The Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually as We Die
By Kathleen Dowling Singh
Publisher: San Francisco: Harper, 1982.
In this book, Kathleen Singh, a transpersonal psychologist and former hospice worker who has spent many hours with the dying, offers a spiritual and psychological explanation of the last stages of death, drawing on her studies of the world’s mystical and religious traditions.
Singh recounts many of her observations of ordinary people as they faced their final hour. She reports how, in the intense moments before death, some people expressed a perspective on life that echoes the major tenets of the world’s wisdom traditions. For many, she writes, “the time of dying can most certainly be a time of transformation, a time of moving from a sense of perceived tragedy to a sense of experienced grace,” accelerating “radical transformations leading the human being beyond the ego-bound self and its experience of separation and on into trans-personal, Unity consciousness that realizes its identity with the Ground of Being.” She quotes one dying woman: “I feel I am becoming part of something vast.”
Singh’s perspective on her experiences is shaped by her study of many wisdom traditions, among them Surat Shabd Yoga, Sufism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Taoism, and Judaism. Drawing on this background, she elicits many parallels between the stages that lead up to physical death and the states of consciousness that a meditator passes through in order to “die while living”.
Singh focuses on cases of terminal illness where people have some time to comprehend the prognosis of death. Most of the cases she works with receive palliative care where
the death of the body is most often accompanied by less suffering than the death of the ego, the separate self. The suffering of the mental ego prior to entering the dying process is enormous. It is the suffering of the dismantling of the structure, the identity, the beliefs, the hopes, the dreams, the cherished memories, the fancied ‘proofs’ of the self.
She does not gloss over the terror, the hopelessness, or the physical pain that many people experience facing death. Rather, she finds that such conditions can sometimes serve as a crucible for the transformation of consciousness.
Singh has been hailed as “a second Kubler-Ross,” referring to the author who in 1969 identified the five stages of dying as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. In Singh’s view, these stages are part of a lower level of consciousness that she calls Chaos, a stage that the dying person must go beyond to enter a stage of Surrender and finally Transcendence. For Singh, surrender means something more than just acceptance. One can accept “that which is” while still perceiving this reality as something separate from the self. In surrender, resistance at every level ceases as one willingly becomes active in “that which is”. Surrender does not mean giving up. In the words of Janet Quinn, a nurse:
Giving up is saying there’s nothing else to do…. To surrender is absolutely active and requires doing over and over again. Surrender is not something that is done once and for all. It’s required minute by minute. Being surrendered is becoming extraordinarily active in one’s process.… Surrender increases the quality of life … and the quality of one’s dying. There is a peacefulness that comes with that … versus the despair that comes with giving up.
Singh charts the development of the human being from birth through death in terms of states of consciousness. As the ego develops in the course of life, she says, it generates a series of dualisms, lines or boundaries limiting it and cordoning it off from the Ground of Being. She analyzes distinct levels of the mental ego, drawing on Gurdjieff ’s cartography of consciousness. In an ego-based state of consciousness, she points out, “We live, lost at the surface, in fear, attachment, anxiety and loneliness, motivated primarily by survival and control.” The approach of death dismantles all the masks of the ego, often triggering disillusionment, panic and despair. The artificial boundaries start to crumble and the narrow, hemmed-in self starts losing its limitations, she says, in the order in which it had constructed them.
Singh believes that death becomes transformative when we participate in it, instead of just enduring it.
As the body weakens and old illusions die, Spirit – that which is real and essential in each of us – emerges and the quality of living and participating in the present moment strengthens. We move ‘out of our own hands’, out of the anxious, grasping, calculating hands of our own separate identity, transported by grace – a power so much larger than the separate self – into safety, into peace.
As one nears death, one may learn that what is essential and real is, as Singh puts it, “the Holy”. What we hold most dear – our desires, attachments, fantasies, fears – is non-essential and unreal. “The Holy responds to none of this. It responds to what is real. The Holy demands that we return to it, with awareness, as pure light.”
At the approach of death we learn to sit and do nothing, and this can change the character of our perceptions. As a dying man whose world had become confined to the tiny window of his bedroom had put it, “All my life, I’ve been so busy … I don’t think I ever really saw blue before. I never saw green. Until now … How beautiful they are.” Another dying person said, “I’ve never been more fully alive.” This is a state beyond concepts, a state of experiencing the intrinsic value that exists in each act, thought and moment of connection.
Singh acknowledges, however, that such sudden leaps into higher levels of consciousness at the approach of physical death may be only temporary. As she puts it, “One experience in an expanded level of consciousness, no matter how profound and no matter how permanently embedded in consciousness, does not in and of itself raise the level of consciousness.” She theorizes about what such experiences portend for states of consciousness after death, questioning whether “the brief glimpse of Unity consciousness inherent in the experience of dying implies the guarantee of permanent residence in the Ground of Being.” Her own belief, based on the wisdom teachings she studies, is that consciousness does continue after death, and that one ought to prepare for that state throughout life. At the time of death there simply is not enough time to transcend the confusion and chaos that has already driven us through life and to take up “permanent residence” at higher states of consciousness.
Accordingly Singh is deeply interested in the practice of meditation, and devotes a chapter to it, entitled “Special Conditions of Transformation.” She describes meditation as the practice of willingly and completely “offering one’s self, one’s whole being, to the transformative process.” For her, the focused attention which one channelizes in meditation is nothing different from what is called “soul”. This control of attention through meditation simulates the experience of dying primarily by keeping the attention motionless in one spot, “the one seat.” She quotes Ken Wilber:
“Ultimately, a person in meditation [as in dying]… must face having no recourse at all. Having no recourse, no way out, no way forward or backward, he is reduced to the simplicity of the moment. His boundaries collapse and, as St Augustine put it, ‘he arrives at That which Is.”
In sum, Singh reports to us how many people experience powerful and uplifting grace in dying. In the words of a dying person, “I cannot tell you how beautiful this is,” or in the words of another, “I am turning into light.” Comparing such experiences to those experienced in meditation, Singh’s book inspires a practitioner of meditation to experience such states while living.
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