An interview with Ralph White, Founder of the Art of Dying Institute

When was the first Art of Dying Conference?

The first took place in 1995.

Why is it so important to put a spotlight on this subject?

The world’s wisdom traditions, starting with the Tibetans, have long known that developing right relationship to dying is a key to creating right relationship to living. If we live with greater awareness of the finiteness of human life, we do not cringe in fear and terror at our inevitable demise. Instead, we are more conscious that our time is limited and we need to make the best possible use of each day, each moment, each second to live as fully as possible from the values dear to our heart.

This is what the Buddhists call being awake, and the Buddha means the Awakened One. This conference series explores what it means to find a relationship to dying today and draws on the wisdom of many pioneers and professionals in this field.
Has there been a change in how society responds to confronting death in this in-depth way over the years?

Since these conferences first began in 1995 American culture has developed an increasingly open and curious attitude to death and dying. Hospice is no longer an obscure phenomenon, books about near death experiences have topped the best seller lists, and we seem to be emerging from a long taboo about this most profound of all topics.

With so much fear and unrest in the world today what would you say to critics who think it’s morose to focus an entire conference in this subject?

Contrary to our own assumptions when we first offered this conference in partnership with Tibet House, this is an intensely enlivening event, not the depressing experience we were conditioned to anticipate. In fact, there is something that could even be described as exhilarating about facing humanity’s greatest fear in company with hundreds of hospice nurses, doctors, chaplains, social workers and members of the general public, the majority of whom not only work with the dying but feel they have found a true and meaningful calling in doing so.

How is the faculty chosen?
The Art of Dying Conferences aim to bring together today’s holistic pioneers in working with the dying in many fields, from death doulas to indigenous teachers, from Zen Buddhists to Western spiritual philosophers. These events offer a comprehensive presentation of the multiple holistic modalities that are emerging as we seek to work more compassionately with the dying, and liberate both ourselves and our loved ones from excessive fear of death. They also explore questions about the survival of consciousness after death. What might we expect? How can we best prepare?

What have you learned by having these events?

We have learned many lessons from twenty-two years of the Art of Dying conferences. Many survivors of Near Death Experiences are noted for two outstanding qualities: they lose their fear of death and they realize we are in this world to do our best to love each other. That’s why it is common for spouses to leave their partners after such an experience if they do not feel they have a genuine soul connection with them. Researchers estimate that up to one third of deaths include communication with invisible presences, rare synchronicities or some other phenomenon that suggests the possible continuation of consciousness.

Are they geared more for lay people or a professional audience?
Both professionals and lay people have gained wisdom and compassion from these conferences. Hospice workers experience the warmth of community and have the opportunity to hear the wisdom of the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions around the nature of death and dying. Scientists and psychologists learn about the latest research on working therapeutically with the dying and the often extraordinary nature of end of life experiences.

And regular folks facing the imminent death of a family member or, in some cases, their own death, find solace and comfort in the hopeful and inspiring work of so many wise and caring practitioners.

Will this topic continue to be a focus for the New York Open Center in the future?
We live in a time when American society is increasingly open to engaging with these matters in an open minded and deeply curious way. The Art of Dying Conference, and the Thanatology Certificate associated with it, serve this impulse to deepen our understanding of death and strengthen our skills in working with the dying. This essential topic continues to be one of the most important and moving dimensions of the New York Open Center’s work. We approach it with commitment and with profound seriousness, and we invite those who share our deep engagement with the great matter of life and death to join us on October 13th in New York City