This week, we’re shining a light on experiences of dying, as witnessed by Kathleen Dowling Singh, a PhD who has walked beside hundreds of people in their dying stages.
Kathleen shares her experiences of dying – through other people’s death – in her book: The Grace in Dying. She concludes that however differently we have lived our lives, our experiences of dying are remarkably similar whatever our culture or faith, wherever we live, when we have time and space to die.
Kathleen tells us:
“We spend most of our lives building our ego, making judgments around our likes, dislikes, and preferences. The ego is not evil—ego-building is necessary in human growth and development. But the ego is not the true self, only our image or perception of ourselves. So we spend most of our lives living from that ego rather than living from our depths, living from the soul. In the process of dying, all of those ego mechanisms are slowly taken from us as the body becomes weak, frail, and dependent. And yet it is precisely in this letting go of the ego self, even against our wills, that we are liberated. While the process inevitably entails seasons of chaos, anger, and denial, before death there is generally a time of unparalleled acceptance and peace, however long or short—the last burst of a soul finally living beyond the constraints of the ego. Grace indeed, however harsh it may come.”
Experiences of dying – the reviews
Below, two reviewers reflect on Kathleen’s findings.
Jonathon Martin, the books that most shaped me:
Books like The Grace in Dying do not come along very often. It is so comprehensive in scope, so bold in its vision, and runs across so many disciplines—it truly is a book of particular genius. Not only is it wise, but tender, warm, compassionate, and most of all unbearably human. A PhD who has spent her life walking with hundreds of people through the dying process, Dowling Singh’s bold thesis is that no matter where people come from, what their culture or background, religious or otherwise—the dying process is remarkably similar when people actually have time to die (as opposed to sudden, traumatic death). In the same way that Rohr sees the “answer” in Christianity as already being programmed into the problem (through failure, sin and stumbling, we fall into resurrection), Dowling Singh sees divine grace as hardwired into the dying process itself. The argument runs something like this: We spend most of our lives building our ego, making judgments around our likes, dislikes, and preferences. The ego is not evil—ego-building is necessary in human growth and development. But the ego is not the true self, only our image or perception of ourselves. So we spend most of our lives living from that ego rather than living from our depths, living from the soul. In the process of dying, all of those ego mechanisms are slowly taken from us as the body becomes weak, frail, and dependent. And yet it is precisely in this letting go of the ego self, even against our wills, that we are liberated. While the process inevitably entails seasons of chaos, anger, and denial, before death there is generally a time of unparalleled acceptance and peace, however long or short—the last burst of a soul finally living beyond the constraints of the ego. Grace indeed, however harsh it may come.
Dowling Singh herself is Buddhist, but the book is chock full of insights from Jesus and great Christian thinkers and mystics. In fact, I think the book at its core level is about nothing more or less than “losing your life to find it,” and Dowling Singh quite understands the essence of Christian theology from the outside infinitely better than most of us insiders. If it doesn’t move you, you don’t have a pulse. And if there is not Spirit and life all over this book, I don’t know where the Spirit is. I dare you to make it through this book without both blowing a few mental circuits and shedding some hot tears. “We will discover for ourselves that the tragedy is not in dying, the tragedy is in living disconnected from Life. I have heard it said that our culture suffers not so much from the forces of darkness but the forces of shallowness. We will experience grace the moment we experience our connection with Spirit, the transcendent Reality, the Center to our periphery. We will experience grace the moment we experience Life beyond our cramped self-definition, the moment we take off the blinders and glory in all that is beyond ‘me.’”
And later, “The path home could be easily traced, much like a mother following her child’s path to bed. She sees what has been dropped on the way. If we were the mother following an enlightened being or the consciousness of one who has entered the Near Death experience, we would see the toys left behind and the shoes that had been dropped, the socks, the pants, the shirt, and the underwear; the body, the emotions, and the thoughts; and last, before the bed, just discarded on the floor, all separate sense of self.” Mercy.
Dowling Singh’s visionary, monumental work reframes the challenge of Jesus’ own teaching in an evocative, potentially life-altering way: if these are in fact the qualities of death and dying, what it would like if a person were able to experience the grace in dying while they are still alive?
Tim Hannan for Inside Out:
This book stands head and shoulders over anything previously published on the difficult subject of death and dying. It is a wonderful read from start to finish and will undoubtedly reward anyone who lingers over its lyrical prose or who is involved in working with the dying. Singh is obviously a gifted and highly perceptive woman and must now be a serious contender for the mantle laid down by the late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
This book combines her personal observations of working alongside the terminally ill, with the views of transpersonal psychology, Buddhist techniques on death and dying, contemplative practice and the wisdom of traditions of the world to produce a ground-breaking over-view of a process that is still often shrouded in mystery and ignorance.
Perhaps the real contribution of this work is the ability of Singh to differentiate the subtle stages of transformation in the transpersonal, spiritual, psychological, philosophical, energetic and physiological experiences of the person approaching death. Other authors have previously considered individual aspects of this multi-faceted process, but few if any have succeeded in grasping the vast complexity and depth of the subject in so comprehensive a manner.
This is a deeply humane and thought-provoking book for anyone who may ever have to face the death of a client or a loved one (or indeed, one’s own death). It offers hope and the promise of grace abiding beyond pain and loss. I would really like to have someone who thoroughly understood this work by my death bed when my time comes. An important book.
Find out more about Kathleen and her experiences of dying: kathleendowlingsingh.com
Read reviews and buy the book: Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying: how we are transformed spiritually as we die