[I suggested last month that I would stop blogging or change the way I use this blog. Well, because I generally enjoy writing, I decided to continue writing but not on a schedule and on topics I have not yet addressed. I’ve always been a fan of evolutionary theory in all disciplines so I’ll publish on that topic some, I’m sure. But the topics I have published on will likely continue to be on the list. Death and dying continue to preoccupy me as I get closer to having an immediate, personal relationship with them. I’ll write about them starting today. I’ll still write about my cancer journey too occasionally. It’s such a different experience than people with other kinds of cancer have.]
Death and More Death
Sherwin B. Nuland
I’ve got two books on death on the go right now. One I’ve already introduced on this blog. It’s by Sherwin B. Nuland and is called How We Die. It was a national best seller in the U.S. published in 1994. Nuland died in 2014. I wonder if his dying conforms to what he concluded in 1994. Probably does. Nuland was 83 when he died of prostate cancer after his mother and his brother had both died of colon cancer. That could not have been very pleasant. He was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University until he retired in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times expresses this thought about Dr. Nuland and his death:
To Dr. Nuland, death was messy and frequently humiliating, and he believed that seeking the good death was pointless and an exercise in self-deception. He maintained that only an uncommon few, through a lucky confluence of circumstances, reached life’s end before the destructiveness of dying eroded their humanity.’I have not seen much dignity in the process by which we die,’ he wrote. ‘The quest to achieve true dignity fails when our bodies fail.’
And, of course, all bodies fail.
The second book I want to discuss in this blog post is one that was recommended to me by a person who called me out of the blue from the local hospice society.* It could not be further in spirit from Nuland’s book. So, the book this person recommended is called Death: An Inside Story. It’s characterized on the cover as “A book for all those who shall die.” The author goes by the name of Sadhguru (Sad guru). The book describes him as a yogi, mystic, and visionary. This is not the kind of book I normally read, but it comes highly recommended so why not?
Unlike Nuland, Sadhguru is a fan of good death. Chapter Six of his book is called Preparing for a Good Death. He writes in an idiom that is foreign to me although I have read a number of books by Indian writers in general, and also by Zen Buddhists. I have read very little Hinduism, and when I have the book has been by a Western commentator. I know people who frequent ashrams in North America, Europe, and India. They have various reasons for doing so. I won’t speculate on their motives. I can’t see myself doing that. So, when I read Sadhguru, I admit that I am doing so from a place of relative ignorance. If I ever attended an ashram I may have more insight into the ‘place’ that Sadhguru occupies in the world of intellect and inner peace. Still, I’m not at a complete loss when I read Sadhguru.
I can relate to some of what Sadhguru professes in his book, once I get past what I consider the idiomatic nature of much of what he has to say. His emphasis that death is a natural fact of life resonates with my view and jives with Nuland too. It’s not a defeat of life or a failure. His views on our place in the scheme of life and death over millions of years is not unlike my own. Where I depart from Sadhguru is in his matter of fact insistence that ghosts are real and that reincarnation is a thing. In a chapter called The Riddle of Reincarnation, Sadhuru maintains that when people have sex and create an embryo and a fetus, life begins only after forty to forty-eight days after conception. That’s when “Someone else who is ripe for that and is looking for a body comes and occupies it”. (287) I’m still wondering how I could interpret this idiomatically. He’s not saying that the occupation of an embryo by another being is conscious. Instead, he writes, it’s karmic.
One thing that Sadhguru, Nuland and I can agree with Ernest Becker on is that we constantly endeavour to deny death. We set up very imposing institutions designed to deny death. Nuland chastises modern medicine for doing just that. Sadhguru writes that
“One reason people can ignore death and continue to live on in their ignorance is simply that the religions of the world have spread all kinds of idiotic stories about life and death. They created some silly childish explanations for everything.” (5)
It may be that Sadhguru is not reflexive enough to recognize the religious aspects of his own work. I wonder how his discussions of his past lives and reincarnation differ from other religious denial mechanisms. He states bluntly that “people don’t die.” (13) Now, if I read that literally, it seems absolutely absurd. He follows that up by writing that:
“In a way, death is a fiction created by ignorant people. Death is a creation of the unaware, because if you are aware, it is life, life and life alone – moving from one dimension of Existence to another”.
However, if I read this idiomatically I see a truth there. It’s only absurd if we take his words literally. Of course people die, but the atoms and molecules that make us up have always existed and always will. When I eat a carrot, the carrot becomes me (what I don’t poop out of course) so that’s life moving from one form to another.
Over the millennia, all the organisms we eat and call food have been transformed into something else. Life is but a movement of matter and energy from one form to another.
In our case, as is the truth for all organisms on this planet, we are finite. We are like mushrooms that sprout on the mycelium we call Life. We find it normal that a mushroom grows then decays enriching the soil from which it emerged. It’s interesting that so many of us (I haven’t done any surveys) have such a hard time accepting that reality as our own. How do you see it? Come on, let’s start a dialogue.
I’m really doing an injustice to both Nuland and Sadhguru. It’s not nice to pick and choose bits and pieces of their work to build my own argument. I guess I’m not very nice. Frankly, there is no substitute for reading their books in their entirety to make up your own mind.
*Early on in my cancer diagnosis, in 2019 and early 2020, I visited the pain docs at the Comox Valley hospital and a couple of the docs actually came to the house for a visit. We discussed pain and Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). I wasn’t quite ready for that yet, but the Hospice Society is great and they make sure that anybody on their list is contacted now and again. Eventually I will likely want their services.