by Roger Cole
Dr. Roger Cole recalls the transforming insights he gained when he explored death and dying with one of his groups
One of the outstanding benefits of accurate self-awareness is a relative freedom from the needs and dependencies that normally govern our lives. It also establishes a new frame of reference for the terms purpose and meaning. Such orientation and freedom enables one to experience peace and contentment, without leaving ‘worldly’ responsibilities behind. It is a liberated state, yet influential, with the potential to create a far better world.
In the care of the dying we are occasionally privileged to witness this potential. In the mid-seventies Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a landmark book On Death and Dying. In this she outlined five stages of adaptation to a terminal condition, those of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When the final stage of acceptance is manifest, we can see the example of the original nature of the soul emerge. And within this example is merged a mirror of opportunity; the opportunity to discover our true self.
About a year or two ago I was asked to speak to a group of hospice volunteers about spiritual aspects of care for the dying. During the discussion I talked about this state of acceptance. Not as one that simply acknowledges death but as one that engages that outstanding beauty of a soul. In the hope of a demonstration, I asked if anyone had ever witnessed such beauty at the time of a death.
One of the group, June, volunteered that she had. Her mother’s death had been like this, one of true acceptance, despite the fact that she lay there, withered and utterly dependant. “It was beautiful,” she said. “My mother was radiant with peace and the room just filled with her love. Everybody there was uplifted and happy by her company. She appeared so contented. It seemed as though she was surrounded in light…like an angel. I will never forget it. It was really special.”
It is wonderful, isn’t it, that such a grace can emerge at the time of dying? June and her sisters were with her mother when she was dying. I prompted June with a few questions. “Was your mother worried about any of you at that moment in time?” “No”, she said. “She knew we were there, but she was beyond concern about how we were feeling”.
“How about her looks and circumstances?” I asked. “Was she bothered by her appearance, or about the disease, and the fact she was dying?”.
“No…,” she paused. “…mum was at peace with herself. It was as if her body had ceased to exist. Only serenity remained, and there was no fear there at all.”
“How about all the problems of our world?” I asked. “Was your mom troubled by all the conflicts, deprivation and confrontation that are going on?” June laughed, entertaining a fleeting memory. “Oh, mum always had an opinion about everything. She used to get into a real state about it all. Really angry or really sad. But now you mention it…no, she wasn’t troubled at all. I guess she must have just let go of everything…,” she faltered, searching, “…she had let go of everything.”
This last statement had a profound effect on the room, the words were charged with positive emotions. There was pause, then a short silence that was full and unifying. The group vibration resonated with peace and harmony, as I measured the final question.
“In letting go of everything, just before she died, did your mother appeared to be carrying the burden of any of her life’s roles or responsibilities?”
“No, she had become completely free...completely free!”
In those final conscious moments of her life, June’s mother had become completely free. And liberated. Freed from all concerns of living. In the essence of her soul and ‘living spirit’; liberated—yet still occupying the wasted remnants of her physical body. As such, the soul stood naked and exposed, revealing her true and authentic self. I regard this to be fully manifest acceptance and would describe it as a state of grace. Or as one of true dignity. Most people feel that loss of dignity is attained where there is a dependency, or the need for help with their bodily functions. I believe this to be a misconception which reflects human ignorance. An ignorance born of body consciousness. While we will be exploring this concept further, June’s mother offers herself as living proof of this ignorance. In spirit she was graceful, and was revealing her true and original personality through liberation. The questions that I asked of June, were intended to explore four principle directions by which liberation leaves a soul free and vibrant. Liberation from the roles and responsibilities of a lifetime. Liberation from being affected by problems, in an increasingly complex world. Liberation from the material world, including the physical body, its diseases and appearance. And liberation from the attachments we form in a lifetime of relationships.
By liberation, June’s mother entered a state of being in which she was freed from the awareness of her body. She had become completely ‘soul conscious’. As such she naturally filled the room with a radiance of love, peace and acceptance. And those who were in her presence became happy and peaceful. I believe this to have reflected a return to her original condition. The condition she had before taking birth. That of a peaceful soul.
In witnessing this example we are seeing the establishment of soul-consciousness in the face of death. So one might ask, why is it we wait so long to find such serenity? And why do we have to be forced into submission—by death—before we can love and let go? Evidently it could be possible to do so in life and our volunteer’s mother is trying to show us this. The question is, “How”?
I have considered transformation to begin with enlightenment. And that enlightenment is bestowed as gift of awareness, requiring no endeavour on behalf of its beneficiary. When there has been recognition of the opportunity that enlightenment offers, then transformation can proceed. The difference now is that effort must be made. During enlightenment the individual’s experience is akin to that of June’s mother. Spiritual growth or transformation is about holding this love and light constantly. The effort required needs to be made in two directions simultaneously—towards the state of being; and towards the state of liberation. In fact both of these are intimately associated. The main effort is that of becoming soul conscious and free from dependencies. Liberated!
It represents a completely new identity.
In our volunteer’s mother this was attained in the face of death. Through the dying process she had become completely detached from all directions external to herself. External, that is, to her soul—the true or authentic self. In so doing she became a vessel of divine influence, radiating love, light and peace to those around her. She was detached from her family, yet they were experiencing love from her. She was detached from her family, yet they were experiencing love from her. Pure spiritual love. It seems a paradox, doesn’t it, that she had become both detached and loving? Totally unconcerned about anyone’s welfare. Yet loving and, quite effortlessly, meeting everyone’s need for peace and happiness. Her spiritual beauty came with the exposure of her soul. Through its nakedness, seeds of transformation were cast in a radiance of purity. And like a mirror she was revealing the true nature of soul to anyone who entered her presence. June had said, ‘It seemed as though she was surrounded in light…like an angel.” I think she was an angel.
By attaining grace, June’s mother had also revealed this aim and object of spiritual growth. That of becoming an angel. Or soul conscious. From this case it is evidently possible to do so. Her soul consciousness was state of awareness (or being) that served and uplifted others. She gave out an automatic, natural radiance of pure virtues. With a leaf from her book, as enlightened effort makers, we could transform ourselves. And become holistic, spiritual servers, whatever our social or professional roles. Where June’s mother was forced to do so by her circumstances of death, we have the opportunity to ‘embrace the light’ in accordance with free will. In giving us this example, she has afforded us this opportunity. An opportunity for even higher attainment than hers.
Where she found liberation and self-realization in death, we can do so in life. But we must first let go of fears and misconceptions. And understand paradox. To detach from those we love will transform the quality of that love into something divine and unconditional. Do we have the confidence to let go of relationships? And become merged in the divine love that will fulfil those relationships? Or is it that our fear is too great—that we will lose something? It is no easy thing to let go of a world you have come to depend on. But it is a wonderful thing to surrender your life to a higher power. For in surrender you become an instrument, where there is no burden on your shoulders. And you discover the delight of lightness in the service of humanity. I guess angels don’t get too worried about things. Then why should they? They are only God’s helpers after all.
June’s mother has given us a glimpse of the personal aim and objective within transformation or spiritual growth. And we have looked beyond enlightenment to the state of grace. Grace that beckons the soul to make effort to be itself, and to become free, liberate from body-consciousness. By this I mean to have a separate awareness from the physical body; and to be liberated from the four directions. Those of attachments, of responsibilities, of being affected, and of the material world.
We are now entering the individual’s journey. In doing so we will take care to remember that who ever travels this path enters a divine plan. Effort-making and self-transformation are inspired by a higher power. Enlightenment is a gift of higher power. And the motivation to take the journey is sustained from this divine source. We will also remember that the individual who journeys, contributes spiritual vibrations towards world transformation. Each one unique. Each one selected, each with a role to play.
Yet not one is special. For each is only rediscovering his or her true self, before allowing it to remain naked and exposed!
Roger Cole is a specialist physician trained in cancer medicine. He currently directs the Palliative Care Service in Australia. This is an extract from his forthcoming book A Tapestry of Light. It was originally published by BK Publications (www.bkpublications.com) in Retreat Magazine #10.