Inspiring excerpts from Philip Gould’s book written as he was dying from cancer.
by Philip Gould
If you’re looking for a day-by-day account of living your dying consciously, this book has got to be Numero Uno! ‘An inspirational read’ is such a cliché, yet it’s hard to avoid that when it comes to Philip Gould’s book – one that he was still writing (dictating to his wife) just a day or so before his death of oesophageal cancer.
Philip was very much a man of the world. Polling strategist for former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and also a member of the House of Lords, he has been described as ‘one of the most influential political figures of the past twenty years.” And he was a meditator.
Not only has he left behind a book, which is a rare testimony to courage, trust, gratitude, love and the power of present-being, but also a moving 8+ minute video interview. In it he describes dying as ‘the most extraordinary journey of my life.’
He elaborated on that theme in his writing “I am enjoying my death. There is no question I am having the most fulfilling time …the most enjoyable time of my life…. Why should all enjoyment stop the moment someone tells you that you are going to die? Of course it does not stop…. This is the most exciting journey of my life.”
And he describes further; “the intensity that comes from knowing you will die and knowing you are dying…. Suddenly you can go for a walk in the park and have a moment of ecstasy.” Following an art show at Regent’s Park in London, he sits down to have a coffee and, “I feel ecstasy after ecstasy after ecstasy.” This is built upon this feeling of certainty, of knowledge of death.”
Panic, pain and the fear
Yet the journey up to that point had not been a bed of roses by any means. Nor, especially in the early days, was Philip without any misgivings about his ability to carry on.
For example, he recounts the time when he had surgery and how, as he regained consciousness post-operatively, he became aware of the ventilator still down his throat. He felt “unbearable pain, intolerable, just beyond description. My heart rate shot up and the pain, the panic and the sense of suffocation combined to produce a moment of complete blackness. I knew this was the biggest test of my life, one that I was not certain I could pass.”
On another occasion he describes having a feeding tube, a tube up his nose, an oxygen mask around his face and more; his whole body aching and his being placed upright, imprisoned in the same position. Closing his eyes provided no relief: he was disturbed by strange hallucinations and became “trapped in living nightmares.” Panic, he notes, was always just below the surface.
By his own account he hadn’t lived fearlessly. He was the sort of person who was too frightened to go too fast on his bike in the evening, he confides. So at times such as the one just cited, he thought, ‘I can’t do this. This is too painful…too frightening.’
But by and by that was to change dramatically, until he could write that ‘everything they throw at you [pain, having chemotherapy, or his stomach removed and never being able to eat normally again] you can do it…. There is more in the human body than you will ever understand, more physically, more emotionally, more spiritually, and more religiously even. The body can cope. You can cope. You can deal with the pain, the discomfort, the uncertainty. You can deal with it all. Realising that changes you as a person.”
Much closer to his death, reviewing all he had been through he tells us that “the gain has been far greater than the pain.” He consciously ‘reframed’ death he tells us, seeing it not as ‘some gloomy, ghastly thing’ but an event around which he has “no fear at all; I’m almost looking forward to it as the next thing.”
A bystander at my own demise
Philip describes the dehumanising affect of being a patient, which starts on the day he has an endoscopy through which ‘They have discovered a cancer, and I hear the word ‘big’. They talk as if I am not there, a bystander at my own demise.”
Fast forward to a period when he is hospitalised and he notices how nurses and doctors “assume that a patient’s consciousness disappears if their eyes are shut; with your eyes closed you would be talked about as if you were not there….I would lie there, not asleep yet not really awake, constantly and unavoidably listening.”
He goes on to say that in this state he listened to the doctor review Philip’s surgery to his team in “grisly detail, totally oblivious to the fact that I could hear every word. I had moved in a blink of an eye from being a subject to an object.” The nurse told him he could have as much pain relief as he wanted; yet as soon as Philp closed his eyes the nurse turned to his companion and said, “He’s obviously neurotic about pain, and the more pain relief he gets, the more he’ll want.”
A different dimension to time
The way time changes when we are dying is similar to what a meditator knows when deeply relaxed and simply an observer of all that is passing by within and without: it catapults you into the moment.
In Philip’s words: “All of us tend to think in terms of linear time. One thing follows another. But this is only one form of time’s many complexities. I can no longer think like that…. Six months or nine months no longer exist for me… When I try to push forward in terms of conventional time, to look ahead, to count the minutes or the hours or the days, sooner rather than later I hit a solid rock: I am dead on the other side of this….
“There is no future for me now so I am flowing back and this here, now, is the place for everything. Here, now, is where I live, where all ideas and feelings circle on themselves.”
Death’s greatest gift
Relationships changed too, he writes, and he appreciated his particular mode of dying, compared to a sudden death, for “To have [time] in which to down and to fulfill and complete your relationships is almost the greatest gift that death can offer. If you can accept death, the process of grieving that follows may still be intense but it will pass and be fulfilling and elevating. And if you can look death in the eye and accept it, and then fulfill your relationships, that is healing.”
Acceptance, and beyond
Philip Gould is a precious inspiration for dying with acceptance. In the video clip he tells us: “Only when you accept death can you free yourself from it, can you deal with it, can you move forward from it.”
That acceptance was so total that – rather than raging against what was happening, rather than clinging to life and denying death’s presence – his death became his life, “and my life gained a kind of intensity that it had never had before. It gained a quality and a power it had never had before. The unvarnished certainty that you are going to die…is an immensely powerful thing. It provides the opportunity for fulfilment and the experience of extraordinary depths of feeling, and the chance of reconciliation that would never otherwise occur. Death is a time for immense change and transformation, a time to fulfil yourself and others, and a chance, in a small way, to change the world.”
And he adds, “I think I have shown myself that I have the courage to be able to transcend death.”
Osho speaks about death as ‘the culmination of life, the peak, the crescendo,’ and without a doubt, Philip knew that when he writes that “This pre-death period is the most important and potentially the most fulfilling and the most inspirational time of my life.
“…. I am approaching the door marked Death. What lies beyond it may be the worst of things. But I believe it will be the best of things.”
Buy the book from Amazon: When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone