An interview with Maneesha for New Zealand’s ‘Sunday Star Times,’ in which she talks about euthanasia, being with Anna Freud at her death, and more.
Sunday Star Times, New Zealand
By Helen Brown
Maneesha James helps people in and out of life. As a midwife she assisted the birth of many babies. Years later, with a background also in general and psychiatric nursing, along with training in meditation, she travels the world working with people who are terminally ill.
Assisting at a euthanasia death in Holland two years ago, she realised how close the experience of birth and death can be. After helping a 58-year-old liver cancer patient and her family confront the idea of death over several months, Maneesha sat with the woman as the lethal injection was given.
“She had a death I really envy in many ways,” says Maneesha. “She and her family had gone through so much; they’d reached a wonderful, light-hearted space. She said goodbye to her son and daughter and the doctor. Even the family dog was included in her last moments, hopping up onto the bed!”
Maneesha and the woman had practiced [sic] meditation together. “In preparation, she went into a meditative state (previously we’d agreed that she would raise a finger when she was ready for the injection),” says Maneesha. “Within a few minutes she had lifted her finger, and Jan – the wonderful doctor attending her – gave her the injection. I kept talking to her for the half hour it took for her to stop breathing. When the pulse in her neck stopped I said, ‘You’ve left your body; now keep moving on.'”
Maneesha continued talking gently to the woman for another three hours. “I kept saying things like, ‘You can let go now. You don’t need this body any more – it’s of no use to you. Just continue on your journey. Our love is with you.’ In doing this, gently encouraging her, I was reminded so strongly of my midwifery days, talking to a woman through labour. My role felt so natural, and so easy. I had such a strong sense of rightness about it.”
Exactly where the dying woman was going, Maneesha doesn’t pretend to know. “I don’t know if there’s life after death, but I do know there’s life before death,” she laughs, “and I know what I’ve got now, in this present moment. I personally live as passionately as I can. Particularly doing this kind of work, I’m aware that each day could be my last. That makes life very intense, in a totally positive way, for me.”
Born in Melbourne in 1947, Maneesha moved to England after training in general nursing and midwifery. Having undertaken post-graduate studies in psychiatric nursing, she became disillusioned with psychiatry, and hopped on the personal growth merry-go-round of the 1970’s. One thing led to another and she eventually became a disciple of the Indian mystic, Osho.
“He has such a sane and grounded understanding in that he sees that the world is not to be renounced but to be lived in, fully participated in, and that the inner world can nurture the outer,” she says.
Through Osho she developed meditation skills, which she says are compatible with every belief system. Two decades later she’s amused and delighted how mainstream her practice has become. A major insurance company in the US gives lower premiums to people who meditate. In Germany, another insurance company refuses to cover heart patients who don’t.
Maneesha has written three books, and recorded an audiotape of guided meditations to assist the transition of dying. Conducting workshops in the US, Europe, Japan and India, she travels most of the year (“My case is my base!” Home is an apartment in Pune, India, with other Osho disciples. Among those she has cared for through their dying days was Anna Freud, elderly daughter of the famous psychiatrist.
“Although she was bedridden, extremely frail, and totally dependent on others to care for her, she was very feisty, and insisted that she be addressed as ‘Miss Freud,’ ” says Maneesha.”Moving from caring for her at the Royal Free Hospital to caring for her in Sigmund Freud’s home in Hampstead created a sense in me of taking part in history: she had citations all over her bedroom walls, along with the wonderful photo, one often sees, of her walking with her father in the very garden right outside where we now were. I felt honoured to be part of her life, albeit for such a short period. The Freuds asked me to escort the old housekeeper back to Vienna, which I did, and also invited me to Miss Freud’s cremation in Golders Green. The whole episode was a totally amazing experience.
“Working with dying people is exciting because they go through so many dramatic changes. You have nothing to lose when you are dying. Emotions are intense and there’s no time for bullshit,” she says. “Just as people can prepare for birth, learning how to breathe through certain stages, people can prepare for dying. You can’t expect to die beautifully if you haven’t lived beautifully.”
Hospital staff has many unresolved issues about death, which sometimes result in undignified treatments being imposed on terminally ill patients. “Many doctors regard death as a calamity, a failure. It’s sad to see people dying without the support they need.” Most people are aware they are dying but are sometimes unwilling to talk about it because they don’t want to upset their families. “If relatives can bring the subject around to the fact the person is dying and allow them to express their fears it can help. If a person’s not ready to deal with it, they may be able to look at other aspects of what’s happening. They need to be handled with extreme sensitivity.”
Friends and family can allow dying people to fulfil their wishes – which may be something as simple as going to a favourite restaurant for the last time, for example, or seeing the ocean, or getting together with the wider family.
“It also helps to encourage them to review their life. That might be done through their looking through an old photo album and talking about some of the memories that evokes. That process can be part of the releasing of old friends and of the past generally,” she says.
“And there are sometimes unresolved conflicts they want to sort out, so they can leave unburdened with regrets, hurts, grievances or guilt.
“Meditation’s a natural preparation for living fully, and dying more consciously. It’s something we all need to consider because none of us is exempt from death. We all have a terminal diagnosis – of life itself!”