Published by Harper San Francisco
Publication date: October, 1998
ISBN: 0062515640 (hard cover)
The transformational possibilities inherent in suffering demand a context of meaning, a framework that creates sense and order out of chaos. (p. 56)In this challenging book transpersonal psychologist Kathleen Dowling Singh presents a coherent and profound framework for thinking about the spiritual aspects of dying which will resonate with many readers. In doing so it becomes an important addition to contemporary literature on death and dying.
Like other transpersonal psychologists Singh believes that human consciousness rises out of and ultimately returns to a Ground Of Being which is greater than our ego. As death approaches the ego struggles against dissolution, but ultimately is transformed by the healing power of the Ground Of Being as the individual self prepares to return to its source. This model is built mainly upon cases in which death was anticipated and there was time for psychological resolution to take place. Singh believes that these spiritual changes take place even when conditions of death are less conducive to growth.
The concept of "stages of death" was brought to a popular audience by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work On Death And Dying. Singh extends the Kubler-Ross model by presenting three basic stages of dying:
The Chaos phase entails the ego's struggle for existence against hopeless odds. This struggle is gradually replaced by a surrender to a deepening sense of Unity Consciousness as the individual is suffused with the healing energy of the Ground Of Being. As death draws near the duality between the self and the Ground Of Being fades away. This change in consciousness is often noticed by those who work with dying people. Fear and anxiety are replaced by a sense of safety and love, and a sense of the sacred begins to emerge. It is this positive energy that led one dying person to say "I have never been more fully alive." And the life-affirming effects of working with dying people can only be understood by those who have become more alive as a result of witnessing this gift of grace.
Singh draws a direct contrast between her own work and that of Sherwin Nuland, whose popular book How We Die studies physiological processes in detail but does not step onto psychological turf. Nuland makes a point of warning against overly romanticized views of the dying process and explains many mental processes as side effects of changes in oxygen levels, endorphins, and other bodily changes as death approaches. Singh believes that everyone, no matter how suddenly he or she dies and even if only in the last few moments, dies in experienced grace. But she is aware of the fact that in some cases frenzied medical interventions can make it more difficult for the dying person to maintain focus on the inpouring of grace which is taking place. Medical practitioners may themselves be so uncomfortable with death that they filter out seeing the spiritual transformations that are taking place before them. A benefit of the book may be in helping practitioners accept the reality of spiritual changes just as firmly as the reality of changes in blood pressure.
Her openness to the diversity of human spiritual experience is a hallmark of the book. The psychospiritual phenomena involved are inherently difficult to put into words, and many different cultural interpretations of the same events are possible. While she has her own way of thinking about things, she encourages readers to find whatever spiritual terminology and practices make sense to them when trying to apply her insights to their own lives. Her thinking is most clearly influenced by Sufi traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Vedanta, and medieval Christian Ars Moriendi practices. She speaks freely of doing "energy work" with dying patients and shares some of her own moving experiences with hospice work.
If there is a criticism of the book it is that in her search for commonalities in spiritual changes at the end of life she sometimes downplays the role which specific religious dogmas can have in conditioning death anxiety. The cross-cultural student of religion may fall into the trap of translating distinctive religious attitudes into their own more universal viewpoint, obscuring rather than revealing the fundamental differences in the traditions under study. Singh works primarily with Christians because of the demographics of her practice. Her insights on the parallels between Christian mystical traditions and Eastern non-dualistic philosophy will not find agreement among all Christian groups. But this is a small quibble, and one which would be hard to avoid in a work which explicitly seeks to present a transpersonal interpretation of what most people think of as a singularly personal event.
The book is too intellectually challenging to make good "comfort reading" for those who are in immediate need of support while facing terminal illness. It will be most powerful in helping caregivers find a way of thinking about spirituality that helps them be compassionate companions to those who are undergoing these sea changes. We would put it on our recommended reading list for every hospice worker.
Singh makes the point that the growth in Unity Consciousness which is forced upon us by dying can be actively encouraged during life through meditation and other spiritual disciplines. She urges her healthy readers to find a spiritual practice that works for them and to use it to gain familiarity with the Ground Of Being while we are in the midst of life rather than at its edge.
Kathleen Dowling Singh, Ph.D., has experience in both transpersonal psychology and many spiritual traditions. She works with dying people in a large hospice in Florida and regularly addresses audiences on death, dying, and the hospice movement.