Usually I stroll to the Death Cafe from home after an early dinner. This time the situation was a bit more hectic, which might have been a sign of things to come.
I had spent too long in town and was dashing to the Courtyard to grab a sandwich before the six o’clock start. I got there just before 5.30. The reception area and the cafe was buzzing. The queue at the counter wasn’t too bad so I got my order in and my cappuccino reasonably quickly, though there was a bit of a crisis when fake news came through that they had run out of brown bread. I hate white for reasons I won’t bore you with right now. Anyway panic over when they established I’d apparently got there in time to catch the last slices of brown.
By ten to six I’d finished my sandwich and picked up my coffee to take to the meeting room. That’s where the problems started. I pulled open the door to see a room full of clothing, presumably costumes of some kind. I caught up with a member of staff who said the meeting was on the mezzanine floor. I carried my coffee carefully up the stairs and checked out the room at that level – crammed with people I didn’t know definitely not talking about death. Not there then.
On the way back to the stairs I saw the white hair of one of our clan bobbing up the stairs.
‘It’s not on the mezzanine,’ he said. ‘I don’t know where it is.’
I decided to check with the reception desk.
‘It is on that floor,’ the girl at the till told me. ‘It’s past the cafe.’
On the way back to the stairs for the second time I met another death enthusiast.
‘Where’s the meeting?’ she asked clutching her coffee and cake.
‘Follow me,’ I asserted confidently. We trekked up the stairs. She waited with her coffee and cake at a nearby table where I placed my coffee as well for safety while I checked out the room, which turned out to be either non-existent or a Platform 9¾ problem. I opted for non-existent and went back to the table where we sat for a while, she nibbling her cake and me scanning the stairs between sips of almost cold coffee for any hints about where the meeting was going to be.
After about five minutes, I decided it was time to go back to reception again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw a familiar face talking to what looked like the manager. She didn’t look happy.
‘So we haven’t got a room tonight?’ she probed.
‘I’m really sorry but demand was so high today we’ve had to use every available space,’ he flustered.
‘What do we do then?’ she asked with surprising politeness.
‘Well, there’s a table upstairs on the gallery floor with enough chairs.’
As we could only just hear him speak against the background noise we were not pleased about this, but there was nothing else we could do.
We trooped upstairs again but went one floor higher this time.
Two tables were at the stairwell where the noise was loudest.
We pulled them together and surrounded them with chairs, trying to make sure we would all be as close together as possible.
After a few moments more people trickled in and we got ourselves seated.
I was pleased to see the lady from the train had come. I gave a full account of our first meeting in a previous post. She was someone with a keen interest in consciousness and spirituality.
And there were two new faces as well – and they were young. I was happy to see that as it would make it easier to answer a question I’ve been asked more than once when talking about the Death Cafe: ‘Are there any young people there?’ Brilliant! I could now say an emphatic ‘Yes!’
It was hard going at first to make ourselves heard against the background noise, most of it caused by young children waiting for their programme to start in the main theatre. At least the noise would drop once the doors opened and they went in.
‘When someone is dementing, do their family go through a grieving process even before they die?’ This was an entirely unexpected question from someone so young, one of the new arrivals. Her voice was too quiet at first so she had to repeat what she said.
That set the first ball rolling. Sadly, the white-haired man I mentioned earlier really struggled as he had a hearing problem. Turning up his hearing aid was no solution as it simply made the shouting from below even more of a problem. He wasn’t the only one by any means who was struggling. Most of us had a hard time hearing someone on the other side of the table.
‘It’s not the Death Cafe tonight,’ I quipped, ‘more like the Deaf Cafe.’ It seemed to ease the tension slightly, and fortunately the man with the hearing aid couldn’t hear me. (My apologies to David Lodge for stealing his joke: he published a novel in 2008 called Deaf Sentence about a man struggling with hearing loss.)
From dementia we slid into DMT because the topic had shifted to whether the mind is affected by the brain or somehow separate from it and whether we could somehow access a transcendent realm. I had to do some research when I got home as I’d never heard of DMT.
It was mentioned in the meeting as a pineal hormone with transliminal effects. Wikipedia writes:
N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family. It is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines such as 4-AcO-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-HO-DMT, psilocybin (4-PO-DMT), and psilocin (4-HO-DMT).
Most of that went over my head. The next bit was more accessible.
Historically, it has been consumed by indigenous Amazonian cultures in the form of ayahuasca for divinatory and healing purposes. It was first synthesised in 1931, and in 1946, microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima discovered its natural presence in plants. In the 1960s, it was detected in mammalian organisms as well.
I can’t find support for the pineal connection (for example):
And although Strassman clearly states that his ideas about DMT and the pineal gland “are not proven”, many people have accepted them as fact. As of June 2010, there is currently no scientific evidence that the pineal gland produces DMT, much less any evidence for the more far-out speculations that Strassman makes about DMT being a chemical modulator of the human soul. When Strassman examined the pineal glands from “about ten” human corpse brains, there was nary a trace of DMT to be found in them. This doesn’t invalidate his theory, since DMT is metabolized quickly, and none of the corpse brains were fresh-frozen. Further tests on fresh-frozen brains could be done. Someday there may be evidence that DMT is produced in the pineal gland, but that day has not yet arrived.
Just as the other new comer was about to speak the loudspeaker blared out a fifteen minute warning about when people should make a move to take their seats.
She had to start again. She picked up on what the lady from the train had shared about Faith, Physics & Psychology concerning various books such as those by Fritjof Kapra and David Bohm. She explained her deep interest in matters of the mind, consciousness and spirituality, something which was clearly shared by others present including me.
Somehow, I have no idea now of how, we moved onto exploring virtual selves in this age of the internet and social media. Would we be mourned after we die by other FB users who had never met us? Does excessive reliance on social media cut us off from real contact with other people? We concluded that social media, just like all other leaps forward in terms of tools and technology throughout human history, was a mixed blessing – just like fire, which we can use to keep warm in winter and cook our food or to burn down a neighbour’s hut if he has upset us.
At about this point the blaring began again to summon all the noisy ones downstairs to their seats. Bliss. Silence.
We had a long exploration then of whether there is a soul, a spiritual dimension, a mind independent of the body – all my favourite stuff. I was astonished to find that someone did not agree that agnosticism is the only rational stance if you rely on reason alone. To believe there is or there is not a God is an act of faith.
‘Well, that’s not how I see it?’ a different voice chipped in.
‘How do you see it then?’ I asked trying to hide my shock at this denial of the obvious.
‘I’m not quite sure. I think it’s more a question of acceptance.’
I’m still not quite sure what she meant by that but we went onto explore whether truth was on a ‘huge hill,’ as John Donne expressed it, and we’re all on our different paths towards it or is there a better metaphor.
I think there was general agreement in the end with the other part of Donne’s position as expressed in his third satire (line 77): ‘doubt wisely.’
Whatever else, we all felt at the end of the evening, as we said our goodbyes, that it had been a great experience which we had all enjoyed enormously.
And I’ll end on my usual challenge. Death Cafes are held in many places. Maybe there’s one near you. Do you dare to give it a go?