Does Consciousness Continue After Death, or is it Light’s Out?

Johanna Lunn

Johanna Lunn is a award-winning Canadian documentary film maker who I met back in 2015 when she invited me to take part in her documentary film on death and dying. Since then, Johanna has developed what was going to be one documentary into a series of fascinating films under the umbrella title of When We Die. These films involve personal stories of near-death experiences, deathbed visions and more, to explore the question, ‘Does consciousness continue after death, or is it lights out?’ 

Sue: Welcome Johanna. We will talk about your film projects, but first I am curious about when this interest in death and dying started for you. 

Johanna: Well, it’s a funny thing to say ‘interested’ in death and dying because right off the top people go, ‘who is this weird lady!’  But it really started for me when I was nineteen and experienced three significant losses. My mother died followed shortly after by my best friend’s death who was like a sister to me growing up, and the third death was being a passenger in a car. We were driving in the country and we came over a blind spot and we hit an elderly man. He died in my arms on the roadside. Any of those things would have been enough, but all three together threw me into a deep grief state at a time when grief wasn’t acknowledged. It was a really rough period of my life and I had to face climbing out of this dark hole because as we know with grief, just as soon as you start feeling a little bit better, you can be thrust right back down into that sinkhole. It was a really rough ride, especially at that age where I hardly knew who I was, let alone knew how to deal with such strong emotions. 

Sue: My goodness, that is a lot of death to experience at such an early age. 

Johanna: It was. However, my first job out of University was as a researcher for a possible Public Broadcast Service (PBS) movie on death and dying in the context of community. It gave me a chance to talk to some of the early death pioneers like Elisabeth Kubler Ross and Steven Levine. It was a way of educating myself and learning and also really finally contextualising what was going on with me. We put together a fabulous movie, but PSB thought this was really too taboo. They didn’t think their audiences were ready for it yet. 

After that I did other things in television but then I came to a gap in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  I ended up talking with a good friend who’s a mentor in many ways. She pushed me to think about what I really wanted to do, and I came back to this subject of death which had been with me all these years. I told her I wanted to popularise conversations about death and dying and make it normal. She said, ‘That’s it!’ So that’s how it all came about. I had made films about forgiveness and moving forward through grief in a healthy way – so this thing with death had always been there in the background really. 

Sue: What has working in television given to you? 

Johanna: I feel so blessed to have had many different roles in film and television, including being a festival programmer and director of festivals. And I have commissioned broadcast films and I’ve been an independent producer as well. All along the way, I feel like the gift of working in this industry is the gift of receiving stories, which I regard as a great responsibility. When somebody shares their story with me and shares their thoughts, wisdom and experience, I have this obligation to do this as faithfully as possible. 

Sue:  Has making these films changed your relationship with death and dying?

Johanna:  Oh yeah, it definitely has. It’s helped me grow as a human being enormously. I had a pretty broad sense of death and dying, but I think that this process with In the Realm of Death and Dreaming, which is the title of the first of the four films under the When You Die project, has deepened this. I have discovered that human beings are more extraordinary than I could have possibly imagined. It’s the depth of our ability to perceive the world around us, to love deeply, to live more fully. I think to live more fully and more confidently has been a huge gift. 

Sue: That’s really interesting. In my own experience of life, it is tough here and we do have the most extraordinary resilience. Actually, I think all of us need a bravery award for being here in the first place! It’s certainly been this sense that there’s something greater than me which has kept me going. 

Johanna:  This is part of what I was so curious about in the first film, In the Realm of Death and Dreaming, which explores what consciousness actually is. Is it generated by the brain? Is it free floating and we’re just little receptors plugging into it? I also explore this further in the second film, The Architecture of Death – what happens in the mind and body as we near death. Whatever side you’re on – and I’m definitely on the side that there is a greater consciousness – it is available, but, by nature of being embodied in a human body, we have a kind of heavy filter. Consciousness itself isn’t bound by a body or form of any sort and that’s outside our day-to-day experience. So, we don’t know how to access it. Personally, I think it helps to do meditation.

I loved talking to Anthony Bossis who did the psilocybin trials for The New York University Medical Centre to help reduce end-of-life fear with cancer patients. He talked about the body of literature around this subject and people like Abraham Maslow saying we’re wired for meaning. This is our nature. It’s all in there, but we’re just not trained to use it.

Sue: I understand towards the end of his life, Maslow started describing peak existential experiences which prepared him for his death. I found that really interesting.  

Johanna: Yes, it’s fascinating. I attended the International Science of Consciousness Conference hosted by the University of Arizona one year. It was an amazing gathering of leading scientists, prestigious educational institutions, and Nobel Prize nominated scientists attending from around the world. It was a nerd fest of brilliant minds! At one point I did ask myself what I was doing there. But this was a chance to really talk to people about what they were researching. It was amazing to hear how so many said that when they started out as research scientists, they were total materialists – the brain generated everything and there was nothing outside of us. Then they progressed from, ‘well, maybe there is consciousness out there,’ to ‘consciousness is everywhere.’  So, over the course of a long career, many had found themselves moving from this materialistic point of view to becoming more spiritual people due to what they had discovered through their research.  

Sue: Personally, I think consciousness is the glue that connects us all. However, as you said earlier, we don’t know how to access it. We have been taught to become so goal orientated and to put a label on ourselves to make ourselves happy, but it isn’t like that. I think a successful life is about linking to something greater than ourselves. 

Johanna: I believe this stems from our parents’ experience of the war. It was horrible and they were stuffed with deep trauma and grief. They didn’t want to think about it and turned their minds to creating a better society. Agriculture became a business. You could buy things on credit – you couldn’t have a washing machine before, well, now you can. And then this became a slave to an economic model. Every step of the way was about valuing your wellbeing through having nice things – a nice little house, having children and the picket fence around the garden. I think there was a real shutting down into materialism because culturally we didn’t have a way of dealing with all that grief and loss. I also think right now we’re faced with a world that’s suffering tremendous loss. And I hope that we can do a better job of dealing with it. 

Sue: I think the other thing that really changed society was the analgesics which arrived because of The Second World War where doctors were able to reduce pain and ease the end of life. Personally, I am really grateful for this because I don’t want to be in a world without them. But I believe this shifted how we perceived life and death. 

Johanna: Well, with the global pandemic going on, we can’t avoid death. In fact, we are fed it every day in the media to such an extreme. So, it’s out there, you know, it’s out there. But let’s get off this fear campaign because it’s crushing. Yet, as weird as this may sound, we need to begin to see what grief is. When I went through all those losses in my early twenties, I didn’t even know what grief was. I don’t even think I knew the word ‘grief.’ It was years later when a therapist said to me, ‘You know, one of the hugest human emotions is grief.’ I looked at him like, ‘Grief is an emotion?’ I didn’t know. 

Sue:  I think grief is about getting down and dirty with yourself. In my experience of grief, it brings up everything that we haven’t resolved. I remember when I went through a huge grieving process, I felt like my body was going to break apart. It’s not a fun feeling, but at the same time it threw me into an existential space beyond who I was, and it profoundly changed me.

Johanna: Right. But grief isn’t just about death as in the big D. When my marriage of over twenty-four years ended and my daughter was taking a gap year in Mongolia before University, I ended up in a strange new place surrounded by boxes and went into a deep grief place. It isn’t pleasant. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it is powerful. It’s incredibly powerful, and there’s the opportunity for real transformation, because, if you’re brave enough and you can go into that space, you can shift things. By the way, I’m not saying grief is something ‘you get over.’ Instead of trying to hang on to the very thing that’s gone, my process led me to questioning, ‘Who am I now?’ ‘Who do I want to be now?’ That was a hugely transformational moment.  

Many people have created extraordinary things during their grief process. They’ve written books, created sculptures, all kinds of artwork, and also non-profit organisations. It’s as if many are born out of a grief moment because it is a highly creative process.  Although, if I had said this to myself while I was going through it, it would have gone beyond me. 

Sue: For me, what came out of my own grieving process was how it stripped away all the nonsense, which cleared the way to think about what was really important. 

Johanna: Definitely it did that to me too, because that’s when I left broadcasting.  I blew everything up, and the role of my marriage and my role as a mother was gone. Yet it was really liberating in the sense that my tolerance for why I needed to live under all these rules that felt so restrictive to my basic nature had also gone. I found a whole new voice in a whole new way of being. And I’m certainly more fulfilled as a human being. 

Sue: Do you like yourself better now? 

Johanna: I love myself! I think that when you face yourself in the depths of despair and pain and all the stuff that goes with it, that’s when I started to like myself and meet myself. I don’t think I ever thought about genuine kindness to oneself. It was always about others and not recognising that when you are kind and loving to yourself, you are most able to be of benefit to other people. So that was a big shift. 

Sue:  I want to return to your series of films you are making, and the main themes you are addressing. 

Johanna:  Well, in the first film, In the Realm of Death & Dreaming I wanted to ask the big question, ‘Does consciousness continue after death?’ I have no judgement about what somebody feels about this, but I wanted to put it out there and I wanted it to be accessible to people who have never thought about that question. I feel it’s important because what you believe happens when you die affects the decisions you make about your end of life particularly as you approach death. 

Sue: And, the second film? 

Johanna: The Architecture of Death looks at death as a process. It’s a process we all have to pass through before we die, so it explores what happens physically and psychologically. For example, what goes on in the mind?  This is where deathbed experiences, visions and dreams come in. But It’s not just about dead relatives coming. It’s the whole area where you have a premonition maybe about yourself or maybe it’s about someone else. For instance, you don’t get on that aeroplane [that crashes] or you’ve lost a loved one and you have extraordinary things happening around you such as light or the scent of roses filling a room. These are much more common than we imagine.

 I think it’s important to understand that when someone is dying their consciousness relaxes and starts to expand out. The room of a person who’s dying becomes charged. And if you have had this experience, you certainly know what I’m talking about. The room is really, really charged. And when we enter that room it’s as if we are inside their consciousness. It becomes very intimate. How do we support these kinds of situation? How do we behave? I guess the other part of this is asking yourself how medicalised do you want to be in those last days, because you are alive until the minute you die. 

Sue: Making those decisions are an important part of the dying process. It can be difficult one though. 

Johanna: Yes, it is. And validating peoples’ experiences as they are dying is really important too. So, the third film is about saying goodbye. For the person who is dying, this is about making meaning of life. And if you are losing a loved one, your life is also changing. How can we say goodbye? How do we let go? How do we move through the grieving process, and what is healthy grieving anyway? 

Sue: This is also a difficult one. Yet I have spoken to many people who are convinced that the person who died knew they were going to die. For example, one person whose husband tragically drowned in front of her is convinced he knew he was going to die because he spent the previous month making sure he saw everyone who meant something to him. This included putting all his financial affairs in order. 

Johanna: In hindsight, I think this was true with my own mother as well. She’d been really sick, but I thought she was doing okay. She called me when I was at University and was  saying, ‘I’m going to get the help that I need so you don’t need to worry about me. Things are going to be better.’ I thought she was crazy. I had no idea what she was talking about, but two days later she died. I don’t know how conscious she was, but she was moved by something to reach out. And that was a little out of character. 

Sue: It’s as if the dying process takes us beyond ourselves. There seems to be a kind of calling to reconcile or put things in order for many people. It makes me really curious especially when people appear to be acting out of character.

Johanna: It seems like there is a big unseen world that we have a connection to but we’re often unconscious of it. It’s just like when you feel someone coming up behind you on a street, but you don’t hear anything, yet your body feels it. Your body gets the message that something’s going on. 

Sue: It is fascinating. A couple of weeks ago, I ran a Death Café for a Christian retreat centre – I’m not Christian myself but I was very happy to do it. I was amazed that every person at the Death Café had experienced the ‘presence’ of someone who had died, whether it was a spouse or a much-loved parent or relative. One said she ‘saw’ three dead relatives walk through the door to say hello to her! Most of these participants had never met before and some had never spoken about it

Johanna: Yes, the light switch doesn’t suddenly go off. I think we are more extraordinary than we realise. 

Sue: With all you have experienced making your films, how has this impacted your own relationship with death? 

Johanna: I’m not afraid of death but I also really like being alive. And I know, when it comes to my final days, if there are a lot of people in the room with me, I think I will have trouble letting go because it’ll be like, ‘Hey, the party’s on!’ So while I’m not afraid of death, I am hooked by life.

Sue: Do you think about your death a lot? 

Johanna: I’m very attached to my body – so in that sense I think this is where there is a certain sort of grief or remorse or feelings of leaving something that’s sweet behind. However, because I work with death it’s something that doesn’t leave my consciousness for very long. 

It’s spring right now in Nova Scotia and life is struggling to come forth. It reminds me that there’s a sweetness about how determined we all are to come into the world like a baby. So, I see the process more consciously in my day-to-day life. In that way, birth and death are always with me. 

Sue: What’s your vision for yourself and your future work? 

Johanna: My business partner and I joke that after all these years working on death we’re going to do something totally different – like a tour of single malt distilleries. But really, I’m not sure what the next step is because there’s still a lot of work to do to complete this project. I am very committed to it and still very much in the edit suite. I am also busy talking to different community groups and universities about screening In the Realm of Death & Dreaming. Getting this first film out there is really important to me because it can help start the conversation about death, which helps reduce fear at end of life.  

There was a wonderful study done, I believe in the UK, where they looked at people who had grown up in households where death was a taboo subject and households where families talked about it. The study discovered that those who grew up unafraid to talk about death were funnier than people who didn’t. I like that because it means if you’ve got a great sense of humour, you have a fuller living experience. So, conversations around death and dying aren’t just about preparing for your own death, they are about living more fully. 

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We hide around three quarters of ourselves through fear of being exposed.

Jamie Catto

Jamie Catto is the founder member of Faithless, the highly successful world music band. Jamie is also a life-challenging personal coach and business coach who believes everyone one of us is ‘a wise guru in charge of a mental patient.’ His workshops are designed to shake up our life and confront the perceptions of who we think we are. One participant describes him as a ‘foul-mouthed, passionate, present, witty, musical wizard!’

You can find out more about Jamie Catto through his website www.jamiecatto.com

You can also listen to Jamie Catto on my Embracing Your Mortality podcast, on Friday 2nd April

Continue reading “We hide around three quarters of ourselves through fear of being exposed.”

Studying as an astrologer felt like coming home.

Victor Olliver, Astrologer and editor of the Astrology Journal

Victor Olliver is an award winning journalist and a long time ago, trained as a lawyer. But around the age of 40, as he says, ‘my chart started to call to me’, and he is now one of the UK’s leading astrologers and editor of the Astrological Journal. Victor also has an abiding passion for studying the mysticism of symbolism and how astrology can help us to find meaning and purpose in our life.  

You can contact Victor through his website:  www.victorolliver.co.uk.

You can also listen to Victor Olliver on my Embracing Your Morality podcast on Friday, 16th April 2021

Continue reading “Studying as an astrologer felt like coming home.”

Yoga was like a dawning for me.


Ben Parkes, also known as YogaBen, has been teaching and practising yoga for over twenty years. He trained with Swami Ambikananda. She, herself, trained with Swami Venkatesananda whose lineage goes up to Sivananda.  Ben has been my teacher for the past five years and I have found his yoga lessons an inspiration both physically and spiritually. Therefore, I am delighted that Ben agreed to add his voice to this series of interviews with people willing to share their wisdom about what it takes to live more consciously for a better world. I firmly believe that yoga makes a powerful contribution to this.  

Continue reading “Yoga was like a dawning for me.”

I just woke up with the Light

As soon as Dr Alan Hugenot finished school, he was drafted into the Vietnam War and joined the navy. This introduced him to a love of ships, which led to a distinguished career as a naval architect. In 1970 – five years before Raymond Moody published his book Life after Life and coined the phrase Near Death Experience (NDE) – Alan experienced an NDE during a coma while in intensive care following a serious motorbike accident which left him hospitalised for 33 days.

Continue reading “I just woke up with the Light”

Things Have to Break Down Before They Break Through

Roz Savage MBE holds four Guinness World Records for ocean rowing and is the first woman to row solo across three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. She used her adventures to raise awareness on environmental issues. Amongst her many accolades and achievements, she is a United Nations Climate Hero, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Fellow of the Explorers Club of New York, and recipient of a Yale World Fellowship. Roz also founded The Sisters, a global network of women who want to create a more peaceful and sustainable future. Roz’s new and wonderful book The Gift of Solitude: a short guide to surviving and thriving in isolation is now available on Amazon. 

Continue reading “Things Have to Break Down Before They Break Through”

Resilience and the breath of life. 

I am thoroughly fed up with the negative news and social media agendas that are bombarding us from all directions twenty-four hours a day.  I realise that we are facing massive global and climatic challenges and changes but it is well recognised by psychologists that continual pessimism kills a person’s creativity. This has serious repercussions. Without the creativity to see beyond our limitations, it’s hard to access resilience – which, to me, should be as much a part of life as breathing in and out.

It’s true that the human narrative is changing, and we can no longer rely on happy ever after endings. But it is time for us all to call on our resilience to reshape the legacy of what we want to leave behind so humanity and other species may continue to experience life on Earth. But how can we do this when those in positions of power have created a paradigm that solely focuses on breathing out into endless growth, expansion and progress to the point that humanity is imploding?  As I see it, we have arrived at the time when we have completely emptied our human lung capacity – there is literally no more breath left to breathe out anymore.

For anyone who practices yogic breathing, the space between the out breath and the in breath is where we consciously hold the exquisite moment of experiencing empty lungs before mindfully taking another breath and enjoying the process of what it feels like for our lungs to fill again with sweet life-giving air. This cycle of conscious breathing follows a natural flow which helps us to profoundly connect to the cycles of our own life, to our resilience and to the cycles of the natural world.

However, humanity is not practicing yogic breathing.  It is currently trapped in the interval between the out breath and the in breath, and our lungs have gone into spasm. We are hard-wired to survive so when we can’t take a breath, we panic and begin to fight for air.  I see this is where humanity is right now: caught in spasm, panic and fight.

But there is a way to break through. It’s about simply reconnecting to the natural cycle of our breath so we can ground ourselves and draw on our resilience to stare hardship and challenge square in the eye and refuse to give up until we find a resolution. Sometimes life can be so unforgiving that resilience is all we have left.  It drags us out of bed when we are pulverised by loss and grief. It makes us hold on tight to our dreams when everything is falling around our ears; it encourages us to reach out when we believe we are abandoned. It forces us take that one step at a time as we blindly seek a way through the darkest hours of our life; it teaches us to be flexible in the face of challenge and change, and it helps us to see a much bigger picture of what it means to be a human being entering the flow of life rather than someone manically ‘doing’ to run away from themselves.

So how do we consciously reconnect with our resilience? I believe there are nine keys to this:

  1. WE NEED TO WAKE UP TO OURSELVES

We have to develop the skills to listen to what is going on inside us. Our body holds all the information we need to make our life work for us, what is true for us, and what is false. So, the first key to connecting to resilience is to wake up to the feelings that we are experiencing in the moment and allowing them to guide us forward.

  1. ADMIT TO OUR MORTALITY

Life is finite. All of us are going to die. Admitting to our mortality allows us to see ourselves for who we really are – someone who is just passing through this physical existence.  Thousands have experienced life on Earth before we were born, and thousands will come after we die. Knowing and accepting that we are part of the larva of humanity helps us to put life back into perspective, and to find ways to live the best life we possibly can irrespective of what may be happening out in the larger world.

  1. FIND MEANING AND PURPOSE

I was staggered to learn that 85% of workers worldwide say that they hate their jobs (Gallup, 2017).  This is no way to live this one precious life that we are experiencing right now. So, it’s essential to take time to explore what fires up our creativity and to discover what makes us feel alive and spontaneous. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What unique gifts do I have to offer?’ And refuse to take none for an answer.

  1. WE HAVE TO BECOME HUMBLE

Just as resilience is part of the human condition, so is pain and suffering. Suffering strips away ill-placed pride and introduces us to the humility of seeing life for what it is: a series of experiences that begin at birth and end with death. It’s how we respond to these experiences that matters. As Kahlil Gibran says, ‘Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.’

  1. TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSBILITY

It doesn’t matter if we believe in past lives – it’s this life that matters and the only real mission for all of us is to own the life we have come here to experience. Yes, this can be very scary especially when we have set high expectations for ourselves or when life turns in on itself. But the only way to step out of being a victim is to understand that we are creators of our own reality and to focus on something that nurtures and supports who we are.

  1. BECOME A RESPONSIBLE ANCESTOR

Life is not just about our immediate family or ancestral line. Taking care of the planet is essential for the survival for all species. For humanity to survive and thrive we need to go beyond our immediate constraints of what we believe life to be and become far more conscious of the flow of all life following behind us. Caring for the Earth is the true meaning of legacy. 

  1. GIVE UP WHATEVER MAKES US UNHAPPY.

When we look outside ourselves for something or someone to make us feel good about ourselves, we end up filled with anxiety because we are terrified of it coming to an end. Giving up what makes us unhappy is about finding ways to deeply connect to our resilience so we can begin to make informed choices about what supports our vision of making this world a better place.

  1. RECONNECT TO THE EARTH

Our beautiful planet has sustained life for billions of years and made possible the evolution of humankind. But what we term as progress has insidiously eroded away our profound connection to the natural cycles and rhythms of nature. For future generations to survive, we need to learn, once again, to synchronise our own resilient cycle of breath with the Earth’s cycle of breath.

  1. UNDERSTAND OUR PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE

To put our self-importance into perspective, we just need to look into deep space. One of the most extraordinary photographs I have ever seen is from Voyager 1 as it passed out of our solar system on February 14th 1990, 3.7 billions miles from Earth. Our planet is a minute pale blue dot hanging in a vast expanse of space. It makes me believe there is a far greater plan at work than I can possibly imagine.

When you find yourself overwhelmed by the fear and anxiety that is being spoon fed to us day after day, take a moment to calm yourself by focusing on your breath. Feel your feet firmly on the floor, and, as you breathe out, consciously call on your resilience to make itself known to you. It may appear as a feeling or as a vision or perhaps even a sound.  Spend a little time reflecting on the 9 keys to resilience, and perhaps identify certain keys that you may have overlooked or not considered to be part of what makes resilience such an indelible part of who you are.

Resilience makes us feel safe inside ourselves, and I believe this is the human quality which will help to stem the surge of negativity that assails us because it gives us the courage and the determination to stand up and say, ‘Enough! NO MORE! There are far better ways to experience life.’

 

 

 

Interview about Living Fully, Dying Consciously with Spiritual Media Blog

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Living Fully, Dying Consciously out now!

Living Fully, Dying Consciously steps into the heart of the human condition to explore why our entire life is a psychological and spiritual preparation for death. Life is not easy, but when we accept that we are just passing through this physical existence it puts things into perspective. Confronting our fear of death and accepting our physical mortality helps us to create a much more conscious way of living. This is essential for our own spiritual wellbeing, for the wellbeing of the planet and for future generations.

 ‘This book is a Tour de Force of the science and philosophy surrounding death and dying, as well as the emerging science of consciousness survival, all of which I have both researched myself and also experienced personally, so I can verify the scientific accuracy of what Sue is reporting on – and teaching in this wonderful book.’  Dr. Alan Ross Hugenot, author of The New Science of Consciousness Survival and the Metaparadigm Shift to a Conscious Universe.

Publisher contact details and review copies

jbeecher@whitecrowbooks.com

http://whitecrowbooks.com

 

 

Hiraeth: the call of Home

On this Brexit fuelled Election Day taking place on the mid winter Full Cold Moon, I notice a familiar deep-seated feeling intensify in my body, which the English language does not have a word to describe. Melancholia touches on it, but this is different to a brooding gloominess.

Nostalgia may be a better description. Nostalgia comes from the Greek, nóstos meaning homecoming, and álgos, meaning pain or ache. We feel this pain or ache when we are away from home, or when we become caught up in yearning for a treasured time that has long passed. But again, this doesn’t quite touch it.

Continue reading “Hiraeth: the call of Home”

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