There is a gaping hole in the education served up by our civilization. Even in the most progressive schools the subject of death does not appear on the syllabus. The way we learn about it could not be more accidental or more ill-conceived. Strangely, the only honest and personally meaningful lessons we get come to us as heart-rending misfortune when someone close to us dies. Then we often have to deal not just with our own fears and emotional reactions but with the distraught turmoil of friends and relatives who are usually as uneducated as we ourselves are. We are fortunate if there is someone around who can guide us through our grief in a way that helps us to develop a wise understanding and a healthy relationship with death. Usually, this ultimate experience of our lives is either completely disregarded during the years of our formal education, or is shrouded in religious beliefs that do nothing to educate us about the actuality of death and dying.
It is no wonder that we have lost our real relationship with death, and become insulated from the fear of it that is primal and instinctual in all living beings. As a culture we have developed social, medical and entertainment tools and methods to keep us all comfortably distant from our fears. Parental and peer group pressure can cause us to grow up regarding our fear as personal weakness, so that we learn ways of hiding it – from others and from ourselves too. We manage our fear by making ourselves unconscious of it. “I’m not afraid,” we say and we believe it because the sensitivity that feels fear has been anaesthetized. We are like are a house with “No entry” signs on the doors that we are afraid to open. Ironically, as a strategy, it works. We are safe, but the price we pay is high. We are unable to live in our whole house. WE CANNOT BE OUR WHOLE SELVES. And when we cannot be all that we are, we cannot celebrate the full wonder of being alive.
How can we remedy this situation, living as we all do in a society in which education has almost no regard for how awake, present and in touch with our feelings and fears we are? It should be the most important subject in our schooling! There is no collective recognition that the way we become happy in ourselves, and caring of others, is by reconciling and befriending whatever we mistrust and fear in ourselves. So of course death finds no significant place in our personal education. It may be discussed, but that does not change us. Words cannot bridge the gap in our education. Information is beside the point. The value of the books available today on the theme of death and dying lies in their capacity to inspire us to find a way to bridge the gap. We need to encounter death in a way that touches us to the core of our being AND that guides us into making friends with all that we then experience. When we meet death this way, we not only grow out of our fear of death; we learn something that has an exquisite, transforming influence on the way we live our everyday life.
It is now almost 30 years since I created The Universal Experience as a 3-day workshop guiding people into an intimate encounter with their own death. The workshop is a profoundly personal journey that engages participants with all they need to befriend in order to be fully reconciled with the most literally mind-blowing, life-shattering experience that any of us can ever face. Through a series of absorbing personal processes, meditations, and guided inner explorations in which music and silence play a very carefully designed part, they are guided deeper and deeper into contact with the most personal of all deaths – their own. This is not an intellectual pursuit, there is no theorising or dogma, very little discussion, and the constantly surprising steps of the journey give participants a passionate visceral, emotional and finally soul-touching encounter with the experience that awaits us all. Quite commonly, people find themselves at first unwilling to really engage with their own death, but hardly ever does anyone leave, and as time passes they invariably drop their resistance.
There is an awesomely simple fact that connects death with life: the last thing every one of us will do as we leave our life is to breathe out. It is the ultimate let-go, the moment of real surrender. The Universal Experience brings people face to face with the ways that they are unable to let go in their lives, and with the anguish and suffering they bring on themselves and on others too in trying to hold on when life is taking from them something they cannot bear to lose – be it the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, loss of material possessions, of fame and fortune, of their youthful body as they grow older, of prestige and power – the list is endless. The last thing we are taught in school is how to lose. Education is all about being successful, and surrender is seen as synonymous with defeat. Yet it is our destiny to lose the most precious thing we each have: our own life. Giving people the keys to a new and healthy relationship with this greatest of all losses transforms their relationship with those events in their lives that bring unavoidable loss. Through The Universal Experience people learn the art of surrender to their deepest inner experiences, including their feelings, their vulnerabilities, their fear.
Deeply woven into the workshop process is the recognition that we need to have a good relationship with our fear. We need to be able to breathe into it and to let it be as we breathe out, because this is how we make friends with all that is hidden inside it. Our fear becomes then our teacher and our guide. Learning to surrender to it not only enables us to reclaim lost and alienated parts of our being so that we can live whole and fully present. It also inspires us to deepen our inner search, which brings us healing, transformation and spiritual awakening. The dark gap in our psyche needs to be illuminated by all that death is. We need this the same way that we need sex, creativity and love to be vibrantly alive in us. As long as death stays in the dark it remains fearsome, and in painfully simple ways this shows up in our personalities. Holding on is how we function; we will put up with any amount of stress, pain, illness and negativity rather than let go, and when existence insists on taking from us whatever we are clinging to, we are unable to experience the sweetness of surrender and the peace of acceptance. The Universal Experience has transformed the lives of countless numbers of people, and given them the inner trust and acceptance to be able to care with grace and wisdom for loved ones, friends or patients who are dying.
May 24, 2017