20 May The Cycle of Life (Excerpted from Death Makes Life Possible book)
Someday you will face your own mortality. At that moment, I hope you see that your life has been well led, that you hold no regrets, and that you loved well. On that day, I hope that for you, it has become a good day to die.
– Lee Lipsenthal, Enjoy Every Sandwich
Lee Lipsenthal was fifty-three years old when he was told by his doctor that he was dying. He’d been living with esophageal cancer for two years. After a dance with remission, the disease had returned full force. As a physician who was married to a physician, Lee knew that allopathic medicine had run its course. Dying was now what he was doing with his life. While his days were filled with flux, he was living each moment as if it were his last.
For a decade, Lee had served as the research director for Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute and also had served as president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. Despite his scientific training, he held a strong metaphysical view that guided him in his journey toward death. Through a deep meditation practice and shamanic journey work that expanded his sense of self, he understood that his worldview structured what he believed was coming next.
Lee and I were friends and colleagues for more than a decade. During our heartfelt talks over the years, he reported remembering significant, spontaneous past-life experiences that connected him to God, Jesus, and Buddha. When asked how these past life experiences with religious figures informed his experience with cancer and dying, he explained:
There’s a big story there . . . At one level, it gives me a sense of peace that this may not be all there is. But on the other level, it’s just a small part of why I’m feeling well in the process of supposedly dying. The other pieces to me are a deep appreciation for the life I’ve had. I’ve had a blast. I’m a music fanatic, and I’ve hung out with and played guitar with some of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll heroes. I’ve had a really good ride in my fun life . . . I’ve had work that has been fun, challenging and creative. I have thirty years of a marriage to someone I’m still deeply in love with, two kids who are really wonderful people. So if I were to die now, that’s fine. I don’t really need more of that. That’s one reason I’m at peace.
The other reason is I truly know that I have no control of whether I live or die . . . So the combination of accepting a lack of control over my own death and a very deep gratitude for the life I’ve already had is my real reason for being at peace. I look at people who have survived a major health crisis, and they’ve transformed dramatically through that crisis. Is that bigger than losing your body? I don’t know.
Lee’s worldview allowed him to feel a fluid connection between living and dying. It was a belief structure that gave him a sense of hope and possibility. Given his own experiences with past lives, I asked him what he thought might be coming next, after the death of his body. We are all limited by our own experiences and how we interpret them, he explained to me. Such interpretations or worldviews may be shaped by our parents, our education, our religion, what we read. And, for Lee, they were also informed by experiences of past lives and mystical states:
I think we come back into life for new and different experiences. The purpose or the meaning of that . . . I’m not going to pretend that I honestly know. I think that we progress over time in our multiple lives, we change, . . . we learn from these past lives, and we become . . . let’s say, better, deeper, shinier. That’s my belief structure. I’ll try to let you know when I get to the other side—that’s all I can say.
Understanding Our Worldviews
As Lee demonstrates, our views on life, death, and the afterlife are informed by diverse and sometimes competing worldviews. Religious beliefs often shape our views of death and what happens after. And there is an emerging spirituality that combines traditional religious elements, emerging insights from science, with personal practices that is helping address core existential questions. These are impacting people’s beliefs about life after death. When Americans are asked the standard question posed by the Gallup Institute, “Do you believe there is a life after death?”, about 75 percent say yes.
As a nation, Americans have their own unique perspectives compared to other nations. In 2013, George Bishop, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, reported on two cross-nation surveys for the International Social Survey Program (ISSP): “On this score Americans were more certain of a hereafter than anyone else (55%): twice as sure as people from The Netherlands or Great Britain, five times as confident as the Hungarians, and nine times as convinced of it as the East Germans.”
My own observations reveal that, independent of religious beliefs, people throughout the world are asking deep questions about life and death. Indeed, there is a growing hunger among people from all walks of life to talk about death and what may happen after.