by Cat Saunders
This is the first in a 13-part series of essays and interviews about death, written exclusively for The New Times.
"You wanted me to tell you about death. All right! Then don't be afraid of hearing about your own death."
don Juan to Carlos, A Separate Reality
If you knew someone trained in death prediction, would you want to know when you are destined to die? From the Western perspective of free will, the idea of predestined death may seem threatening, ridiculous, or downright heretical.
The media bombard us daily with information about how to extend life, as if personal choice is the only factor controlling longevity. It's not unusual to hear people talk about "winning" in relation to death, as if life is some big competition. Mainstream doctors encourage patients to battle life-threatening illness, fight for their lives, and treat death as the enemy.
There are exceptional doctors and patients who regard death with acceptance and awe, but this is not the norm. Despite conflicting views, however, few would argue that news of one's death is anything less than life-changing. It certainly has been for me. In fact, finding out when I'm due to die is one of my life's greatest gifts.
Knowledge of the time of my death came in a gentle way. It didn't come from a doctor or from a prophetic dream. Instead, I received the news from a spiritual mentor, a former Vedic (Hindu) monk of twenty years. This man, whom I will call Rishi, was extensively trained in the Vedic science of death prediction, an esoteric system of calculations rooted in India's sacred texts, which are thousands of years old.
In Western culture, the idea that you can't or shouldn't know about death timing in advance fits conveniently into the prevailing belief in free will. After all, if you don't know when you will die, it's easier to believe you can control your destiny and, therefore, your longevity.
Taken by itself, I think the concept of free will is limited and egocentric. What interests me more is the razor's edge where choice and destiny merge. I don't want to beat death. I want to live full out-and then dance into the arms of death when it comes to embrace me.
Personal Encounters with Death
More than thirty years ago, as a little girl, I tried to touch death by experimenting with conscious breath cessation. I had no desire to die; I was merely curious.
When I was 12, my best friend died suddenly of a brain tumor. Her death brought painful lessons in unfinished business, and it made me more aware of my own mortality.
As a young teen, I confronted my feelings about death by devouring the work of contemporary existentialists. At 17, I entered college and was introduced to the teachings of don Juan (in Carlos Castaneda's books) when they were first released in the early 1970s. Don Juan's idea of death as a friend enthralled me. It still does.
At nineteen, I enrolled in a class called "Death," which culminated in witnessing the autopsy of a 22-year-old male. The man was in perfect health and had dropped dead for no known reason. That cadaver taught me this: when your time's up, your time's up!
During a decade of anorexia and manic depression in my twenties, I played Russian roulette with death as I battled the spirits of starvation and suicide. Twice, at age 23, 1 faced the possibility of death by trauma, averted both times by emergency surgery. In addition, I've worked with people close to death, people in comas, and human souls after death (through years of professional work as a shamanic practitioner).
Because of this history, I thought I was pretty comfortable with death by the time I met Rishi in 1995, at the age of 41. After learning of my death timing, however, I discovered yet another layer of denial. Although I'd never seriously doubted the fact that I would someday die, there's something about not knowing when that allows death to remain in the future, which by definition will never be now.
Long Life? Short Life? Compared to What?
Most people trained in death prediction will not disclose such information to others. However, Rishi's teacher in India (who can accurately predict death down to the day) encouraged Rishi to use his own discretion. In addition, Rishi said that if it's not right to disclose someone's death timing, his spiritual teachers will literally prevent him from speaking.
Years ago, I thought I'd be too scared to know about my death in advance, but something shifted when I met Rishi. We both realized that it was right for me to know, so he agreed to do the calculations.
When I arrived at his house for my "death appointment" on May 4, 1995, I listened with rapt attention as Rishi explained some of the Vedic systems he'd utilized to determine and cross-check the year of my death. Bit by bit, he synopsized the process of narrowing it down to a four-month period within a specific year.
I felt nothing when he named the year, but when he gave my age at death, I experienced a sensation unlike anything I've ever known. My entire body felt like it was shot through with 20,000 volts of electricity. Before I could tell Rishi about it, I gasped. In the same moment, he exclaimed, "What happened? I could feel the electricity!"
It was electric: every cell of my body ignited in agreement. My body already knew!
Because his calculations revealed a life span that is short by Western standards, Rishi looked concerned. He asked, "You don't find this news depressing?"
I laughed. "Do I look depressed?"
"No," he said.
The truth is, my body so clearly validated the timing that I felt more amazed than anything. Besides, my shamanic teachers informed me years ago about my next step after death, and it's exciting. I assured Rishi that the news was not distressing. In fact, I went into bliss and didn't come out for five days.
Crash Course in Kübler-Ross Work
Five days in bliss was definitely a record for me. It was lovely, but the following week was a blowout. For a couple of days, I was really pissed! I thought, "Why can't I have a long life? How dare destiny cut in on my good time!"
The angry eruptions gradually melted into depression. For the next day or two, everything went dark. Although I'm excited about my next step after death, there's a part of me that fears loss. Holding this fear tenderly, I remembered the sweet words from Emmanuel's Book: "...do not force enlightenment on the part of you that cannot contain it. Allow that part to remain human. Comfort it."
Following the depression, I watched my mind's attempts to deny destiny. "Death prediction is a bunch of crap! I'll prove Rishi wrong and thousands of years of Vedic teachings along with him by living to be one hundred. Destiny be damned!" The denial didn't care that every cell in my body had exploded in agreement upon hearing my age at death.
When the denial shifted, I found myself caught up in desperate negotiations. "Maybe predestination is just self- fulfilling prophecy, so if I don't believe it, it won't come true! Maybe this prediction is just another trick to make me grow, and when I get to the age of predestined death, I'll find out it was all a big joke!"
After a week of this roller coaster ride, I realized something unusual was happening. I sensed that my psyche was blasting through all the stages of death work I'd learned about two decades before, when I first studied Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' book, On Death and Dying. I opened the book and, sure enough, they were all there: anger, depression, denial, bargaining and, finally, acceptance.
Thanks to Kübler-Ross, I understood that my feelings were typical for someone who had been pronounced "terminal." This awareness brought an acceptance more satisfying than the original bliss.
Breaking the Big Taboos
I told no one about my death timing for three months. Though it was initially difficult to hold such a big secret alone, those months of containment allowed me to dive deep into parts of my soul where I could only go alone. Eventually, I became so comfortable with the information that I no longer needed to tell anyone. Only then did it feel right to tell.
During that first year, I told my partner and my closest friends. The news has stimulated deeper intimacy, incredible conversations (and great jokes) about death, and sweeter appreciation for our bodies' limited time together. The love we share won't be touched by death. But the sight of a smile, the sound of a voice, the warmth of a body all the physical delights will exist only in memory.
Sitting with the joys as well as the sorrows, we have the chance to savor our relationships with more awareness, and we have the opportunity to grieve our parting while we are still together. No matter who dies first, the in-your-face nature of death timing makes the reality of death more visceral. It's a gift.
In the second year after finding out, I began to circulate a seed essay for a book I'm writing about death. Gradually, I enlarged the circle of those with whom I shared this essay to include longtime clients, colleagues, friends of friends, and, ultimately, total strangers.
Each "coming out" forced me to grow, and each person's response (respectful or not) gave me practice for my final step: coming out publicly. In the third year after finding out, I was interviewed on television about my death work, and now I'm coming out in published writing.
One way to scare residual fears out of the closet is to go public with my personal process. It's scary to talk openly about my death! Not only must I break the taboo against knowing what only God (by whatever name) is supposed to know, but I must also break the spiritual taboo against telling sacred personal information. In addition, I must overcome generations of social conditioning against making anyone "uncomfortable."
In this culture, the subject of death makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Not everyone wants to face his or her own mortality, and when I speak about my death, it inevitably triggers people's feelings about their own demise. This can be valuable if people want to explore their feelings about death. But some people want to "kill the messenger" when they feel distress. They attack me personally, rather than face their own fears.
There's a saying: "If you don't have enemies, you're not doing anything." I may be ridiculed for my ideas about death, but if I'm committed to creating more openness about death, I'd better start by being open about my own death.
Please understand that despite my death prediction, I realize that I could still die tomorrow or in a hundred years. Wild cards keep the mystery intact. However, knowledge of my date with destiny resonates deeply within my body, and I trust my body. For now, I'm sitting with dying at the age of fifty-five, in the year 2009.
We're all in the same boat now. We all know, and we don't know. Life is wild!
Special thanks to my partner, John Giovine, for his courage in supporting my death work.
Thanks also to Deverick Martin and David Young for having the guts to do a series about death in The New Times.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is the author of Dr. Cat's Helping Handbook (due out soon).