End-of-Life University: A Conversation With Dr. Karen Wyatt (Part 1)

End-of-Life University: A Conversation With Dr. Karen Wyatt (Part 1)

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This blog series is a transcript of a recent interview I did as a speaker for Dr. Karen Wyatt’s End-of-Life University. In our conversation we shared our own personal stories about death, transformation and the end of life. We also talked about our work in this realm, including my backstory on the documentary film Death Makes Life Possible, which will be world premiering at the Illuminate Film Festival in late May and also screened at the Afterlife Conference in early June. The beautiful web site for the movie will be launched very soon as well!

Karen Wyatt: I wanted to start first by asking you about the movie you’re producing with Deepak Chopra. Then we’ll move into a more general discussion of end of life issues. But I’d like you to just tell me and our listeners about Death Makes Life Possible and what we can expect from the movie and just what it consists of.

Marilyn Schlitz: It’s part of a project that I’ve been involved in really probably for a couple decades. I was very interested in consciousness transformation. How is it that people make fundamental shifts in their worldview and what are the consequences of that? How does that impact how they live their lives? So we did a book called Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. That was the culmination of interviews with 60 masters from different world traditions, talking about their practices, their observations. After we were done with that it occurred to me that one of the significant aspects of transformation that we hadn’t had time to really develop in the course of that book was death and what happens after, so kind of the big transformation from a lived experience, existential point of view.

So I began to collect interviews with people using some of the interviews we had already collected, but I began to really look in earnest at how people were addressing this question of death and what happens after. And how do these cosmologies or models of an afterlife impact how people live every day, and does that imbue our life with greater possibility? That began with people from different cultures, looking at many of the different world traditions and what kind of ontology or model of reality do they hold about the afterlife.

Then it broadened to including people who were scientists, who were attempting to bring an evidence-based perspective to this question of the possible survival of consciousness after bodily death. It moved into talking about the kind of “so what” questions. How do these worldviews impact our healing and our sense of health and wholeness? So we began to interview people who were health practitioners and professional hospice workers, for example.

It became a rich and fascinating journey. A couple years ago I was teaching with Deepak Chopra and I showed a little video clip from some of these interviews and he got very excited. He was like, “Marilyn, let’s make a movie.” I thought that could be a lot of fun to work with Deepak and to really dig in and bring a story to these narratives. So that’s what we’ve done over the past two years is reshoot a lot of those interviews now with high-def instead of standard def technology, and then really began to create a narrative line through the thing so that it becomes in a sense my journey and what was my call to this question of death and beyond.

So we’ve been working in a very diligent way. We did a number of fundraising efforts, including a Kickstarter campaign that was very successful for us. So we’re now in the final stages of that edit and we’ll be going out with some sneak previews this summer, and hoping to begin the process of distribution in the fall of this year.

Karen Wyatt: Well I’m so impressed. I’ve seen the trailer for the movie and it’s so beautifully done. I can’t wait to see the whole movie. I’m so excited about it that you’re putting it out there, because I think film is such an important medium to take advantage of as far as spreading information and spreading the word and teaching people things that they need to know.

Marilyn Schlitz: I think the narrative thread from the movie comes from my own personal experience, before I can even remember. I was 18 months old, a precocious toddler who was interested in investigating everything, and as good 18 month old kids do checking it out by putting it in my mouth; and it happened to be a can of lighter fluid that my father had inadvertently left on our table within my grasp.

That led to three months in and out of intensive care and sort of that borderline between living and dying. I don’t have any recall of that at a conscious level, but I’m sure there was something in that that spurred an interest in these depths of consciousness and the potentials that lie within us. Then when I was 16 I had a serious motorcycle accident where I almost lost my leg. I had this experience as the accident was happening, where my body had been thrown into the air and I had an out of body experience, where I was able to watch my body tumbling and then very quickly crashing on the ground, and 66 stitches later and talk of me having to have a leg amputation.

It was very sobering, but it was also I think a catalyst for me to try and understand, again, what is consciousness. And what are the capacities that lie within us to have this kind of experience where my consciousness seemed to be separate from my physical body? I think those events probably really seeded a lifelong career in consciousness research and ultimately into this project, where I’m attempting to translate some of those insights that have come from these masters and people who are living the process of dying, and to share with people the insights that have come from that so that we can address some of the fears that our culture has around death, and also to look at some of the principles and practices that people have developed over the millennia to deal with those questions about what happens when we die.

Karen Wyatt: It makes sense to me now why the consciousness studies have merged with an interest in end of life, and that really this is the culmination of your life experiences, your research and studies all coming together to bring you to this place where you’re putting it all together. I guess I look at my work with end of life in much the same way, because I was 16 when a friend of mine in high school died in a climbing accident. Her death really spurred me on to start to consider the meaning of life and what is my purpose. It was the first time I had this realization that people my age can die, and the first time I recognized life is short and you have to do something with it while you have it. So that really spurred me at that young age to start considering: What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? Why am I here? That ultimately led me into end of life studies as well.

It’s fascinating. Both of us have been called in very different ways, and we really approach the end of life from different perspectives, but it’s interesting that we’ve been brought together to try to bring forth the same type of work in the world and to try to make a difference. It’s beautiful.

Marilyn Schlitz: Yeah. I think about that, too, in my own family experience. We lost a cousin, a niece, a nephew all within a short period of time and that realization – I remember when my nephew died thinking life goes on within you and without you, so really having that sense. I hadn’t been aware of that so much until I just heard your story. I think that’s important. I think as people listen to each other’s experiences and can share from a soulful, heartfelt place it has a very therapeutic effect for folks. We can see that now with these Death Cafes that are springing up all over, and a number of initiatives that are coming at the popular level that I think are really about our call to understand more about who we are and what our potentials are.

Karen Wyatt: Yes. I feel as though we are on the verge of a sea-change in our society. As you mentioned, so many initiatives springing up in the general population that it’s really time now. It’s really time for us to start to look ahead and look at the end of life, and give it a place in our lives and in our awareness and consciousness, to help us find more meaning in day-to-day life.