Teenagers aren’t usually worried about their own mortality, but a near-death experience at the age of 16 prompted Marilyn Schlitz to start thinking about what lies beyond our final breath and how to accept the inevitable fact of life — death.
“I was in a serious motorcycle accident,” said Schlitz, a social anthropologist, author and former CEO of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma. “My body flew from the motorcycle into the air and I remember watching it as it was tumbling. I felt an awareness that was different from being in my body.”
Schlitz survived the accident, but the 66 stitches to her knee marked the beginning of a lifelong search for answers to the questions about life, death and how we deal with the reality of mortality.
Her thirst for answers led her to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology, and what followed was years of researching how different cultures view consciousness and how those views effect or change the way people live their lives. The author and co-author of a number of books on that topic, Schlitz added filmmaking to her credits this year with the debut of “Death Makes Life Possible,” a documentary she made in partnership with alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra.
“I had been involved in doing research on different cultural traditions of healing and how different healers approach the process of restoration and wholeness,” said Schlitz. “I collected about 60 interviews from people of different world traditions and then I did a project on conscious transformation and how we change the views of who were are. The book ‘Living Deeply’ came out of that. It was through that project that I started asking questions about the big transformation — death — and what people think about it.”
Her work led to an invitation in 2011 to give a talk on consciousness and mortality with Chopra. He was so impressed by her work that he expressed an interest in making a film with her.
“I was excited, but declined it the next day,” said Schlitz. “I was CEO of IONS at the time and just felt like I couldn’t take on the fundraising to do it. He encouraged me to do it, though, and said not to worry about it, the money would come. Deepak felt this was an important topic and for that reason he wanted to collaborate on it. So, we went into a major fundraising effort to make the film.”
Schlitz left IONS in 2012 to dive deep into the project, which grew to include a companion book of the same title. Through several interviews with scientists, religious leaders, scholars, doctors and healers, “Death Makes Life Possible” explores how different cultures view death and what many people think happens after we die. It also examines how we can redefine attitudes and fears toward mortality and how a shift in thinking and acceptance of death as a normal part of life can lead to happier, more purpose-driven people.
“Our culture values youth,” said Schlitz. “If you get old and die, you somehow are a loser or failed. That’s not true. Aging and dying is part of something everyone will face, but at a core level culturally we try to be forever young. I think that puts a lot of pressure on us as we grow older.”