The voluntary death (and a few adages)


The modern psychiatry (and the society) usually approaches unfamiliar things by ignoring them (or sweeping them under a carpet), or simply labeling them a pathology or a disease. The concept of voluntary death is no exception to those unwritten „rules“. If you look at the way it is presented to us, the voluntary death (never mind a good death) is never mentioned at any place that would be appropriate, like hospices or funeral services (and forget hospitals or the idea that it could be discussed freely). Jean Amery, in his book „On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death“ avoids the usual approach to this very humane act. I will offer my point of view on this subject and my reasons why the choice of departing this life should be celebrated just the same way as we should celebrate being born (into the life). And if you’re brave enough to read to the end, I would like show (and perhaps inspire your thoughts on) how voluntary death is treated by other philosophies, like Tibetan and Hindu.

Philosopher and essayist Jean Amery (1912 – 1978) had survived concentration camps of the WWII. Shortly after completing his work describing the horrors of his ordeal, he ended his own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. In his own words he poses a lot of questions: „By chosing voluntary death we cast off the burden of our existence and refuse to simply survive“. A suicide (or voluntary death), according to Amery, is not a pathology or a disease of the mind, on the contrary, it is a ceasation of all lies and the uttermost expression of freedom.

Our fundamental dislike of discussing such topics shows how difficult it is to accept such different view on death (and especially one that is a result of a conscious choice). A somewhat ironic existentialist view is that people die either too early or too late. But today, we already know a lot more about death and dying. Whatever we learn during our lifetime can serve us as a sort of therapy (if you talk about it it’s easier to „digest“ and accept) but the mind is still a prisoner of its own biology. The only way out is to make an effort to escape the programming of our own minds (like Buddha or other spiritual leaders have learned to do).

But what if the better (real) solution is just to be born „well“ – understand: in undamaged and natural way, so that we give ourselves (our children) the best possible start in life. Then we will be able to live our lives to their full potential until the day we could choose to die „well“. What if all those meditational techniques or various rituals are a way to escape the trap of overly rational thinking (and help us getting rid of our fear of death and dying). From the late 60’s, the West has started exploring and investigating the near death experiences (NDE), as well as the altered state of mind of somebody experiencing the NDE. The works of Raymond Moody, Stanislav Grof and others have uncovered hidden areas of human psyche in that respect. However, at that time, they hadn‘t realized that the experiences of the people tested, as well as their own conclusions were influenced by the Western culture – to an extent. They also hadn‘t realized that if a dying person is under a lot of stress (for example a sudden attack), the brain produced endorphines which in result caused loss of feeling of pain (there are many people reporting that the pure shock resulted in them not feeling any pain whatsoever in that moment in time). Moreover, a person prepared for his/her own death doesn’t perceive the (sometimes uncomfortable) necessity to return back to their physical body – in order to spare his family a grief of the loss. In other words, the most lucid near death experiences have been experienced by people who had not been given any medicines, those who had not suffered any sensory deprivation or pain, and those of a sane mind (with no experience of seizure at the time of death) – as per J. Halifax. The vivid descriptions of tunnels of light accompanied by a deep feeling of peace had been reported since middle ages. The Cromagnon, 20 thousand years ago, have been burrying their dead tied in an embryo position as if they felt and understood the close link between birth and death.

Other cultures have already found answers to these (correct and inspirational) questions a long time ago: for instance, one epic Indian story talks of a wise teacher asking his students: „What is the strangest thing in our lives? It’s the fact that we see people around us dying but nobody really thinks of (or plans) their own death.“ It’s not a coincidence that there are astrologists in India who specialize in determining the exact moment of death. There is a specific yoga technique, which is named „cheating death“: a yogi will watch for specific signs which will announce him when his time will come – this would happen a few months prior to the perceived time of death, which will indicate exactly when he will die. Just before his time comes, he will use a special technique to help him (his spirit) to leave the physical body, so the death doesn’t catch him „home“… (this was partly illustrated in the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – master warrior Li Mu Bai was trained to guide his own spirit out of his body before he physically dies).

Those cultures have also resolved the practical questions around the death: when would be the right time to die? How can I die a good death? The Hindu sacred geographic places apart from Varanasi, also offers some other options: it could be any of the seven sacred (pilgrimage) places, the four houses (holy places in Himalayas), or any other holy place or place of pilgrimage could be where one can die a good death. The parallel with spirituality here is more than appropriate, showing that birth and death are closely related to it. It also mentions that the funeral procession partly resembles the wedding , people are celebrating, singing or dancing. The voluntary departure from the world (at the end of one‘s fulfilled and happy life) is then recommended for the ascetic, yogis, pilgrims, the heroes or those who are of appropriately old age, terminally ill or those who have fulfilled their purpose in life.

The materialistic view of death is quite clear (and hypocritical). But why not looking at it from a completely different (spiritual) perspective, like the Tibetan approach to death is, for example? Wouldn’t it be worth trying to find out and understand more about their experiences and remove the layers of incorrect translations (found in many esoteric books and materials these days). For example, the Tibetan word Tulku is used for lama or another significant person of Tibetan Buddhism, who is considered to be the incarnation of his/hers predecesor. The current Dalai Lama has explained more about the phowa technique: „In phowa, you use meditative visualization to disconnect your subtle mind from your physical body without any harm being done to the body. It happens, that a person recognizes a sign of his upcoming death even at the time when he‘s perfectly healthy. Such signs can be recognized about 3 or 4 months before the actual death. In this case the phowa can be practised, since the meditation as a way of leaving the life could be very difficult once the body gets ravaged by illness or a disease.

Lama Ole Nydahl (in his book „About Death and Rebirth“) describes the process of dying and the different ways how to improve the conditions of dying. One chapter describes the process of dying and what is happening to the dying person in every stage of the process. Further chapters advise on what we can do to help the dying person and also how the process of dying and the death itself could be used for our own development. It also describes the exact stages of dying (tibetan: bardo). Further chapter of his book describes in detail the practise of phowa, a the transfer of the consciousness. It also describes the different variations and opportunities they provide. The ninth chapter is about great teachers and masters (who Ole Nydahl met in person) and how they died.

The ancient Egypt was similarly spiritual and holistic – not only the ancient Egyptians understood and incorporated spirituality in their lives but the spirituality was also tightly woven in the way they viewed the miracle of life and death. It’s not a coincidence that their civilization had been the most prosperous during the matriarch (female leaders) era. The ritual of weighing of the heart before the God Anubis would reveal whether the person was of good morals or a sinner, and this depiction has served as an appelation for high morality in individuals as well as the society as a whole. Later during the patriarch era, the male leaders introduced (invented) a way how to redeem one’s sins. The history was then written by the victors, the men (and therefore only viewed from their perspective).

I am well aware that a civilization which adores the materia and has no clue at all what the mind is (let alone the subtle mind) will neither understand nor appreciate the wisdom of the ancestors or the ancient (primitive) cultures. However, the Tibetan example can not be so easily ignored (as it is happening here in our time) and it should be an inspiration – the Tibetans, who in the middle ages were the most feared and cruel warriors but their descendants are now the most spiritual nation in the whole world. Wouldn’t it be wise to hand off the knowledge and understanding we gained in our lives to the next generation and provide them with the example worthy of following. In that respect, the materia (tangible) would transform into information (intangible).

Jean Améry’s choice of voluntary death was rational and radical (read: influenced by the Western culture), so was his work as he cites other authors from the West. However we have options to read and discover the traditions from the Far East. If we were capable of admitting to ourselves the trap of rational thinking in various areas like economics, psychology as well as spirituality and the death, we would be more capable to open ourselves to different views as well as practical methodology (tried and tested by other cultures). We would be capable of developing our understanding of the purpose of life itself much better and realization of our own true evolutionary potentials. And perhaps finally figure out not only WHAT but also HOW.

P. S.: I have come across a piece of news which have signalled some change in this area: the Swiss parliament had refused the proposal of making stricter conditions for euthanasia for foreign nationals. The Dignitas clinic has helped 1169 patients from abroad to die (this was between 1998 – 2011). Approximately half of those were German nationals, the second major group were UK nationals followed by the French. Some Czech nationals also used services of this clinic. The euthanasia (or assisted suicide) helps patients who suffer from an incurable illnesses, and helps to shorten the inevitable suffering. The term assisted suicide is often used as a synonym for euthanasia, however it is an act in which the medic merely provides the lethal substance, which is then administered directly by the patient to himself. The Swiss legal system forbids direct or active euthanasia where medic or authorized/appointed personnel directly administers the lethal substance, killing the patient. The countries of Benelux allow active euthanasia only under very strict and specific conditions, and as such has been first legalized in Netherlands (in 2002). Euthanasia or assisted suicide is still illegal in the Czech Republic.