25 Years of the Art of Dying
By Ralph White
The spring of 2020 marks a quarter of a century since the Open Center organized the first Art of Dying conference, co-sponsored by Tibet House. It took place in a large midtown hotel and attracted a sell-out crowd of 700 participants.
As we had never produced a major event around death and dying before, we were thrilled and amazed. One of our main speakers, Sheldon Nuland, hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list with his book, How We Die, the very week the conference brochures landed in people’s mailboxes. And we received enormously positive feedback from the mostly professional audience of hospice nurses, social workers, psychologists, doctors and many others who were working with the dying. We realized that there was a vast need to address death in a more open, less taboo, more holistic way.
But at the time, it crossed no one’s mind that the Art of Dying, the title of which came originally from a medieval manual on the conduct of Christian burials, might continue for twenty-five years and counting. In fact, it was the Open Center’s first really large-scale conference and opened the door to many national and international programs on major themes.
It was clear that we had struck a major chord in the collective psyche. Americans were starting to open up to a more candid discussion on death, and we were in the right place at the right time.
Over the years, the multiple Art of Dying conferences have stayed true to many of the original themes. How can we best prepare for death? How can the prospect of death become less frightening both to ourselves and our loved ones? Does consciousness survive death and, if so, what might we expect? How can we be more present and compassionate in working with the dying?
Since those early days, there has been a discernible growth in awareness about death, and a palpable increase in the national willingness to discuss it openly and honestly. Today we are part of an growing international “movement” of death awareness that is filled with numerous helpful innovations. We have seen the emergence and spread of doulas for the dying, trained to conduct a loving vigil with the dying person and their family during the final hours of life. Recently, there is persuasive scientific evidence that a clinically controlled dose of psilocybin, the essential ingredient of magic mushrooms, can have an enormously beneficial effect on stage 4 cancer patients gripped by existential distress at the prospect of death. And of course there is deepening interest in the wisdom of the Tibetan tradition around death and reincarnation, and increasing awareness of the remarkable research of the Austrian philosopher and teacher, Rudolf Steiner, into the journey of the soul after death.
The evidence from near death experiences, unusual and anomalous end of life events, and those returning from induced resuscitation, all point to what the British psychiatrist, Peter Fenwick, has called “the magic of dying.” The more science looks closely at what occurs at and around the moment of death, the more extraordinary it seems.
On a practical level, recent years have seen the growth of interest in green burials where ashes can be placed in biodegradable boxes beneath the roots of a tree. We also see the return of individually painted burial shrouds instead of coffins and families using a funeral as an opportunity for the joyful celebration of the deceased’s life through music and dance.
Of course, we can never forget the loss, sorrow, and anguish that often accompany the death of someone we loved. How then do we approach bereavement holistically using insights from the world’s wisdom traditions? How do we cultivate tenderness toward the suffering and pain of our family members, our patients and ourselves?
These are some of the questions and practices that continue to animate the Open Center’s commitment to the integration of greater spiritual and scientific wisdom into the field of death and dying. Today, the Open Center has a very active Art of Dying Institute that provides a holistic training to participants drawn to the noble work of tending to those at the end of life.
The wise have always known that developing a right relationship to dying is a key to living each moment as fully and compassionately as possible. Unlike the fears that incline many people to ignore death until crisis arrives, our work encourages living with an awareness of the brevity and wonder of our lives, the inevitability of death for all of us, and the gift we can then receive of being fully present and engaged in each precious moment of our existence on this earth.
So, we look back on a quarter century of work in this most profound of all fields with a sense of time well spent. The Open Center is, of course, committed to the emergence of holistic practices and ideas in all areas of life. But our work with the great matter of life and death remains among our most precious achievements. We have been proud to pioneer much needed and fresh approaches to the poignant and often wrenching experiences at the end of life and their aftermath for family, friends, and community. To our own surprise, our initial foray into the field of dying back in 1995 has become a valued part of a growing movement toward more conscious dying in America. Our mission is thus well served, and we look forward to continuing our contribution to this vital field long into the foreseeable future.
Ralph White is co-founder of the New York Open Center and currently serves as Senior Fellow and Conference Director. Since the Open Center’s inception in 1984 he has created hundreds of programs across the spectrum of holistic learning. In particular, he directs the Esoteric Quest conferences in Europe www.esotericquest.org the Western Tradition that have now continued for twenty years, and the Art of Dying conferences www.artofdying.org that address the emergence of a more holistic understanding of death in contemporary America. More
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