Facing Death: Spirituality, Science, and Surrender at the End of Life
Maybe Death Isn't What You Think It Is
When I entered medical school in the Fall of 1974, the last thing on my mind was spiritual transformation. I just wanted to learn how to cure disease. But it didn't take long for me to realize that curing and healing are different -- and medicine is all about curing. I would have to learn healing on my own.
As you'll see in Chapter 1, I became alarmed that medicine couldn't seem to find a way to help seriously ill people face the end of life. There's been some improvement over time, but we still have trouble with that. If you walk through the ICU in any major academic hospital today, you'll still see many elderly patients unconscious on ventilators, kept alive when they have no chance of recovering, let alone going home.
But complaining about that doesn't change anything. In my own experience, working from inside does improve the system -- but only by small increments. What we need is a revolution, not just in practice, but in insight. It took me 45 years to realize that. Only then could I sit down and write.
This isn't the book I wanted to write back in 1974, when I was disillusioned, angry and confused. This is the book I needed to read.
This book doesn't rant and rave. It just tells stories about how I learned to do the right thing from the best teachers -- my patients. Often I stumbled into the truth. Just by the seat of my pants, I learned the difference between curing and healing. Healing is what you do to help someone accept they can't be cured. Then you help them learn to trust the process that leads them through the end of life.
Dying forces you to focus on what really matters. In the process, you might find that all those things you focused your entire life on don't matter as much as you thought. What matters is who you really are.
This book is not just about dying. It's about spirituality. Spirituality is about one thing: what is your true nature? I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat as people discovered this. When you sit with enough people at the end of life, you may get to witness who they are as their true nature emerges.
We come into this life as who we really are -- you can see it in a newborn baby's eyes. And we go out the same way, after all those things we thought we were get peeled away in the process of letting go that we call dying. Spirituality is simply the process we humans have devised to discover who you really are before dying does it for you.
Science has mastered the material world. I went into medicine because I love science. There's no better way to discover how to cure disease than the scientific method. But science today falls short when it tries to describe the true nature of anything ultimate or eternal, which is where we -- and healing -- come from.
Scientists still can't agree on -- and may never explain -- the true nature of reality or of consciousness. I'm not enlightened enough to know the answers to those questions, but I'm not afraid to speculate about them. In this book I've tried to summarize some of the evidence that's accumulating fast about meditation, psychedelics, near-death experiences and their effects on the human brain. What we're learning may indicate that when it comes to death, you have less to fear than you think.
Spirituality and science are coming together. Reality consists of more than what we can sense and measure. Science needs a new paradigm so that it can overcome its limitations and not just cure our illnesses, but also help us heal when curing fails.
Your mind will get you just so far. To find the truth, you need to go beyond your mind. You need to go beyond your self.
Maybe death is not what you think it is. And maybe you are not who you think you are.
That's what this book is about.