“Death is not the opposite of life. Death is the opposite of birth. Life is the continuum of birth and death.”
– Deepak Chopra, MD
Editor’s Note: This documentary film seems more relevant than ever, as we are collectively facing a global pandemic, climate crisis and cultural breakdowns. What was the worldview of death as part of life before we decided to believe we were separate from nature and its life forces? Enjoy this interview from Kindred’s archives (first published in 2013). You can now watch the film on a variety of platforms, including here and purchase the book here.
Death Makes Life Possible
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARILYN MANDALA SCHLITZ, PHD
Could the holistic understanding that Death Makes Life Possible make us and the planet happier and healthier? Marilyn Mandala Schlitz and Deepak Chopra explore this truth in a new documentary. Read the interview, watch the trailer and listen to the free download.
In 1603, emboldened by Renaissance insights after centuries of violent oppression, Shakespeare’s Hamlet pondered his mortality and, in open defiance of the clearly defined territory of medieval Christian doctrine, declared death to be an as yet, “undiscovered country.”
Four hundred years later, the deal-brokered split of human consciousness between church and science into internal and external worlds has spawned industrial systems so out of balance and unsustainable, human civilization and planetary ecology built around these systems now face increasing and dramatic degradation.
“Had he lived today, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark would confirm with deeper conviction than ever: To be or not to be is indeed the question,” writes Ervin Laszlo, PhD, in Quantum Shift in the Global Brain: How the New Scientific Reality Can Change Us and Our World. “It is not the skull of an individual human being that Hamlet would ponder, but this living blue-green planet, the home of humanity… The question [now] is: evolution or extinction?”
What modern convictions prevent this needed healing of our consciousness into a wholeness that could perceive life as interconnected and interdependent? Forty years of consciousness research at the Institute of Noetic Science, IONS, has sought to answer this question and IONS’ latest insights are presented in the new documentary, Death Makes Life Possible: Bridging Consciousness, Science and Spirit.
Produced by Marilyn Schlitz, PhD, and Deepak Chopra, MD, the Death Makes Life Possible continues the Renaissance tradition of defying religious and cultural taboos by presenting an intersection of frontier science, rich wisdom traditions and diverse personal experiences around what quickly becomes, in the documentary, a well-traveled and seemless country: Death.
“There is a spiritual renaissance in the West; as we confront our mortality we are midwifing the difficult birth of a multidimensional transformation – physical, spiritual, psychological, social, and ecological,” says Schlitz. “It is at the meeting place of science and spiritual wisdom traditions that we are discovering a new paradigm of reality and what it means to be fully human. We are discovering that simply contemplating death can make us happier, healthier, and better citizens.”
In Death Makes Life Possible, Schlitz, a cultural anthropologist and research scientist, connects viewers to universal questions and also to their own perspectives on the ultimate meaning of life, death, and what lies beyond. The film moves between personal stories of near-death and out-of-body experiences that inspire a belief in the continuum of consciousness, expert interviews with mental health professional on the practical task of living without fear of death, and more than two dozen thinkers, researchers and scientists, including Rupert Sheldrake, Bruce Greyson, Stuart Hameroff, and Rick Hanson, who share their search evidence of the soul.
The documentary is particularly timely, not only because of the imperative of the global sustainability discussion it could inspire, but because of the very real daily crises faced by the world’s aging population:
- According to the book, An Aging World, the number of people worldwide 65 and older is estimated to hit 1.3 billion by the year 2040.
- Beginning in January 2011, more than 10,000 Baby Boomers reached the age of 65 every single day (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging).
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, report released in October 2012, U.S. deaths surpassed 2.5 million for the first time in 2011.
As IONS’ website states, “This film makes the case that we have much to gain by facing our fear of death and asking what death might have to offer our lives. Death Makes Life Possible is a must see for anyone who’s going to die.” With such a broad audience to reach (everyone), Lisa Reagan sat down with Dr. Schlitz for an interview about the film and her discoveries about death.
Lisa: What inspired the making of, and then the title of the movie?
Marilyn: As you point out with the Hamlet quote, this is not a new conversation that we are having around death and what comes later. What is the possible model that each of us holds that gives us some sense of the possible, the mystery, the undiscovered country – a beautiful metaphor. The title, Death Makes Life Possible, came from Deepak Chopra, MD, the co-producer of the film and a book project that supports the movie. The movie explores the mystery of death. How do different cultures hold it? How do different religions and spiritual worldviews hold this idea of death? Why do we die? And what comes next, if anything?
We spend some time in the film examining the shared, perennial qualities of diverse, and often conflicting, faith traditions and worldviews before moving into the science. What does science have to say about the evolutionary nature of death? Death does make life possible. We need death in order to maintain that great cycle of life.
Lisa: What has science shown about life, or the continuum of consciousness, beyond death?
Marilyn: We talked to scientists about the possibility that something survives bodily death: a soul, an identity, some kind of journey. Yesterday at the Earthrise Retreat Center at the Institute of Noetic Sciences I had the privilege of meeting with Incan Indians from Peru who live up in the Highlands. (This interview took place in October 2013.) They believe themselves to be the direct inheritors of a lineage line that was largely eradicated when the Conquistadors came. So again, going back to our historical references, different continent, but equally interesting. So for about 500 years, they went and hid in the mountains and it is only within the last few years that they have started to come out and to engage modernity with messages from their cultural understanding.
I talked with them about death and then that evening went to an art exhibit where my town in California is celebrating the tradition of the Day of the Dead, which is a practice that takes over for a month. The Day of the Dead honors the dead as a parallel life. It was interesting to me that these Indians, who are carrying a heritage 500 years away from direct communication with their descendants, has the seeds of the same model, the same cosmology or worldview as the Day of the Dead ceremonies.
So there is this very rich continuity between the living and the people who pass over and there is the belief that there is communication. There is no separation. We find this in a lot of different traditions, that there is an active relationship between our departed loved ones and the way in which we carry on our lives.
Lisa: How does one study the soul?
Marilyn: We talk to our scientists at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, like Dean Radin, who have conducted studies on the psycho-physiology of mediums who claim to communicate with the departed and what is happening in their brains and bodies when they are having these experiences. We present this information in the film, as well as case reports on reincarnation that show threads of evidence of some kind of identity can survive bodily death.
So these are very interesting mysteries, and remain mysteries, but science is now attempting to explore them.
Lisa: Why are you personally interested in exploring death?
Marilyn: We are following my life journey in the film, beginning at the point when I was 18 months old, curious and inquisitive, and I did something that a lot of 18 months-old do which is to explore something by putting it into my mouth. What I put in my mouth was lighter fluid. I ended up in the emergency room and in and out of intensive care for about three months as a baby. I think there was something in that experience, even though I don’t consciously remember it, that informed my curiosity around this question and helped to inspire me to want to look at ways that we can help to heal ourselves and heal our culture.
I think our relationship to death is one of the big taboo topics. Most of the psychological theory talks about it as terror management. But there is also a way in which incorporating death into a routine way into our life so that it is not so black and white, but is this kind of seamless whole can help us to feel more resilient and to have a greater sense of connection. I think people who can maintain a healthy conversation with people that they love and care about even if they have passed over can be very good for our psychology.
We are turning the theory on its head in saying that rather than seeing this in its most nefarious terms, it is really time for us to shed light on this reality that impacts all of us.
Lisa: Where can we, as Westerners, go to find a comfortable place to have this discussion around death and dying without the pathology?
Marilyn: I think many churches still maintain the idea that there is connection and that praying for the departed can be an important part of staying in touch. I think that one of my hopes with the Death Makes Life Possible project is that in addition to it being a movie and book there will be a learning program with the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I think what we are identifying are some practices that can be pulled from various traditions – as well as there are differences, there are commonalities.
One of these practices, that is shared by a minister in the film, is walking the labyrinth. There are thousands of labyrinths all over the world, so they are available and you can find them on the Veriditas.org website. A labyrinth is a maze with a defined path, usually circular, that leads you to the center, but only circuitously. Every time you think you’ve gotten to the center of the labyrinth it shoots you off into a different direction. So, this becomes a metaphor for life.
So this is very much like our Western worldview, very linear at one point, very causal, one thing leads to another, and yet, walking the labyrinth allows us to see that there are many paths that don’t always go in the direction we think it is going to, and that becomes a transformative practice. The minister invites people to use the labyrinth as a grief tool. You can walk the labyrinth and have a conversation with your loved one. You can compose a letter in your mind and say all of the things that you never got to say to them. She invites people to listen deeply to what she calls the little voice within that can help to articulate some answers for us when we are facing these great mysteries, these undiscovered lands. It helps us to navigate.
So that is a beautiful practice that people can do every day, anytime.
Lisa: How have you dealt with personal grief?
Marilyn: My mom died last year and I have taken a practice of wearing something, particularly in circumstances where I know I am going to be challenged and I need all my resources with me. I’ll just put on a pair of her earrings or her shoes. I was the only one in our family who wore her same size shoe, so I inherited a bunch of shoes. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel connected. I feel there is a way of communicating that is my mother living in me and living through me.
We know through genetics now that we are the inheritors of all of those generations who went before us. So we are the living representation of those people, maybe their traits, maybe their personalities, their hair color, their eye color. There are ways in which we are embodying this continuity line with our descendents and I think bringing that into a noetic space where we allow ourselves to access that little voice within, to engage in communication, to have a gentle conversation about some of those topics that maybe didn’t get resolved. I think all of those can be very, very healthy practices and easy to do.
Lisa: How does the idea that Death Makes Life Possible trumpet a radical departure from our current, dominant worldview of death?
Marilyn: Being with these Incas yesterday, and hearing you talk about Renaissance thinking, we have in civilization lived through many changes in our paradigm, in our worldview, moving from a strictly mechanist model, the Newtonian cause and effect model to now something that is very much informed by quantum physics, by interconnectedness and acausal relationships. That is the result of a transformation and a paradigm shift. What we have today is the opportunity to be more mindful of that revolution than ever before. Because we have the mass communications; we have conversations like we are having right now.
We are bringing awareness to the fact that we are living in a time of revolution. It is a revolution in thought and in the understanding of who we are and what we are capable of becoming. We’re seeing the strict dependence on religious dogma being questioned. There is a sense that something new is being born. And one of the topics that comes up is consciousness and what do we mean by consciousness?
So from the point of view of, for example, the editor of the Skeptic magazine that we interview in the film, from his materialist point of view, we die, we’re dead, we’re done. He believes consciousness is simply a byproduct of the brain and nothing more. And yet, the vast majority of people feel that there may be something more. That there is something about our spirit or soul that allows us to transcend our physical being and that kind of consciousness is understood in different ways.
Consciousness is a huge mystery and we are only just now taking it seriously as a science and that science needs to mature a little bit because it wants to reduce everything to the brain. Science is very influenced by the dominant paradigm of materialism, but it is now being informed by spiritual insights. This is one of the extraordinary things of our times is that never before have so many ways of approaching reality come into contact.
There is a changing perspective about our consciousness and our interconnectedness we are caught in the middle of that paradigm shift. It’s not entirely clear where it is going. But where we go in the movie and the book is the notion of a new story.
We have all the beauty that comes from these wisdom traditions, and the insights and the practices and the cultivation of a lifestyle that comes from those traditions. We have the opportunity to look what is true for us individually through the Western, scientific, critical thinking approach and that is beautiful too.
So watching these worldviews come together and then talking with someone, like Stuart Hameroff in the film, author of the Quantum Soul who talks about our souls taking on the principles of the quantum universe, we are seeing that things that people talked about thousands of years ago are finding legitimacy in these theoretical physics experiments.
So it is very exciting to grapple with these ideas, but as you say, it is also very timely as it is not only the U.S. population that is aging, but it is a global phenomenon. There is a call and hunger for meaning amongst people who want to understand, to have coping skills, and to be able to have conversations across worldviews in families that invite in healing.
Lisa: What do we need to understand about coming to terms with our own mortality?
Marilyn: The denial impulse doesn’t work. It really leaves a lot of crap behind for other people. It is true literally, that if we don’t clean out our closet someone else is going to have to do it, but it is also true at the broader, metaphorical level of our global community and what happens if we don’t take responsibility for those seven generations coming after us. If we don’t feel the continuity line with them, then we don’t have that sense of responsibility to take care of the planet, to take care of the institutions that are going to support our families into the future.
So, I think the issue of pondering consciousness, pondering the potential survival of consciousness after bodily death, really addressing our own perceptions and beliefs around death and what happens when we die can be a great liberator. It can really help us to facilitate that paradigm shift into something that is more compassionate and sustainable for all of us.
Lisa: What do you say to people who may think they are being asked to question their religious or spiritual beliefs?
Marilyn: The film is pointing to the opposite intention, for people to go deeper into their religious practices and spiritual beliefs. According to the science and consciousness research, it is our beliefs now that determine what we find after death.
In the film’s trailer, Schlitz notes that while, “We celebrate the introduction of new life to the world, we’re often faced with fear when it comes to the end of our lives. How do we begin to change that story? How do we begin to think about, not the suffering and the fear that we face when we die, but really the possibilities that come when we embrace impermanence?”
It is Deepak Chopra who integrates the science through spiritual wisdom and reveals the unfolding of a new story of human experience as a seamless and continuous whole. In an email exchange, Chopra shared these responses to Lisa’s questions:
Lisa: How does acknowledging our common nature – everyone dies – move us toward personal happiness and health?
Deepak: When a soul has completely worked out all its karma, it loses all earthly desires. It has transcended all material objects and attachments to become enlightened. There is not a need to be reborn onto the physical or astral planes as we know them. This soul continues to spiral upwards to continue it evolution on planes we cannot imagine. We are reborn to express and exhaust the force of desire. In the absence of rebirth, the soul moves to higher and higher realms of existence, to an infinity of them that are beyond the scope of our imagination or understanding. As Rumi says, “When I die I will soar with angels, and when I die to the angels, what I will become you cannot imagine”.
Lisa: You have said, death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. How does this understanding evolve our personal and collective consciousness?
Deepak: The human spirit is degraded when we confine ourselves to the span of a lifetime and the enclosure of a physical body. We are mind and spirit first, and that places our home beyond the stars.
Knowing that I will return to the field one day to find my source provides me with immeasurable confidence in the purpose of life. As fervently as any devout believer, I have faith in this vision. My faith is renewed every time I have a moment of witnessing, in which I can touch the silence of my own being. Then I lose all fear of death – indeed, I touch death right now, and gladly. Tagore said it so movingly:
When I was born and saw the light
I was no stranger in this world
Something inscrutable, shapeless, and without words
Appeared in the form of my mother.
So when I die, the same unknown will appear again
As ever known to me,
And because I love this life
I will love death as well.