This is a transcript of an interview with Dr Peter Fenwick, talking about consciousness and dying. Very interesting.
Iain: Hello and welcome again to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Dr Peter Fenwick. Hi Peter.
Iain: And Peter is a neuropsychiatrist and we’re going to have a talk about end of life experiences and what that means in the greater scheme of things that we’re looking [at] very frequently on Conscious TV from different angles, about who we really are. So, Peter’s written quite a few books. I have some of them here. The latest one he’s written with his wife Elizabeth is The Art of Dying [holding each book up as he names it] and we will be centred partly on this book for the interview today; and also, Hidden Door: Understanding and Controlling your Dream ; and In the Truth of the Light, also co-written with his wife. So, let’s start at the beginning of your interest in end of life experiences. How did that come about?
Peter: It came about because I was interested in near death experiences. End of life experiences are quite different, but with near death experiences, I wanted a very good model so one could examine them scientifically. And if they occur when you’re ill or when you’re having a child or in an accident, you don’t know what the brain state is, but in our first study we found that about ten per cent of people that had a cardiac arrest have a near death experience. So our first question was, “Is this typical of all near death experiences?” and indeed it turned out to be that.
Now, in a cardiac arrest, you’ve no pulse, no heartbeat, no respiration and you are clinically dead. Now, how is it that you can have cognition or an alert mind when you’re clinically dead? It doesn’t make sense. So if in fact that is the correct situation, and we think it is, then it must mean that the near death experience is the beginning of the dying process. So, I went to look at the literature on dying: very little. People have not been interested in it. So I had a very, very good prediction…
Iain: Why is that do you think?
Peter: We’re afraid of dying. Last time you talked about dying, did you talk about your own death or did you talk about somebody else’s? I bet you talked about somebody else’s. And this is called ‘Freud’s paradox’. You don’t mention your own death… very happy to mention other people’s. We’re afraid of dying.
Iain: ‘Cause we put a big fuss into birth and christening and of course marriage, having children… there’s loads of information out there and you put time into it; it’s special. But dying is something that is inconvenient to most people, isn’t it? And it’s kind of…
Peter: Yeah. Sweep it under the carpet.
Iain: …you deal with it… you have to deal with it.
Peter: Absolutely. But this is very much a late 20th and 21st century idea in our culture. You see, if we were Victorians, you would have had one or two brothers that had died, a sister that had died. Death was part of the continuum of life. It’s been split off now, and of course, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up in a hospital with tubes everywhere and you won’t be allowed to die ’cause as soon as you start dying they come in and they resuscitate you. So it’s not a good situation.
Iain: OK. So tell us more, or give us some examples of what end of life experiences are in a practical sense. What actually happens?
Peter: OK. What we did, was we had to do our own research, and so we’ve looked at hospices and nursing homes in the south of England and we’ve also looked at hospices in Holland and that provides part of our database. The other one is by going on television and asking people for stories, radio and newspaper articles. So we’ve got about 2,000 accounts of what happens when you die, what the phenomena are, and it’s totally, totally fascinating. It’s not as you think. They first thing that happens – and we’re not sure yet how common this is, but it’s certainly quite common – and that is that you have a premonition that you’re going to die and the premonitions, the Dalai Lama says that you’ll get these about two years before you die and if you look at his writings, he says if you listen carefully… I don’t think in our society we can listen that carefully and are attuned within ourselves, but you get very clear stories.
Here’s a lovely story. This is a man, about twenty six, and he’s got two children and a wife and he said to his wife he felt he’d accomplished everything – that’s fascinating in itself – and that it was time for him to die, to leave. So he put everything in order and I got the story from the wife’s mum and she said he wasn’t depressed because as a psychiatrist I know this guy’s going to commit suicide. This is depression. But he wasn’t depressed, and about two months after that, his firm sent him on an aeroplane trip and the aeroplane crashed and he was killed. And so, that’s one sort of premonition.
Here’s another one. A woman wakes up, absolutely convinced – no dream imagery – but absolutely convinced that her daughter has died. She knows that her daughter is dead and she then moves in bed and her daughter is beside her, and she thinks, “My god!” and she wakes her daughter very slightly. And the daughter wakes up, and the mother just falls over her with tears and joy because the daughter is alive. And the mother reported that the feelings she had when she awoke were exactly the same as those two days later when the daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident. So those are two: a long-time scale and a short-time scale one. So premonitions, is the first things.
Iain: And how does one deal with premonitions without being scared of them, because you think, wow, gosh, you’ve had this premonition and two days later I know my daughter is going to die… that’s pretty difficult stuff to deal with.
Peter: It’s very difficult stuff to deal with, particularly in our culture, because dying is not part of life. It’s something which is an abrupt end or can be and so we don’t really have any ways culturally to deal with these things. I think now that you know that they occur you can watch out for them, that’s the first thing, so know they’re coming.
Another very common premonition… well, common in the sense that premonitions are rare, but this one is common within the rareness if you see what I mean? And that is that you get a visit from a dead relative. In other words, the dead relative appears in your room. [The] usual story is… here’s one: my mum was in hospital; she’d broken some ribs; the doctor said, “She’s OK… getting better,” and we expected her home. When I went in to visit her, she said her dead brother had been along to visit her, and the two (her daughter and the mother) talked together about this. Now, you, certainly I, would be really quite fazed if my dead brother came to visit me, but she wasn’t. She’s happy with it. Now it’s really interesting ’cause this is one of the ways that one knows… and then the daughter discussed the fact that she might be going to die and her mother said, well yes, she might be and indeed, two weeks later, for no reason at all, she did die.
Iain: So this is a kind of possible preparation, so when something happens, something final and sudden, it’s not too much of a shock for the people around, people who are close?
Peter: That’s one thing. I think the other thing is, as we come into the next part of the dying process, you’ll find that deathbed visions are the next step you take. So this, I think, is the beginning of that step. And I think you’re quite right, it has two functions: one is to prepare the person who’s going to die for death, and the interesting thing is, after you’ve seen your deathbed visions, then your language changes. So let’s say you’re in a hospice; let’s say you’re seriously ill, and then the deathbed visions occur. These are relatives; we took a hundred visions and looked at the frequency of people who come and the commonest are parents, then spiritual figures who you don’t know, then siblings and then you go on through the other family members. In our culture, we see very few angels. In the south of North America, in Texas, they see a lot of angels [laughs]. So this is obviously a cultural thing.
And the visitors come for a very specific reason. They come, in our series, to tell the person who’s dying that they will be back to pick them up. So they give them a date, when they are going to die – now that’s important, ’cause one the things you can do with your deathbed visitor is say, “Please don’t come back then, because my son’s coming from America. I’d like to see him before I say goodbye,” and they will hold off and come back after you’re son’s arrived.
Iain: So you can negotiate?
Peter: You can negotiate – a little! You can’t say there’s going to be a fantastic party in the hospice I want to go to. That’s no good! But if it’s something which is really important like that, then they do.
Iain: So widening this out at this point, Peter. So what’s really happening then with that?
Peter: It’s really interesting. The first point you could say is that this is due to hallucinations. They’re dying; brain’s all screwed up; they’re taking drugs; due to the morphine; due to the fact that their liver’s failing, or kidneys’ failing. Now in fact, if you look closely at the deathbed visions, if it’s none of those, it’s not confusional, it’s not like a drug hallucination, it’s something which is quite different. It occurs in clear consciousness. So it seems as if it has another meaning, over and above that that our rational everyday science can give to it. Now there is one point of information – we have some in our series – in one of the most famous series by Barrett at the end of the 19th century (he did a survey on these) was the fact that somebody who is dying, let’s say their mother is known as far as he’s concerned to be perfectly OK, but she dies. The relatives decide not to tell him so he doesn’t know and then he gets the deathbed visitors and amongst them is his mum. And the stories we have: the dying person says, ”What are you doing here? Why have you come?” and then she usually says that she’s dead. So that means then that it can’t be expectation, which is one the other points, because these people are thought to be living. So, I think… it asks wider questions about the nature of life and the nature of consciousness.
Iain: It seems to me, not knowing very much about this, and just thinking it through as we talk, that it’s indeed quite a whole world of preparation that’s going on here…
Peter: Oh absolutely.
Iain: …and it’s probably something that – as you were hinting at earlier – we used to have in former cultures, but we’ve lost in our contemporary culture.
Peter: Oh absolutely. How are you going to have and see deathbed visitors, when you’ve got, first of all you’ve got all these drugs being given to you as you come up to death and secondly, you are surrounded by all these tubes and everything; you can’t really speak. No. We’ve lost, in our culture, how to die and we really have to get it back again because dying is so special.
So the deathbed visitors say they come to take the dying on a journey and it’s quite clear and quite specific. As I said, the language changes, they say, “When I go…”, “When I leave…”, “When I go home…”, sometimes even “When I fall…” Do you see? There is now a movement onwards and out of the hospice, which isn’t there before the deathbed visitors come.
Iain: And it seems to me that it’s completely from a space of love and support. They’re not coming to shock at all. They’re coming to offer help on this important journey, end journey…
Peter: They’re coming to offer help. That’s absolutely right.
Iain: …a beginning journey of whatever’s next. We don’t know that.
Peter: Yes, and the other important point about it is it’s enormously reassuring for the relatives of the person who’s dying, the living ones, because the person who’s dying always says, “You know, I saw my mum. She says she’ll be back for me and everything will be OK,” and that’s really nice and comforting.
Iain: So it takes the pressure off. Another thing which you do mention in your book The Art of Dying, of course actually dying is not talked about when people are obviously in the process of dying. Very rarely is it… people ask, “Are you OK with what’s gonna happen?” It’s like either people want a miracle recovery or it’s [an] ignored subject.
Peter: It’s really, really difficult, particularly for kids who know they’re dying and their mates come in and say, “See you on the football pitch in a week’s time!”
Peter: And they know they’re dying… and that’s inappropriate. I mean what you want to say is, “How are you?” and “Are you worried about what’s going to happen?” and so on… because the kids know what’s going to happen.
Iain: Yeah. This thing is interesting, what memories this brings up for me. And I remember, going back several years ago now, my friend was dying of cancer in a hospice in Hampstead. And you know we used to have a jokey relationship; we’d have a quick hug like guys sometimes do. And I was with him and he was in the bed; he was very weak… and he wanted to really hug me. We didn’t really have that kind of relationship. And we hugged for about ten minutes which… and I felt slightly awkward but I went with it, I was OK with it, and then some other people came in and watched and they felt very awkward with it. And I realised – he died the next day – I realised he probably knew he was going the next day and that was his last human hug…
Iain: And it was something that he wanted, you know? And it’s like there’s obviously all these things that are coming up in people and… though he somehow had the courage to just go for it with me, somehow they don’t have the courage to say, “This is what I would like in my final hours.”
Peter: That’s absolutely right and unfortunately, it’s very difficult for the dying person if their experiences aren’t validated by the staff. And they know their dead relatives have come; they know how important it is; and to have someone come in and say, “Oh, don’t worry. That’s only the drugs. It’ll be going away soon,” they feel absolutely let down and bereft. What they want is it validated: “Yeah, those are dead relatives; they’re going to be here to come and pick you up.” But we don’t do that.
Iain: So what other aspects is there to see on the end of life experiences?
Peter: OK, so that’s the first thing that happens. The next thing that happens, and this is where I get the validation from, and that is that you seem to… you’re in the hospice – not everybody does this, but some people do – and you go into another reality and then back into the hospice, other reality, back in the hospice, like this. And what is the other reality? Fascinating! Remember my prediction? It’s going to be the near death experience. It’s absolutely right. An area which is full of love and light and spiritual beings and dead relatives. Now that’s very similar to the near death experience.
And it’s made quite clear to the dying person that these people are there to help them through the dying process and when they finally die, they will be looked after. Then they’re back in the hospice again and some people say, “Gosh. Am I back?” [looking around at the ‘hospice’ surroundings] and then they will leave again and come back. So there is, if you like, a fore-glimpse of what may happen. But it occurs in clear consciousness. It’s not some hallucinatory world. Consciousness is clear. And it’s very much like the near death experience. So I think that the near death experience in this sense is in fact a model of the beginning of the dying process.
Iain: OK. So let’s take it a stage further in how this has taken you along your path in terms of research. So you started out and you were hearing… it was something that wasn’t documented. You were hearing these stories. You looked into it. What have you learnt for yourself and what it’s meant for you?
Peter: Oh it’s meant an enormous amount. I think probably, I just want to mention two other things because they are important. The first one is what is known as terminal lucidity. This is lightning before death. It’s used to be called that in the 18th century. They all knew about it. This is when people who have Alzheimer’s disease maybe, demented maybe, are paralysed with a stroke maybe and are deeply unconscious usually. And they suddenly sit up, full consciousness is resumed and they recognise – if they’ve got Alzheimer’s they haven’t done this for three years – they recognise their living relatives, say goodbye to them, quite often welcome the dead relatives (so it’s part of the deathbed visions) and then they lie back down again and die. Now this guy’s been paralysed for a long while, but yet at this time something really interesting happens. Now this has really been ignored by the scientific community, but I’m pleased to say that now there are now, there’s just the beginnings people asking, “How can this occur? What is the mechanism?” That’s very exciting. And then the next…
Iain: Well, how can it occur? Someone as you say is paralysed, they can’t move, and they can sit up?
Peter: Yes. It’s really difficult and it suggests that our understanding of the way the central nervous system functions, and what the true nature of consciousness is, is not known properly yet because, as far as our understanding of the central nervous system is concerned, it shouldn’t be able to happen. And so what people say, if they are a scientist, and probably this is not a bad position to take, “Well, the observation of what happens is faulty.” In other words, it wasn’t really like that; people are projecting onto it. Now I think the data is quite good, but we need more observations, get past that point, and then start looking at mechanisms.
Iain: But what do you feel?
Peter: What do I think?
Peter: I think it’s the beginnings of… the whole death process seems to me to be a loosening of consciousness and there are new views of consciousness coming in, with the deathbed relatives for example. Then the view of this other reality. Then the way that the mind may work differently and then we come on to deathbed coincidences, which are totally fascinating. This is at the moment of death and…
Iain: Let’s just stop you there. So what you’re saying is that in a way there’s different laws come in, which influence the movement of the body and lucidity of the mind at that point of death. In terms of Alzheimer’s or paralysis there’s nothing that can be done in terms of what we know with modern medicine…
Peter: If the observations are correct… it’s very difficult to fit it into our straight medical threshold.
Iain: Yes. So it seems what’s happening is that there’s different laws that govern what the human being is able to do, come in at that last moment and that’s possibly part of the dying process…
Peter: It’s going to be something like that. And I think that’s as good a summary as we can get, until we actually get much more specific data and look at what’s happening.
Iain: OK, you were about to mention another…
Peter: Oh fascinating. Totally fascinating. This shows the interconnectedness of people. It’s very specific; we’ve got loads and loads of stories and so we now understand quite a lot about it. And this is at the moment of death, the dying person will go and visit somebody they are very closely emotionally attached to. And it works like this. You’re in England and you’re dying…. Oh why don’t I give you a real example?
Peter: This is… the mother is in Australia. The son is quite healthy in England. The mother wakes up and senses that her dead grandmother is there. That’s just beside the point. Then she goes back to sleep and in the sleep – and this is the deathbed coincidence – her son appears to her, he appears dripping wet. And then as he walks towards her – and again it’s a sort of tunnel-like thing – he comes into the light. And what’s the light? There’s always the light of love and compassion. He comes into the light. He gives her a message and says, “Please don’t worry about me, mum. I’m OK.” And she knows that he’s died, but she knows he’s going to be OK…
Peter: So it’s a very supportive dream. So of course the next morning she rings up the UK to find out how her son is, but she knows he’s dead and in fact he drowned in a boating accident the evening before at the time he appeared to her as far as one can trace it. But remember he came down dripping wet, so there are elements of the deathbed scene come with them into the dream.
Now sometimes of course, the person who receives the visit is awake, and then the visit is quite different. It’s a very strong feeling that somebody you know well has died, or is in terrible danger. Sometimes you get a message, “In fact, I’ve died but I’m OK,” but it comes not just like that, it comes with the feelings of sort of death and danger and so on. So they’re not terribly pleasant and usually they have a compulsion that you have to go and find out. So it’s different if you are awake from if you are asleep. So what it does show is there’s this very, very strong interconnectedness, without limitations of space or time, so that the two… the dying person and the person to whom they are emotionally connected are very, very strongly connected. It’s as if in some sense they are one. It’s a really interesting phenomenon. And of course, it’s absolutely wonderful for the person who’s just lost their son, or their wife to have this visit.
Peter: It does that very nicely… and you need explanations like that to explain it. So deathbed coincidences are enormously interesting. The next thing – this is the last thing that happens – is the phenomena at the time of death are amazing, absolutely amazing. How people could not talk about it and just negate it is amazing once you start looking at the range of the data. First of all, clocks do stop. Yes, clocks stop! Only these slow pendulum ones? No, even the electronic clocks; they will flash the time of the person’s death. Amazing. You get alarms going off in the hospice; you get mechanical malfunctions – the television set- all at the time of death.
And then, you get a linking up the emotional relationship that you have with people you also have with animals. So the animals know. Your dogs will howl; your cats will know. And I recently got some stories from an urban community and their birds are terribly important, so quite often birds are seen in a group on the hospice window where you’re dying, but the bird always has a special relationship to you. Like you were particularly fond of robins – well, there are robins that come. And you get flocks of birds circling round, but you have to have this emotional relationship with them and we’ve got stories where the dying person says, as you would expect, “That bird’s going to take my soul.” And so there is this relationship between the bird and the person. So there are loads of animal stories like this.
Then people see shapes leaving the body. Now the Dalai Lama has a particular list of phenomena which occur at the time of death and the first one is that the dying person sees a mirage. We’ve got lovely stories of shapes leaving the body, which are fuzzy, rather like a heat haze: very much like the Dalai Lama’s mirage. Then the next stage [from] the Dalai Lama, is smoke. We’ve got stories of shapes leaving in the form of smoke, often from the head. Then the next one is sparks, and sparks are seen in the room of the dying. And light, radiant light, is seen in the room of the dying. Now, I’m divided in this as to whether it’s a real light or spiritual light. Sometimes it seems to be a spiritual light because the sort of story is, “I saw it but my brother didn’t.” OK, so that would mean special to her. But there are other ones where the light is seen coming out of the room and going down the corridor, and that looks much more like a real light. So they’re the most wonderful things that happen. No, no; it’s very special.
Iain: So where, as I was asking you earlier, where’s that taken you in yourself in how you see reality?
Peter: Well certainly, as far as dying is concerned, clearly consciousness is something which is really special. And the way the consciousness fragments and leaves the body has its own metric which we’re only just beginning to learn about. But the fact that the near death experience, the view of a transcendent realm links in so closely with what happens when you die, would suggest that the two are indeed linked very closely together and that the transcendent is always present.
Iain: So it seems to me – and I don’t want to build too much into this from my side, that’s why I want to pass it through with you – it’s like we are a field, a connected field. When we’re living as human beings, a lot of the time most of us run around or live our lives thinking we’re separate individuals, although the great masters will tell us something else, but as we get nearer the time of death, especially very near the time of death, it’s as if we’re being drawn back into and we’re seeing the signs of that field again, the field that actually…
Peter: That’s absolutely right.
Iain: …in one way didn’t really leave, but we thought we left.
Peter: And if you take the near death experience – I’m not talking about end of life experiences – I’m talking specifically about near death experiences… I’m talking about near death experiences in a very small group of people. Not the ordinary ones: down the tunnel, being of light, relatives, all that… not that. It’s the people who go beyond that, and I’ve got some very nice examples of that, where they go through a stage where their form dissolves into energy so they become part – their words – of universal energy. They move towards a point which is in fact the ground state of the universe with which they are finally going to merge and so it is in fact that there is the wholeness, the whole thing is consciousness, and people describe how they are refined by the process. You can’t do it in this state obviously. So you go through a period always of refinement and then the energy reaches a point at which it can start to merge and fuse with the universal energy of the background.
Iain: It is so interesting and it’s something that I knew little about until I came to your lecture a couple of weeks ago and I’ve now read your book, that there are these things that happen towards the time that you die and of course they are signs and they are… there’s a lot of logic. If we do take as our belief or as our hypothesis or whatever, our knowing, that we are the ground of being, we are consciousness, we are oneness, then of course, we come from that and when we’re born, I understand the first two or three years of our life we actually don’t feel separate.
Iain: Our personality doesn’t, our ego doesn’t really form properly until about three years old as I understand it. At that time we think everything is us. It seems that we start to go towards that again at the point of dying.
Peter: Yes, I think that’s right and I think one of the things that happens as you go closer and closer to dying is that the ego structures themselves die away and you’re just left there…
Iain: So talk more about that. That’s interesting.
Peter: The sort of feeling is that I’m absolutely present in the moment. And the sorts of things that some people do is they’ll take off all their clothes, which is really symbolic of taking off the personality. They take off their rings, their jewellery and they will want to just be covered with a sheet as they come up to the final dying itself. And so the differentiation, if you like, that they have gone through, has all been done away with and there is just their naked consciousness, which is the thing which is going on… and these are the outward symbols of that.
Iain: And are they doing that in a lucid way?
Peter: Oh, totally lucid. Yeah, none of these things I’ve been talking about are confusional. I mean the pickings and the pullings of confusional patients is quite different. No, this is a stage that some people go through. It’s perfectly clear; it’s perfectly lucid and they, if they can, and you try to reverse it, they’ll say, “No, I want to be naked. I want to be just my body. Just let everything go.”
Iain: The other thing that interests me [and] I’d like to hear more about is when you were talking about people being able to do extraordinary physical things, when they could sit up when they were paralysed. You also just mentioned that someone that might have Alzheimer’s and could also recognise and actually have, I think you say in your book, that they could have a conversation, a normal conversation with someone they hadn’t seen for a time, a relative or a close friend, which they wouldn’t have been capable of the last twenty years, because they had dementia or Alzheimer’s. So again…
Peter: It may not be twenty years, but certainly three or four years, yeah.
Iain: Yeah, yeah, whatever. So what’s happening there because you understand the workings of the brain, what’s…?
Peter: Yeah. It’s really difficult to know. If you take a scientific view you would argue that the dying process releases inhibition within the brain somehow. The connections which aren’t normally made are made during the dying process and that facilitates both movement and memory so that these things can occur. But it’s one thing saying that, it is quite another to get the actual details of what the mechanism is, but it’s going to be something like that, or you can argue for transpersonal consciousness, which is expressing itself through that.
Iain: So when you say that you mean the brain isn’t necessarily holding the information in the mind. Is that what you mean by ‘transpersonal’?
Peter: Yes. It would be something like that. In other words, you’re going to much wider theories of mind. You’re not sticking with our neuroscience which says it has to be brain-based. You’re saying well maybe it isn’t. Maybe in fact, these things are manifesting beyond the brain if you like, but we need more data; we don’t know.
Iain: Peter, you’ve worked as a psychiatrist for most of your life; you’re very highly regarded. What do your colleagues think of this kind of area you’re now exploring?
Peter: It depends who you talk to. Remember, psychiatrists are allowed to do things like this and enquire into mental states. What has been happening – we started this work six years ago and we’ve published a lot of papers in peer reviews and academic journals, so it’s begun to produce some basis in the literature now. And so one is getting known for having got the data in this area, but the most interesting thing is that when we went into our hospices, there was a lot of resistance, often from the medical staff, but not always. The nurses were the people who saw all these things, but didn’t like to discuss it and they wouldn’t discuss it with their supervisors and they wouldn’t discuss it with other nurses because they would think the other nurses would say, “Oh you know you’re mad to think that like that…” But as they saw we were taking these things seriously, then the atmosphere changed and communication started to change and people began to discuss them. Now there’s another cultural thing here. Part of our survey was to find out from the carers of the dying how many times and how frequently they had seen deathbed visions, take that one. It was about 60 per cent in the UK but it was about 75 per cent of carers in Holland. And when we looked at the training that people got about these, it was about 70 per cent of the carers in Holland had been trained, whereas only about 15 per cent had been trained in the UK. So there are cultural differences.
Iain: They knew what to look for.
Peter: Absolutely. If you know what to look for, you see it.
Iain: Yeah. So what we’re heading for here is really a whole new way of looking at the dying phenomenon, isn’t it?
Peter: Oh, absolutely.
Iain: Supporting people because dying, I know it can be for certain people, really isolating. Incredibly isolating. And then maybe they don’t have so much money when they die and they’re not in a nice hospice; they’re not in a place when they want to be; they [don’t] feel comfortable. It makes it even more hard. As you say, maybe they don’t have their close people around them. So for them also to understand this is a possibility they can get visited…
Iain: …that must be huge.
Peter: 30 per cent of people in the UK are frightened of dying alone… and we’ve got some lovely stories from the hospices of people who said, you know, “I don’t have any relatives; I don’t want to die alone; I don’t want to die alone,” and of course when the deathbed visitors occur… then they are in fact enormously comforted. But also, with the comfort goes the fact that deathbed visitors says, “I’ll be back for you on Tuesday and then we’ll go together,” and it changes the whole metric of dying for that person. Very important.
Iain: Yeah. So what’s you recommendation then? You would obviously… well, what’s your recommendation?
Peter: 50 years hence, I’ll tell you exactly how it should be. You know you’re going to die and you will go into a spiritual unit and why do I say spiritual? Because a lot of these things require enormous sensitivity on the part of the carers. So you can’t be thinking about your tennis game when you’re with the dying [laughs]; you actually have to be thinking about the dying. And so there would be this sensitivity and I found such a hospice in Holland; it’s the most lovely one. It’s a hospice in Rotterdam, staffed by two wonderful carers, and they say that as you come up to the time of death there’s this lovely feeling of love which interpenetrates the room and which facilitates family reconciliations. Enormously important. And so it’s a great time for reconciling, particularly all those difficulties that you’ve had across the years, they melt away. We’ve got a lot of stories like that, so this unit of the future will be spiritual, will be sensitive, everybody who goes in will know what the dying process is and I hope you’d be able to choose the person who you want to meet. I don’t know whether Genghis Khan will come to you if you want to see him [both laugh], but I don’t think one would be so interested in that, you’d be interested in either a spiritual figure, or a religious figure, or some of your friends or relatives and then they’ll probably come, but you’ve got to know about it.
Iain: Yeah. I’m just looking at my notes here to see what I haven’t asked you I wanted just to talk to you about. There’s a quote here from, I think it’s pronounced Wei Wu Wai [pronouncing the name, “Vay Voo Vay”]. Is that pronounced right?
Peter: I call him Wei Wu Wei [pronouncing the name ‘Way Woo Way‘]
Iain: Wei Wu Wei yeah, about “Action into inaction, which is when the act of cognition by the ordinary mind splits the world into subject and object. Before the cognition, the world is a unity. After the cognition, there are subjects and objects, neither of which have ever existed independently.” And in a way, this is one of the difficulties we all have with preparing for death, isn’t it? Because we believe that we’re separate, subject [gesturing towards himself], object [gesturing towards Peter]…
Iain: …and this is going to be shown to us one way or another, as we die and probably after we die although we don’t know the last bit definitely.
Peter: Yes, there is a wonderful story from the Vedanta, that in fact there are two gods. There’s the god of the universe, who holds everything and holds you, and there is the god of destruction, which in essence is the ego and holds tight onto you, grips you, but as you come up to death, there comes a point where the god of destruction sees you are going to die and has no further use for you and lets you go. And that’s a very nice description of what happens with the slow removal of the individuation, the removal of the ego as you approach death and go through the dying process. That’s what it really is.
But as far as Wei Wu Wei is concerned, and the whole idea of splitting subject into object… it’s totally fascinating, because the technology of learning how to drop the ego has changed and is changing fast. Do you remember one used to spend hours in mindfulness? Mindfulness Zen meditation?
Iain: Yes. Yes, of course.
Peter: And nowadays one is realising that it’s a good way of learning about the self and understanding the self, but science is beginning to come in and say, “Well, look, you’re not actually constructed like that,” and the idea is – and it’s been shown in some very good experiments, providing you do them precisely enough and the time intervals are short enough – that you can make a movement with a false hand and you will see this movement and you’ll say, “Yeah, I did that!” because the two are linked temporally.
And the suggestion is that in fact most of what we do in terms of movement is attributed to an ego structure, which you can show in fact is probably not really there. It’s a construct. There isn’t an ego there. It’s got lots of attributions to it, so it’s the god of destruction you see.
Iain: We’ve got about two or three minutes left. Anything more you wanted to say? Maybe particularly for people who are in a difficult situation where either they’re dying or someone very close to them is dying?
Peter: Yes. If you can, be with the people when they die. I know that there’s sometimes a resistance to do this, but you don’t have to do anything, just to be there is really all that’s required. So you take your cues from them; they may just want you sitting there, not doing anything; they may want you to hold their hand; or they may want to say one or two things to you, but just be sensitive. And also be sensitive and remember that what you’re seeing is this change in consciousness in the individual and it is accompanied by a lot of other phenomena, so be aware that these may occur because if they do then it’s enormously comforting for you after the person has died because they tend to suggest a continuation of life in some sort.
And the other thing I would say is this: if you are in the room where the person has died and you can sit quietly in there with them, there will come a moment when you will know that they’ve left. Up to that point, they may have died say, an hour ago, an hour and a half ago. Then at a moment you will suddenly realise that they have left. Now that transition is very important to you, because it shows that something has moved on. And in your feelings of loss, the idea that something has moved on is enormously reassuring and helpful.
Iain: OK, thank you and thanks for coming to talk to us on conscious.tv
Peter: Thank you, Iain.
Iain: I appreciate that. I omitted to mention earlier that Peter is also president of the Scientific and Medical Network which Renate and I belong to and we go to many, many interesting lectures and we see some great people through that.
So the book we’ve been talking about basically is The Art of Dying which has been written by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick and we hope to see you again soon on conscious.tv. Thank you. Good bye.
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