On Death and Dying

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These 8 Posts are some of my thoughts on death presented to the Canton, NY class in the summer of 2016.

The talk (“A Matter of Death and Life”) is the next post in this menu and also speaks to the topic.

 

On Death Post 1

The single most important FACT about life, other than the fact that we were born and are here now, is the fact of our death. It’s strange that we should have no issue with the fact of our birth, which has resulted in (among other thing) our suffering, while we do have issues about our death, which is the release of our suffering. In any event, life without death is virtually impossible for us to imagine. And when we try, we seldom follow the scenario through very far. If we did, we’d soon see that this prospect is anything but desirable. (Try it…. Follow it through for a hundred years or so.) And if we weren’t to die, what value or poignancy would any moment have?

These then are the facts of life; we were born, we live with some combination of pleasure and pain, success and failure, happiness and sadness, health and sickness, love and loneliness, peace and suffering. And….we’re going to die. In the practice of mindfulness we are advised to take a few minutes each day to ponder impermanence. Of course we know intellectually that all physical phenomena are impermanent (very much including us and our loved ones), but here we’re asked to really “take in” that fact…. Feel it. Feel it until we begin to find some comfort around it. Until we can begin this process we’re stuck with the same thoughts we’ve always had and these thoughts result in our having the same experience of imagining death that we’ve also had.

So, here’s my question for today. “If you could find real comfort around the facts of your death and the death of your loved ones…. Would you want it?”

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On Death Post 2

When contemplating the question, “If you could find real comfort around the facts of your death and the death of your loved ones…. Would you want it?” many people go to the time of dying to answer it. But mindfulness isn’t really concerned about the future. It’s only concerned with the present….with NOW. So the question really asks, “would you like to feel comfortable about death right now?” It is, as you know, the only time you can feel anything. You can’t possibly feel anything about your death until you get there. But you can and do feel what you imagine it will be like. But here’s the thing……you can only imagine anything right now as well. What you’ve done up to now is to imagine death (self or other) and feel about it as though it were happening now. Think about it. Is that silly or what? To hold a thought in the imagination and then to suffer because of what you imagine it will be! Right now, when you’re not dying and probably aren’t even close to it.

But of course it’s not silly if it brings pain with it. It’s serious. And needs to be addressed appropriately.

So, just like in the class when I asked you so often, “Can you….right now… feel peace?” I’m asking here, “Can you….right now…. contemplate death without feeling anxious?” It’s a simple question, and not rhetorical. There is no “right answer” or anyway you “should” feel. Get quiet, practice the relaxation response, and then just ponder the question. See what comes up. It might be useful to write it down.

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>On Death Post No 3

Were you able to find a place of comfort around your contemplation of death?

Although they’re related, there are 2 issues we have here; our own death and the death of a loved one. I’ll speak here about the second part.

Many of us have anxiety about visiting someone who’s clearly dying. We imagine that there is something we could (should?) say or do that will bring comfort to the person. In fact, we may actually take it on as our responsibility to do that. This is dead-end and here’s why; we CAN NOT make someone feel comfortable or anything else without their cooperation. In fact mindfulness goes further; we don’t have the power to make anyone else EXPERIENCE (feel) anything. First, it’s because it is not the people and events of our lives which cause our suffering (or our happiness) but our THOUGHTS ABOUT THEM. And this is also true for the one who is dying. He and only he is responsible for his EXPERIENCE…..even then.

While mindfulness stands behind these statements as true, it can leave us feeling cold and distant if that’s as far as we go. Because that’s the response of the intellect. So now let’s go with the heart.

My suggestion is that when contemplating a visit to a dying friend or relative you first ask yourself “If I were in her place, what would I want?” Honestly go to that place in your mind and find out. Because if it’s what you want, it may also be what (s)he wants. Then understand this. Most people, when asked what they really want in this situation, do not want words. At least not many. What they do crave is a kind of PRESENCE…..someone who is there because they choose to be. And then you practice actually BEING (bringing the kind of energy and attention) what you would want to receive.

So can you think of a few words which might describe what you want to “bring to the table?” My guess is that your intuition will direct you to an answer to that question.

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On Death Post 4

So…. regarding the question “What would you want someone to bring to you if you were dying?” What did you come up with?

For most of us this kind of encounter brings at least a bit of anxiety because we aren’t sure just what to say or do, but we’re reasonably sure that there is SOMETHING we ought to or want to bring. And, that something is usually imagined in the form of words or actions.

Now let’s look beyond words and actions to a WAY OF BEING. You might wish to investigate here with some questions. If you were dying, would you want a visitor to BE
anxious?
Peaceful?
Uncomfortable?
Unhappy?
Happy?
Worried?
Relaxed?
Heavy hearted?
Light hearted?
Talkative?
Quiet?
Sarcastic?
Take the lead?
Take her cues from you?
Kind?
Compassionate?
Angry about your bad luck?
Hard edged?
Soft?
Accepting?
Afraid?
Highly energized?
Gentle?
At ease?

Of course you can’t know which of these ways of being works for her. It’s just a starting point. Perhaps the question, “How can I help?” might be useful. Maybe some suggestions; reading to her, massaging his feet, touching her hand, a wet washcloth on his forehead. Your imagination and intuition open up many possibilities.

Lastly, consider this. If you were dying would you want to be visited by a friend who was himself afraid of death and brought that energy with him? If he did would you want him to express it?

There’s an old saying, “What you are being speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Consider whether you come to speak….or to listen. And then, make plenty of space. Sometimes the tenderest way of being is simply to be still.

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On Death Post 5

Our own death. It’s a fact. The truth. We ARE GOING TO DIE. And we probably don’t get to say when, or how. This is probably the most important FACT of our human existence. Most of us steadfastly avoid looking at it. Avoid seeing it clearly. Avoid feeling the truth of it. Pondering it’s meaning and its relevance for our lives. Avoiding connection to our death either establishes or continues fear. But the way beyond fear is not around the fear; it’s through it. When we allow ourselves to enter into and feel the fear we begin the process of releasing it. Simply sitting with it, patiently, quietly, open and available to all the feelings it presents, inevitably leads to a lessening of the fear. Until we do this, the fear remains a “monster” which contains the unexplored mystery underlying all fear. “Looking fear in the eye,” unflinching, we find its hold on us begin to slacken. It’s at this point that we can begin to take that “good hard look at life.”

I read this quote many years ago, and it’s stayed with me. “History has known but a handful of (wo)men who have been able to take a good, honest look at life without breaking and running.” It’s hard to take a good long look at the fact of death… our own and others’…. And not feel pain. Why? Is there something about death itself which causes us to feel pain? If that were true then we’d feel pain for every one of the millions of starving, suffering humans who die every day. As well as all the animals, flowers and vegetables who die as well. But we don’t. We see the death of animals and plants largely as part of the natural process. Why don’t we include ourselves and our loved ones in that process?

My mindfulness studies have convinced me that we suffer around death for only one reason; because we were trained to. We live in a culture that sees death as the “worst thing that can happen.” And we see the death of others as a tragedy (especially if it “isn’t their time” whatever that is.) We then create a paradigm for our grief that takes us through the “stages” and are warned not to skip any stage, lest we suffer more. These notions are creations of other humans, not universal truths. And yet we bow to them and try to “fit in.”

Is it possible to “lose” a loved one and not suffer? Here’s a more riveting question, “If you could NOT SUFFER would you want to?” If so, to what degree?

I ask these questions without an agenda. I have no answers for anyone but me. I simply invite you to ponder them if they interest you.

Namaste, Charlie

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On Death Post 6

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!

Mary Elizabeth Frye

I am not there. Where, then, am I? We observe or imagine a body in a box or ashes in an urn. What’s in there? Who’s in there? When it’s my body there, is it me? Something in all of us knows intuitively that it’s not. So…if that’s not me….where (who) IS the “me?” Where (who) am “I?”

Just as we know on some level that it’s not ME in the box, so we intuit that there’s some important part of “myself” more than the used up body and the once busy mind. What is it? Is there a name for it? Literally millions of our fellow humans have set off on a serious quest to find the answer. Is there an “answer?” Of course there are many answers offered as truth but is there one which we could all agree on and therefore succeed in calling this answer THE TRUTH? The various spiritual paths that have morphed into religions do not agree, so I guess the answer is no, there isn’t (so far!) But more to the point….. Do YOU have an answer? If you have your answer and it leaves you comfortable with the death of yourself and loved ones, you may want to stop here. You’ve found your answer and it serves you well.

If not, or if you’re just curious, let’s continue exploring. This “part” of ourselves separate from the body and mind is also intuitively thought of as NON-MATERIAL. It’s been given many names but for purposes of discussion I’ll refer to it as SPIRIT. But if it’s non-material it can not “die” with the body. If it didn’t die, then it must somehow still be alive. And if it’s still alive, then what? What happens to it? Where does it go?

So spirit doesn’t die with the body. Where was it before we were born? Did it become a part of this individual “me” that is here now asking these questions? When did it do this? Where was it before it became part of me?

In seeking answers to these questions, the wisest of us have always come to the end of the questioning with one simple answer. WE CANNOT KNOW. How satisfying is that?

More to the point however, is this question; can you (I) become “comfortable” with this “answer? Another way of answering this question is to understand that it is a MYSTERY. We simply can not know.

This leaves many of us somewhere between uncomfortable and terrified. We want our life to be predictable in some important ways. We want to know answers to these deeper questions and when someone says we cannot know, it triggers something in us which can be quite painful. But this arena of our life is unknowable and thus unpredictable.

How does that sit with you? Something to ponder?

Namaste, Charlie

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On Death Post 7

Do not sit at my grave and weep.
I am not there. I do not sleep.

Again…… Where, then, am I? And who’s the I that’s not there?

Humans have made up stories to answer these questions almost forever. Our forefathers made these stories up. Then they BELIEVED them. And history shows that almost as soon as the stories are told we humans forget that we made them up and proclaim them to be TRUE. We do this very much the same as we do with cultural beliefs.

What is it that we’re actually afraid of as we ponder our death? Is it the process, the fear that we’ll suffer physically as we move through the process? Is it the moment of transition, the uncertainty of what comes next? Is it the fear of the possibility of some kind of punishment after death? The fear of the ability of others to carry on without us? The fear of being in a box 6 feet under the grass? What is it for you. (Perhaps you have no fear. This is not directed to you.)

The way we approach death IS the way we approach life. Our beliefs about death reflect our beliefs about life. If we fear death it’s because we fear life.
We cannot become “comfortable” about death until we become comfortable about life. And visa versa.

So…..how do we get comfortable about life? How about first getting comfortable with THIS MOMENT. Can you do that? Suppose you decided to try getting comfortable with the moment which will “be here” in 10 minutes? Do you imagine you could do that? How about 6 hours from now? 6 days? 6 years?

Now imagine a moment 3 days from now. Understand that you have NO IDEA what will be happening around you…. your situation. Could you get comfortable with IMAGINING THAT YOU COULD BE COMFORTABLE in that moment? Would your ability to be comfortable depend on what’s going on around you? Can you imagine an event with a reasonably good chance of happening that would make your comfort impossible? Is there something that might happen that you would be wise to worry about? Do you expect that you will worry about something between now and 3 days from now? Do you think you will be aware that you’re worrying? Do you think that you COULD be aware of that? Would you WANT to be aware of it?

Lots of questions…. No answers from here. I have my own answers, and you have yours. Is it worthwhile for you to ponder and explore them?

Namaste, Charlie

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On Death Post 8

Why does mindfulness ask us to spend some time in our meditation pondering impermanence (especially the death of ourselves and loved ones?) I think the primary reason why this is considered appropriate… even necessary… is that it forces us to take that “good hard look at life” and honestly see the nature of this human experience. And as I said in the first post, death is probably the single most important FACT of our lives. So we’re being asked to approach this and other facts of this human existence until we can see honestly and clearly what we’re dealing with.

We aren’t too long into our lives before we discover that life is filled with UNCERTAINTY. This is something most of us fight with for most of our lives. We don’t like it. We want predictability. We want to know how something’s going to turn out. Uncertainty is a sibling of impermanence. There is NOTHING in the physical universe that’s permanent. And there’s almost nothing that’s certain. Here’s the short list; We can be certain that we are “alive”…in this moment. We can be certain we were born, since we’re alive. We can also be certain that we will experience suffering and that we will die. We’d like to be certain that we will also experience joy, love and peace. But these are not one of life’s guarantees. Probably all of us in the range of this post have and/or will experience these qualities, but they are not one of life’s guarantees. Or life’s warranties. (We don’t get to trade this life in for another if it malfunctions! ?

It’s kind of interesting that when we enjoy a good play, movie or book we don’t want to know how it “comes out” before the end because that would spoil the experience. And, if it absorbs us we actually respond mentally and physically as though it were happening to us! So this vicarious adventure is enjoyable. But here’s the kicker. Living through the adventure of our own lives is NO DIFFERENT than a movie or book. In both cases we encounter a story that we BELIEVE IS TRUE for awhile, and it entertains us.

If we look closely however, we’ll see that the actual events of our life (just like the book) are here and then they’re gone. What isn’t gone are our MEMORIES and the story we tell ourselves. If the memories are “good” that means our story presents us with a pleasant experience and we have no problem, but if they produce suffering we have a problem. And our suffering, as you now know, is not caused by the event itself but by our interpretation…..our story.

So here we are. Can you see the completion of the circle which started with impermanence and now returns? Just as our lives are impermanent, so are the events of our lives. The EVENT that produced our experience a few moments ago…. Is now GONE. It literally DIED. What’s still alive is only the STORY we fabricated about the event. So, just as we’re asked to ponder the death of ourselves and our loved ones, we’re also asked to ponder the “death” of all of the events of our lives. To the extent that we can ACCEPT the truth of the nature of life….. that it’s uncertain and impermanent…. To that extent will we find the peace we’re looking for.

Namaste, Charlie

2 thoughts on “ : On Death and Dying”
  • Carolyn O'Connor says:

    An excellent series of posts on death to ponder and come to understand.

  • Rex Benham says:

    Each time I read this post, it brings peace and joy.

    Thank you.

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