Practice Dying: An exploration of conscious living & dying

By John Griffin, Ph.D.

The above quotation, attributed to Plato as his final instruction to his disciples just before his own death, is an admonition we should all take to heart. It implies not only our behavior at the time of death and how we deal with that, but the preparation in our behavior prior to the time of death – that is, how we live our life. This is all of a piece, for the moment of death and its quality is dependent on what has gone before and where our consciousness is placed. We need a philosophy of life which ultimately becomes a practice for the act and art of dying and our transition in the ongoing continuum of consciousness.

There is a story, of Indian origin, about a merchant who thought he had cleverly taken precautions regarding the manner of his death. At death, in the Hindu tradition, one’s mind should be on divine matters and detached from this world from which one is departing. Even family concerns must be left behind. Here is the story of the “clever” merchant:

A wealthy merchant had made business concerns his primary focus during all of his adult life. Still, he was aware of the traditional teaching that one’s mind should be on the Divine [in Plato, stated as "The Good"] at the end of life so that one can merge with Divine, Total Consciousness as the body and this world pass away. To insure this happening, the merchant had devised a scheme. As each of his children were born he gave them one of the many sacred, divine names. Most Hindu names have some direct divine connection or connotation anyway, but he picked the most popular sacred names so as to be sure. He counted on his children all being at his deathbed when the time came. This would remind him to keep God in mind and if he called out to any one of them as he passed away, he would be calling out a name for God as well. To insure that they would be present at the final moment, he took all of his children into his thriving business and built all of them homes next to his own. When the time finally came and he saw all of his children dutifully gathered around his deathbed, he couldn’t help crying out with his last breath: “Who’s minding the store!?”

. This story of the materially wealthy but ultimately poor merchant illustrates through humor, with an underlying deadly seriousness, the fact that our death too often recapitulates our life.

. Plato’s admonition to “practice dying” was a favorite quote of Dr. Benito F. Reyes, the founder of World University in Ojai. I heard him use it from time to time over the years and it served as a reminder to himself as well as to others about where our awareness and our priorities should be placed. Dr. Reyes believed with Plato that the art of dying well was a culmination of a life lived well, as Plato makes particularly clear in “The Myth of Er” at the end of the Republic. Plato’s dialogue about justice in society and within the person resonates with the Indian concept of Dharma or right conduct, and in the story which closes the Republic it is easy to see an interesting parallel to the widespread and widely documented phenomenon known as the Near-Death Experience (NDE). Research and education about this experience and its implications has been a major concern of Dr. Benito Reyes and of World University. NDE data provides a modern confirmation of the type of experience recounted by Socrates/Plato in The Myth of Er. So an East-West interface and what might actually be an ancient account of a Near-Death Experience are both present in this Myth or traditional story.

Near the close of the dialogue which constitutes the Republic, Socrates has recounted the various rewards which a just person may expect in his or her lifetime “in addition to those other blessings which come simply from being just.” He goes on to relate that these “are as nothing, in number or in greatness, when compared with the recompense awaiting the just and the unjust after death.” To illustrate this, Socrates tells a story called The Myth of Er. In the story or ‘myth’ of Er, not only is the hero of the story identified by name but the name of his father, Armenius, and his city state, Pamphylia, are also given. This may indicate that Plato is drawing upon an actual account of Er the warrior, the son of Armenius of Pamphylia.

A valiant Greek soldier, Er was supposedly killed in combat. But, when the dead were taken up for burial ten days after the battle, Er’s body was undecayed although he showed no signs of life. His comrades carried his body home, but before they could bury him he came to life again. Then he related to them what he had seen in that world, on the other side of bodily death, which he had only ‘visited.’

According to Er’s account, when his soul left his body he found himself with many other souls on a “journey” which ended at a “marvellous place.” There, he saw two openings side by side in the earth and two above them in the sky. In between sat Judges who determined the fate of the just and the unjust. The former were given “tokens” which were affixed to their fronts and then they were bidden to “take the way to the right upwards through the sky.” The latter, the unjust, had evidence of their misdeeds fastened on their backs and then were “commanded to take the downward road to the left.” When Er came before the Judges, they informed him that he was to observe and learn and then go back to earthly life and tell what he had seen.

Besides the souls which had been judged, Er also saw the souls of those who had enjoyed their tenfold pleasures for their just behavior on earth and those who had endured their tenfold punishment for their unjust behavior. The former were coming into the meadow from one of the openings in the sky and the latter from one of the openings in the earth. While they rested in the meadow, they recounted their stories of suffering or of enjoyment and bliss. After spending seven days in the meadow, on the eighth day they moved on until they came to the Spindle of Necessity, by means of which the cycles and circles of the Cosmos revolve. This symbolic Spindle turned on the knees of Necessity and Necessity’s three daughters helped to turn it. One of the daughters, Lachesis, supplied a number of lots and sample lives which the souls could choose from and an Interpreter delivered an address to the gathered souls:

“The word of Lachesis, maiden daughter of Necessity. Souls of a day, here shall begin a new round of earthly life, to end in death. No guardian spirit will cast lots for you, but you shall choose your own destiny. Let him to whom the first lot falls choose first a life to which he will be bound of necessity. But Virtue owns no master: as a man honors or dishonors her, so shall he have more of her or less. The blame is his who chooses; Heaven is blameless.” (Cornford, Republic, page 355)

Now the various souls, including Er himself, were ready to be sent into the world again. The Interpreter scattered lots among the assemblage and the souls took up the lots which had fallen at their feet. Then they began their selection of the next life to lead on earth. There were various choices – very important choices – to be made in terms of the circumstances of reincarnation. Many of the souls, though they had undergone suffering in purgatory for their previous sins, were still ignorant in many fundamental ways and made the wrong selections, which would lead them into new sins and further punishment. A choice of rebirth as a great tyrant might only later be revealed as a very unwise choice. Plato describes the nature of a man making such a choice:

“He was one of those who had come down from Heaven, having spent his former life in a well-ordered commonwealth and become virtuous from habit without pursuing wisdom.” (Cornford, Republic, page 357)

Many of the souls who had come from Heaven were caught in this way in a bad choice of lives “because they were not disciplined by suffering.”

Famous figures of Greek history were also present and were making their next life choices. Odysseus chose a life of “quiet obscurity” as a contrast to his former life with all its labors and adventures. He was the last in line to choose, but he found the life he wanted lying neglected by all the rest and he declared that he would have chosen it anyway, had he been first in line. Some souls, with a proclivity to be unjust, actually passed into the forms of beasts while some freely chose the form of an animal. The soul of Ajax, a Greek hero from the siege of Troy, chose the form of a lion as he was still bitter about the lot of men. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks at Troy who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon returning home, chose the form of an eagle.

Despite what might be thought of the concept of reincarnation in general, many people would probably be skeptical of this juxtaposition of several important figures from the Trojan War aside from the issue of reembodiment in the form of animals. Even if the Near-Death Experience of Er the warrior were a true account, there is no reason why this part of the story could not have been modified by Plato for literary and philosophical advantage. Still, this kind of associative juxtaposition has been noted in persuasive cases of reincarnation which have been studied and, if true, may be due to some kind of karmic law of affinity which we in the West do not yet understand.

Looking at this story from the perspective of contemporary Near-Death Experiences, it fits into that overall pattern in various respects and it also relates in interesting ways to philosophical concepts of India, particularly present in Yoga traditions, regarding the ability of consciousness to function independent of the body while the body remains inert yet still alive. The alleged fact that Er’s body was undecayed after ten days lying on the battlefield amongst the decaying bodies of other soldiers may be hard for some to accept, but we have similar accounts from medicine and also spiritual traditions. As a child I spent almost two weeks in a coma, and there are many people who have been in comas for months or even years. As just one example from a spiritual tradition, it has been attested by some of his followers that the late Shirdi Sai Baba, a famous 19th and early 20th century saint of northern India, left his body voluntarily for three days and then came back. During this time his body was as a corpse and would have been dealt with as such except for his instructions to his followers to protect his body for three days until his return to it.

Parapsychological research has provided convincing evidence of the reality of the Out-Of-Body-Experience (OOBE). The millions of Near-Death-Experiences (NDEs) estimated to have occurred worldwide and the thousands which have been carefully investigated by researchers, have also convinced many investigators, including medical personnel, of the reality of this seemingly related phenomenon. When the NDErs return to “normal” life in this world they routinely exhibit a deep commitment to acting with justice and love in their dealings with others. In their opinion, love is the only worthwhile and enduring quality in the world on the other side of physical death, aside from the wisdom arising from recognizing and honoring Truth and The Good which enables true love to arise and bloom in all its glory. Dealing justly, or dharmically in the Indian context, with others is an expression of love in action. Therefore, it behooves us to “practice dying” in the sense of living well as loving and just human beings. This is exactly the point made in Plato’s Republic.

The Myth of Er occurs at the end of Socrates’ dialogue and serves as a summing up and finale to the central thesis of the Republic: what justice is in the ultimate sense in the world. It is the performance of one’s duties according to one’s abilities and one’s situation in life. This right conduct must occur within the context of the highest good of the whole society. And what is the highest good? Only true philosophy and true philosophers may answer that and Plato considered Socrates to be a true philosopher. Early on in the Republic, Socrates demonstrates that justice in a ruler involves ruling in the “strict sense”. This confining “strict sense” definition was seemingly forced on Socrates by a famous Sophist rhetorician named Thrasymachus who Socrates debates in the first section of the dialogue. We might compare him to a modern political “spin doctor” since his services were for sale to the highest bidder to enhance that person’s political image and win support and adulation. Socrates embraces this strict definition of justice demanded by Thrasymachus and turns it to advantage in presenting his thesis. He applies this “strict sense” definition of justice or right conduct in the examples of a true doctor, sea captain, or shepherd. Each of these must act as responsible agents in the interest of patients, ship and seafarers, and the animals of the flock. In resonance with their just actions, justice in the form of recompense will be awarded to these people in various ways in their life in this world and/or in the world on the other side of bodily death. This certainly includes their livelihood, but their actions cannot be strictly predicated on money or power or they would not be conducting themselves in the “strict sense” definition of their professions.

Socrates further demonstrates that justice in society is a condition whereby each element of society does its appropriate and proper work and in doing so contributes to the well being of the whole in the context of the “Good” which the philosophers know, love and serve. Plato concludes The Myth of Er and the Republic with a beautiful description of the process which this book has laid out as the path to follow:

“And so, Glaucon, the tale was saved from perishing; and if we will listen, it may save us, and all will be well when we cross the river of Lethe. Also we shall not defile our souls; but, if you will believe with me that the soul is immortal and able to endure all good and ill, we shall keep always to the upward way and in all things pursue justice with the help of wisdom. Then, we shall be at peace with Heaven and with ourselves, both during our sojourn here and when, like victors in the Games collecting gifts from their friends, we receive the prize of justice; and so, not here only, but in the journey of a thousand years of which I have told you, we shall fare well.”

May we all fare well in this life and also when we say farewell to this life. And we shall, if we behave consciously – mindful of the essential principles and values in this life and in our dying process as we finally leave the body at the end of this life. We have to activate and honor our conscience – the Buddhi faculty of illumined inner knowing in the spiritual traditions of India and the Eudaimon in the Greek wisdom tradition of Socrates – to guide our thought, actions and interactions through this world and the next. This is the true consolation of philosophy, the Love of Wisdom and the art of living and dying well.

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