Open Center History: The Art of Dying 5

Spiritual, Scientific and Practical Approaches to Living and Dying

The Open Center has been engaged with the the great matter of living and dying for well over twenty years now, and has seen the discussion of this topic move closer to the heart of society and away from the fringes. One of the most memorable of the conferences on Dying that we produced took place just three years ago. It was striking for a number of reasons including the first delivery to a large audience of the scientific results from a clinical trial conducted by NYU on the use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) with stage four cancer patients experiencing existential dread or great fear of death.

It was deeply moving to see how effective this molecule is when used appropriately in a clinical setting. As Michael Pollan remarked in a New Yorker article a few years ago, if psychiatrists had known that 75% of patients taking psilocybin would have one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, the direction of psychiatry in the last fifty years might have been different. Thanks to the impeccable research conducted not just at NYU but also at Johns Hopkins and UCLA, we are starting to emerge from the darkness and ignorance of the War on Drugs to realize that these ‘sacred substances’, as indigenous cultures have long considered them, have great therapeutic and spiritual value for our culture if used in the right way.

A second factor that made Art of Dying 5 so memorable was the panel on Near Death and End of Life experience with three outstanding physicians – British psychiatrist Peter Fenwick, Dutch cardiologist PIm Van Lommel, and American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. If there was a more gripping panel on this topic anywhere in America that year, we didn’t hear about it. As the moment of death is studied more closely, as more and more people return to life after medical resuscitation following heart surgery, evidence is steadily accumulating that points toward the survival of consciousness after death.

Is there any topic more significant than this? And so the Open Center continues its innovative work in this field as holistic approaches to dying are increasingly embraced by American society. Now with the Art of Dying Institute and its certificate training in Integrative Thanatology, our commitment to this field grows only deeper, along with our conviction that this is some of the most important work any organization can be involved with anywhere. We have a proud legacy in this field and we hope our contribution will only grow stronger with time.