According to anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973), the society we live in today is a symbolic defense mechanism against our own deaths. People find various “immortality projects” to feel like they are part of something bigger. Conflicts between these immortality projects are the reason behind most evil in life such as wars and genocide. However, not every society throughout history viewed death as the horrific end of everything. There is a striking discrepancy between modern society and the ancient cultures on how they view death. It was not denied and hidden in the ancient cultures, unlike modern society, it had a vital role in the culture. Spiritual and ritual life, philosophy and mythology revolved around death.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, death is an entrance to spiritual liberation and transformation. It is the escape from the never-ending cycles of death and rebirth. For the ones who can’t liberate, it is the period that designates the subsequent incarnation. Practitioners prepare themselves for this transition period death is throughout their lifetime.
In modern society, people incline to shield themselves from the discomfort of the idea of death. Instead, all efforts are put into life-support and the prolongation of life. People on the verge of death are usually taken care of out of eyesight, in hospitals and nursing homes. Often inadequate support is provided for dying people and there are limited societal rituals to help them with this final transition in their lifetime. Western media promotes a safe distance from death and dying by reducing this experience to statistics and desensitising society from the emotional aspect of death with never-ending violent entertainment.
Beliefs related to the afterlife in any form are mostly refused by the Western approach and interpreted as ‘wishful thinking’. Even though the afterlife is a popular subject in media and entertainment culture, the same does not apply to scientific literature. Professionals dismiss such phenomena almost entirely, labeling them as hallucinations. Near-death situations are not recorded systematically nor observed. According to Grof, the father of holotropic breathwork technique, the Western scientific approach dismisses religion as a whole. However Eastern spiritual traditions and various other mystical approaches are based on accumulative systematic introspection and provide a rich source of knowledge on the psyche. Thus this attitude of generalising all religions is harmful to the history of spiritualism and the spiritual progression of humanity.
Another subject dismissed by Western science is spiritual perspectives on consciousness. The cumulative evidence which comes from various fields including “history, anthropology, comparative religion, or various areas of modern research, such as parapsychology, thanatology, psychedelic therapy, sensory deprivation, experiential psychotherapies” is neglected. In the Western view, consciousness is entirely dependent on the body when biological death occurs consciousness comes to an absolute end. In the West, holotropic states aside from dreams are pathologised. There is no distinction between spiritual and psychotic experiences. Both are viewed as symptoms of mental illness and various methods are used to minimise or eliminate them.
However, in truth, humankind has very limited knowledge about the nature of death and the nature of consciousness. Thus it is unreasonable to approach these phenomena as a subject outside science. Nothing about the afterlife is proven scientifically and is beyond a reasonable doubt. The same applies to consciousness, we have limited knowledge about the mechanisms of consciousness and how it is established.
Death is one of the stages of human existence and there is no escape from it. This final stage of our life is a chance to develop and grow for those who are brave enough to explore it. According to the Transpersonal Approach which was pioneered by Grof and Maslow, mighty forces exist within the mind that pushes us towards wholeness and spiritual awakening above the limitations of our ego. This phenomenon is noted to be particularly observable when the life cycle is closer to an end. A journey to redefine death often leads to other transformations and reconsiderations about the general outlook of life.
One of the most influential practices for changing the views on death is experimenting with altered states of consciousness. Altered consciousness works as a tool to train people for dying and integrates death into daily life. In a way, people practice ‘dying without dying’. Such experiences create an “opportunity to experience psychospiritual death and rebirth” which transforms how an individual views death. Coming to terms with dying liberates the person from living in the past or the future and increases the ability to experience the here and now. When death is no longer the enemy, commonly held beliefs about life lose their impact. This interactive transformation about views on death and life and the following increase of spiritual awareness is called “transpersonal development”.
Transpersonal development can take place after a real near-death situation or after a spiritual death experience in a psychological way like in meditation or in breathwork. Many traditions including Buddhism, Taoism, Tibetan Vajrayana, Sufism uses methods such as prayers, meditations and breathing techniques to facilitate non-ordinary states of consciousness. With these practices fear of death, philosophy of life and perspectives on mortality drastically transforms.
Learn how to approach this difficult topic through Tantra as part of our training. This is not only about loss, it is about healing and moving forward.
Altered states can help us face death with serenity and levity: Psyche ideas. (2021, September 3). Psyche. https://psyche.co/ideas/altered-states-can-help-us-face-death-with-serenity-and-levity.
Ernest, B. (1973). The denial of death. New York.
Grof, S., Doblin, R., Grof, B., & Tarnas, R. (2019). Psyche and Thanatos: Psychospiritual Dimensions of Death and Dying. In The way of the psychonaut: Encyclopedia for inner journeys. essay, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).