Life and Death

Dale Borglum in 1980

Pacific Sun Interview: A Matter of Life and Death

by Steve McNamara
This interview appeared in the March 2, 1990, edition of Pacific Sun.
Death is not a light-weight subject. Says Dale Borglum; “I’ll go to a party and people will say, ‘What do you do?’ and I’ll start talking and half the people will leave the room because they don’t want it to ruin their party; and the other half are really fascinated – they want to sit down and talk about it.”

What Borglum does is serve as director of the Living/Dying Project, a Marin-based Bay Area group of four paid staff and some 40 volunteers who “offer conscious and compassionate support… for those experiencing life-threatening illness.” The Living/Dying Project differs from the hospice movement in that it addresses spiritual concerns as well as physical comfort. About a third of its clients have AIDSA, another third cancer and the balance a variety of diseases. The service is free and the project is supported by contributions from individuals and foundations.

Borglum’s journey began in Los Altos, where he grew up. He graduated in math from U.C. Berkeley, then got a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics from Stanford in 1970. At Stanford he fell in with Ram Dass and group immortalized by Ken Kesey. “U.C. and Stanford had the two best math departments in the country in my field, but those professors didn’t seem to be particularly happy or well-adjusted human beings. There was something missing that I wanted to explore a bit. I started going to encounter groups and things like that.”

He and Ram Dass journeyed to India. Then back to Santa Cruz. “I had decided I didn’t want to be a scientist. It didn’t seem good for my mental health.” In Santa Cruz Borglum became executive director of the Hanuman Foundation, started by Ram Dass. The two, joined by Stephen Levine, started what was called The Dying Project.

The three moved to Santa Fe in 1980 and in a house there opened the Dying Center, which attended, free, to people with terminal illnesses. There was a problem at first; “During the first six months everyone who came and stayed, got better and left. My friends were kidding me, ‘What kind of dying center is this, anyway?'” In 1986 Borglum moved to Marin. The idea is now a project rather that a center. “That has something to do with real estate prices in Marin.” Ram Dass and Levine also live in Marin.

Borglum was interviewed in the small apartment in Fairfax which is both his home and the office of the Living/Dying Project.

Pacific Sun: What got you interested in the subject of dying?

Borglum: In those days the place that consciousness had least penetrated was the area of dying. You could go to a bookstore and buy a book about conscious childrearing or conscious gardening, but nothing about dying. That’s where the most fear resides. In fact a psychiatrist would say that any fear we have is a displace fear of death. Fear of embarrassment, fear of pain it’s all intimately related to our fear of death. Our culture puts all these structures together to protect us from that fear.

Pacific Sun: Does this society handle death worse that some others? Most others? Borglum: Most others. Western technological society has lost its connection with the rhythms of life; the seasons, old age and dying. The amount of money we put into caring for our physical bodies is almost proportional to how we’re trying to keep death at a distance.

Pacific Sun: It’s handled better elsewhere?

Borglum: Yes. In a traditional culture, when someone is dying, a lama, a priest, a shaman… someone comes and guides that person into the next world. In the west that tradition has pretty much been lost.

Pacific Sun: Don’t other groups attend to the dying?

Borglum: There a lot of agencies working with people, helping them die. But usually it’s still making the best of a bad situation. They are working with the part of the being that does die, which is the body and the personality. And it is my belief, and the belief of all the world’s mystical traditions and religions, that we are two-fold beings. There is the human part of us that does die; at the same time there is part of us that doesn’t die – living spirit, consciousness, soul – whatever each individual tradition calls it. And to the extent that dimension can be supported, several things can take place.

Pacific Sun: Such as…

Borglum: First, it seems to be the best environment in which to create physical healing. Because we’re not so much caught up in the fear of death. And any energy that’s caught up in fear is not available for the healing process. Secondly, if it is someone’s time to die – whatever that means – then certainly to do this openly and gracefully rather than kicking and screaming will make it a lot easier and richer. Beyond that all these religions do say that our life is preparation for our death. Not in some morbid sense, but in the sense that as death being this transition… as you identification with body and personality is lessening, it’s a log easier to really become who you more essentially are. So in a way the Living/Dying Project really isn’t about dying, it’s about supporting people in life during the time they are confronting the possibility of dying. If anything, it’s about that slash between the Living and the Dying; the interface where death tells us about being alive.

Pacific Sun: Can’t your work get kind of depressing?

Borglum: Don Juan talks in those Carlos Castaneda books about keeping death as an adviser. So the fact that we’re all going to die sometime can lead us to either get really depressed and frightened, or it can be an inspiration to being fully alive right now. You and I may never meet again. Does that give us an excuse to be here fully, to cut beyond social niceties? My feeling is that by doing this work it really allows me to be direct and outrageous and present with people. It’s a place where we go beyond “nice weather, what about the drought, how about those Niners?” All those things are fine; I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about them. But it’s nice to have the opportunity to drop down to a real genuine and deep meaning.

Pacific Sun: But isn’t there a premium in our culture on people who refuse to die, who fight it off? I read a profile of Al Davis of the raiders. Apparently death dominates his thinking. It’s the thing he can’t control. When someone close to him, such as his wife or Del Courtney, is threatened with death, he leads them in the fight.

Borglum: There have been studies done of people who have a prognosis of death fairly soon. The people who make changes in lifestyle take up jogging, drink carrot juice out of fear of dying don’t usually liberate enough wisdom and energy to create healing. But people who make the same changes out of moving toward life – these changes make me feel more alive; I may be dead in six months but I’m going to spend this time feeling as vital as I can – these people more often can create a miracle. I don’t know which group Al Davis guides his friends into. Fighting to stay alive and fighting to push away dying are two different kinds of fighting.

Pacific Sun: How do volunteers come to you?

Borglum: We have public workshops and trainings. There’s no lack of people wanting to be volun-teers; over a hundred people are lining up. In fact there seems to be a feeling these days that working with people who have a life-threatening illness aids in one’s own development.

Pacific Sun: Do you get along with the more conventional medical groups? Borglum: I’m very leery in a lot of ways of the “New Age.” We try to keep very good relationships with the professional medical community as well as the more alternative kinds of healers. There certainly is no sense here that the doctors and hospitals aren’t doing things properly. What we’re trying to do is add a complementary service that supports people who are cared for by Hospice, by hospitals, by the Center for Attitudinal Healing or the Marin AIDS Support Network.

Pacific Sun: So no turf wars as far as you’re concerned?

Borglum: Not as far as I’m concerned. What we’re doing is different from other agencies. We’re presenting this time in a person’s life as an opportunity for spiritual awakening. Not just pulling a religious overlay on it to make it a little bit nicer, but to say, “I wouldn’t have chosen this way for you to awaken, but here it is. You have AIDS or you have cancer or whatever. What does this tell you about who it is that lives, who it is that dies? Is there a joy that transcends happiness and sadness? What does healing really mean in the context of a life-threatening illness?” Some of these deeper questions that most of us don’t look at until our mother is dying or a lover is dying or we have some kind of diagnosis ourselves. Can we ask those questions before we’re sick?

Pacific Sun: Explain what the volunteers do.

Borglum: Basically the volunteer part of the program is doing three things. First, it’s really trying to lovingly care for people in life-threatened situations. The second thing we’re trying to do is create an environment where the volunteers can do this work as work on themselves. Not just social work, but they are people who have confronted some portion of their own fear of dying. They can go out and be around pain, suffering, confusion and not get too caught up in that. They are encouraged to have a daily spiritual practice. The third thing is we’re doing this as a demonstration project, as a model for people to look at and maybe change the way death is being related to in the culture as a whole.

Pacific Sun: What do you mean by that?

Borglum: In 1986 12 percent of our gross national product was spent on the medical industry, which isn’t too surprising. But according to some estimates, 90 percent of that money was spent on terminal illness. Which really doesn’t leave a lot for pediatrics, preventive medicine, psychiatry and all the other ways we would like to spend our dollars, including entertainment and food. Certainly a lot of that money is well spent. When my father was dying a cancer two years ago, I was very glad for that these tens of thousands of dollars were being spent on diagnostic tests and radiation treatments and things. But I’ve seen so many times that thousands and thousands of dollars are being thrown at fear rather than in the service of healing.

Pacific Sun: Do you have children as clients?

Borglum: Yes, and children approach death very differently that adults do. They have a much more natural relationship with it. The thing that bothers children about their own death, more than anything else, is the fear that their parents are exhibiting.

Pacific Sun: How much are volunteers trained?

Borglum: The first part of the training is only a long weekend. About 500 people have taken the training and there are about 35 volunteers, so clearly a lot of people in the Bay Area have taken it who haven’t joined the Project… nurses, ministers, psychotherapists, people who thinking they want to explore more deeply their own lives right now.

Pacific Sun: What if somebody wants to be a volunteer?

Borglum: We do some screening and further training; there’s ongoing training. We have regular meetings where we bring in speakers and I do some presenting.

Pacific Sun: So how does it work?

Borglum: Somebody comes to a hospice and the staff might say, “There’s this other agency that might fill some of your needs. We don’t really have the staff or training to do it.” So then I’ll do an intake interview and if we decide the Living/Dying Project is appropriate for them, then I’ll match them up with a volunteer. Then the volunteer meets with them in their home or their hospital room. As often as is necessary, depending on how sick the person is and what the person’s emotional needs are.

Pacific Sun: What does the volunteer do?

Borglum: That’s an interesting question. There have been all different kinds of relationships between volunteers and clients. One of our clients had a lot of support already. Our volunteer came in and mainly just gave him massages. One fellow had advanced emphysema. He had become very frightened; he was in a real difficult situation. The volunteer taught him to meditate on his breath that was being done for him by his respirator. He calmed down a lot, opened up and relaxed and actually chose to come off the respirator and very, very peacefully died. Whereas a few days before he had been really panicked.

Pacific Sun: Don’t families do what you do?

Borglum: It’s often the case that when someone is dying, the family is so caught up in their own grief and sadness and the medical personnel are so busy that there is no one who is able to be there in a deeply balanced way. If you were dying, how would you like to be surrounded all the time by people who saw you just as a dying person, and your very presence made people feel angry or depressed or frustrated? Just your “being” made everybody feel bad? That’s often what happens to dying people. So just to have a volunteer who comes in a few hours at a time…

Pacific Sun: A few hours a day, a week?

Borglum: As often as is needed. Right now another client is dying of AIDS and his volunteer has become his friend. She’s been living on his hospital room floor, over at U.C.S.F. Medical Center. She’s the one who is swabbing out his mouth. They have a deeply personal relationship. It doesn’t always happen that way, but she’s spending hundreds of hours with this guy in the last part of his life. She’s a therapist and has taken a break from her job and is helping him die.

Pacific Sun: Why?

Borglum: Because she loves him so much. Because this process is much more meaningful for her than anything else she could do right now. We’re not pretending to be Mother Teresa in drag here, but in a sense this work is as deeply rewarding as anything I could do with my life. It really isn’t a 9 to 5 job; it’s a way of deeply serving other human beings and at the same time working on myself.

Pacific Sun: On the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, one radio station played a tape of him saying something like, he wasn’t concerned about death; to him it was like getting out of one car and getting into another. But isn’t that what most concerns people; when I die, what happens next?

Borglum: My basic answer is that it doesn’t really make too much difference. In the sense that whether we believe that this is our only chance to be alive or whether we believe in reincarnation, or heaven and hell or whatever, those issues get into metaphysical speculation. And I’m interested in what do we need to know to be more fully alive right now.

Pacific Sun: Even if I only have six hours to go…

Borglum: Six hours or sixty years, it really doesn’t make too much difference. If I have some idea back there that I’m going to reincarnate, that can be a comfort. But it doesn’t have too much to do with what is going on right here and now.

Pacific Sun: But you must have some ideas of your own…

Borglum: Intellectually it’s very fascinating. And there does seem to be some agreement. When we look at the wisdom teachings – what the Tibetans say, the American Indians say, even what the early Christians church had to say – they seem to say that, one, consciousness survives death; two, the way we live our life goes a long way toward determining how we die; and three, how we die determines what happens next. And that death is a profound opportunity for awakening. But what happens after the dying process really differs from tradition to tradition. And if I say I believe in reincarnation and you don’t, then you thinks, “He doesn’t know anything.” I really thing that gets down to speculation. It’s fascinating, and having been a scientist in the past, I love to speculate. If somebody is dying, the change I see is that they are willing to be open and connected. Taste the water they are drinking; feel the sheets on their body, hear the music that’s being played. Those are the more important changes; rather than what happens next.

Pacific Sun: So after a dozen years at this, it hasn’t made you gloomy and depressed but rather more alive…

Borglum: Much more so. And beyond that it’s made me realize I know less and less about how somebody should die. In the beginning I had all these notions about how I would help you die well. Now I see that each person’s process is individual and I support them in what they are doing. People say, “Don’t you get burned out or depressed?” And really I don’t. Some of the most beautiful people I’ve been around are people who are almost dead. Those are the people who are willing to be themselves. Just two days ago I was in a bedroom at U.C. Medical Center with this guy who was dying of AIDS. That room felt so wonderful. His family was there feeling terrible. Even though he had only a few days to live his mother was praying for him to stay alive. I felt a great deal of empathy and compassion for his relatives, but he was ready to die. There was a willingness to die because his body hardly worked anymore. When I got quiet in that room it was such a privilege to be there. His relatives were sad, but the feeling he had was of such expansiveness and depth that all I had to do was get a little quiet and it just swept me away in this reverie.

Pacific Sun: If I’m a devout churchgoer, don’t I have this all handled?

Borglum: You may and you may not. There was a study that showed that ministers, along with doctors, are very fearful of death. In fact a few years ago the father of a good friend of mine was dying; he had been an Episcopal minister all his life. And as he approached death he became very, very frightened. I don’t think religions necessarily will help when death approaches.

Pacific Sun: Churches don’t help?

Borglum: What will help is your connection with the living spirit. If your church has that, then you have everything you need. But just going to church on Sunday and donating to missionaries in Africa isn’t it. It really is the depth of your faith. Whether it’s faith in Christ or Buddha or the living spirit really don’t make too much difference. It’s that quality of faith that cuts through fear. My dad could never figure out what I was doing with my life until he started dying himself. Then we could have a relationship; we could talk about these deeper things that his minister wasn’t able to talk to him about. It was such a blessing for me that my dad finally came to me for the first time in our relationship and I was able to help him.

Pacific Sun: It was an enriching experience?

Borglum: If I don’t do this work ever again… how it enable me to be with my father was reason enough to have been doing this for the tens years that led up to that.

Pacific Sun: How would you sum up the Project?

Borglum: To talk about conscious dying is really kind of ridiculous because very few people are fully alive. The Project isn’t really about dying; it’s about learning to be consciously alive, and having death inspire us to be more fully alive right now.