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The Art of Dying Well

by Keith Milton, M.A.

This paper was presented at the Conference on the Art of Dying
at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies,
University of London (U.K.), on 29 January 1999.


‘Do you wish to be food for the Moon?’

What sort of question is this? Does it make any sense? To what does it refer? Why should we ask ourselves such a question?

‘Do you wish to be food for the Moon?’

If you had been a student of the early 20th-century writer on human potential named Gurdjieff, then you would have been very familiar with this quotation. In Gurdjieff’s system of thought, the moon represented the abode of the Dead, as it does in many cultures. If one lived an ‘unexamined life’, avoiding the central issues of life and death, then one would be swallowed by the Moon – by oblivion. As part of his concern to ‘awaken’ his students, Gurdjieff often interrogated them with this question.

Fig. 1 - Plato

1.  Plato
(detail from Raphaels School of Athens)

In this confrontation with the mysteries of dying, Gurdjieff was continuing an ancient classical tradition. For example, when asked for a summation of his thought in his old age, Plato relied, ‘Practise dying.’ [Figure 1 – Plato] And in his Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say:

Then it is a fact, O Simmias, that true philosophers make death and dying their profession.

If, as numerous authorities have insisted, Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, surely it is strange that Plato’s major theme, the integration of Death into one’s daily life, is startlingly absent from the canons of Western philosophy. Plato himself would probably not even recognise much of today’s philosophical discourse as addressing his criterion of philosophising!

Questions to consider:
  • What happened to cause this dislocation in the West between the mysteries of Death and Dying, and the proper concerns of an ‘examined life’?
  • Can we trace the history of Western attitudes towards death and thereby understand our present re-fascination with the subject?
  • Is there a consensus on the mapping of the Death experience? And what do these geographies of the Land of the Dead imply for how we live our lives?

These are the questions that I wish to address in this introduction. Although they are plural, perhaps I can’t improve on Gurdjieff: ‘Do you wish to be food for the Moon?’

To begin, I want to introduce a basic context for this discussion. In his book Western Attitudes towards Death, published in 1974, the French historian Philippe Ariès listed four societal responses to the Death experience.3 These are:
  1. Tamed Death (corresponding to the 10th to 13th centuries Common Era)
  2. One’s Own Death (the 13th to 15th centuries)
  3. Thy Death (the 15th to 18th centuries)
  4. Forbidden Death (the 19th century to the present)

These four will act as the themes of this talk.

1.  Tamed Death

Ariès examined the status of Death and Dying as social practices in western Europe, emerging from the confusion of the Dark Ages, a period when the classical heritage had yet to be re-found and reconsidered. For Ariès, the 10th to 13th centuries were a time when the dominant expression towards mortality was ‘We Shall All Die’ (et moriemur). Within a Christian context, there was a strong sense of personal destiny – the self or soul was not annihilated by Death but put to sleep (dormitio). Death was ‘tamed’ by assurances of an afterlife and the societal consensus on how to die.

The dying were advised by rituals on how to die in a definite process. Firstly, one had to be gisant, lying down and facing heaven; then one had to lament and express one’s sorrow at leaving this life. Pardoning one’s friends, enemies or circumstances followed. Then one made a confession of one’s sins and errors, and sought absolution if a priest was present. Finally, one waited for death in silence.

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2.  Albrecht Dürer:
The Knight, Death and the Devil, 1514

Sometimes this was a public act, attended by family. Often it was done alone undisturbed. The chivalric chansons de geste abound with examples, such as ‘The Song of Roland.’ [Figure 2 – Dürer’s The Knight, Death and the Devil]

Ariès points out that death was not feared as an ending, but recognised as a journey, almost as a pilgrimage to be made. A physical expression of this confidence was the integration of cemeteries and funeral processions with the social fabric of early mediaeval town planning and life.

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3.  Limbourg Brothers:  ‘Hell’ (from the Très Riches Heures de Duc du Berry, 1413-16)

2.  One’s Own Death

During the period of the 13th to 15th centuries, Ariès believed, there was a deep structural change in how Death and Dying was perceived and approached. There was an increasing sense of anxiety, a pervading mood of possible failure and loss, that had enormous psychological repercussions for the Western mind. Expressions of this can be seen in the frequent representation of the Last Judgement in Gothic art [Figure 3 – The Limbourg Brothers, Hell], and the appearance of the Ars Moriendi or Artes Moriendi, which were manuals on how to die.

I will return to these manuals shortly, but for the moment a digression is necessary in order to understand how and why this new terror of dying arose.

For many cultures around the world, the ecstatic trance journey was and still is regarded as an anticipation of the soul’s experience during the process of dying. Historian Alan Segal has described the almost universal similarities of the ‘Ascent Myth’ (as he calls it). In particular, Segal has shown how widespread this Ascent Myth and its associated initiations were in the ancient Near East.

The Hebrew scholar Gershom Scholem, writing on esoteric Jewish tradition, has made reference to the genre of merkabah or chariot literature which incudes instructions on how to ascend to heaven prior to death. He gives as examples the ‘Ascension of Isaiah’ text and the Pardes or Paradise story in the Talmud, of four rabbis who travel to the throne of God. The writer Morton Smith has argued that heavenly ascent or soul travel was a secret teaching of Christianity from the beginning. Certainly it would appear that the 4th century Council of Nicaea edited out doctrines of reincarnation and soul travel from the writings and practice of orthodox Christianity. This led to a definition of heresy as that which led to personal experience of soul ascent, or the death experience, in imitation of Christ.

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4.  Montsegur

Within this Christian context it has been argued that the Dark Ages saw a loss of psychological interiority as the dogmatic and hierarchical structure of the Church established itself. Death, in Ariès’s term, was ‘tamed’ by its collective nature. Personal, subjective experience of soul ascent as a preview of dying was a serious destabilising threat to this mass acceptance of dogma. An interior spiritual life outside of the Church was therefore dangerous.

Yet by the end of the 10th century there were signs in artistic and literary expression of a new sense of self, of subjectivity. Simultaneously a new heresy rapidly spread through southern Europe, consolidating itself in southwest France, in the Languedoc. This was Catharism. [Figure 4 – the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur]

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5.  A Cathar view of the Last Judgement & Resurrection of the Dead, from the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue

Catharism is so called after its priests, the Cathari or ‘perfected ones’. It represented an upsurge in Gnostic beliefs, the very ideas excised from orthodox Christianity in the 4th century. For the Church this was bad enough; but, in addition, Catharism was spreading in the most cosmopolitan region of western Europe – an area most open to non-Christian influences from Muslim Spain and from the Middle East and Orient. [Figure 5 – Cathar resurrection]

Historians such as Stephen Runciman, Hans Jonas, and Friedrich Heer argue that Western heresy has been continually refuelled by Eastern influences, by techniques of soul travel, of meditation, of dying consciously. Heresy is therefore the collision between the map of spiritual experience and the institutional dogma of the Church. Only occasionally has a proto-heretic, such as St. Francis or St. Hildegard, been co-opted into the Church. Usually the response has been war.

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6.  Stele at Montsegur

For the Cathar faithful of Languedoc, the Albigensian Crusade – beginning in 1208 – was the Church’s war on their heresy. By 1254 Catharism had been destroyed, Languedoc devastated, and the Inquisition set up to crush heresy. Frederick Turner has written that what was at issue here ‘was the shape and content of the psychic geography of the West (Beyond Geography, 1980, p.42). [Figure 6 – Cathar stele at Montsegur]

Alternative, subjective maps of how to die though heavenly ascent were to be forbidden. For the Church, the ‘Tamed Death’ – with its need for priestly absolution – was a necessity.

As a footnote here, I should say that some writers, such as Gabrielle Rossetti writing in 1832 and Denis de Rougemont in 1938, have argued that perhaps the heretical spirit of Catharism has survived. De Rougemont sought to make a connection between the open Languedoc culture and the development of romantic love though the troubador tradition. Rossetti claimed that chivalric, courtly love was a vehicle for forbidden religious ideas. More pertinent to our own consumer age, de Rougemont points out that the act of ‘falling in love’ is literally the one ecstatic or mystical experience tolerated or even encouraged by modern Western society. It is intriguing to consider that ‘romance’ is a mediaeval invention, and that it may have within it the coded message of an oriental-Christian heresy.

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7.  Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen, 1498

Despite the Albigensian Crusades’ attempt to reinforce the ‘Tamed Death’ upon western Europe, a change in attitude gradually took over. La mort de soi, ‘one’s own death,’ became the central concern from the 13th century onwards. The resigned and calm gisant figure was replaced by images of decomposition, illness, and the body as carrion or skeleton. There was a new emphasis on personal tombs, funereal decorations and plaques. The process of dying became the mirror of death – speculum mortis – and a new, anxious awareness of individuality began.  [Figure 7 – Dürer’s The Four Horsemen]

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8.  Breughel:  Triumph of Death, 1562

This intense interest in death and dying was stimulated by famines, wars, and epidemics of the Plague. Mass burials, the burning of corpses and heretics, the uncertainties of everyday existence – all contributed to a crisis of faith. A new definition of how to die was needed, not based on a stable collective consciousness but upon an emergent and desperate new sense of the individual self. [Figure 8 – Breughel’s Triumph of Death]

As Stanislav Grof has written:

The all-pervading presence of death and the far-reaching corruption and disintegration of the social, political, and religious fabric in mediaeval Europe provided the context that inspired the Ars Moriendi literature. (p. 23)

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9.  Woodcut: Art of Dying Well

The large body of literature referred to as Ars Moriendi can be divided into two major categories: Ars Vivendi or the Art of Living, and Ars bene moriendi or the Art of Dying Well. [Figure 9 – woodcut, The Art of Dying Well]

The Art of Living was expressed in dialogue poems (between man and death, the soul and the body, and so on) and vado mori poems, which literally means ‘I am walking to die.’ The theme of these poems is contemplatio mortis, the contemplation of death that leads to living each moment as if it were the last. Adjuncts to this were Gothic art representations of the decomposition of the body, and mediaeval Christian meditations on the death process. [Figure 10 – woodcut, The Skeleton Dance of Death]

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10.  Woodcut:  The Skeleton Dance of Death

The Art of Dying Well included texts focusing on the experience of dying and the way to guide individuals on their last journey. This genre arose due to the high mortality rate of the Plague and the lack of priests to minister to the dying. Originally in Latin, to train young priests, these texts and their associated printed woodcuts were translated into relevant languages so that they could act as ‘self-help’ materials for those without recourse to the clergy at the time of death.

The approach to the dying in both these categories of Ars Moriendi was confrontational. Denial and avoidance by the dying person could lead to an unprepared death, so instilling fear in the reality of the situation was stressed. Motivated by compassion and piety, these manuals are a vivid expression of ‘tough love’ on the part of the Dominican and Franciscan orders who compiled them.

By the beginning of the 16th century, Ariès claims, it is possible to discern another change in the attitude towards death. This is la mort de toi (the Death of the Other).

Bernini:  Ecstasy of St Teresa

11.  Bernini: Ecstasy of St. Teresa, 1645-52

3.  Thy Death

During a period of two centuries marked by the Enlightenment or Age of Reason and its reaction, Romanticism, death and dying became linked with sexuality and the heightening of the senses. [Figure 11 – Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa]

At the dawn of this transformation we see the mistress of Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan, ‘less afraid of dying than she was of dying alone.’ On May 27th, 1707, she summoned all her servants, asked their forgiveness, confessed her sins, and presided – as was the custom – over the ceremony of her own death. Dying was almost regarded as a Baroque theatrical performance. Many Baroque plays were, in fact, staged in tombs. Baroque art tended to link spiritual visions, dying, and sexual-erotic imagery. An example would be Bernini’s St. Theresa. At the Bourbon court of Spain, dead members of the royal family were kept in ornate glass-topped coffins and wheeled around by their surviving wives and husbands. In the ordered neo-classical Age of Enlightenment, death, like sex, was increasingly seen as an escape, a transgression, into an irrational, violent – and beautiful – world. The bodies of other people became the means to transform one’s consciousness.

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12.   Caspar David Friedrich: Abbey in an Oak Forest, 1809-10

The Romantic reaction to the Age of Reason emphasised fear of dying as a means of deranging the senses, releasing emotion as an act of rebellion.  [Figure 12 – Caspar David Friedrich’s Abbey in an Oak Forest]  For the German Romantic tradition, the mysticism of death became the hero’s reunion with the feminine source of life. The image of the youthful death, as in Goethe’s sensational success Young Werther, symbolised Death as escape from stifling convention, and illness as heroic. It should therefore be no surprise that during this time, approximately 1750 to 1815, the conventions of public mourning were established based upon the fear of the death of the beloved, the Other.

As the 19th century progressed, a visible expression of this attitude can be recognised in the new topology of cities – the new sanctified parks, large cemeteries, public statuary. Thus a new artificial Cult of Memory came to hide the weakening of old familiarities with the cycles of death, of the old ways of rural existence. The Industrial Revolution and the new urban dwellers needed a distancing from the dangerous emotions released by dying – the result was a Victorian institutionalisation of how to die and, more importantly, grieve, with decorum.

The insights and humanism of the Ars Moriendi were lost amidst the new age of machines, of factories, of scientific medicine and quasi-scientific Freudian psychology. Engineering technologies became the model for the collective society and for the individual subject to physical and mental illness. The body politic could be diagnosed and treated in the same reductive scientific spirit as the private body. The result was a final metamorphosis of the Western response to death.

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13.  Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893

4.  Forbidden Death

Death became taboo, pathologised and repressed: in Ariès’s terms, ‘forbidden’. Arnold Toynbee once said that ‘death is un-American’. Ariès agreed with him. Ariès claimed that the denial of death originated in late 19th-century America and spread to western Europe.   [Figure 13 – Edvard Munch’s The Scream]

Death and the reminders of dying were gradually hidden from society in general, from the dying person. The cult of youth filled the gap in societal consciousness. As Arthur Imhof has written,

Along with the increase of our earthly life expectancy there has been a totally different, countervailing development. The result is that over the last generations our lives have by no means become longer, but have – because of the loss of faith in the Beyond – become infinitely shorter. Doesn’t the doubling of our earthly years mean little in relation to the loss of faith in an eternity?

Against this background we need not be astonished that most of us go through life in reverse, as it were. With our backs turned on old age and dying we worship youth because it is at the furthest remove from the final exit. One can understand why the body as the only guarantee of our remaining existence is being valued so highly once an afterlife has been rationalised away. When our body is no more, we are no more. Therefore we watch our bodies incessantly, cultivate and pamper them, do body-building and everything else to ensure a smooth functioning.

As the site of death was transferred from home to new hospital, the decision for death was taken from the individual and given to the scientific judgement of doctors and nurses. Tombs came to be replaced by cremation in a factory-like process, as exemplified by Evelyn Waugh’s imagery of ‘Forest Lawns.’ Mourning was forbidden as morose, as excessive emotionalism. For the first time in human society, rites of grieving were regarded as valueless.

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14.  Titanic (movie poster), 1998

Sociologist Geoffrey Gorer has argued that the liberation from sexual constraints in the 1960’s and 1970’s led to a reinforcement of this rejection of Death. One result of this in the 1980’s and 1990’s has been that ‘transgression’ against convention is now taking the form of excessive violence and scenes of death in entertainment media.

To draw these threads together, let us consider the most popular film of the 20th century: Titanic[Figure 14 – Titanic movie poster]  Why has it proven to be so resonant with millions of people? One suggestion could be that the liner itself embodies the Victorian worldview of a gleaming science designed and maintained by men within a rigid class system. As it collides with the forces of nature – iceberg and extreme cold – repressed sexual yearning is released at the same time as the reality of dying is understood.

On this reading, people are attracted to the film because its themes challenge the attitude of ‘Forbidden Death’. As the 20th century comes to its close, the sexual revolution has not brought answers to the meaning of life, only dramatic and tragic reminders of the need to comprehend death. In addition, the shadow of atomic annihilation has acted as a perpetual reminder that the mystery of death is the most important issue in our short lives.

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15.  Hieronymus Bosch: Heaven and Hell, c. 1510

The final section of this introductory talk will briefly outline the latest mapping of the dying process, a map-making that draws upon both modern science and ancient experience upon the accumulated wisdoms of the West and the East. [Figure 15 – Bosch’s Heaven and Hell]

As a preface to this final section, may I draw your attention to three questions re-emphasised in the last 25 years that have caused a tremendous surge of interest in the scientific and cross-disciplinary analysis of dying. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, usually regarded as the inspiration of the hospice movement, asked, ‘What happens to us as we die?’ Raymond Moody in his book on near-death experience asked, ‘What happens to us when we die?’ And Sherwin Nuland, in How We Die (1994), reemphasised the issues involved in ‘what happens to us physically when we die.’

A recent book that is emblematic of the renewed Western desire to comprehend death is After Death by Suki Miller (1997). It is a cross-cultural examination of different maps of the dying process, of the various human travelogues of the death journey.

Miller identifies four stages of the after-death journey, and I will adopt these as a means to introduce the human response to the dying process. The four stages are:

  1. Waiting
  2. Judgement
  3. Possibilities, and
  4. Return.

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16.  Walter Gaudnek: Entombment, 1993

1.  Waiting

[Figure 16 – Gaudnek’s Entombment]   Drawing upon accounts of the near-death experience and cartographies of dying from other places and cultures, Paul Beard in his book Living On identifies a shared experience of ‘Summerland’ or a transitional pure place that is the initial stage of dying. The form and content of this place is subjective and dependent upon the individual’s beliefs – it can be paradise, or a location of suspension in calm patience. Deceased relatives may greet the newly-deceased individual and orient him or her to this transitional phase, insisting that the consciousness accept its bodily death.

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17.  Albrecht Dürer: St. Bridget and One of her Visions

2.  Judgement

Miller points out that the ‘waiting’ phase is usually regarded as of short duration and transforms, sometimes abruptly, into a scenario of Judgement or Trial. Symbolic of this transformation are images of ladders or trees, or journeys across water, that represent pathways. [Figure 17 – Dürer’s St. Bridget and One of her Visions]

Often there are ‘ferrymen’ figures such as Charon of Greek myth, or the ferryman of the Ijo of West Africa. For the people of Sulawesi, the guide is a strong buffalo; for Christians, angelic beings act as guides.

3.  Possibilities

The Yoruba of West Africa have a saying: ‘Earth is a market, heaven is home.’ The Yoruba conceptualisation of the afterlife as more real is based on their recognition of the alteration of time and space by death. Ayé is the visible world of physical phenomena, whereas Orum is immeasurable spiritual space, the ever-present true reality of Orisha spirits. The afterlife experience is therefore a truer representation of pure energy, made visible as light. A vivid depiction of attaining a new energy body comes from Australian aborigine belief. At death, the birribir soul (one of several types of soul) climbs up a possum-fur thread to the Milky Way and becomes a star.

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18.  Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha

The landscape of light, the purified energy place, is usually experienced as a symbolic re-presentation of human aspirations. For example, Egyptian followers of the god Osiris expected to rejoin him in Sekhet Hetepet, or Happy Fields, a paradise-replica of the Nile Valley. In the Aztec Tlatocan heaven, Tlaloc sits at the base of the Rain Tree, dispensing growth and vitality. The Mayan Heaven has the ceiba tree under which there is the shade of eternal rest. In Buddhist Pure Lands, trees can signify the inner psychic body; they teach through the rustling of their leaves. They are located in the courtyards of crystal celestial palaces, within which great saints or Buddhas continually teach. [Figure 18 – Amitabha Pure Land]

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19.  Alex Grey:  Dying

[Figure 19 – Alex Grey’s Dying]  Accounts of these realms of light come from mystical visions of saints and meditators, from Tibetan delog-s (those who return), from tribal shamans the world over, and from modern NDE or Near-Death Experience reports – a phenomenon now so widespread that it merits its own acronym. The same sources also map out the retributive geography of hells.

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20.  Sarcophagus (the innermost coffin of Tutenkhamun)

Sometimes coherent and detailed map texts of these three stages – Waiting, Judgement, and Possibilities – have been written and have survived to the present day. The two most celebrated examples are the Egyptian Book of the Dead or ‘Pert em hru’ collection of texts [Figure 20 – Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun], and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thödöl or ‘Liberation through Hearing on the Afterdeath Plane’.

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21.  Cittapati, the Buddhist representation of the dance of transformation brought about by the process of dying consciously

Both are detailed manual explanations of how to recognise and [Figure 21 – Cittapati] overcome obstacles during the death process – resulting in, respectively, eternal paradise or a fortunate rebirth. Stanislav Grof pointed out (1994) that the Popol Vuh cycle of Mayan myths and the Quetzalcoatl myths of the Aztecs are narrative theme episodes corresponding to these stages of the dying process, and also to the secret of rebirth after death.

4.  Return

Suki Miller’s book recounts many examples from different cultures and from past-life memory cases of the human belief in reincarnation. [Figure 22 – Tibetan Wheel of Life]  Such beliefs, from the First Peoples of North America and the Indo-Europeans of India to the Aborigines of Australia, are organically grounded in a mythic appreciation of the natural cycles of climate and growth. As winter implies death and disappearance, so spring illustrates rebirth and a new form

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22.  Tibetan ‘Wheel of Life’

Within Near Eastern cultures, reincarnation of the individual as described by the Greek Mysteries was replaced by the collective rebirth of the chosen people. For Judaism, when the Messiah comes the dead will rise. In Islam, the last day of time will enable all bodies to arise physically. And, of course, in Christianity the Resurrection also symbolises the Last Judgement Day. Another reason for the purging of mediaeval Catharism was its insistence upon personal reincarnation.

Until the example of the modern Western world, it was rare to find a culture in which death is final, with no possibility of return. For the vast majority of human cultures and of human history, death has been a portal, not an annihilation: a journey that can be prepared throughout one’s life, not a terrifying full stop.

Stanislav Grof, a pioneer in consciousness research, has made extensive studies of Near-Death Experiences and related out-of-the-body (OOB) phenomena. He argues for a connection between the experience of death and of birth, for an integration of new scientific paradigms into consciousness research, and for the corroborative weight of the empirical evidence collected in the new discipline of thanatology, the study of death and dying.

He concludes:

Modern consciousness research has … shown that the ancient sacred scriptures … are not irrelevant products of superstition and primitive imagination. Instead, they seem to be accurate descriptions of the experiential territories traversed in non-ordinary states of consciousness. They are often based on countless personal experiences and on many centuries of careful observations.

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23.  Alex Grey:  Spiritual Energy System

[Figure 23 – Alex Grey’s Spiritual Energy System]  Just as the emerging new models of Western physics and cosmology are informed by Eastern experiential-mystical philosophy, so, too, systematic research into the phenomena of death and dying can be stimulated and confirmed by comparison with non-European and ancient maps of consciousness.

A common feature of many personal accounts of near-death experience in several human cultures is the transformation of the self that occurs as a result of confronting the ultimate human mystery.  Often the dying person experiences a sense of organic wholeness, an expanded spiritual awareness, and a greater confidence in the divine.  Sometimes the person translates these qualities into a more compassionate and positive way of life.

As Grof points out:

Experiential confrontation and knowledge of the realms they describe is a matter of extreme relevance, since the degree to which we become familiar and comfortable with them can have far-reaching consequences for the quality of our life, as well as for the way we die. (p. 31)

It may well be that seeking the answer to the question ‘Is there life after death?’ may simultaneously resolve the associated question, ‘Is there life before death?’ If it does, so then in the near future we may add a fifth attitude to Philippe Ariès’s previous four: that of a ‘Transcendental Life’ replacing the ‘Forbidden Death’.


P. Ariès, Western Attitudes towards Death (1974).

M. Berman, Coming to our Senses (1990).

S. Grof, Books of the Dead: Manuals for Living and Dying (1994).

A.E. Imhof, "Ars Moriendi",

S. Miller, After Death (1997).

Keith Milton has an M.A. in the History of Ideas and a B.A. in History, Politics and Philosophy.  He has taught in both UK and international schools since 1978 and has lectured in the History of Science.  A student of Tibetan Buddhism for almost twenty years, he is concerned to build bridges between the Eastern and Western approaches to Knowledge and Wisdom.  At present he is researching the influence of non-ordinary states of consciousness upon the European Enlightenment.


January 1999