An Interview with Ralph White – Co-Founder, The New York Open Center, and Founder, The Art of Dying Institute
The New York Open Center, the city’s leading venue for holistic learning for the last 33 years, will present its sixth Art of Dying Conference in New York from October 13th to 16th. In advance of the conference, we asked its co-founder, Ralph White, to discuss what it will feature and explore, how it relates to our contemporary moment, and what visitors can expect to experience and learn. For more information about the Art of Dying Conference, please visit artofdying.org.
NYOC: What is the purpose of The Art of Dying Conference?
RW: The conference explores what it means to find right relationship to dying today, drawing on the research and wisdom of many pioneers and professionals in this field, from death doulas to indigenous teachers, Zen Buddhists to Western spiritual philosophers, and a wide range of scientists and researchers. Three days of talks, panels, seminars, and events offer a comprehensive presentation of the multiple holistic modalities that are emerging as we seek to work more compassionately with the dying and to liberate both ourselves and our loved ones from excessive fear of death. They also explore questions about the survival of consciousness after death: What might we expect? How can we best prepare?
NYOC: Why do you believe it’s so important that we re-evaluate and deepen our relationship to death and dying?
RW: The world’s wisdom traditions, starting with the Tibetans, have long known that developing a right relationship to dying is a key to creating a right relationship to living. If we live with greater awareness of the finiteness of human life, we do not cringe in fear and terror at our inevitable demise. Instead, we are more conscious that our time is limited and that we must make the best possible use of each day and each moment to live as fully as possible from the values dear to our heart.
NYOC: Where do you see this conference in the context of our contemporary moment?
RW: Since we began holding these conferences in 1995, American culture has developed an increasingly open and curious attitude toward death and dying. Hospice is no longer an obscure phenomenon. Books about near-death experiences have topped the bestseller lists. We seem to be lifting an age-old taboo about this most profound of all topics and are now engaging with these matters in an open-minded and deeply curious way. The Art of Dying Conference and the Thanatology Certificate associated with it serves this impulse to deepen our understanding of death and strengthen our skills in working with the dying.
NYOC: A three-day conference devoted to death and dying may seem daunting to many people. What can participants expect to experience?
RW: Contrary to our own assumptions when we first offered this conference in partnership with Tibet House, this is an intensely enlivening event, not the depressing experience we were conditioned to anticipate. In fact, there is something that could even be described as exhilarating about facing humanity’s greatest fear in company with hundreds of hospice nurses, doctors, chaplains, social workers and members of the general public, the majority of whom not only work with the dying but feel they have found a true and meaningful calling in doing so.
Both professionals and lay people have gained wisdom and compassion from these conferences. Hospice workers experience the warmth of community and have the opportunity to hear the wisdom of the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions around the nature of death and dying. Scientists and psychologists learn about the latest research on working therapeutically with the dying, as well as the often-extraordinary nature of end-of-life experiences. And regular folks facing the imminent death of a family member—or, in some cases, their own death—find solace and comfort in the hopeful and inspiring work of so many wise and caring practitioners.
NYOC: The conference brings together experts from a wide range of fields. What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned during the conference’s first twenty-two years?
RW: We’ve learned many things that shed light on end-of-life experience and care. For example, we’ve learned that many survivors of near-death experiences have noted two outstanding transformations: they lose their fear of death, and they realize that we are in this world to do our best to love each other. Their stories and lessons are profoundly inspiring to the rest of us. We’ve also learned that researchers estimate that up to one-third of deaths include communication with invisible presences, rare synchronicities or some other phenomenon that suggests the possible continuation of consciousness. These observations inspire us to reevaluate our relationship and attitude toward our passing.
When it comes to working directly with those diagnosed with terminal illness and experiencing profound death anxiety, we’ve learned that psychologists at NYU have used a carefully controlled dose of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, in a clinical setting. Their results have been extraordinary in reducing the stress of existential dread. Music-thanatology, too, is being increasingly integrated into hospitals. The soothing and calming effects of live music, often played on the harp, at the bedside of the dying person is palpable. In this work, we see yet another therapy that will be used increasingly in the future as our culture faces death more openly and perhaps with less fear.
The essential topic of death and dying continues to be one of the most important and moving dimensions of the New York Open Center’s work. We approach it with commitment and with profound seriousness, and we invite those who share our deep engagement to join us October 13th–16th in New York City. More information at artofdying.org