A close colleague and mentor of mine passed away recently. All who knew him were deeply saddened. Many considered his passing "untimely" since he was actively immersed in important projects with hands on the reins until near the end.
Yet he was eighty-six-years old, so his passing was in some sense to be expected. Early in his illness, one of his close friends, a retired cardiologist reassured me, "A man on a mission cannot die before his goal is achieved."
Both of us wanted to believe this. But it proved not to be true.
After a beloved relative suffered a stroke in his late eighties, his adoring wife confided, "I'm shocked. I never imagined that something like this could ever happen."
But what surprised me was that death is such a big surprise to so many of us. While our sense of loss and grief is entirely natural, why do we somehow believe that the inevitable can't happen to us or to those we love?
Many spiritual traditions advise that we keep the end in mind throughout life. But in this culture, contemplating death is seen as "heavy," a downer. We're less like Hamlet holding the skull of his family's court jester, Yorick, and more like Scarlett O'Hara. We plan to think about death not today, but tomorrow or the next day. As a result, when the bell of mortality strikes, we're totally unprepared.
"Shrinking away from death is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose," said Marianne Williamson quoting Carl Jung. She was speaking at the recent Art of Dying conference jointly sponsored by the New York Open Center and Tibet House, and held at Menla Mountain Retreat Center. http://www.tibethouse.us with Williamson, and preeminent Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, Ph.D., who offered plenary talks and workshops, the conference featured a number of experienced leaders in spiritual hospice work.
Practitioners and healers who regularly bring presence, caring and spiritual contemplation to people in the transition between life-in-embodiment and death, see vital spiritual lessons for all of us in this inevitable passage. A recurring message throughout the three days, was that we are missing out on an precious opportunity for spiritual growth, when we avoid confronting and contemplating what we call death.
"Who do I need to be to be a trustworthy presence and compassionate person?" asked Frank Ostaseski. A co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in America, and founder of the Metta Institute's End-of-Life Care Practitioner Program. Ostaseski shared the inner contemplation that living daily with the dying had awakened in him.
Therese Schroeder-Sheker advises a daily practice of metanoia -- contemplating and dying every day to the aspects of ourselves that don't serve. Schroeder-Sheker has played the harp, and sung at the bedsides of those in transition for over three decades. She founded the palliative medical field of music -- thanatology and the Chalice of Repose Project, which trains teachers in palliative music vigils with the dying.
A transparent joy exudes from those who attend the dying. Apparently, the active awareness of death can prompt us to live life with greater integrity, authenticity and purpose, knowing that our actions, thoughts and intentions count.
In our "materialist culture, people think that after death they go to the great Halliburton nothingness -- and they are out of all consequences ... " said Robert Thurman, the author of "Why the Dalai Lama Matters." He warned that "You are not getting out of the consequences of your actions by dying. Everything you do in life matters because it has an infinite resonance in the universe. [Facing up to death] gives us the power to be incredibly caring at even the tiniest level -- it's what guides our practical steps."
When it comes to being with a loved one who is dying, Frank Ostaseski reminded participants that "We each have the capacity to embrace another's suffering as our own. We've been doing it for thousands of years. You know how to do this -- it's in your bones."
But he asked, "How did we turn this intimate act of caring for each other into an obligation, duty or profession? Dying is not a medical event -- it's about relationship with the self. We've forgotten this, and so we've become frightened. Too many people are dying in fear."
The fear arises because "We see so much pain and suffering. We see genocides, holocausts and Hiroshimas," says Robert Thurman, but he counsels, "They are real -- but not really real. Bodies are incinerated -- but souls are not."
"On some level, we know that," says Marianne Williamson, who pointed out that we sometimes turn away from death out of denial. Yet we also, on some level, know that the core of who we are does not die.
Fearfully avoiding the reality of death increases suffering at the approach of this inevitable life passage. And, paradoxically, so does the belief that we are nothing but a body.
"We're born and we die," Ostaseski noted, inviting us to "sit down with death and have a cup of tea."
Williamson posed a question for that tete-a-tete:
"What would you do right now if you did not fear death?"
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