Choosing a Death We Can Live With

By Nancy Coker

A terminally ill prisoner in Minnesota is fighting for a heart transplant which he says he needs in order to survive his four-year sentence, while in a separate struggle Dr. Jack Kevorkian is fighting for the right to help terminally ill patients die. On a different battlefield, hundreds of thousands of pregnancies are terminated each year by too-fertile couples, while death row prisoners, desperate to live, are given lethal injections. At the same time that many people in the world are supporting convoys bringing aid (and renewed life) to war-torn nations, the Hemlock Society is receiving over 200 pieces of mail daily from people wanting to know how to kill themselves. Abortion, suicide, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment are different acts with the same end: intentional and willful death. Sadly, these are acceptable choices for thousands of people — painfully heartbreaking perhaps, but acceptable.

It is hard to understand how any kind of killing, from large-scale murder during wars to individual execution as in capital punishment or suicide, is rationalized. Is it that some believe a human being is nothing more than an accidental, unimportant collection of atoms? From that point of view, a person would have little more value than a stuffed animal or a dollar bill disposed of when it gets too dirty or disfigured. This is the materialistic vision, but does it really explain our experience of life? Forget for a moment that physicists are deconstructing the boundaries of matter, why or how would matter give birth to self-reflecting consciousness (the ability to observe and know one's self) as well as selflessness (the ability to forget, even sacrifice, one's self)? What "random collocation of atoms" could conceive harmony, compassion, justice, or the creative spirit? If everything were made solely of matter, by matter, for matter, how could a tiny acorn transform "dead substances" — water, air, and earth — into a towering oak? Choosing death must be the result of an agonizingly painful process, but do the sad feelings of the suicidal person, or society's fears which place people on death row, originate in the body?

In contradistinction to the materialistic view is the spiritual vision of life itself as being causative and creative. The difference between the viewpoints that blind matter is the origin of the universe, or that spirit is, is analogous to the difference between nouns and verbs that Buckminster Fuller depicted:

I live on Earth at present, / and I don't know what I am. / I know that I am not a category. / I am not a thing — a noun. / I seem to be a verb / an evolutionary process — /an integral function of the universe.

The idea that we are not only a part of the universe but an integral aspect of its functioning is a transformative revelation of spiritual vision. Understanding that we are an intrinsic part of a dynamic relationship is nourishment to the will-to-live. Feeling isolated, disconnected, useless — or worse, a burden — feeds the will-to-die. Perhaps the feeling of separateness is a distortion of the impulse to individuate. Whatever it is, and wherever it comes from, the illusion of separateness is a killer.

But how do we know that the idea of interconnectedness isn't also an illusion? Consider the impossibility of living totally disconnected from anyone or anything else. The very air we breathe is only one of our intimate connections with the earth, and it is impossible to refuse it, since automatic functions will take over to keep us breathing.

There is a branch of medical science which not only sees this connectedness, but depends on it for healing:

Homeopathy . . . demonstrates that every possible illness that can affect living organisms has a corollary in some substance that is part of the earth's organism. External substances replicate psychosomatic patterns and are able to induce pathology when foisted upon the organism. However, they are also able to cure when applied in the appropriately diluted or "potentized" form. In a mosaic of unknown scale, the various states of human consciousness and the ingredients of the human drama are encoded in various mineral, plant, and animal substances — the unit "particles" of our earth. They slumber in these materials waiting for their unfolding on the human level. — Edward C. Whitmont, M.D., The Alchemy of Healing, Psyche and Soma, Homeopathic Educational Services/North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 1993, p. 22

A most provocative observation, and one that leads to the thought that within us undiscovered aspects of ourselves may be slumbering, awaiting their time of unfolding. Untimely death (as in euthanasia or suicide) interrupts their cycles, cuts off their opportunities for growth as well as our own. Perhaps the body we call home is more a hotel, the residence of innumerable evolving beings on visible and invisible planes. How else explain our progression of mental, emotional, and physical growth from infancy to adulthood? Can we imagine that destroying the physical brain actually destroys mind? Theosophic and Hindu texts teach that the death of the body removes the earthly vehicle for mind and feelings, but does not erase them. Following this reasoning, hurrying the death of the body may not remove the suffering at all.

There is a common bond between all of us and the person contemplating suicide, the parent considering abortion, the soldier sent to kill or be killed, and the hospice patient facing certain death: we all wish to avoid pain. As Stephen Levine points out in Healing into Life and Death, the wish to die is not the same as a wish to end life — it is a wish to stop suffering, something we all wish for. But the longing for things to change, for life to be easier, happier, healthier, may be an indulgence we can little afford if it leads to considering death as an acceptable or logical response to crises.

Buddhists say the way to end suffering is to practice non-attachment (to life or death). From one point of view each minute is new, we die and are born momently, so they suggest we practice letting go; not in a forcing way, not in a way dictated by our lower grasping self, but in a natural way. Their paramitas describe viraga, indifference to pleasure and pain, as a virtue, and counsel against trying to dominate or control our universe. If we stop resisting the inevitable changes brought by nature's rhythms, we can relax our "traffic-cop" mentality towards life-changing events we imperfectly understand. Can we allow life to live us — without hurrying it by euthanasia or prolonging it through heroic life-saving techniques? Can we find a death we can live with?

Death is often thought of as an escape akin to sleep; some nurture an idealistic and perhaps unrealistic notion that in death all troubles and pain will cease. But when our inner nature is so upset or excited that we don't get a restful night's sleep, how can we expect a restful death? All spiritual teachings point out that our thoughts, feelings, and actions color both the death processes and our after-death states, and Raymond Moody, who has worked with people who have had near-death experiences, concurs.

Willful death, as opposed to natural death, seems less the result of philosophical thought than the lack of any perspective on life. If we imagine that life is played out on a very small playing field, small problems take up the whole field. If we imagine life as an infinite adventure, the same problems become specks on a vast horizon line. Worldwide, over l00,000 people annually buy into the small picture, at least momentarily — but that is long enough to take their own lives. A few extra minutes of thought might have changed their decisions. G. de Purucker said that being suicidal was to temporarily lose our spiritual and intellectual grip, and the facts seem to support that it is largely an impulsive act. Of 515 people restrained from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, only 25 later went on to jump. In another study, of eight survivors who jumped and lived, all were still alive as of 1991 and agreed that they would never make another attempt. When given time to reconsider, they chose life. If everyone had the time to reconsider, would they all choose life?

All spiritual traditions (as well as common sense) counsel against murder and suicide, yet what should be a relatively clear commandment has led to a surprising amount of confusion. The Bible commands against the taking of life; but is refusing life-saving treatment the same as taking a life? Theosophic and Buddhist teachings describe the continuity of consciousness and the impermanence of the body, suggesting that death should not be feared while warning that it not be hurried. Other spiritual traditions offer guidelines as well as seemingly conflicting illustrations. In an article on abortion, Helen Tworkov wrote:

the Zen texts tell us no snowflake falls in an inappropriate place. No exceptions, including wanted and unwanted, healthy, sick, and aborted babies. But Zen gardens do not tolerate weeds. Do weeds have a right to live? Or unwanted fetuses?" — Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Spring 1992, p. 69.

From another perspective, "Thou shalt not kill" seems a simple and straightforward statement — until it is time for dinner.

Perhaps what is lacking is an overview of the death process. We mistakenly believe it begins in the body and therefore can be arrested in the body, but G. de Purucker explained,

every human being is born with a certain magazine and reservoir of vitality; and the composite entity which is man holds together until that reservoir of vitality is exhausted. Then the composition breaks up. The spirit goes to Father-Sun; the reincarnating ego goes into its devachan or heaven-world of unspeakable peace and bliss; and the lower parts break up and dissolve into their component atoms. — Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 617

If it is time to allow the body to die and give birth to the inner man, then, theosophically speaking, it is only these "lower parts" that we are trying to keep alive with our life-saving efforts; and, theoretically, we should not be able to halt the decomposition process once the store of vitality has been depleted. Miracle drugs may temporarily conserve the body's waning vitality, as battling disease must normally deplete it quite a bit. Perhaps the intervention of certain drugs or healing techniques preserves our vitality and therefore our lives for a time. But there must come a moment when the balance shifts and the life-saving procedures become death-delaying techniques.

If we understand that natural death begins on the inner planes, it changes our whole perspective about our time of death — we begin to appreciate that our death processes are really a part of our life processes. Interrupting the natural cycle is likely to result in suffering. Conversely, when the time comes round for death to occur naturally, theosophic teachings suggest that the body is cast off with as little effect to the inner being as the shedding of dead hair or nails.

Maybe the time to consider life is now. A platitude tells us that ignorance is bliss, but the Buddha said it is the source of suffering. Now more than ever before, we have the power to choose from a smorgasbord of death scenarios. Perhaps the way we chart a course between the technohysteria of heroic life-saving techniques and the painful question of intentional deaths is to take responsibility right now for discovering a vision of life we can live with.


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(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Theosophical University Press)


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