Compassionate Communities – Time in our life – Socratic Dialogue

Saturday 28th May from 11 to 3, with a break for lunch.

An invitation to come to the Pear Tree to hold a conversation around the question: Why is so difficult to talk about death and dying?

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
by Damian Hirst.

All of us will die, and many of us have lived the experience of a friend or relation dying. Why is it so many of us have chosen the music for our funeral but not addressed our end of life? Why do we find death a tricky subject to talk about?

Socratic Dialogue Socratic Dialogue was born in opposition to dogmatism in ancient Athens, and more recently in Nazi Germany. It has relevance to today. It invites open investigation and tolerance, through the invitation to listen, to other people and oneself, and explore where our ideas come from. The Socratic Dialogue is an attempt to come to a common answer through systematic deliberation about a fundamental question. A question which derives from concrete experiences, accessible to all participants. Living philosophy if you like.

I trained as a facilitator with Dr Dieter Krohn, who himself trained with Gustav Heckmann, a student and follower of Leonard Nelson, the founder of the practice.

It takes its name and form from Socrates, Plato’s teacher. Socrates tried to bring people to a deeper understanding by asking questions, by inquiring about examples and analysing experiences. His idea behind this was that one does not gain understanding by getting it ‘dished up’, but only by thinking for oneself.

In the early twentieth century, the German philosopher, pedagogue and politician Leonard Nelson (1882 – 1927) developed the Socratic method theoretically and practically. Crucial to Nelson’s approach is the idea of ‘regressive abstraction’. This means that, starting from a concrete example, one traces back (regresses) to the presuppositions that lie at the foundation of the example. By inquiring into these presuppositions, which are of course necessary so as to come to the specific judgements in the example, one goes back to the foundations upon which these judgements are based. It is in this way that we develop a general understanding (abstraction).

The Socratic Form

A Socratic dialogue can last for many hours, or days, even in a small group. First one explores the theme and formulates the fundamental question. Then one collects different examples from the experiences of the participants. Next one selects one example and analyses this one so meticulously that one gains an understanding of the underlying presuppositions. These are 4 phases of a Socratic Dialogue:

  • Explanation of the Socratic Dialogue and question and search for suitable examples
  • Choice of one example, which is written up.
  • Investigation and interrogation of the specific example
  • Regressive Abstraction – from the concrete example, finding a general answer / definition for the question

Choosing the Example

Critical to independent and critical thinking in Socratic Dialogue practice is to draw on our own concrete experience. To take part in this exploration, you are invited to provide a concrete example, an example from your own life which illustrates the question. Here are some simple guidelines for finding an example:
Lived – an experience lived by you.
Simple – the simpler the example the better, the fewer the avenues the example goes down the more focused the central avenue is.
Interesting / Fruitful – an interesting example, challenging, fruitful for us to explore.
Relevant and Closed – relevant to the question, and the issues that it raised should be closed, so as not to be emotionally disturbing or distracting.

Abstract Why is it so difficult to talk about death and dying?

Why is it difficult for me to talk about death and dying?
When was it difficult for me to talk about death and dying?

Death defined

The irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity

Death means the end of life, the physical cessation of life.

Definition of life… what it is to be alive /
Life as a substance, as an Event, as a Property 
An unexamined life is not worth living
Life of human being?


Capacity to engage in LIFE may be lost gradually, rather than all at once, so it is reasonable to speak of a process of dying.

Is there any more pressing , Is there a more critical question?
Confronting the hobgoblins of mortality (Douglas Harding)

Nisagardatta – What dies?

You have squeezed yourself in to the span of a lifetime and the volume of a body, and thus created innumerable conflicts of life and death. Have your being outside this body of birth and death, and all your problems will be solved. They exist because you believe yourself born to die. Undeceive yourself and be free. You are not a person (Nisagardatta Maharaj)


[Death], “Is this something that the separation of soul from the body? It died when the body is separate from the soul remains alone, apart, with him/her self, and when the soul, separated from the body, left alone, apart, with itself …”

Plato defines philosophy itself as the practice of death.
In the Phaedo, Plato argues that a true philosopher practices death as if at every moment life were behind him. To understand what Plato meant by a true philosopher practicing death, it is imperative to define philosophy, and death according to Plato and Socrates. Philosophy is defined as the love and search for wisdom. On a deeper level, it refers to the search of what makes a man happy. For philosophers, philosophy or the love for and pursuit of knowledge, is a way of life and not just an intellectual pursuit. Plato and Socrates define death as the ultimate separation of the soul and body. They regard the body as a prison for the soul and view death as the means of freedom for the soul. Considering Plato and Socrates definition of death, in the life of a true philosopher, death does not occur when bodily functions cease. Rather, the true philosopher is already dead before they die or before bodily functions cease.

Dead or Alive?

When zygotes and embryos are frozen for later use in the in vitro fertilization procedure, their vital activities are brought to a stop, or very nearly so. The same goes for water bears that are dehydrated, and for seeds and spores. It seems clear that the zygotes and water bears are not dead, since their vital activities can easily be restarted—by warming the zygote or by wetting the water bear. They are not dead, but are they alive? If we deny that they are alive, presumably we would do so on the grounds that their vital activities are halted. If something’s life can be ended by suspending its vital activities without its dying, then we must reject the loss of life account of death.
We can then say that a frozen embryo is viable and hence alive despite its lack of vitality, and it will die if its life ends (it will die if it ceases to be viable).

State of being dead

Being dead as a ‘state’ or ‘condition’ as opposed to an event or process. They say an organism comes to be in this state once it dies. An organism that dies stops existing but simultaneously comes to be in the state of death.

This means that one end by the death does not mean being finished, it means the end for a being who is the being that exists. Death is a way of being human reality that assumes, as it is: When a human comes to life, it is already old enough to die.


“Death is the moment of liberation from a narrow and uniform individuality, which, far from the inner substance of our being, is rather as a kind of aberration. ”

Death, be not proud By John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Tibetan practice of Chod and state of Bardo

Chöd is a spiritual practice found in particular Tibetan traditions, also known as “cutting through the ego,” to expound the ’emptiness’ of Buddhist philosophy. Emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. Chöd combines philosophy with specific meditation methods and tantric ritual. The chod practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.

Traditionally Chod was practiced in charnel grounds and other fear inducing sites. In India/Tibet Charnel grounds in particular were regarded as frightful not only because one commonly found bodies in various states of decay and decomposition, but because wild scavenging animals were easily found feasting on human remains. They are excellent places to face your fears. It is said that the Buddha had instructed many of his students to go to charnel grounds in order to contemplate impermanence amidst the decaying bodies of other humans. An experience of practicing Chod in Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery from a western perspective is a manifestation of this practice today.

‘Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals, the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality; for others, it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth

(In the Christian tradition, Bardo, could be interpreted to be the 3 days between Christ dying on the cross and resurrection) .


We feel frightened of what we may hear, and anxious that we may not be able to handle a conversation emotionally.
We worry that we won’t be able to put things back together again if we create emotional upheaval. Dead end.

Fear of not wanting to face the reality of my own death; 
Fear of not having the time to become involved. 
Fear of not having the emotional reserves to deal with such an intense situation. 
Feelings of guilt over whether I could have done something to prevent an illness, or over how my relationship with that person has been recently, may also cause me to avoid a dying person.

Dialogue reflections

Moments in the Dialogue

The fear of the loss of a dog
A father invited to talk about his last days on this earth chose instead of death and dying, to talk about cricket.
What is your question?
Cultural – different dimensions for example in this case the culture that did not talk about death and cultural expectation of elder daughter taking on role of mother (Pas devants les enfant)
Pain and trauma (K’s words)
Language of death. My mother lost her mother./ She passed away (like a turd). Shying away from saying dead. I like the word passing. Poetic, not final.
Existential elements, that were fundamental. Such as K’s existential fear that he would not have been born. Fear of not existing. Difficult to conceive of not being around. Disconnect. In our culture and genetics we are programmed to avoid death.
Identity – what dies? – not addressed.
Not as personal as expected.


Longer time to set up – should have done set up previous day.
Too much to manage lunch and layout as well as facilitate dialogue.
Give out Structure and Guidelines (and history?) guiding document to have in front of us to remind us – good for take away too
Start with who we are – what bought us here
History dry until photographs. Enliven. How does it fit with my vision? Use to me.
Be clearer what question I am asking – write it up.
Good work with the example and keeping us on track
Feeling of being rushed, not much reflection in the process
Needed more time for the reflection on the process. Good to work in pairs/groups then feed back. More free.
Be clear about the end. Both structure and final moments, plan more.
Chocolate biscuits tea time
Reminder mobile phones

Some photographs to remember the day