poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living with Loss

When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.

When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?

The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.

A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected. 

We loved each other. Our children were
smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose?
then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps
in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter
snowstorm, began to move slower and slower,
your hands no longer functioning the way
they always had, your legs unwilling to obey
your brain’s command. And now, your head bent
sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder,
your legs so weak they cannot hold you up,
your voice thin as a thread. 

The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.

When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.” 

“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have
always believed that whatever happens, things always
work out for the best, have finally been brought
to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament
Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat,
unable to find the thread of joy that has always
waited for me just beyond tears.”

When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.

When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end. 

…On the Gulf, the earth and sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed…

Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.

It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.

How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,

And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl
of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look
more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf,
a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find,
even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails
the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving
the transfigured world?

An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole. 

We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both. 

During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.

Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.

 

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Being Brought Low

IMG_8865Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.

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Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.

Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.

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Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.

What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become

but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.

Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.

Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”

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Dancing Into Dimminishment

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You may have seen 81 year old Sarah Paddy Jones dance the tango with Nico Espinosa and astonish crowds in Madrid, or on stage in Britain’s Got Talent for the fact that she is old and is yet able to do things that people even much younger than her can’t do. It’s amazing and inspiring to watch the grace and flexibility of these dancers. Ms. Jones has followed her passion, and worked very hard to be able to dance with such strength and beauty. Being tossed around over someone’s body and sliding across the floor with ease isn’t the norm, though probably, more elderly people might be able to move fluidly if they worked at building their strength and simply moved more often. Do we especially admire Ms. Jones, however, not because she dances well, but mostly because she is moving like a younger person would? Even with great determination, would such a dream of dancing like Ms. Jones be possible for many of those who might desire to dance like her at her age? When Ms. Jones comes on stage, the judges look highly doubtful of her ability. After they see what she can do, however, they praise her for her ability to move like a younger person. Ms. Jones is following her heart’s calling, and it’s wonderful to see her moving inside the flow of dance. Is emulating the ability of younger people, however, what older people should in general aspire to? Ms. Jones found in dance what feeds her heart and deepens her soul, and this is the reason to honor her efforts. This is what we, too, can follow into old age–the thread of who we are, so that we ripen further into what brings us wholeness. Nevertheless, while I marvel at Ms. Jones and admire her skill, I also wonder about our expectations of others and of ourselves as we age. We can’t always fix what wears out as we get older, and eventually, our bodies do wear out. It’s also important to recognize that aging and the narrowing of our powers is a normal part of everyone’s life. While we should still stretch to deepen our lives, it also might be important to understand who we are as we get older, and to move toward developing more of that, rather than emulating what younger people do, even if it’s what our culture applauds.

Diminishment comes in myriad forms. It’s not something we we want to think about or accept–losing our job, our health, a friend, a family member, our home, our country. Individually and collectively we define what quality of life means, and set our life compasses to move in that direction. What is the attitude and focus that engenders ongoing engagement and satisfaction in life, that creates wholeness all the way up to the end? We expand our understanding, develop new skills, polish others, yet for all this effort and growth, diminishment is still a destination we will all eventually arrive at before passing from this world, and we will need to understand how to stand in relationship it. How do we also learn to live into an era of loss, to accept weakness in ourselves, to invite and even welcome humility? What is the purpose of our life’s trajectory if in the end we lose everything? These are questions to live into.

Some time back, I saw this video shared on the Internet, of a man singing to his 92 year old wife on her death bed, and I thought, this couple has the something that keeps them whole, even through the stages of complete diminishment: They are fully alive to each other. I remember singing to my father as he lay dying, remember, too, reminding him of stories about things we did together, things he told me that he did when he was a child–climbing a windmill, running 16 miles through the forest at night because his feet were his only transport and he wanted to see my mother. As I watched my father during the evenings of his last days, the room seemed so utterly silent as he rested there, so still and unresponsive. As I now look back on this time, however, that experience of utter and complete silence has grown to seem significant. At the time, I so much wanted to feel the presence of something larger holding us during those final hours. What I felt most, however, was a profound silence weighted beneath everything–something like the weight of the ocean’s water at its great depths–the deepest blues fading into darkness. Nevertheless, underneath all the weight, there remained something light, something small like breath–and each breath seemed significant. We learn what love is through the love our parents bring us, and through our relationship with our partners and friends.  As James Agee wrote in A Death in the Family, “I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are not others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” When my father lay dying, though the room felt so empty, I became aware that love was larger than any one particular love. During those last days my father’s life diminishing before my eyes, I realized that the love I felt for him wasn’t an isolated thing. It was connected to the love I felt for my sister who had watched over my parents for more than a decade through as their health diminished, and connected, also, to the love of all the others in my life who have lifted me up, supported and sustained me from day to day, year to year. Love lives beyond death.

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Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his interview with Image magazine about the poet James Harpur’s book, The Wound of Knowledge, says, “interesting thing about great poetry is the silence it generates. This is a complex area, but the great holy silence at the heart of things is not just an absence or a cessation. It’s what happens when you’ve been led to this point…The silence, when you get there, has become pregnant.” Poetry, aims to articulate and give in words the presence of such moments of deep loss. Great poetry not only generates silence, however, it also rises up out the silence of the losses that press down to crush us. Loss somehow is necessary in order for us to move beyond the borders of ourselves. Beyond the borders of ourselves a wider something awaits.

Perhaps it seems odd to be writing about loss on Easter Sunday. You’d think it might be better to turn my mind to thoughts of renewal and rebirth. Yesterday, I lost my journal in the airport on a flight back to India, however, and I’m still grieving that loss. In it were half a year’s writing, reflections, travel observations, seeds of thought about projects I’m currently working on or planned to work on. What I feel as a result of this loss is grief. I can’t think of a better word. I realize that there are much greater losses in life than this. In comparison to so many other people’s losses, this is utterly miniscule. I recognize other ideas will arrive and I will write them in future journals. But I can’t replace the pages of reflections, images, awarenesses, or ideas written in that lost journal. They are more than words. They are my exploration and expressions of what it means to be alive in the world. And that is gone.

imageAges ago now, I remember sitting in a parking lot in St.Paul, Minnesota during winter listening to Robert Bly reading a poem on the radio. I don’t recall the poem’s title or the specific lines, but Bly’s lines astonished me with the picture they created of words emerging from the mouth into the air in visible puffs. I pictured the words taking on physical shapes, having presences. Form. Being. Words have presence and meaning beyond their mere articulation, though often incomplete or imperfect, they are mirrors of our souls. For me, they are the ladder I make to climb into a place of being.

Words guide and change our lives, but they also point to larger realities that live beyond words. Recently, Ben Slavic, a colleague I work with described how he had previously worked with Sauk, Myskoke, and Chickasaw people whose languages are dying out. Only a few native speakers remain. What is it like to lose your language? We are, in fact, losing many languages world wide per year. Do those languages go on existing in some form, he wondered? “Maybe they want to hear them again, loudly and everywhere amidst the laughter and tears of life – fully alive again…Where do words go after they are spoken?” My colleague wondered, “Is there a kind of residue, an echo, of them left over somewhere? Do they get to be fainter and fainter echoes of themselves in some parallel universe of sound?” In the BBC article, “Languages: Why we must save dying tongues,” author Rachel Nuwer writes that “languages are conduits of human heritage…convey unique cultures,…contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more.” Also, as Nuwer explains, “languages are ways of interpreting the world, and no two are the same. As such, they can provide insight into neurology, psychology and the linguistic capacities of our species.” These all seem very important, yet, as Nuwer describes, “Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century.”

If all we say disappears into air, if the dear companion of our own body in the end loses all its capacity, if thirty years from now all people remember of who we are or what we said or did are a few dates and our occupation, if everything shifts and changes, where do lost words, lost time, lost lives and worlds go? What is their value and meaning?

In her poem, “Happiness,” from her book, Broken Cup, Margaret Gibson writes about her husband’s Alzheimer’s. She quotes her husband reading what the Dalai Lama says, “An art, not a right, happiness,” then later closes the poem with a memory,

long ago, after
a night of reading each other’s
poems aloud, every
blessed one of them,
the road beneath us seen through the rotting-out
porous floor of the old jeep
as we traveled at the
speed of light, and nothing, nothing
could slow us down
or keep us
separate from each other
or the road, wherever it took us.

The commitment to love is what creates meaning, Gibson suggests, even in our loss. This is a hard lesson, and Gibson’s writing about loss is surpassingly powerful. In the closing poem of Broken Cup, “A Good Death,” Gibson tells about her husband who she recognizes will in the end lose all words.

…may you also, while now there’s time
practice dying

before you die. May you daily stand outside time’s rush
whose rivering is

our natural light, and there on the steep lip of what we call
darkness,

call me angel, if angel I am; draw sunbursts in the rain lit air;
sing your heart out.

Great being, radiantly still. And near.

In learning to be present and open to all that is, Gibson seems to say, we find how to bear diminishment.

This past week I was scuba diving in the Maldives. On one of the dives, I found myself kneeling on the sandy ocean floor 25 meters below the surface in front of table coral raised before me like an altar. I watched as manta rays six 10 to 15 foot wide circled and circled over my head like enormous communion wafters in a repeated mantra of movement. Rocked and bowed by the surge, I absorbed the vision of the mantas’ presence. They had come to the table coral simply because they wanted the wrasse who live there to clean them, but as I watched them swoop over me with their great wings as if they were the Passover angel, I grew humbly aware of the immensity, mystery and wonder of being completely immersed in the arms of nature. I knew I was very much alive, and part of something enormous and beyond explanation or comprehension. Animals can be identified, their behaviors and environment explained, but something much greater happens than the sum of individual parts when we enter their world, and encounter them, something there will never be enough right words to describe.

I have lost my journal, and though I’m still able to go diving, though I can go on to keep new journals and write new poems,  in the end, though I may cry for it all to come back to me, I will need to let it all go. Maybe this is when resurrection has the possibility to occur–after we go down into the depths of death or hell. We come to where we recognize we must or can let things be what they are, and trust that somehow in our diminishment we are still whole, that there is something significant moving in the depths of that diminishment beyond what the losses all add up to.

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A Not So Common Thought: Contemplating Death In Order to Live Well

Looking at death in the eye isn’t a favorite pass time for most anyone, but considering that we will all have to face death, I thought it might be helpful to look at what it means to die well from the different perspectives of the world’s major religions. These findings below are brief, and not necessarily representative of the major thought in those religions, but they give a variety of insights. The thing that stands out for me in these various perspectives is how each one finds contemplating death a valuable thing to do in order to live meaningfully.

Hinduism: From Sadhguru, Huffington Post

If you are afraid of death, you will only avoid life. You cannot avoid death. And it is not that beyond a certain age you should look at it; every day of your life you need to be aware that you are mortal. There are certain meditations that are conducted where everything that you consider as “myself” will become nothing; it is as if you die. Again, when you open your eyes, it is all there. If these methods are practiced consciously, when the time to die actually comes, it will no longer be a big issue.

The process that you refer to as life is something that can be constantly improved upon. It is a project that will never be over; that is the beauty of it. Not everybody is living with the same quality. Whether in doing simple physical things or in how people are keeping themselves, in everything, not everybody is living at the same level of understanding and gracefulness.

If you remind yourself every day that you will also die, you will naturally move towards knowing higher dimensions of perception. If you are aware of the mortal nature of your life, is there time to get angry with somebody? Is there time to quarrel with somebody? Is there time to do anything stupid in life? Once you come to terms with death and you are conscious that you will die, you will want to make every moment of your life as beautiful as possible. Only people who believe they are immortal can fight, and fight to the death. Those who are constantly aware of the mortal and fragile nature of existence do not want to miss a single moment; they will naturally be aware. They cannot take anything for granted; they will live very purposefully. This is a simple way of becoming aware.

Buddhism: At the April Conference in Lusanne, Switzerland, the Dalai Llama said the following about death: “Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

Also, the Dalai Llama has said in his book, Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life” by Dalai Lama, and posted on DailyOM: It is crucial to be mindful of death — to contemplate that you will not remain long in this life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained. It is meaningful since, based on it, important effects can be accomplished.
Analysis of death is not for the sake of becoming fearful but to appreciate this precious lifetime during which you can perform many important practices. Rather than being frightened, you need to reflect that when death comes, you will lose this good opportunity for practice. In this way contemplation of death will bring more energy to your practice.
However, if you do not wait until the end for the knowledge that you will die to sink in, and you realistically assess your situation now, you will not be overwhelmed by superficial, temporary purposes. You will not neglect what matters in the long run. It is better to decide from the very beginning that you will die and investigate what is worthwhile. If you keep in mind how quickly this life disappears, you will value your time and do what is valuable. With a strong sense of the imminence of death, you will feel the need to engage in spiritual practice, improving your mind, and will not waste your time in various distractions ranging from eating and drinking to endless talk about war, romance, and gossip.

Copyright © 2002 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

For further insights from a Buddhist perspective on how to be with a dying person, the article :

How to be with someone who is dying:

Sogyal Rinpoche describes how he would be with someone who is dying in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “I would have sat by his side, held his hand and let him talk. I have been amazed again and again by how, if you just let people talk, giving them your complete and compassionate attention, they will say things of a surprising spiritual depth, even when they think they don’t have any spiritual beliefs. I have been very moved by how you can help people help themselves by helping them discover their own truth, a truth whose richness, sweetness, and profundity they may have never suspected”…“Bereavement can force you to look at your life directly, compelling you to find a purpose in it where there may not have been one before.”

Qualities Rinpoche says are invaluable at a deathbed are: a sense of humor, and the ability to not take things personally when/if the person dying expresses anger, which he says can be quite common. Additionally, emphasizes the importance of expressing unconditional love, and telling the truth with love. “To be able to deal effectively with the dying person’s fears, it is important to introspect and be aware of one’s own fears about death,” Rinpoche says. Also, “The dying person must be given permission to die with the assurance that his loved one(s) will be taken care of in the aftermath,” and he advises that those left behind be open to grief and try and learn from it, rather than try and repress it.

You can read more of his thoughts in his article, “Insights into living and dying”, by Dr. E.S. Krishnamoorthy and Niranjana Bennet.

Christianity: Henri Nowen on Dying Well

We will all die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will
we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our
lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not “What
can I still do in the years I have left to live?” but “How can I prepare myself
for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that
will follow me?”

Jesus died well because through dying he sent his Spirit of Love to his friends,
who with that Holy Spirit could live better lives. Can we also send the Spirit
of Love to our friends when we leave them? Or are we too worried about what we can
still do? Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.

Judaism

Surviving after death, we hope, is surviving as a thought of God…Death is not understood as the end of being but rather at the end of doing… Humanity without death would be arrogance without end.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)*

The sunset, the bird’s song, the baby’s smile…the dreams of the heart, and my own being, dear to me as every man’s is to him, all these I can well trust to Him who made them. There is poignancy and regret about giving them up, but no anxiety. When they slip from my hands they will pass to hands better, stronger, and wiser than mine.
— Milton Steinberg (1903-1950) “To Hold with Open Arms”*

Islam

Say: “Behold, my prayer, and [all] my acts of worship, and my living and my dying are for God [alone], the Sustainer of all the worlds.”
— Qur’an 6:162

Say: “Behold, the death from which you are fleeing is bound to overtake you – and then you will be brought back unto Him who knows all that is beyond the reach of a created being’s perception as well as all that can be witnessed by a creature’s senses or mind, whereupon He will make you truly understand all that you were doing [in life].”
— Qur’an 62:8

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Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings are connected to endings, and endings to beginnings. Every time something is born, something else passes away. This past weekend, my husband Michael, and I spent our time moving to a new apartment. Our move was only one floor above, not a very big move, still it seems new and different. Since the move was so close-by, I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought about the move being much of a change other than wondering how we were going to manage to find the time to pack and then unpack with so little time left in India before we would be leaving for the summer. Nevertheless, as the opportunity to move opened and I carried box after box up the stairs, I found myself repeatedly thinking about how this phase of my life was ending–my time in the apartment with its idiosyncrasies of the toilet pipes that run and then stop running on their own, the particular scent of the rooms, the tree leaves grown thick over the window–all that was over!

One phase of my life was complete but another had begun. Sunday night we went to dinner with our friend Kamal, and her family, in celebration of her acceptance into the teaching program at a university in Calgary. To become a teacher is Kamal’s dream, and she is entering a new phase of her life as she sets off for college in a city and country unfamiliar to her now. It’s all so very exciting, but at the same time, a bit scary because of its unfamiliarity.

Since I’ve moved many times in my life, I’ve often wondered what it is like for people who stay in one location their whole lives, or for those who have rarely moved. What is it like to grow deep roots in one place? How might it change the way you see the world? Imagine having friends who have known you your whole life, who have seen you grow and change, who have watched as you developed new skills, and who were there to encourage you along the way! You would have friends you share a long history with, who know you well enough that you could sit with them in silent communion. That would be a rare gift. You would also know a landscape intimately–its myriad shades of sunlight and shadow. A good steward of the land, you would have taken care of it through all forms of weather and seasons. The land itself would your trusted friend.

That is one version of what it could be like to stay in one place your whole life. My life has not followed this path, though. Instead, I have repeatedly stepped into the unknown or semi-known. Doing this gets more challenging as you grow older and feel greater pressure to save up financial resources for the years when you will not work and yet need to go on paying for your living expenses. Adventures involve the unpredictable and the unexpected, and moving into unknown territory often is not easy, as you never feel fully settled in any one place. On the other hand, the advantage of moving frequently is that it has served as a bell that reminds me to repeatedly come back to the idea of how precious the time is in each place I live in or travel to. Often, I only have a brief time to be with old friends from my hometown each summer, or just a hand full of days with family members every few years, so those days and whatever they contain are dear.

Quite a number of years ago now I read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, a book that helped me see the value of life of a migratory life in a new way. Chatwin explains, “As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones.

There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.”

Chatwin says our “real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” This is a terrific promotion of the value of walking, and the view of life one gains through the pace a journey takes when on foot. I’m intrigued, though, by the notion of life itself being a pilgrimage, a hard journey.  If we can recognize that those walking beside us as fellow travelers, young, old, rich, poor, of different religions and different cultures, we can learn from each other and can better understand how to find our way.

Our “way” has something to do with understanding how these mundane things of our lives, like packing up our house and moving, or walking to work or standing in line at the cafeteria, are what life is. The every day events and conversations and how we carry them out, are what make the fabric of our lives. In the commonplace of our lives lies the journey itself. It is a pilgrimage where the inner journey meets the outer that occurs whether we leave home or stay in the same place our entire lives. One reason I continue to pick the transitory life is that it forces me to continue to think about the place where the inner and outer journeys meet and to make myself take note of how I am walking.

This time of year in the world of international schools, the environment I live and work in, many people are moving away, both students and teachers. Thirteen years spent in one place, perhaps, and then that someone is gone. Last weekend, as I sat in the room with a group of friends singing, I was looking at the faces of three people I will not see again here next year, Vicky and Ron and Deanna. They are such a natural part of my world here that it is very difficult to imagine them gone. Even though we speak of it, though we have going away parties, though we talk about their plans, and look forward to them enjoying their new experiments in living, my mind goes on affirming their presence. I suppose that is because they aren’t quite gone yet, and because I know we will still be in communication after they are gone. But as Vicky says, they are “history.” Their influence on my life will no longer be the way it was. Still, the influence of their presence on my life continues. I know I have quoted Buechner several times already on these postings, but Buechner says it well, “When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

Good-byes are a kind of death, it is true. There are always too many things going on when they occur, and we are never quite ready for them. But they are also a beginning. The Hindus demonstrate this understanding of the cycle of life and death in their god, Shiva, who is both the creator-destroyer. The Jewish scriptures of Ecclesiastes say, “There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die.” The Celts in ancient Ireland began their new year in winter. For Christians, Jesus’ death brings life. In the midst of death, life is being born. When you are carrying the weight of boxes up stairs for hours on end, it’s just plain hard. Your feet get tired and your back as well. But that’s the way new things get born– step by step you carry your load to the new location and set it down. Of course, it’s always very nice when someone can help you carry the weight. We are on this road together, we can do that no matter where we are. As fellow pilgrims say on the road to Santiago de Compostela, “Buen camino,” happy travels.