Death’s Door

Sculpture depicting a Dying Gaul, a Warrior dying on a his shield
Dying Gaul, wikimedia

The Dying Gaul has been around.

Thomas Jefferson had him. Napoleon specifically demanded that The Dying Gladiator, as he was known at the time, be brought to Paris under the terms of the Treaty of Campoformio (1797).

Many people who weren’t as rich or powerful had small reproductions, because, it was widely believed, he shows how it’s done.

How to Die.

Having his statue around was like today’s self-improvement reminder on the refrigerator. We imagine him surrendering to death on his own terms, with no painkillers to help. Showing his anguish just a bit while holding himself up on his sacred shield with all his power objects around him.

Lord Byron, a big Dying Gladiator Fan, said it this way in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

He leans upon his hand — his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony

He conquers agony at the end.

To me, that’s not the point.

I haven’t been offering a series of VR Dying Experiences to help people handle life’s last moments stoically. I’ve been offering them to help people handle every moment of the life they have Right Now more freely, by getting to know death a little bit.

According to some (e.g. Terror Management Theory advocates), this is a commendable goal but not actually possible because we are ‘hard-wired’ for terror.

I respectfully disagree and question the computer concept of hard-wiring as a metaphor for our possible behaviors. I’m using VR to help people get used to the idea of last moments, whenever they may occur, without needing to imagine how we should act.

Just being able to comfortably hold the mortality idea in our mind, approaching it gradually, with a small group of other people like us and also not like us.

Session 1, Other People Dying, immersed us in ways that living people from cultures all over the world have taken care of dead people they cared about; and then everyone had a chance to pay tribute in a beautiful family cemetery, to someone they have lost. There were 26 attendees.

Session 2, Avatar Squares — Special Death Edition, was a game show about death. A host and an audience watching their friends try to answer and win Xs or Os was fun about dying. 51 people showed up for this one.

In Session 3, Complete Enough, we visited healing places and imagined what we could let go of to make us feel more complete with life right now. We did a simple ritual of throwing symbolic objects into a VR fire to help us leave regrets behind, regrets we named and then disposed of. We had 26 attendees.

Session 4, Death’s Door, had to be pretty good, the last act in a play about Death; that’s how I felt. I set up more than could be fully processed by the 58 people who joined us.

I had a controlled overload in mind.

Death’s Door, ‘The Uninvited Guest,’ Menzel, 1844

After initially gathering at the ruins of Nalanda University, we teleported to Death’s Door and slipped inside. The Dying Gaul was there. Along with Bruegel’s, Triumph of Death, Bocklin’s, Self-Portrait with Death and Van Gogh’s haunting, At Eternity’s Gate. All larger than life.

Death Art, bigger than your average avatar, confronted us in every room. Garden of Death in the kitchen. Magritte’s, Menaced Assassin in the garage. Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ in the backyard. Deathbeds upstairs.

Some people needed to be quiet but I invited people who needed to talk to take us to one painting in the Death Art House that spoke to them and tell us why. We saw some of the art through more than just our own eyes this way.

We ended in the back yard at a graphic which I plan to remake as a 4D experience in the fullness of time. For now I spoke of real factors that can flip the switch and the vague idea of A Certain Point where it would become clear.

In the medicalized march to death that most of western culture offers up as the norm, it pays to make vague ideas more clear to ourselves and to others who may need to act for us.

Beyond the Certain Point, most people don’t actively hasten death. They are simply ready for it to come and maybe even actively wish it would. I like to point out that inaction, not-doing, is an option. Some refer to this as Natural Dying and I find it an attractive way to imagine the end but I don’t dwell on it.

Thinking about the end isn’t just a means to an end with more personal agency involved, but more importantly, it’s a means to a freer life for all the days leading up to it.

That’s why we moved on next to POLST world. Physicians Order for Live Saving Treatment. Not to do-my-POLST-for-once-and-for-all, but to consider the detailed and specific questions the legal form raises, and talk about them with other people. With Death Art House still echoing.

Like everything else in Session 4, objects were bigger than us.

In VR, we can fly so people went up to the top of the giant POLST to read the details and think about questions like, ‘if patient (You) has no pulse and is not breathing — Attempt Resuscitation/Do Not Attempt Resuscitation’ or, ‘if patient (You) is found with a pulse and/or is breathing — Full Treatment/Selective Treatment/Comfort-Focused Treatment.

A valid POLST requires a physician’s signature, which means a conversation about death with a doctor.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to wait until we are at Death’s Door to have these conversations. Because of post-career choices I have made, I think or talk about death with someone more days than I do not. To the Terror Management Theory school of hard-wired thought I say, ‘you are not correct that it is universally impossible to accept or appreciate the idea of our personal extinction.’

Dealing with death a lot — mentally — has loosened the grip that the main cultural stories have on me. The stories tend to emphasize fear and needing-to-do-things-a-specific-way. I emphasize freedom, feeling less anxious, and a mandate to get up and do something now.

I set up the path out of POLST World to pass through Emptiness.

Emptiness doesn’t mean Nothing. It means no things stand on their own. It means the objects we perceive as something don’t exist by themselves. They exist because of interactions that scale all the way down and all the way up.

That’s kind of a head-y way to put it. It might be correct, but where do humans and everything that matters to us fit?

One of the avatars who was part of Session 4 said he didn’t want to go off into Nothingness. He wanted to go somewhere nicer and more comforting.

I said, me too.

I’ve thought a lot about what gives me comfort and I’m pretty clear that it’s not a belief, not some way that things are going to be that I might somehow get myself to buy into.

I also don’t find much comfort in The Dying Gaul mindset, that I will find a heroic way to submit without being defeated. Comfort probably isn’t even the right way to look at it because pretty much by definition we are moving out of anyone’s comfort zone at death.

I have developed a non-combat relationship with dying. My practice is to learn from death, which means being respectful and staying uncertain. The more comfortable I am not knowing, the more at peace I am with dying.

To me the Heart Sutra says in the most striking way that things are impermanent and don’t stand alone. We create ourselves and each other.

People who stayed with VR Dying Experiences, Session 4 went into a World of Empty and listened to my read of the essence of Mahayana Buddhism and maybe everything, as quantum mechanics confirms every day.

The music, called 电古琴 (‘Electronic Guqin’) by 东君 (The Chinese Apollo), is used with permission here non-commercially.

We ended where we started, outside a simulated Tibetan Buddhist Temple, set inside a high resolution 360 degree image of Nalanda, the world’s first residential university, established north of the Gangetic Plain where Buddhism first arose and where adherents of different world views came to learn from each other for 800 years.

We reflected together on the four VR Dying Sessions, some of us, — and on what was happening right at the moment, for others who just dropped in with no idea of a Session or a series of Sessions.

I expected an on-going intermingling between regulars and people just discovering us during every Session. I think that mix of on-going commitment to a program and people joining at any point might help make learning happen, as long as the perspectives could be integrated.

The Reflection phase of Learning is usually overlooked, but I tried to make sure the people in for the whole VR Dying Experience were able to unpack as much as they could right then. Some did.

And then, just as I announced the Session and the sequence of VR Dying Experiences was over, it began.

Someone who showed up around the 85th minute of 90 minutes came forward and then stopped. I was done.

The avatar now standing still right in front of me was a person. People need to be Welcomed. I said, we are glad you’ve come. We thought we were through but we were wrong because you are here. What can you share with us?

The person behind the avatar then proceeded to tell a horrific story, faltering a lot, with death and detention and him feeling empty with survivor guilt. Needing to make contact.

He did.

We did. Some of us stayed quite a bit longer.

It helped some.

It was not a clear and satisfying ending. It’s what happened.

We will learn and get better at this kind of teaching and learning.

Image by David Denton

I write about VR and other topics I have no standing to write about on Medium and Substack.

I have a black belt in learning and I’ve been meditating for so long you’d think I’d be enlightened but I’m not.

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos