogate. She’d had more to do with death than she could stomach. And sometimes, to be honest, I was beginning to feel a bit the same.
It was much later that other more positive ways of seeing death became available.
Nancy Evans Bush asks an interesting question in her masterly exploration of distressing near-death experiences (NDEs) (Dancing Past the Dark – Kindle Reference 2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’
She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):
Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.
It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)
In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.
She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):
‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’
She therefore concludes (2088):
. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’
My childhood death connection obviously draws me to exploring this dimension of death, spirituality and mental health. The culture I’ve grown up in does not help, nor does my training in mainstream psychology.
Neil Douglas-Klotz (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 49) explains exactly why:
Beginning with the imperialisation of Christianity under the Roman Empire, European culture extracted a limited language concerning [spiritual & psychotic] states from an underlying Middle Eastern context, but without fully understanding the language or worldview involved. Because of this, Western culture developed a massive split between ‘inner’ psychic and ‘outer’ normative consciousness, as well as splits between cosmology and psychology, body and soul, and humanity and natural environment. . . . . . Whether by following an orthodox religious interpretation or by reacting against this interpretation in the form of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific revolution, Western culture evolves without a language or worldview that can conceptualise expanded states of consciousness in a healthy way.
Most cultures have been blind to some degree. Sadly we are both arrogant and powerful as well as blind. Still, there are hints to be found in many places, most of them off the beaten track of the market place and the hustings. I hope to follow the trail they promise towards a more satisfying truth about death, psychosis and spirituality.
I feel as though all the pennies still have not dropped. Even I though I have been so slow to see the relevance to one another of the Death Cafe and psychosis, maybe it’s not too late to get closer to the bottom of the problem.
Perhaps at the end of this sequence it will be more uplifting to confront the issue of death with a song, such as this one, powerfully rendered by June Tabor and Martin Simpson.