To die for

Tony Scott with production stills - Top Gun - Crimson Tide - True Romance - Enemy of the StateWill Baby Boomers choose to expire in hospitals and nursing homes? Or will they take matters into their own hands?

BY DAVID RICKEY —  Would you prefer to die on purpose — or with purpose?

Late, great writers like Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and counter-culture figure Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) were larger than life.

Yet they each took their own lives — rather than let the life coded into their respective DNA take its course.

The most timely example: Tony Scott (above, center), a Hollywood producer and director who jumped off an 18-storey L.A. bridge that he’d once scouted as a location for a movie.

The Baby Boomers are the biggest generation in American history, the most vain-glorious generation — and also the most afraid of pain, if Prozac and painkiller prescriptions are any indication.

Dove pro-age ad

By the end of this decade, those born between 1946 and 1964 will swell the ranks of U.S. senior citizens to a cohort of about 55 million people.

So here is the trillion-dollar question: Will the ‘Me Generation’ follow in the footsteps of some of their favorite authors above?

In other words, how many Boomers will choose the timing of their own deaths?

What we fear most

The Boomers have so far driven a couple of mega trends.

The first points to their fear of feeling bad. They ignited the boom in Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) like Prozac.

As the the No. 1 profit-center for Botox injections, the Boomers have also shown the world how much they fear looking old. That’s the trend that Dove was parodying in its “pro-aging” ad campaign. (If you look closely at the nude woman above, the caption reads: “too many wrinkles to appear in an anti-aging ad.”)

Bubbles - Jeff Koons

Michael Jackson and Bubbles - a Jeff Koons sculpture

More recently, Boomers are willing to take risks on high-priced bio-technologies. Remember Michael Jackson’s fascination with cryogenics? He never pulled it off, but now less rich-and-famous members of his generation are freezing body parts to preserve DNA that may save them from age-re

lated illnesses.

Is assisted suicide a moral or medical issue?

At some point, all of the above tactics will reach a point of what economists call diminishing marginal returns, and we are all going to age and we are all going to die. But will Boomers increasingly turn to chemical solutions to die before their biological time?

You Don't Know Jack

Movie poster: Jack Kevorkian biopic

There is nothing like a terminal illness to tempt us into skipping pain and loss, and rush into death. But there is another way besides assisted suicide.

As a psychotherapist who practices with palliative patients in a California retirement community, I believe that those who consider assisted suicide are actually embracing a highly-spiritual order: to give our last moments, and those of our loved ones, some meaning and detach from suffering.

But an ongoing debate polarizes public opinion between our right to choose quality of life, on the one hand, and religious definitions of what constitutes life and death in today’s functionally-obsessed, goal-oriented society on the other.

I invite you to explore this life-and-death issue from a place that is far away from what you experience in news stories produced by print editors and TV producers in the mass media.

Our right to life is equaled by a right to die

My core belief: Each individual has the right to choose when he or she dies.

And I am a priest who strongly believes in the sacredness of life.

The problem is that most people haven’t been given enough information to make a wise choice. This information has to do with the depth and richness of life and of dying.

This is a spiritual issue, not simply a medical one

The patients I counsel who are considering suicide, or assisted suicide, are looking at the question of the quality of their physical and emotional life.

They are either in deep physical pain, with little awareness of the possibility of relief, or they are experiencing depression and/or a loss of meaning.

“Why am I still here?” is being asked as a rhetorical question, indicating that they have no answer and don’t believe there is one.

In our society, meaning is measured by usefulness

I’ve heard so many people say, “I feel so useless.”

Incredibly, these confessions are uttered after a life of productivity, either in business or in active play. When this is no longer possible, they can’t find any reason to continue.

What is missing is the awareness of the richness to be discovered by going inward, by finding a deeper place for identity beyond external factors.

Most of us define ourselves by what we do. Few of us have evolved consciously enough to define ourselves by being aware.

In mystical traditions, a mantra of awareness sounds like this . . .

I am not my body.

I am not any of my professions.

I am not my thoughts or feelings.

What I am is that which is aware of these transient qualities.

As the Bagavad Gita says, “Not the seeing but that which is aware of seeing. Not the hearing but that which is aware of hearing.”

From this point of view, I am not dying and I am not in pain. Rather I am that which is watching the process of dying and that which is being aware of the pain.

Pain: How to alter our relationship with a deadly but deceptive phenomenon

Hunter S. Thompson in Toronto with a homeless man, 1986

Most of us, when we experience pain, first of all tighten around it — and then try to make it go away, either through some chemical, or by consulting a physician. Viz. Jackson, again, or fellow chemically-dependent Boomer icon Hunter S. Thomspon (left).

An additional factor that intensifies the pain is the fear that pain will be permanent.

Spiritual teachers Stephen and Ondrea Levine have done remarkable work with people in severe pain, relieving pain by changing the person’s relationship to the pain, through meditation and spiritual teaching.

At the same time as you consult a physician, consult their seminal work, “Who Dies.”

By breathing into the pain, they instruct, is a way of dis-identifying with the body, (I am not in pain, my body is experiencing pain). Observing the pain, as it were from a distance, people are actually able to reduce the intensity.

Pain feels so personal, but it is unbelievably so not personal

Another technique is to expand awareness even to a global awareness. “I am experiencing part of the world’s pain. I have just this much.”

This brings about a shift in consciousness from the angry “why me?” to the compassionate “why not me?”

I am not alone in suffering. This is my part of what life on this planet is experiencing. In “communion” I can bear my share of it.

This not only reduces the felt pain, it also brings a level of meaning, even, if you will, a sense of “usefulness”.

On dying

The final layer of the dying process is the expansion of awareness and consciousness I have witnessed.

The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dali

There have been many reports of increased precognition, a heightened sense of participation in the whole of life, so to speak, and expanded powers of extra-sensory perception.

What is actually happening is a phenomenon that I have observed but cannot scientifically prove: An expansion of consciousness to the point that any personal concept of personality expands to being an expression of the One.

Or to put it in New Age philosopher Ken Wilber’s terms, this fabric reality is “Kosmic Consciousness.”

How to love a loved one who is dying

We should be offering more education on both the nature of living, and the process of dying.  Or to use the actual terms of the spiritual path, “conscious living and conscious dying”.

With this awareness, people would not only live more fully moment to moment, but would approach death with equanimity as a natural part of the whole journey.

There may then be no need for assisted suicide.

People would actually be able to “drop the body” (the description of death in Eastern mysticism) when “the time” has come, that is, when the lessons of this present form of existence have been completed.

David Rickey at Land's End labyrinthThen we would just graduate to the next level of classes, eventually to join the “teachers” who are helping others through the lessons.

David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and pastoral counselor at a residence for the elderly in northern California. 

Follow David on Twitter.







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