I first read about Exit, a euthanasia clinic in Zurich that promotes ‘Self-Determined Living and Dying’, in Taras Grescoe’s book The Devil’s Picnic, published in the UK with the wonderful sub-title: A Tour of Everything That Governments of the World Don’t Want You To Try. Reading about clients booking in for their appointments with death, administered by sodium phenobarbital injection, seemed like the sterile, slightly spooky and very Swiss, short-cut version of ‘the conscious exit’ striven for by many Eastern religious adepts.

During my first experience of Asia – Bali in April 1985 – I was lucky enough to stay in Ubud with John Darling, a noted Australian filmmaker who lived on the island for many years and made an award-winning film with Lorne Blair about a renowned local artist, I Gusti Lempad, who famously lived to 116.

Drawing by I Gusti Lempad

Lempad was not only considered extraordinary for his art and long life, but also for choosing the date for his death many months before. Venerated by the whole community, his departure was celebrated with a highly elaborate funeral, ensuring his safe and successful passage to the life beyond.

This Eastern fixation for making a ‘conscious exit’ from the earthly realm is taken to extremes by the Jain religion. Their animistic reverence for all life finds its apotheosis with Jain saints, taking their own lives by refusing all food and water, which they believe to be infused with living spirit. As many as 240 Jains are believed to take the vow of sallekhana every year and there is a deeply moving account of a modern Jain saint doing precisely this in William Dalrymple’s gripping book Nine Lives, in a chapter entitled The Nun’s Tale.

The slow descent towards death is believed to be the most fertile time for coming to terms with death, ensuring the eradication of all previous karmas and thereby releasing the individual from the cycle of death and rebirth. Few of us would ever contemplate such a practice but, as we shall see in future posts, the notion of making a ‘conscious exit’ has found some notable modern exponents in the West.

Rory Spowers (12 Posts)

Rory Spowers is a writer, researcher, campaigner and filmmaker, based in Ibiza, Spain. His books include the critically acclaimed Rising Tides which has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Naomi Klein's No Logo, as a 'wake-up call to action'.