PNCA 2016 Edelman lecture: Life After Death

Portland author Sheila Hamilton speaks on destigmatizing mental illness

by SHEILA HAMILTON

Editor’s note: On May 10, Emmy-award winning journalist Sheila Hamilton will deliver the 2016 Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art“Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” Hamilton, whose 2015 memoir All the Things We Never Knew recounts her being blindsided by her husband’s bipolar disorder and suicide, will speak about her personal experience with mental illness and advocate for a more holistic approach to mental health. 

After the talk, musician and activist Logan Lynn and Jennifer Pepin, whose J. Pepin Art Gallery works to reframe the perception of mental illness, join Hamilton in a discussion moderated by Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Hamilton hosts the KINK morning show in Portland and serves on the boards of Girls Inc. and The Flawless Foundation. This excerpt, from chapter 24 of her memoir, is used by permission of Seal Press/Perseus Books.

I took a big breath, steadied myself, and began, “Deepak Chopra joins us this morning on Speaking Freely; his newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.”

If I’d prepared myself the way I should have, the way I normally do, reading and rereading the publisher’s notes, the author’s bio, the prepared questions, I wouldn’t have been so jolted by the words “Life After Death.” Instead, the lump in my throat threatened to explode, and tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. My voice halted, then broke, and I couldn’t continue speaking.

I hit the space bar on my computer to stop the recorder. Deepak leaned back in his chair.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is my first day back to work—my husband just died.” The flesh in my nose swelled up, and my voice sounded weak. I could not continue with the interview until I got myself under control.

Deepak nodded. There was no change in his facial expression, none of the mournful, twisted expressions I’d seen on others’ faces when I told them of David’s death. Chopra was a spiritual leader revered by millions of people around the world, and he couldn’t even offer sympathy?

I prodded him. “Suicide. He shot himself.”

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

No change. His breathing pattern wasn’t altered. He opened his mouth to speak, deliberately and carefully. His lips formed complete o’s and e’s.

“He is exactly where he needs to be, and so are you.”

“Excuse me?” My blood pressure surged. I suppressed a rage building in me that had been buried for years, one in which my emotions, my emotions, had been ignored, sidelined, minimized by the people I cared most about. I loved Deepak Chopra; I’d read every one of his books, except for his latest. The least he could do was show compassion; Chopra owned the word compassion, for God’s sake.

He folded his long fingers carefully on the desk and scooted forward in his chair. “What we’re talking about is pertinent to the book. Would you like to continue?” he asked.

My cheeks flushed, and I felt my teeth grind together, a habit I’d never had before the last few months. “Yes, yes, of course,” I said. “Let me just start over.” I offered a weak smile. His lips turned up, slightly. He looked at the computer, so familiar with the process he probably could have run the recording equipment himself.

“Deepak Chopra is here with us today on Speaking Freely,” I said, relieved that rage had cleared the stuffiness in my nose. “His newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.” I sounded tight and hurried. I adjusted my tempo. “You’ve covered so many important spiritual topics in your previous books, but this must be the most pressing spiritual concern—what happens when we die?”

Chopra nodded. “I worked in the emergency room for many years, and I saw people in that final moment of death, filled with anxiety, fear, and trepidation. Now, contrast that with the experience I had watching my father die, in deep meditation, surrounded by the people he loved, in a state of peacefulness and grace. We can overcome our fear of dying and consider the fantastic possibilities that await us in the afterlife.”

“But science tells us that death is final,” I said.

“Correct, but the soul lives on, the bundle of consciousness that contains meaning and context and purpose and relationship. If you are in touch with that part of yourself, it is eternal and timeless; every experience is meaningful.

cover_allthethingsweneverknewI caught myself—my mouth was slightly ajar. Chopra’s cadence, his tone, his calming nature, resonated so deeply that my head suddenly felt completely clear. I was totally and completely open to his message.

Chopra continued, “There is abundant evidence that the world beyond is not separated from this world by an impassable wall,” he said. “In fact, a single reality embraces all worlds, all times and places. At the end of our lives we cross over into the next phase of a limitless journey.”

“So,” I said, “the people who believe in heaven, meeting their relatives and all, do you believe their expectations will be met?”

Chopra chuckled. “Heaven, the afterlife, whatever, however you define it, it’s all a reflection of your personal beliefs, expectations, and level of awareness. In the here and now, you can shape what happens after you die. By bringing the afterlife into the present moment, life after death opens up an immense new area of creativity. Ultimately there is no division between life and death—there is only one continuous creative project.”

The rest of the questions came effortlessly, fluidly. I peppered him for a full thirty minutes with no notes or prompting. At the end, he calmly took his headphones off and said, “Thank you. You’re very good at what you do.”

I swallowed. The avocado pit was gone. I’d been tortured by my own thought process, my own guilt, my own belief that David’s death proved nothing and meant nothing. But thirty minutes with Chopra had liberated me, at least temporarily. He’d at least offered a different way of reacting to the pain.

I looked Chopra in the eyes, and the boredom was gone, replaced by something so soft and beautiful my heart fluttered. “Thank you,” I said. “This was so helpful to me.”

Chopra rose, straightened his gold jacket, and extended his hand. “Good.”

Inessa led him to the exit. He shook a few hands on the way out of the office. The last thing I saw were those red tennis shoes rounding the corner, swooshing off to his next interview. Nike, the goddess of victory. I smiled to myself, a radiance that must have seemed oddly timed to the rest of the world.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman Lecture at 5:30 pm on May 10 in PNCA’s Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design Mediatheque, 511 NW Broadway, Portland. 

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