18 Apr End-of-Life University: A Conversation With Dr. Karen Wyatt (Part 4)
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 definitely feel that the timing is right, and partly due to healthcare reform becoming a reality and bringing up the controversial idea of death panels, which are not actually happening, but just bringing to light the idea that we need to have conversations about the end of life, and people need to talk with their family members and loved ones about what their hopes and expectations are for their final days. I think it will make a difference in all of our society, in every area of society, when we can have a conversation and be open and upfront about the fact that we’re going to die.
Marilyn Schlitz: And then knowing where to find the resources to cross the line then so that people can actually fill out the paperwork and complete that process with each other. I know I just was talking to somebody. They’re launching a big initiative. I think it’s called “Dining with Death,” and they’re inviting people to just have a dinner party and have this conversation. In particular that movement is about – I think it’s sponsored by Aetna and is really about inviting people to think about the specifics of drawing up your will, and setting your instructions for the process that you want to engage in or not engage in at the end of life. I think our project is a little more philosophical and cultural.
There is that specific mandate and the practicalities of those details that absolutely have to be addressed. But it’s also important I think when you were talking about the spirituality, really coming to terms with what has meaning in our life and how is it that somebody like Luisah Teish, who we interviewed for the movie, she’s a Yoruba priestess. She believes that the spirits and the ancestors are everywhere. They’re in the water. They’re in the ground. They’re in the air. They’re in the leaves, and that it’s easy to access that communication with the departed.
One of the quotes that she made was that she has more fear of an unfulfilled life than of death itself. We heard that over and over again, that people want to bring the understanding and the insight into a purposeful life that allows us to be agents of healing and goodwill, and the positive qualities of experience, and to become more aware of those triggers for our own defensiveness that may be fueled by this inability to come to an awareness around death. So I think that all of these angles and perspectives are incredibly important. And I think, going back to your work, your capacity both as a physician, but as a storyteller to help people understand the commonality across the lived experience; I think it’s so very powerful and one of the things I’m so appreciative about what you bring.
Karen Wyatt: Thank you. I was going to say I have been participating a lot lately in small book clubs. They found groups getting together to read my book and talk about the stories, and I’ve been able to attend some of those groups to help facilitate, which was really fun and it goes along with that idea of just sitting down together and having the conversation in a safe place, where you can start with the story of someone else and their experience of dying, and gradually ease yourself into thinking about your own death and what that might look like and what that means for you. So it’s been very gratifying to be part of this work.
Marilyn Schlitz: I did a telecourse, it was a six-part course on Death Makes Life Possible, and I asked people to journal before and after the course. I was then able to collect those journals and do a little pre-post analysis of the language use, and we gave them specific death prompts, you know, imaging your own body at the point of death and what will happen there. The analysis program that I was using allows us to look at pronoun use and references to anxiety, discomfort, references to death itself. It’s interesting how we haven’t finished the analysis yet, but there appears to be a shift in the pronoun use from less individual identification with the I statement and more into a we, and also then the level of anxiety around their dealing with this question before and after the course seems to be reduced to a significant degree. So those things and being able to collect some data at the same time as we’re offering these gifts to the world is, I think, a wonderful kind of parallelism.
Going back to what you were saying about Ken Wilber and the integral model, it’s really important to address that first person I, like, “What do I think is going to happen? What is my experience? Have I ever had a mystical experience that gave me a sense that there’s something more beyond the physical?” Then there’s the cultural because we’re so embedded in that sense of what society, what our culture, what our worldviews have imposed on us in a certain sense. We’re like living in the ocean and not understanding oftentimes how much that society impacts us. So being able to kind of do that cultural critique I think is also extremely important. Then Ken talks about the upper right-hand quadrant of science and objectivity.
So how do we marry that to the continuum between the first person subjective phenomenological truth of my lived experience with then the objective third person data collection, and what can we learn from a scientific point of view? Then ultimately that bottom right-hand portion of the quadrant system, which is society and the institutions, and we have lived in a society that is very death-phobic. We want eternal youth. If you look at the commercials on the television, we’re all looking for the capacity to be younger and more fit. Those things are good, but they’re also sort of indicative of a system that has denied the inevitability of our death. So I think that integral model becomes a wonderful framework for understanding the multiple dimensions of what we’re dealing with in this inquiry we’re involved in.
Karen Wyatt: Yes, definitely. And it has been fascinating just watching the evolution of it, because it does seem that we’re on the verge of a major change and a shift in our perception and our acceptance of death and dying. It’s wonderful to have the vantage point of being able to observe it and at the same time watch it happen and, hopefully, to help affect that change and help foster it and help nurture it in a healthy way.
Marilyn Schlitz: Yeah. I was driving down the street and there’s a church near my house and it had a marquee sign outside, “Get a fast trip to heaven. Details inside.” I was like, “Oh, how funny.” People and religions, you know, religions have been an important part of helping us to articulate a philosophy, a cosmology, and I think that can be very helpful for people. It can also be hard for people who aren’t religious. That’s where I think somebody like Michael Shermer, who really comes with a materialist/physicalist model, is able to discuss death without grasping, without fear. So it’s all of those points of view that are going to ultimately liberate us and help alleviate the suffering in our society.
Karen Wyatt: Yes, definitely. I have to say I’m so impressed with the work that you’re doing and very excited about it, and eager to support you in any way and to help promote you any way I possibly can. So call on me if there’s anything that I could do for you. I will be telling everyone about Death Makes Life Possible as it becomes available, and I really look forward to seeing the impact that it makes on our society.
Marilyn Schlitz: Thank you, Karen. I so appreciate that. And ditto. I’m a big, big fan of yours, and so I would love to be able to figure out paths for collaboration, because I think that there’s opportunities for us to weave back and forth some of our mutually engaged work and see how we can help benefit humanity.
Karen Wyatt: Absolutely. I think the door is wide open for anything we want to put out there I think is needed right now, and even being called forth it feels that way to me sometimes more and more. There’s so much need and demand out there sometimes I feel like I can’t quite keep up with what I’ve committed to, but I really want to see things change and I want to see the evolution of our consciousness take place.
Marilyn Schlitz: I think that’s important and I think taking care of ourselves is really important as well. Living life to its fullest, staying grounded, staying in a place of ultimate wellness, health, healing, because we can’t do it all, but I think we can do a lot more as we look at how we connect the dots between individuals who are standing up to help promote this consciousness transformation. I think there is that kind of critical mass of people. You were talking about a sea-change earlier. I think that’s true and I think the Internet and our ability to have a global conversation now is strengthening that network. While we’re still seeing the aberrant dysfunctional aspects in society, it’s clear that there are many people who are hungry to engage these conversations. So I think it’s being part of that tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell talks about it, that can be so empowering to each of us.
Karen Wyatt: Yes, definitely. In some ways, as I mentioned to you earlier and this feels true to me, too, it’s as if all of our life experiences, knowledge, education, research and study, they’re all coming together now and converging at this point where we’re able to bring forth the work that perhaps was really being developed within us back when we were children. It’s exciting to be at a place now where you can see how it all comes together.