The Theosophical Society in America

President’s Diary

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Boyd, Tim, "President’s Diary" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 96-97

After I returned from a series of conferences in Latin America in April , one of my first appointments was to speak at the Universalist Unitarian church near Olcott. Old friends and longtime TS members Pete and Lois Pedersen are members of the church, and every year invite me to address the congregation. It is an exceptional group of people, with no shared creed and with diverse faith and philosophical backgrounds, but who are united in their search for spiritual growth. It is an annual source of enjoyment for me, and apparently for the congregation. They keep inviting me back.

students and Tim Boyd
Tim Boyd poses with seventh- level students at the Olcott Memorial High School

During the month of April we had a visit from Deepa Padhi. Deepa and her Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) group in Odisha, India have been extremely active with educational efforts and with consciousness raising in regard to women’s issues. In September they are organizing a pan-Indian Theosophical educational conference. Representatives from twelve Theosophical and TOS schools throughout India will be gathering in Odisha for three days. Vic Hao Chin, past president of the TS in the Philippines and director of the TOS-founded Golden Link College, will be directing the meeting. Deepa was in town briefly and wanted to go over some of the thinking for the conference.

Love was in the air in April. During one week in April we had two wedding ceremonies on campus. The first was for Jason Morrow and Kenneth Schuett. Jason is assistant manager of our Quest Book Store. Although all weddings are special, our second ceremony was truly exceptional for a number of reasons. Several months earlier Miles Standish and Winnie Wylie had let me know that they would like to celebrate their marriage here at Olcott. Of course, I was all for it. I have known them both for years, and they had been longtime TS members. How long? Between the two of them, they had a combined membership of more than 140 years! They had known each other since their first meeting back in 1953 at a Theosophical camp in Michigan. Presently Miles is ninety, and his blushing bride is eighty-three. They asked me to perform the wedding. When they went to City Hall in Wheaton to get their marriage license, the head of the department came out personally to meet them. He told them that theirs was the first license that office had ever issued for a couple their age. They are an example of hope for all of us.

In May the Maryland branch of the TS celebrated its hundredth anniversary. The gathering was held at their lovely building in the historic downtown area of Baltimore. Janet Kerschner, our archivist, and I had been invited to address the meeting. Old and new members attended, along with a healthy contingent from nearby Washington, D.C. The meetings were chaired by the president of the group, Leonard Jackson. As you might expect, the lodge has a rich history and has been good about preserving photos and records showing their activities over the past century.

From Baltimore my wife, Lily, and I drove up the East Coast to New York to attend the forty-fifth reunion of my high school class. Ours was a small school, and except for a couple of classmates, this was the first time I was seeing them since graduating. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised that all were healthy and looking good. I was also pleasantly surprised at how many had followed my involvement with the TS, and how aware they were of its history and ideas. We closed the restaurant talking long into the night.

In May the Book Expo of America had its annual gathering in Chicago. It is a huge event that brings together publishers, authors, and everyone else involved in the book business. I was there to meet with Michael Kerber, president of Red Wheel Weiser, the global distributor for our Quest Books. A year ago we discontinued our release of new book titles. Since that time we have been allowing our restructuring to take effect and thinking about our new role. As of 2016, Quest Books has been in business for fifty years, so we have a very strong and valuable backlist of publications. With a return to financial sustainability, we have been rethinking the idea of releasing new books. Michael and I had a chance to talk about it.

Adyar-grown mangoes
Adyar-grown mangoes

Then it was off to Krotona in Ojai, California, for a series of meetings. Because of scheduling demands, I had not visited Krotona in a year and a half. As always, it was both refreshing and inspiring. After so many years of association, just to see so many old friends again is a good thing. Of course, nothing stays the same. This was my first visit since Joy Mills and Jon Parisen passed away. In the past, time spent with them had been one of the beautiful features of every trip. The president of the Australian Section, Linda Oliveira, conducted the meetings. Her husband, Pedro, assisted.

At the end of May we boarded the plane for Adyar. The big news from Adyar was that on May 17 the tensile membrane roof structure that had been constructed in time for our December 2015 convention collapsed. It was a major disappointment and, obviously, the first order of business on my arrival. Experts were summoned to determine the causes, which were due to design and execution flaws. Now the real work of redesign and proper reconstruction begins. We are fortunate that similar structures are becoming common throughout India. One of the foremost authorities on these structures, who is also a professor of engineering at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, has volunteered to do the design work and supervise the reconstruction. In theory the new structure will be in place well before the time for our next December-January convention . . . in theory.

As I may have pointed out in past Diaries, there are said to be three seasons in Chennai, India—hot, hotter, and hottest. The month of June marks a transition time from hottest to hotter. With daytime temperatures in the hundreds and nighttime temperatures in the upper eighties and nineties, this year was consistent. One lovely feature about June is that it is also the peak of mango season. There are more than 300 varieties of mango in India, and for years it had been a “bucket list” item for me to eat a mango picked fresh from a tree. For people who have only tasted the one or two varieties that make it to the U.S., you have no idea what you are missing. During the month at Adyar, I probably had ten different types, each with its own subtle and exquisite flavor—everything from the regal Alphonso mango (which fetches $12 apiece in Singapore!) to a drinking mango. You roll it in your hands, pull off the stem and, using the mango itself as the container, suck out the plentiful juice inside. We grow a number of varieties at our Adyar campus.

At our Adyar library and archives, we are continuing the digitization process that began a year ago. Our library is one of the foremost repositories in India for Tamil language palm leaf manuscripts. During Henry Steel Olcott’s life he amassed more than 18,000 of these handwritten texts, some of them more than 600 years old when he got them. As might be expected, time and insects are taking a toll.

Chennai Trekkers river cleanup crew
Chennai Trekkers river cleanup crew

Over in the archives we are also putting special attention on digitizing HPB’s scrapbooks. In all there are thirty-two of them. They are a fascinating record of her interests, and include newspaper clippings on a variety of subjects, with drawings and even cartoons modified by her. With luck, we expect to have the initial scanning done in a couple of months, and we plan to have the computer color corrections necessary to make some of the aging pages readable finished before year-end. Then we can make them available to the world online.

The Adyar campus fronts the Adyar River and the Bay of Bengal. One result of the historic flooding in November and December of 2015 is that when the overflowing current of the river receded, it deposited tons of trash along the river’s length, especially at our end, where it emptied into the bay. As of this writing, for the past ten to twelve weeks a dedicated crew of sixty to 100 young people have been coming to the campus every Friday to gather, sort, recycle, and take away the tons of accumulated trash. Each week they focus on a stretch of riverbank. The work is the creation of Peter Van Geit, a seventeen-year resident of Chennai hailing originally from Belgium. His passion for trekking in nature attracted a group around him that became known as “The Chennai Trekkers.” Part of their focus is active restoration of the environment. An outgrowth of their work has been the largest cleanup effort of its type in all of India. Every year in June they have a massive cleanup of the Bay of Bengal beaches in Chennai. This year 5800 people came out for one day. We are blessed to have them in Chennai.

Tim Boyd


Viewpoint: An Embodied Spirituality

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Boyd, Tim, "Viewpoint: An Embodied Spirituality" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 96-97

By Tim Boyd, President

Tim BoydDuring the lifetime of Joy Mills, and particularly in her later years, she frequently would focus on one particular question: “What does it mean to be fully human?” The answer seems obvious until you actually have to think about it. Clearly it involves more than merely standing on two legs and thinking. In The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky says that the human results from the coming together of three evolutionary streams, “the Monadic (or Spiritual), the Intellectual, and the Physical Evolutions.” She goes on to say that “each of these three systems has its own laws, and is ruled and guided by different sets of the highest Dhyanis . . . Each is represented in the constitution of Man . . . and it is the union of these three streams in him, which makes him the complex being he now is.”

In other contexts HPB says that humanity and the “hierarchy of spiritual beings” associated with it are “like an army” composed of its “corps, divisions, brigades, regiments, and so forth, each with its separate individuality or life, and its limited freedom of action and limited responsibilities; each contained in a larger individuality, to which its own interests are subservient, and each containing lesser individualities in itself.” The picture she paints is consistent with our experience of the worlds within worlds that we inhabit. It is, however, challenging to an entrenched worldview that insists that all things are divisible into distinct essentials. Much like the view that believed the atom to be the ultimate and irreducible particle of physical matter, our desire to consider ourselves as some type of unit—simple, uncomplicated, and easily described—does not conform with reality. The human being is more nuanced than it would seem from the popular understanding of the famous quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “I am not a human being having a spiritual experience. I am a spiritual being having a human experience.” In this cooperative human project involving the “highest Dhyanis” of three evolutionary streams, who can point to a clear dividing line between spiritual and human? The spiritual being or entity seems to be deeply, perhaps inextricably, imbedded in matter, at least for the duration of this human cycle.

In the spiritual traditions of the world, there are beautiful stories and images that speak about what it means to be human. One such story is about a blind man and a crippled man. Traditions as varied as those of Central Africa, Aesop’s Fables, and the Hopi Indians all tell the story of the blind and the crippled man coming together to complete a journey or accomplish a task. In the yoga philosophy of India, the same story appears, with the blind man symbolic of prakriti, matter, and the lame man symbolizing purusha, spirit or soul. The one who is strong but cannot see carries and is directed by the one with vision who has no capacity to move. The story is told to illustrate the human dilemma of the interaction between “highest spirit and lowest matter.”

In the Christian tradition there is a popular image of the birth of the Christ that depicts the baby in a feeding trough for animals—a manger—surrounded by angels, shepherds, his parents, sometimes the Magi, and an assortment of farm animals. This image has been developed over time by numerous artists, many of them having the benefit of profound study and spiritual insight. The imagery depicts, in ways that words cannot, the nature of being human, and its many dimensions. In the midst of an angelic/divine nature, human potentials of all levels, and a strictly animal nature, the Christ consciousness is born and nurtured.

All of this brings me to something I have been witnessing at the Theosophical Society’s international headquarters in India. Seventeen years ago a man named Peter Van Geit moved to Chennai. At the time he thought it was just a temporary posting with the multinational company which employed him. As is popular in much of Europe, in his native Belgium he had been fond of walking in nature. When he came to Chennai, he continued this custom, seeking out natural places nearby. His passion spread, and soon he found himself leading a group of Indian trekkers and searching out places of natural beauty farther afield. A group formed around him who called themselves “The Chennai Trekkers.”

On one trip to a well-known waterfall just two hours outside of the city, he encountered something that changed things for him and the Trekkers. He saw that the beauty of this site had attracted many people, but in their carelessness the place had been marked with accumulations of trash. Rather than bemoan the human imprint, he and his Trekkers decided to do something about it. The group scheduled combination trekking and cleanup trips to the site. Peter soon realized that the same problem was overwhelming them much closer to home, at the Adyar River. This is where we met.

At the time of this writing, every Friday for the past ten to twelve weeks, from 5:45 a.m. until 8 a.m., anywhere from sixty to 100 young people—Trekkers and others they have attracted—have been coming to the TS campus to clean up the garbage that accumulated along the riverbank during the historic flooding this past November and December. To date they have literally removed many tons of trash. Although we at the TS are benefitting from the work, their focus is on that stretch of the river emptying into the Bay of Bengal, of which our campus is on the last two kilometers.

Chennai Trekkers river cleanup crew
Chennai Trekkers river cleanup crew

The remarkable thing to see is the attitude that these twenty-something-year-olds exhibit toward their part in what many would regard as the lowly or inglorious act of picking up garbage. For them it is never a chore. It is a joy. Everywhere you look, they are snapping selfies with their friends and the mounting piles of garbage they are gathering. They also have educated themselves. Talk to any one of them about what they are doing, and you will hear about the effect of different types of trash on the environment and about plastics, particularly the nonrecyclable single-use plastics that do not break down and are increasingly choking the planet.

In all of the beauty of their cooperative work, they recognize that they are fighting a losing battle. The trash is being redeposited up and down the river’s length at a much faster rate than they can take it away. Much as was the case in the founding days of the TS, these young people find themselves drawn to a cause and a vision for humanity that H.P. Blavatsky described as a “forlorn hope.” But they soldier on, selfie after selfie, Facebook and Twitter post after Facebook and Twitter post, convinced that their clarity, the rightness of their cause, their selflessness, and the constant repetition of their noble message through social media must bring about the necessary shift in consciousness before it is too late. It is truly a sacred thing they are doing.

In less than 200 years humanity has literally become a force of nature, distorting the natural world, changing planetary weather patterns, triggering what has been widely recognized as the “sixth great mass extinction” in the planet’s known history. Human population has reached previously unrecorded numbers and is fast climbing. For whatever reason, the rush of souls to incarnate at this time of both profound challenge and profound opportunity is unprecedented. We find ourselves in that crisis moment for which the reintroduction of Theosophy and its Ageless Wisdom was intended, but its ideas, grand and timeless as they are, are in and of themselves insufficient for the need of the time. The need now is for the “fully human” being—one who recognizes the flame of his or her highest potential Self, burning in this cave of matter; who sees that abdication of involvement in this world and its mounting demands in exchange for some imagined spiritual state is a caricature of a genuine spirituality which embraces and ennobles all things with an awareness of an all-pervading divinity.

Although this attitude is thankfully not unique to India, that is the place where I have seen it up close. Without knowing it in a conscious way, these young people who find such joy and purpose in the world’s waste are harbingers of the “new” spirituality, an embodied approach that embraces the inevitability of involvement in the range of realities we encompass. In the words of Saraha, the great Tibetan saint, “Here in this body are the sacred rivers. Here are the sun and moon and the pilgrimage places. I have never encountered a temple as blissful as my own body.” The Higher Self, the Christ consciousness, can never stand in isolation. It is born in the midst of all of the components of our nature—angelic to bestial—in order to bring new life and new vision.


Peaceful Passages:Glimpses into the Life of a Hospice Nurse

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Wehr, Janet, "Peaceful Passages:Glimpses into the Life of a Hospice Nurse" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 118-119

By Janet Wehr

The First One

Janet WehrThe call came at 2:15 a.m. It was my first on-call summons since I had become a hospice nurse a month earlier. I dressed quickly, running a comb through my sleep-flattened hair, feeling more than a little as firemen do as they jump into their boots and slide down the pole when the alarm sounds. I reviewed the patient’s name and address and the message the triage nurse had given me on the phone: “Madeline D. is close to dying. Her family is expecting you as soon as you can get there.” On the way, I carefully remembered what I had been taught to do when I arrived. My heart would tell me what to say.

Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the door of the small but cozy apartment. Madeline’s granddaughter, Christine, answered, and it was obvious that she had been crying. Christine’s husband, Jack, was there to support her. I took a moment to comfort them, then went into the bedroom. Madeline lay in a hospital bed under a pink comforter. She was very old and frail, shrunken to just a wisp of a person. Her knees were drawn up to her chest as if she were going back into the womb. Her fingernails and toenails were a pale shade of blue, the color of the inside of a seashell, showing that her weakened heart could no longer perfuse even this child-sized body. Her breathing was raspy with the death rattle, and there were long gaps between breaths. I knew that she was only a few hours, maybe minutes, from dying.

I began gently to discuss with Christine and Jack the physiology of what they were witnessing in Madeline’s condition—the signs and symptoms of dying. They listened carefully, relaxed in knowing that what was happening was the normal process of a body letting go of life. Christine related to me that, only two days earlier, Madeline had shared that she was tired, she was old, she had had a rich life, and now she wanted to rest. She had said this calmly, quietly, and with complete satisfaction and conviction in her voice.

Unexpectedly a man then burst through the door into the apartment. It was apparent that he was angry and wanted to take charge. He was introduced as Christine’s brother, Robert, who was a prominent surgeon at our hospital. Robert stormed past us and went into the room where Madeline lay so close to dying. He visually assessed her for no more than a few seconds, then moved briskly to the phone and dialed 911. When he had ordered an ambulance, he turned to me and yelled, “What do you think you’re doing? My grandmother is dying! She needs emergency treatment NOW!”

I’m a good “diffuser” in most situations, and I calmly began to explain why this was not an emergency. “Your grandmother is ninety-nine years old,” I said. “Her doctor explained to your family that there was no treatment for her age-related illness and decline. She can’t see, she can’t hear, and now she can’t swallow. Perhaps she doesn’t want to stay any longer.”

Robert simply glared at me, tapping his foot with impatience, waiting for the paramedics to arrive.

And they did. When Robert opened the door to let them in and introduced himself in a loud, authoritative tone as “Doctor,” all the king’s men jumped into action and whisked Madeline out of the house and into the waiting ambulance, leaving Christine, Jack, and me with our mouths hanging open.

What had just happened here? None of the training I had received as a hospice nurse had prepared me for this. I felt that I had let Madeline down and prayed that she would not die in a speeding vehicle or in the emergency room among strangers. I prayed that the emergency room personnel would not intubate her or perform CPR. I wanted what Jack and Christine wanted, which was for her to be in her own bed, in her own home, with people who loved her and understood her desire to leave. I packed up my nursing bag and left Madeline’s home, feeling as if I had failed her.

I was called back to Madeline’s home the very next day, to hear from Christine what I already knew: the emergency room staff had taken one look at Madeline the night before and told the “Doctor” that his grandmother wasn’t sick, she was dying, and that they felt they should send her back home. Madeline held on until she was back under her fluffy down comforter, in her little pink bedroom, and quietly slipped away.

Hospice on Call

When the pager goes off, it’s 2:00 a.m., and I reluctantly leave my dreams and my soft bed and jump into action. I go to where my clothes had been laid out the night before to save time if a call came. I dress quickly, barely bothering with my hair, because I am needed somewhere.

Someone has died.

I leave home in the dark, following directions from the hospice information sheet. Even though I’ve been to this home many times in the daylight, I surely don’t want to get lost at this hour.

I pull up in front of the house. I center myself for a minute so that I can be the calm in the storm that is probably waiting inside.

A man with a tear-stained face greets me wordlessly at the door and walks me to the back bedroom. Then he disappears around a corner, not wanting me to see him cry.

There, in the hospital bed, is the person who has died. A tiny attractive grandmother. No heartbeat, no breaths. Pupils fixed and eyes at half-mast. I wonder about who she was, what things she had done during her life, who she loved, and who loved her.

I tell a young woman, who introduces herself as the patient’s daughter, that her mother has died. Two teenaged granddaughters standing at the door burst into tears as they hear the word they expect but have been dreading.

I turn off the oxygen and remove the oxygen tubing from the grandmother’s nose. I whisper condolences and tell the family to take as much time as they need. I explain that there are official phone calls that need to be made to the coroner, the doctor, and the funeral home, and I excuse myself to make the calls while they grieve. I call the doctor and to report that his patient has died. The physician has cared for this patient a long time, and I can sense sadness as he asks me to give his condolences.

I call the coroner and the funeral director, both of whom I know now on a first-name basis—these people who work during the wee hours of the morning, just as I do. I tell them the official time of death I pronounced: 2:00 a.m.

I offer to bathe the patient and dress her before the funeral director arrives to take her away. The daughter leaves to gather the necessary items, and I sense her relief at being able to perform one last, loving task for her mother. I bathe the body, tenderly and respectfully, while the rest of the family waits in the next room. This woman has been sick a long time. She is withered and wasted away. She still has blue ink marks on her chest and abdomen where the radiologists aimed the radiation treatments that were meant to help her. I dress her in the clothes provided by her daughter: clean undergarments; a soft blue sweater; black velour pants; cozy socks. I comb through her hair and take a moment to spread lotion on her face so that she will smell good when they kiss her goodbye.

The doorbell rings, and there is a white van in the driveway: the funeral director is here. I encourage the family to say their goodbyes and explain that it might be easier if they wait in the other room while we transfer the body. They decide to stay.

I help the director transfer the woman’s body to a gurney and watch as the bag is zipped up over her face. This is always difficult—the finality of it—although I’ve witnessed it hundreds of times.

I pack up stray medical supplies, strip the bed, and tidy the room. I dispose of medications in the bag of kitty litter that I keep in my nursing bag just for this purpose. I turn off the light and close the door behind me.

The family is grateful for my guidance and support during this difficult time. After my numerous visits over the past several weeks, they say they will never forget me. Despite the fact that I will repeat this scenario over and over again, little do they realize that they, and their loved one, are likewise etched in my heart forever. My watch says 4:00 a.m. I leave the home, get into my car, and turn the key. The pager goes off.

' Someone has died.

Janet Wehr, R.N., has devoted most of her nursing career to hospice care. A Qualified Therapeutic Touch Practitioner, she is a member of the Therapeutic Touch International Association and the American Holistic Nurses Association. She is also on the board of directors for the Saret Charitable Fund of DuPage County, Illinois. These stories are excerpted from her book Peaceful Passages: A Hospice Nurse’s Stories of Dying Well, published in 2015 by Quest Books. Reprinted with permission.

From the Editor’s Desk

Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor’s Desk" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 90

Richard SmoleyNational secretary David Bruce reminds me that this year is the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. Which raises a question: what exactly was Shakespeare’s worldview?

Technically, Shakespeare was a Christian. But Christianity is far in the background in Shakespeare’s work. Often he seems more comfortable setting his plays in pagan contexts—as with Julius Caesar or King Lear—than in Christian ones. If you search for Jesus or Jesu in his plays, you will see that they mostly occur as interjections.

Some argue that Shakespeare was an atheist. But he does not seem to be an atheist. His plays are full of spirits of all kinds — nature spirits, the dead, even the occasional pagan god. And these details all point to one thing as the source of his worldview: the occult philosophy of the Renaissance, which was the version of the Ancient Wisdom known and practiced at that time. It was essentially a mix of Hermeticism, a Christianized version of the Kabbalah, and Neoplatonic ideas that persisted in Western thought after the end of classical antiquity.

Scholar Frances Yates has written, “Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the occult, with ghosts, witches, fairies, is understood as deriving less from popular tradition than with deep-rooted affinity with the learned occult philosophy and its religious implications.” This quotation is taken from Yates’s book The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, which is a good place to go if you want to know more about this subject. Many educated men of the time understood this philosophy, and Yates points out numerous allusions to it in Shakespeare.

One example is the famous speech about the “seven ages of man” in As You Like It, act 2, scene 7: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, /And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages.”

I don’t have the space here to reproduce the entire passage. It has been quoted very often.

But the structure behind it is not widely understood.

These seven ages are correlated to the seven planets as they were known in Shakespeare’s time. These planets surround the earth (it was believed) in concentric spheres. Shakespeare’s stages of life correspond to them. The “mewling, puking” infant corresponds to the moon, which governs growth. The “whining schoolboy with his satchel” correlates with Mercury, which has to do with study and learning. The stage of the “lover” is of course the stage of Venus, while the “soldier” is that of Mars. The justice, “full of wise saws,” relates to Jupiter, the planet of counsel. And “the lean and slippered pantaloon” corresponds to Saturn, the slowest of all the planets then known, associated with old age and melancholy. The seventh stage, “second childishness and mere oblivion,” corresponds to the primordial space to which we all return. The seventh “planet,” the sun, does not appear here, because esoterically the sun correlates to the Self and thus encompasses all levels. (For more on this subject, see Priscilla Costello’s recent book Shakespeare and the Stars.)

It’s hard, even for those drawn to esotericism today, to grasp how much this occult philosophy informed people’s lives in those days. Remember that this seven-planet system, centered on the earth (the Copernican theory had not yet been fully accepted), was believed to be the way the universe was physically composed. That it had correspondences in the life of man, even in terms of the ages, meant that the human being was seen as much more integrally connected to the cosmos than today.

Theosophical literature often speaks of the astral body, but the reason for its name is sometimes forgotten. The original idea was that this astral body was made up of subtle starry stuff—what H.P. Blavatsky, following Éliphas Lévi, called the astral light. We can think of it as the medium by which the planets affect our moods and feelings, just as the forces of the earth affect our physical bodies.

Clearly these are subtle forces—so subtle that one might be forgiven for believing that they don’t exist at all. But there are many energies that science has not discovered, or has just barely discovered. I’m thinking of a recent news item saying that astronomers have discovered a “magnetic rope” that extends between Saturn and the sun. Although they had known such magnetic links existed between the sun and the inner planets, including the earth, they had never found one for an outlying planet such as Saturn. It is possible, even likely, that other such forces govern our existence in ways that are still undreamt of.

It may be useful to imagine our astral, and perhaps mental, bodies as coextensive with the solar system, whose planets govern their currents and impulses, just as the astrologers claim. If so, then possibly the higher bodies still—the causal body and those above it—are governed not by the planets but by larger and still more comprehensive entities. We might imagine that the causal body, say, is coextensive with the galaxy and is influenced by its movements—although these are, of course, on a scale that goes past the bounds of a single lifetime. But then so does the causal body.

I find these speculations both comforting and plausible. It may be the case that, as the old occult philosophy taught, the stages of human life are attuned to the planets. It may also be the case that the stages of life far outstrip, not only the life of the body on earth, but the life of the solar system, of the galaxy, and of the universe itself.

Richard Smoley

Meeting the Needs of the Dying

 Printed in the Fall 2016  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Samarel, Nelda, "Meeting the Needs of the Dying" Quest 104.4 (Fall 2016): pg. 114-117

By Nelda Samarel

Nelda SamarelAs with physical needs, it is essential that we understand the emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of the dying individual in order to be of assistance. To understand these needs, expressed or unexpressed, it is helpful to consider what is known of the actual experiences of the dying. Awareness of these will help us to feel more comfortable in their presence and also to communicate more helpfully, making the entire experience less intimidating.

Contexts of Awareness

Four basic types, or levels, of awareness are shared by the dying and their loved ones: closed, suspected, mutual pretense, and open (Glaser and Strauss, 2005).

In closed awareness, the person does not recognize that they are dying, although everyone else does. All join in a conspiracy to help keep the secret well-guarded by withholding information that may lead to a realization that death is a prospect. If the person begins to ask questions about their condition, the family may improvise explanations to distract from or explain away new symptoms or developments in the progression of the illness. As the person becomes increasingly ill, the explanations become unconvincing, and the relationships become strained as family and friends be on guard in an effort to protect their secret. Closed awareness causes great tension and is deceitful; everyone is engaged in the conspiracy of silence so that the dying person has no one with whom to speak.

In suspected awareness, the person suspects what others know and attempts to verify the suspicion by luring or tricking family or friends to divulge that information. The person’s suspicion is often aroused by others’ changes in attitudes and behaviors, changes in medical treatment, and noticeable deterioration of condition. In this situation, caregivers usually prefer to allow the dying person to recognize their impending death independently rather communicating it directly. This often results in avoidance of answering direct questions related to the condition. Suspicion usually leads to either mutual pretense or open awareness.

Mutual pretense involves the best known and yet the most subtle of the awareness contexts. Although everyone involved in the situation is aware that the person is dying, all continue to act as if this were not so. The pretense is continued, often with great effort, through a mutual conspiracy of silence fostering an avoidance of death talk. Occasionally the dying person may offer cues signifying that they know they are dying, but loved ones are unwilling to speak the truth. This results in a “let’s pretend” situation in which all are aware of the others’ knowledge, but will not openly admit it and thus keep up the pretense that recovery is possible. Mutual pretense may be useful in giving some dying persons more privacy, dignity, and control. It may, however, result in alienation.

Open awareness exists when the dying person and loved ones know that death is near and acknowledge the fact in their interactions. It affords the opportunity to complete the necessary tasks associated with dying, such as bringing relationships to closure, reflecting on one’s life, and coping with psychological problems such as fears and regrets. Although the open awareness context is preferable to the other three, it may be the most difficult because of the many questions and problems faced by loved ones. For example, they need to decide whether the dying person should be made aware of all facets of the situation, including the details of the prognosis. Would such knowledge cause depression or, possibly, suicide?

It is helpful to understand the awareness context in which an interaction takes place, because all talk and action are guided by what one knows. Although a shift toward open contexts of awareness is usually encouraged, it is not always possible or desirable to maintain an entirely open awareness. Some dying persons, or their loved ones, may not be prepared to function with open awareness because of high anxiety, limited communication ability, or a tendency toward denial. Denial, in fact, may be healthy and necessary for many individuals. What is most important is not to impose a particular context of awareness on another, remembering that every individual has developed different coping skills and views death differently.

The Trajectory of Dying

Dying may be considered a process that occurs over time. As such, it may take a variety of forms, or trajectories (see Glaser and Strauss, 2007, and Benoliel). All trajectories take time and have a certain shape through time. For example, the trajectory may plunge straight downward; move slowly and steadily downward; vacillate slowly, moving slightly up and down before plunging downward; or move downward, reach a plateau and hold, then plunge rapidly downward toward death.

The duration of the dying trajectory may be either lingering, expected quick, or unexpected quick. The varying factors of certainty and time yield four types of trajectories: (1) certain death at a known time (e.g., late-diagnosed metastatic cancers); (2) certain death at an unknown time (e.g., chronic fatal illness, such as chronic kidney failure); (3) uncertain death, with a known time when certainty will be established (e.g., radical surgery for cancer, where a successful outcome may be known, but the threat of recurrence may be continually present); and (4) uncertain death at an unknown time (e.g., multiple sclerosis or other chronic diseases of uncertain outcome).

It is important to recognize that these dying trajectories are subjective rather than actual courses of dying and may, in fact, be inaccurate.

Uniqueness of the Personal Experience

There is the notion of an appropriate death: a style of dying that is adapted to each specific person. Respect for each individual’s personality and values defines what may be appropriate for that person. Each must live his own life and death in a manner consonant with his own pattern of living and dying, his definitions of life and death, and within his own context. Thus an appropriate death is different for each individual.

It is imperative to understand the ways in which dying individuals have lived through and experienced previous stressful life events in order to understand how they respond to the challenges of the dying process. How individuals have behaved during earlier life crises will give significant clues to how they will behave during dying. In other words, people die in the same way that they live. The situation—dying—may be extraordinary, but variables such as personality traits and coping history remain long-established and will result in similar styles of dealing with the challenges of dying.

Stages of Dying

Five stages that refer to the person’s successive mental and emotional responses to dying have been identified: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross).

Denial (“No, not me”), the first response, is an attempt to negate or escape from the idea of one’s own death. Most individuals experience partial and temporary denial. It is a form of natural protection and allows us to manage fear. To provide support for persons who are in denial, it is helpful to invite them to talk about their fears, but without attempting to force them out of denial.

The second stage, anger (“Why me?”), often characterized by envy, rage, and resentment, is often difficult for family members, who may be the target of the anger. This stage is stimulated by fear and frustration. Understanding that anger is a normal response to a terminal illness can help keep outbursts in perspective and accept this behavior as temporary and normal.

In bargaining (“Yes, me, but . . .”), the third stage, the dying person attempts to forestall the inevitable by making a deal with the doctor, family, God, or fate if he or she is permitted to live somewhat longer. At this point, the person recognizes the prognosis but is still attempting to modify the outcome. Sincere listening and realistic support can be offered.

Depression (“Yes, me”; grieving) is associated with the ultimate future loss of life and may be characterized by fatigue, loss of function, feelings of guilt, and fear of dying. The dying person realizes that bargaining is of no use and becomes sorrowful and withdrawn. Simply being present and accepting when a person is depressed is more helpful than attempting to talk them out of their depression or to distract them.

The final stage, acceptance (“Yes, me”), signifies the end of the struggle. It is not always accompanied by a happy or serene feeling. In fact it is often associated with an absence of all feeling.

These stages are not rigid, nor are they mutually exclusive. Moreover, hope tends to persist in all stages, even depression and acceptance. Indeed it is asserted that, without hope, death follows shortly (Kübler-Ross).

Although many dying individuals do experience these stages in clearly observable ways, they will not necessarily move through the five stages in a linear fashion or experience all stages.

Factors Influencing the Dying Process

Several factors influence the experience of dying: age, gender, the nature of the disease and environment, and religion and culture.

Chronological age affects the way in which dying and death are comprehended, since the intellectual grasp of death is related to the individual’s developmental level and extent of life experiences. Accordingly, the experience of a mature adult will differ considerably from that of a young child, who may not comprehend the nature of death.

One example clearly illustrates the influence of age on the experience of dying. A young child with a diagnosis of terminal cancer and a life expectancy of less than six months began to question her future when the pain from her bone cancer interfered with her ability to walk. She struggled to understand the concept of death but could not easily move beyond the fear of being alone, that is, without her parents. Her major concern was who would take care of her.

Age further influences the dying process, because children and adults have different opportunities to exercise control over the situation. The same young child mentioned above understandably had little opportunity to participate in the decision making process regarding her treatment, and attempted to control the situation in other ways. For example, she would refuse to respond to adult conversation at times, indicating that she would be the one to decide when and if conversation would be initiated, emphatically declaring in response to a statement or question, “Not now! We’ll talk after the cuckoo (clock) strikes!” Age also influences the perceptions of others and the ways in which one is treated. Although this child clearly was in the terminal phase of cancer, the treatment team found it difficult, if not impossible, to make the final decision to terminate treatment, as is often the case when treating young children. In cultures where youth is greatly valued, it is often difficult to become reconciled to the untimely death of a child. Conversely, advancing age may result, not always appropriately, in a less aggressive treatment protocol.

Gender affects the dying experience because of the difference in life roles for men and women and the resulting difference in values. For example, a man who is facing a life-threatening illness may be more concerned with financial provisions for his family, while a woman may be more concerned with family integrity and caregiving (“Who will cook for my husband?”).

Disease, treatment, and environment critically influence the experience of dying. Each individual dies of a particular cause in a particular place. For example, a lung condition associated with breathing difficulty and with being treated in a hospital is likely to cause more alarming symptoms than is a home death due to chronic kidney failure, where one may simply become increasingly lethargic as death approaches.

Attitudes and beliefs about life, living, and death, as shaped by religion and culture, influence the dying process. For example, a person who believes that death signifies the end of all life may fear death. Conversely, a person who believes in an afterlife or in reincarnation may fear the anticipated separation from loved ones, but not the dying process or death itself. The profoundly different nature of these two individuals’ fears will influence how they respond to the process and the ways in which loved ones can assist them through it. One way of initiating conversation about the dying person’s beliefs about an afterlife is simply to ask, “What do you believe happens afterwards?”

Having a faith, too, influences the experience of dying. One hospice nurse said, “At the end, those with a faith—it really doesn’t matter in what, but a faith in something—find it easier. Not always, but as a rule. I’ve seen people with faith panic, and I’ve seen those without faith accept it [death]. But, as a rule, it’s much easier [for those] with faith” (Samarel, 64–65).

Words from Those Nearing Death

Persons nearing death quite often will speak, within their own frames of reference, of preparation for travel. For example, the businessman may fret about needing to find his passport, while the sailboat buff may ask about the tides. The recurrence of this theme is consistent with the concept of death as a passage or journey. Often the dying person has a sense of being accompanied by another who already has died. Most often, the dying recognize a deceased relative or close friend; occasionally they speak of angels or religious figures.

In one beautiful situation, an elderly dying woman was seen by her adult granddaughter to be conversing with her long-dead husband. Following this “conversation,” she told her granddaughter with great serenity that Grandpa had stopped by to tell Grandma not to be afraid and that she would be joining him soon. He also said that he would be guiding her on her journey among beautiful gardens. She shortly drifted off to sleep, her face tranquil and calm; she died a short while later.

One imminently terminal man, asleep in his hospital room, awoke with a start, became quite alert and called the nurse to his bedside. He said that, while asleep, he had seen two angels who would be with him when he was ready “to go.” Several days later he serenely pointed to a corner of the ceiling and announced in a matter-of-fact manner, “There they are, the angels. They’ve come for me.” He then took one final breath and closed his eyes. The messages here are that dying persons are not alone and may, in fact, be blessed with help in a form unique to them.


Benoliel, Jeanne Quint. “Health Care Providers and Dying Patients: Critical Issues in Terminal Care,” in Omega 18, 1987–88.

Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss, Awareness of Dying. New Brunswick, N.J.: Aldine Transaction, 2005.

———.Time for Dying. New Brunswick, N.J.: Aldine Transaction, 2007.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Samarel, Nelda. Caring for Life and Death. Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1991.

Nelda Samarel, Ed.D., R.N., a longtime student of the Ageless Wisdom, has been director of the Krotona School of Theosophy and a director of the Theosophical Society in America. She serves on the executive board of the Inter-American Theosophical Federation. A retired professor of nursing, Dr. Samarel has numerous publications and presents internationally. Her article “A Visit to John of God” appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Quest.

This article is excerpted from Samarel’s booklet Helping the Dying: A Guide for Families and Friends Assisting Those in Transition, published by the Theosophical Order of Service. For a free copy, please write to: Theosophical Society in America, Attention: Helping the Dying, P.O. Box 270, Wheaton, IL 60187-0270, or to


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