Conscious Dying Guru Coming to Town

If Dale Borglum’s name sounds familiar, it might be because Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, was a relation of his — his grandfather’s cousin, to be precise.

Or maybe it’s because Borglum is well known in his own right: As a pioneer of the conscious dying movement of the 1970s.

A pioneer, it should be said, along with such luminaries as the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the groundbreaking 1969 book “On Death and Dying;” the poet, author and teacher Stephen Levine, who passed away earlier this year; and Ram Dass, the Harvard professor who hung out with psychedelic drug researcher Timothy Leary during the 1960s and eventually became the leader of a spiritual movement, the mantra for which was “Be Here Now.”

For Borglum, who’s heading up a workshop in Garberville later this month titled “Conscious Living/Conscious Dying: The Boundless Heart of Great Compassion,” Ram Dass in particular was an influential figure.

“He was the first person I met who could talk about [spiritual matters] in an intelligent way,” Borglum recalled during a telephone interview last Friday.

Noting that Ram Dass — the son of a Jewish family in Massachusetts whose original name was Richard Alpert — taught psychology, he added: “He understood the interface between Eastern spirituality and Western psychology.”

Borglum was so “inspired” that he set aside his own career pursuits — he ended up with degrees in mathematics from both Cal and Stanford — and followed Ram Dass to India, where he met the man who was Ram Dass’ guru and would soon become his own: Neem Karoli Baba, better known as Maharaj-ji.

What bowled Borglum over about Maharaj-ji was that he “was someone who loved me no matter how neurotic I was.”

“I had very loving parents but they were human beings. When I was weird enough [they would say something],” Borglum recalled. With Maharaj-ji, “no matter who I was it was just love — love so thick you could swim in it.”

Raised a Christian, Borglum after going off to college “got tired of the Lutheran Church. It seemed dry and dead.” And then, lo and behold, he “met someone who was the embodiment of the love” that the Bible had talked about. “He brought me back to God,” Borglum summed up.

His experience in India was so life-changing that Borglum ended up abandoning his mathematics career — no small decision considering that had he stayed the course he would have been at the forefront of the computer revolution.

“I was programming computers in the late 1960s. I could have been a multi-millionaire,” he related matter-of-factly.

One element in his decision was that after Ram Dass and Maharaj-ji, the people who had been his mentors no longer seemed so impressive. “I was taught by the best people in the field, yet they were not happy,” he explained.

More to the point, Borglum had found himself. “I saw that love was possible. Now my job was to find that love in myself and bring it to the people around me.”

After a stint as a vegetarian chef and as the manager of a musical group, Borglum along with Ram Dass and Levine established the Hanuman Foundation, a non-profit based in Santa Fe, N.M. The foundation’s “The Dying Center,” as it was called, “was the first residential facility in the United States to support conscious dying,” Borglum said.

Currently the executive director of the Living/Dying Project headquartered in Marin County, Borglum, it’s safe to say, has a different take on dying than most of us. Rather than being some horrible thing we must all endure because we are mortal, he says it’s an opportunity to realize that our true essence isn’t physical but spiritual — and that the spirit survives death.

We’re not bodies, in other words, we’re energy. We’re not separate from other people and other life forms. We’re all one.

More than once in last week’s interview, Borglum emphasized the spiritual aspect of dying.

“Until you come into intimate contact with death, all of your meditation practices, all your spiritual practices, will have the quality of you being a dilettante. You can meditate until your knees fall off, but until you know you will die you’re just working around the edges.”

Borglum, it should be made clear, isn’t sugarcoating the dying process. “I’m not saying we don’t have illness, or [that people who are dying] are not anxious, or confused or that they’re not in pain,” he emphasized.

But while he’s not ignoring the fact that people who are dying suffer, he is saying that there’s something beyond suffering.

To illustrate his meaning, he used the example of a person who’s on his deathbed and in pain.

“When you have pain that will never go away, then you ask yourself: ‘Who am I? Am I this pain? Or am I something else?’”

Borglum’s answer is that we’re something else. Which means that the pain, as bad as it might be, is something of a paper tiger.

“There’s a difference between pain and suffering. I can relax and feel a painful sensation but not suffer. It’s not pain but resistance to pain that causes suffering,” Borglum explained.

Given that perspective, it’s easier to make sense of Borglum’s view that there’s a good side to dying. You can be “writhing in bed in pain [and yet say] ‘I’ve never been better in my life.’”

Why? Because “you realize you’re not a body. You realize [you’re a soul or spirit.]”

In addition to there being something holy about the dying, they are ennobled in another way as well — their suffering can free them of bias.

“The most beautiful Americans I’ve ever been around are people who are almost dead,” Borglum offered. “That’s because they’re no longer saying, ‘I’m black or white, fat or thin, rich or poor.’ All [such] identities are irrelevant if [you’re only going to be breathing] for another few minutes.”

“It’s a privilege to be around them,” he added.

As for the workshop, which is happening on Sept. 17, Borglum said it would be “as experiential as possible.”

“We’ll be exploring together ideas, meditative processes and spiritual exercises,” he shared, explaining that one aim is to learn “how to find the strength of mind and heart that allows us to be someone who is not afraid of death.”

“All fear is the fear of the other, of something out there. We’ll work with the fear of death [in the workshop] so we can be awake and not afraid to love,” he added.

Another goal will be to help people be more at ease when they’re around the dying. “In the workshop we’ll explore how to cultivate compassion, how to meet suffering with an open heart rather than automatically pulling back from it.”

If you’re wondering how it came about that Borglum is holding a workshop on dying in Garberville at all, the answer is that he was invited to come here by SoHum resident Gretchen Anne, who met him at a workshop in Santa Rosa following the death in 2013 of her longtime partner, a man named Daniel.

Anne said Borglum helped her through the grieving process, which entailed, at least in part, connecting with her own spirituality. “What I keep coming to is that there is something more than a physical form, there is something that exists beyond birth and death. Some call it God, some call it everlasting life,” she related.

Whatever the term for it, she described it as both “a dynamic energy force, a dynamic aliveness” as well as a profound peace. “It’s almost like a stillness at the bottom of the ocean while at the top there are waves, choppiness, movement.”

“If we cultivate awareness, it’s there for us,” she said.

These days Anne serves as a volunteer with Heart of the Redwoods Hospice. She also makes it a practice to regularly visit dying patients at the skilled nursing facility at Jerold Phelps Hospital.

“They’re facing this now. They’ve become my teachers,” she said.

Among her current favorites is a “90-year-old gentleman who has found a great deal of acceptance and gratitude,” as well as an 88-year-old woman who is evidently not going gentle into that good night.

“It’s a struggle for her but her dogged determination to live is quite an inspiration,” Anne said.

The upcoming workshop, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., is taking place at the Redwood Playhouse at 286 Sprowel Creek Road. The cost is $75 per person, which needs to be paid in advance. To reserve a place, contact Anne at 707-223-0440.