Lessons in Conscious Dying
Chapter 1: Lessons in Conscious Dying
It was mid-summer in Alaska and I hadn’t seen the star-filled night sky in several months. Sunlight blazed bright white off the snowy tip-tops of the mountains in the distance and reflected a silvery sheen upon the tidal waters of the Knik Arm below. Closer to home, plump bumblebees buzzed in and out of the lilac tree, whose leafy green upper branches bulged against the railing of our second-storey back porch.
I was looking for my dog, Barney, in the back yard. He had asked to be let out early in the morning and hadn’t come in yet, even though it was nearing dinner time.
I walked down the porch stairs, around the lilac, toward the wild flock of fireweed growing higher against our back fence each day. Legend has it that when the brilliant purple blooms reach the top of their stalk, summer will soon be over.
“Barney!” I called. “Barney!” Past the small chicken-wired garden and into the tangle of trees and shrubbery that provided wild space for the dogs. Back behind the small storage building, around the slate-roofed fish smoker we had built the year before. It was there I found him: lying on his side, head tucked, legs curled inward, breathing slow under the cool shadow of the smoker.
“Get up, Barn,” I pleaded, nudging his front paw with the tip of my foot. He had grown so thin, so fragile. I knew he had gone there to die. It was just like him to choose a quiet way to release himself back into the earth. No big fuss, no big trauma. Simply breathe your last breath back into the soil and float yourself free into the sunshine.
It’s easy to see this now—and to appreciate how peaceful such a death might have been—but back then I panicked. Despite all the talks we had, all the experiences we shared, I wasn’t ready. I ran inside and got my husband, wheedling him to carry Barney back inside.
As Bob hefted the limp body of my fine old buddy into his arms and headed toward the door, Barney rolled his head to look at me. His soulful, brown eyes peeked through his overgrown white fur, fearlessly burrowing deep inside of me, connecting at that place where there is no place for lies. "Ah," he remarked in passing, "we're going to do this your way, are we?"
Barney had been with me for 11 years. I adopted him as a two-year-old Cocker Spaniel-Poodle-Terrier mix from a shelter in Maryland. He was just being put into a cage as I walked into the room. Barks and yips and yowls reverberated against stark gray walls and metal bars. It was not a peaceful place, but the medium-sized white dog with the floppy ears sat still and quiet. I knew as soon as I saw him—even before I felt that force of energy flowing between us, pulling me closer. I crouched beside the cage and as he turned to look at me, it was clear. He was the one I was looking for.
Barney had been with me through a lot. He saw me through a variety of relationships and was my best friend on a month-long road trip exploring the ruggedly beautiful country of Nova Scotia. He hung out under the massage table I had in my home in Maryland, especially while I gave massages to clients. When I came home late, after teaching evening classes in anatomy and kinesiology, I’d be greeted by his friendly face at the door, stub of a tail wagging wildly.
Most everyone liked Barney and the most frequent adjective used to describe him was cool. “That’s a cool dog,” people would say, even if they didn’t know him well. Indeed, Barney had a calm yet engaging presence. He knew things, and the way he expressed his knowing was undoubtedly cool. It was he who chose a particular someone to sidle up to at a party. Before long, that individual would be stroking his fur, quieting down, mellowing and deepening in a way that visibly shifted something deep inside.
Barney traveled with me from Maryland to Wisconsin when I moved back to my home state. A few years later, after I married, he moved with me to the far north of the state. He loved our woodsy, cottage home and would often visit a nearby resort to “fish.” Patrolling the beach area for the perfect spot, Barney would stand tranquil as a seasoned fisherman; quiet and focused, paw-high in the chilly, northern lake water, he watched small fish flutter by for hours at a time. Every so often he would suddenly plunge his whole head under the water to make a grab—mostly to no avail.
The only time Barney and I ever had a falling out was the day he disowned me. Coming out of a grocery store one Saturday morning, Bob and I passed two young girls guarding a huge cardboard box in the parking lot. “Puppies!” I cried, instantly reverting instantly to my 6-year-old self as I grabbed for one of the pups. It was a tiny, wriggling, tawny brown male—part Cocker Spaniel, part Golden Retriever, part Samoyed. As soon as I held him, we all knew it was over. There was no way the warm, wriggling pup was going to leave my arms. It happened so fast, without conscious thought, and yet it felt inexplicably right.
…Until we got into the truck, that is. Barney took one look and turned his head away from me. Moving over to Bob (whom he had never been especially close to), Barney refused to acknowledge me or the newcomer for the rest of the day. But the pup, whom we called Zak, had other plans. He tossed his toys in front of Barney like a little kid trying to cajole a grouchy grandpa into play. When that didn’t work, Zak jumped up and grabbed Barney’s collar, attempting to walk him around the yard. It wasn’t too long before Barney acquiesced, both to Zak and myself. Within a few days, we were good buds once again.
Barney and Zak helped to welcome my daughter, Alyeska, into the world. They were both gentle and considerate of the new baby. They became her first best playmate and, two years later, were part of our family caravan as we packed up our Suburban and trudged northwestward across the country, to Alaska.
Despite a lot of moving and uncertainty (no jobs, no house), Barney and Zak were dependable guardians and friends. Once we settled, they met the neighborhood dogs and established their own jobs in our home. Then, they set out to some deeper work with me.
I became the editor of a health, wellness and spirituality magazine. One day, I came across an article written by a woman in Anchorage who talked with animals. Sparked by the idea, I interviewed the woman and learned there were other such ‘communicators’ who, by means of quieting the mind, were able to tune into the thoughts, emotions, and consciousness of other beings and communicate back and forth, just like a real conversation.
I’ve always been interested in different ways of seeing the world and, in particular, how diverse cultures use language, the arts and religion to talk about and understand spirit. So, the notion of seeing the world from an animal’s point of view was deliciously intriguing. I contacted other communicators and wrote some articles, all the while relentlessly asking questions: What sorts of things did animals think of humans? How did they see their place in the world? What wisdom did different species hold? If they could tell us what they most wanted us to know, what would it be?
Some of the communicators allowed me to interview animals through them. Thus, I asked questions of horses and llamas, dogs and cats, whales and dolphins. Even though I believed most all of the communicators were genuine and right-hearted in their talks, I still wondered how ‘real’ this notion of talking to animals could be.
As I began writing a book on the subject, I shifted from journalist to explorer, skeptic to fascinated voyager. I bounced from disbelief to awe to sudden enlightenment—and then bumped right back to uncertainty. I began having my own experiences in connecting with animals. I understood what the communicators were telling me: it was like an inner switch was turned on, one that I always had but just didn’t know about. As long as I let go of superficial talk, closed my eyes, quieted my thoughts and focused softly with an open heart, I could meet animals in a way in which feelings, thoughts, and ideas were shared. I was often surprised by how diverse and unusual their views were, especially in comparison to what I might have expected. It was all a process in relaxing and having fun, in being open enough to seeing the world in a new, different—and often much more vibrant—way.
I also found a knack for translating into words the sensations, images and sensory ideas that washed through my consciousness as I connected at deeper levels with animals. Now, don’t get me wrong—at times it was a bumpy ride. I doubted myself, told myself I had an overactive imagination or was guilty of projecting. While most communicators shared similar stories of self-doubt, especially in the early stages of remembering this ability we all have, I still found it difficult to accept some of the remarkable information that was shared in my conversations.
Luckily, Barney and Zak were happy to help. They most often intervened when I least expected anything—a good plan to shake me out of my old, limiting beliefs and into the ‘now’ of being. Still the closet-skeptic, I asked for proofs that what I heard from animals was ‘true.’ Time and again, I was told things that I could not have known, things that were later verified by the animal’s person. It’s a funny thing we humans do—not trusting our own experiences until others confirm them for us.
Gradually, though, I came to accept the process. It was Barney who became my main teacher and guide, my encouraging friend and supportive confidant. He often pushed me—gently, as only a big, white, fluffy dog can—to go beyond my self-imposed belief systems and the social paradigms enforced by language, culture, education, family and peers. Barney asked me to dig deep and search for knots that held or blinded me to certain areas. And he instructed me, time and again, to “open to experience—the Grand Teacher,” as he was so fond of saying.
Barney also called me on my fears, asking me to be present and consider the deeper roots of why I was so eager to turn away from a particular idea or experience. I never knew Barney to be a coy or evasive being. Rather, he put his cards on the table and encouraged others to meet themselves in the same way: eyes clear, mind alert, heart open, boldly, lovingly, in the mirror of Self.
This Most Amazing Journey
Let us begin with a short introduction to the topic of death, said Barney early one morning as he plopped below my desk, pushing my foot with his muzzle. Barney and I had a deal. If he lay under my desk, it was a sign that we were to have a chat.
It would be best to think of this as a subject of transition or journey rather than as a finality or ending, he continued. The journey is like a shaking off water, just as a dog shakes water easily and naturally from its fur when wet.
There are many avenues by which we could proceed. I would like to point out from the beginning that there is one major road to Death, or transformation of bodily form, though there are numerous side paths that one can take along the way.
I am now preparing for my ending in this body of Barney the dog. It is like turning a page, shutting a book, moving from one room to another, momentarily turning attention away from Barney the dog so as to focus on another aspect of being.
Ah, there is so much to discuss! That is why I would like to leave you now with the image of a road toward Death. It is the major path to one’s end in this particular space/time/being configuration. But, whilst on that road, we will take numerous side treks in order to more fully discuss and appreciate this most amazing journey.
This is where we stopped that first morning, a mere six weeks before the fish smoker incident and Barney’s death, a few days later. Although Barney and I had many profound conversations over the past few years, during which time I came to realize that animals are not only sentient but wise, humorous and talented beings with unique purposes for being upon this planet, these conversations—what I would come to think of as the Death Talks—were special. Nearly every morning in the days that followed, we would speak about a good many subjects: the transition from life to death, reincarnation, karmic projections and illusions, and—one of Barney’s favorite topic—the value and wonder of shapeshifting.
It seemed hard to confront so much so deeply when there was such precious little time left. Barney’s eyesight was failing, he was growing thinner, and he had a disturbing way of occasionally staring off into space and shaking for a few seconds at a time. Yet, in other ways, he seemed perfectly happy and healthy. He still ran like a puppy when I took him to the mountains, and never did turn away from a bowl of food.
Our first task, then, was to plunge in deeply just exactly where we were. And this, Barney told me, was facing death, square in the eyes.
What’s wrong with death?
The word death comes to us from the Old English, though its roots go back much further than that. As far back as the most ancient parts of us can remember, we have known death. Most often, the word is associated with the permanent cessation of all bodily functions. Our heart stops, our lungs cease, our brain withers away: we die. In short, death is the end of life as we know it. Scary stuff for us humans who want to plan and know and be in control of every last little detail.
Some people don’t like to use the word, death. They may say things like: passing on, transitioning, going to sleep. Although these phrases hold their own truths, it seems a funny human-thing to create euphemisms, as if that will somehow help us to sidestep the process. Some may argue that death sounds so final, as if we cease to exist when we die. What about the soul? What about our vital essence? We don’t really end with death, do we?
And yet, all of us will die. Parts of us are dying right now. For death is a part of the natural process of living. Even if we do go on to another world—an alternate universe, a heaven, a hell, an ever-present continuum of consciousness—death is still a part of our life cycle on this earth. We may call it other things, but death is as integral to life as is birth. What’s wrong with death?
I wish to talk about my own death, a personal path, for now, Barney began the following morning.
Others have seen this coming and have reflected it to you, yet you still do not wish to see. I understand. This is how it is for many, many beings. The shrouding of death from consciousness is a built-in defense mechanism, one that comes with a certain degree of grace or built-in consciousness comfort. It is for this reason that it remains a mystery for many beings. Death is here, and yet it is not seen, hidden away deep within the being’s knowingness.
My own death is not too far away, though I still have some time. I accepted my death many lifetimes ago and it is no longer a trauma for me. I am spending time with you on this subject since it interests you, and I am willing to share these teachings with others, since it may interest and help them as well.
One of the first things to notice is your relationship with death. How do you think about death and feel it in your body? Is it with a gasp of fear or a laugh of defense? Is it held with tension or lovingly, hand in hand?
The way you think about death greatly influences the way death occurs, though I do not mean this to be a hard and fast rule. That is the trouble with some humans—your intellect can be developed to overpower your emotions. Sometimes this works in your favor; at other times it does not. I will say from the outset, that as I give information in the following pages, it is important to note that this is from my perspective and my many lifetimes of learning, experiencing and teaching about Death. I do not wish for any one sentence to be taken as a hard and fast rule. It is better for you inner ear to listen, to grasp the wholeness of what I say, and use what fits best for you at this particular time.
You might ask me, what do you see or feel when you confront death? For myself, it is simply a passing into another mode of being. Many have said this before. Perhaps it would do well to take this into your consciousness at a very deep level: it is simply a movement to another mode of being. Much like moving from one room to another within your house, or from one state to another. It is really nothing more than that: a moving.
I have a heaviness in my heart around all the fear that is associated with death. I have worked with death and with those beings making the transition for many lifetimes and so I am familiar with this heavy-door syndrome. Do you feel it in your heart, Dawn?
"Yes,” I admitted. “I can feel that heaviness. And I also sense how I want to keep the door closed. I don’t even know why anymore."
It is because you fear the unknown. That is not so out of the ordinary. It is normal—and even encouraged in your society—to fear the unknown. At some level, this is a healthy thing. It prevents you from trespassing in places you ought not to go. At other times, however, it is much more of an obstacle. You know that Zak often talks about doors—his preferred metaphor is the sliding glass door. That is because he operates from a much more expanded viewpoint of always seeing the next room. For him, there is no mystery associate with moving and that is why his personality is rather fearless, don’t you think?
Yes, sharp-witted Zak was indeed an intrepid explorer. "He is funny that way," I agreed.
So, how shall we proceed? asked Barney after a pause.
"Why don’t we start with what you most want us to know."
Hmmm. Sometimes you use that question as a shield. Do you know that?
"Well, I mean to give you the opportunity to let us know what you most want us to hear. But, yes, I know what you mean. Sometimes it is easier to be given information rather than searching for it."
Let us start with you. What is it that you would most like to know about death?
"Oh, good question! I guess my biggest emotional fear is leaving the people I love. I wonder if the ‘beyond’ is going to be more fun than this world or if I will really miss it. But mostly the emotional ties I have to my family are what pulls at my heart and makes me not want to leave.”
And your question is?
I laughed. Barney had a way of pulling me out of reveries just as abruptly as he got me to pondering the deeper questions of life, and death.
"What happens? I guess that is everyone’s question, isn’t it? Where do we go when we leave this world? Do we still have consciousness? Do we forget those on earth or are we still connected with them? What happens?"
Most everyone knows in their heart and deep within their being the answers to these questions. Most beings have journeyed into death many, many times before.
Let us return to the metaphor of moving from room to room. Just because you leave one room does not mean you forget it. You simply are engaged in whatever you are now seeing and feeling, though the reality and memory of that other room still survives. This is how it is with death to some degree, at least at certain stages.
There are those who do not want to leave the room of the living. The emotional ties are too strong and they feel—mostly with mistaken beliefs—that they cannot or should not leave. This leads to a slow transition and is not often very productive. Most beings, however, are fairly quick in leaving their bodies and moving on.
There are many wonders out of spirit, many different dimensional levels to explore. You might compare it to moving to another country—once there, you are very excited by the newness and the different ways of the people and their land, their marketplaces, their art and language and culture. Death is a passage to another country—and there is very much to explore!
There are ‘schools’ one can attend. Some learn about healing emotional ties and releasing old personalities. Some choose to have personal guides, almost like a tour. In truth, there are as many versions to this experience as there are beings—which are to say infinite. That is why I remind you that your relationship to death is Paramount. It is your movie, after all!
I smiled as I wrote down Barney’s words, his thoughts flowing through me like wild birds sailing across a calm, blue sky.
"Does this help answer your question some?" Barney asked.
"Yes, it goes along with what I have felt too."
Well, you needn’t fear that this is your ‘projection.’ You have had many lifetimes in which also have assisted with the death process, so it is fairly easy to transmit this information through you. We will discuss projections again, however, and how they figure not only in this life but also in the death experience.
While our focus on death that morning ended there, Barney and I went on to discuss his physical form, which was showing further signs of wear. His eyesight was growing dimmer and his joints were getting creaky, though Barney assured me he could still see and appreciated the massage and herbal formulas I used to supplement his food.
Beneath the surface, I sensed we were moving into a sacred-space of learning. I could feel it. There was a deeper quality to our exchange, a feeling of “this is it” in the words. I felt, perhaps, that this is why Barney and I had come together in this life, for me to hear these words, feel these feelings, open to these experiences. And thus I asked myself once again: who was this amazing being who lived inside the white furry body of my dog, Barney?