Living in a World of Need

Why do I continue living in India year after year? There are practical reasons, of course, but there are other reasons too. Just last week, for example, I saw a camel walking down the road amidst busy traffic. One doesn’t see that sight on the street every day! It’s not exactly common here either, but then again, it’s not something that could never happen.

Though I’ve lived here for a number of years now, a recent trip to Old Delhi, like all trips to Old Delhi, opened my eyes once again to entirely other ways of being and living that remain a wonder even after seeing them many times. There is the wonder of wire, for example, and how the city caries on though wires are tied in Gorgonian knots most anywhere you choose to look up–yet it does, and that’s amazing. Monkeys climb around the neighborhood balconies, monkeys occasionally appear on the school roof, and climb along the wires, moving from building to building. People pull and push loads so large it seems it would be impossible for the driver to navigate. On the side of the street amidst busy traffic you might see someone getting his ear cleaned, a person taking a nap or quietly reading. Everywhere on the city streets people are engaged in activity–sweeping, selling, driving, sleeping, eating. A whole world that holds a thousand stories is laid before your eyes–narratives with intricacies and ways of being that remain a mystery to me, even though I view the story in process before my eyes.

It’s true that India is full of many wonders but on the other hand, it’s also true that living in India with its enormous population, pollution and poverty constantly poses questions I don’t have answers for, this is one of the benefits of continuing to live here. It confronts me every day with challenges to the heart, mind and body. How do you negotiate daily through thick traffic? How do you breathe through months of smoke and pollution where the particulate matter in the air consistently ranges in the dangerous zone? How do you  look at beggars on the street and who come to your door year after year and keep your heart open without looking away when there seems to be no end to their ongoing grief and pain? Even the dogs on the street carry in their bodies the imprint of loss and neglect. Look at their eyes and you can read their need. It is good to live with these questions, and to ponder them. They don’t go away, and won’t depart though I someday will. They make me ask questions about what is important in how I live, and what I’m doing with my life that matters–what are we doing together with the incredible gift of life on this earth. How are we using what we’ve been given for the good of all, including the earth itself?

When we see need in those around us, and of the earth around us, we can see the parts of ourselves that are lost, alone, and broken, and feel compassion. We can become more aware of our own interdependence on others. None of us are truly self-sufficient. Henri Nouwen says, “We can trust that when we reach out with all our energy to the margins of our society we will discover that petty disagreements, fruitless debates, and paralysing rivalries will recede and gradually vanish.”  Draw near, look the need in the eye. So often we don’t want to look at poverty in the eye. It’s too painful. We may not be able to fix the world with its pain and short comings. Still, we can reach out silently in our heart, with a “hello” of recognition. We can give a small offering of food. We can practice being present.

The traditional story “Loosening the Stopper,” from the Hassidic Jews of Poland describes a man who had a lot of money and gave generously to the poor. One day, however, the man was in conversation with fellow businessmen when a beggar approached him asking for money. The man didn’t want to interrupt his conversation to get his purse, so simply gave the beggar the loose change he had. The beggar threw the coin at the wealthy man, hitting him in the face, declaring it was an insult since he could give so much more and why didn’t he? The wealthy man decided that from then on he was going to give only a half-penny to anyone. When two rabbis approach him later asking for a donation, they agree to be grateful for whatever was given them that day. The wealthy man gave his half penny, and the rabbis thanked the man for his generosity. Later, the wealthy man returned and gave them much more money, again returning to giving generously.

The story concludes with one rabbi explaining to the other what it was that opened the wealthy man’s generosity. “It is also said that each step upward leads to another. Once we accepted his half-penny, we loosened the stopper on his generosity. Each gift he gave made the next one possible. Now, our willingness to receive has restored him to his goodness.” For those of us debating what to give, to whom and how, the wisdom in this story is to start somewhere. Give something. It is better to open up the stopper on your compassion than to go a lifetime holding back.

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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.


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”*


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


Climbing the Mountain of Uncertainty

I’ve done a number of challenging things over the years, at least they were challenging for me. One summer I biked up the west coast of Ireland with my husband, nephew, and two other friends. The most difficult day was biking from Galway to the ferry take off point for the Aran Islands. When we started out, it was raining hard. We crouched behind a bus stop wall as we left the city, watching the rain blow horizontally, hoping it would let up. When we could tell that it wasn’t going to, we pushed out into the wind, riding against it the whole way, making it to the ferry five minutes before it took off. After another fourteen miles of riding once we landed on the islands, we arrived at our bed and breakfast. There, I opened up the bicycle guidebook to read that the ride we had just done should the easiest day of riding up the coast, as it was flat. Obviously, this statement didn’t account for riding into a fierce oncoming wind and driving rain the entire way. What seems like it should be easy can actually be quite difficult.

Several years back my husband and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft. The climb up takes hours–most of the day, as I recall, and you pass through several ecosystems as you rise in altitude. Then you stay the night in bunks at the guest house, and rest up a bit before getting up at 3:00am to climb the rest of the way to the top so that you can be there soon after the sun rises, and before the mists engulf the peak. Because you are climbing in altitude, it can be slow and difficult walking once you are at about 10,00 ft. We made it to the top, and the views were truly stunning as the mists rolled into the sun and over the pointed granite peaks and saddles. We began the descent as the mists thickened into cloud, and the clouds began to rain. The walk up to the peak the second morning, and then back down the mountain again took nine hours, and was the most physically difficult thing I ever did. The trail up and down the mountain is made of steps of varying height, and we were walking down them in what eventually became torrential rain. For hours I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on putting one foot in front of the other. There were no rest stop areas, however. What could we do but continue on? So we did. It amazed me how when it had to, the body could move beyond what I thought was its absolute limit.

But challenging as these things were, these physical experiences were, they weren’t the most difficult thing to bear. The most difficult thing I’ve done was sitting by my father’s side day after day the month that he lay dying—knowing he was dying, and just sitting with him, being with him as he climbed the highest mountain, and continued on through the rain and wind, to cross over to the other side.

In California, it has finally begun to rain after months of winter filled with drought. In Montana it is truly winter. Today as I bicycle through our New Delhi neighborhood, the sky has a hint of blue after months of pollution and fog. I glide past smoke from burning heaps of garbage, and women crouched over blankets spread out on the sidewalk, sorting grain, and children playing cricket in the streets. I think of the estimated 100,000 who live on the streets in Delhi.

When someone we know is dying, or suffering, and we don’t know what the end of it will be, we feel open, raw, and especially aware of how frail our strengths really are—how fragile the line between life and death. All we have and are could change so easily, and it has made me realize how every day our very breathing is a kind of sacrament. Our life is and becomes day by day what we are paying attention to. It is what we open our hearts to, how we are listening to the people around us, to their spirit, and what is being said underneath the words.

Or not. Many people from developed countries are removed enough from the suffering in the world to remain comfortable while others in many other places suffer. Ilya Kaminsky in his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” talks about how those who are well off in the world hear the suffering around us, or see it, and feel badly about it—enough to protest, yet still we are able to sit outside on the porch in the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

In this life there is suffering. We might be from the great country of money, but everyone suffers. We might be comfortable now, but in actually, we don’t know what the future will bring. We spend so much effort trying to make ourselves comfortable, aiming to fend off suffering. Suffering comes to all. How will respond when it does?

Recently, a friend of ours who seemed perfectly healthy began to have prolonged unexplained fevers. In the hospital, he learned a rare bacterial infection nearly claimed his life. We don’t know what is in our future. I want the people I ride by on my bicycle, and the people I meet to be well. I want those I love and know to be well, to be whole. There is so much suffering in this city, so many needy, and as I think about and see those who are suffering, I feel each time I’m being asked how am I responding to the needs of the world? Even the planet suffers. What is the suffering telling us? Can we hear what it is telling us about our choices? How can we be whole inside of and in spite of our suffering?

This past week I read these words by Henri Nouwen, “Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu…Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something.” As Nouwen suggests, ours is a society that admires toughness and roughness, values getting things done over being present with another, over listening. Do we counteract suffering by taking action, making change? Maybe the place to start is by being gentle, keeping an open heart, deep listening, presence—these are not easy qualities to cultivate, yet in our deepest selves, we long to know that we truly matter. So much suffering begins, continues on, and expands even into violence because people do not feel that they truly matter, do not feel that their life rests in the heart of someone else who holds them precious. Again, as Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Do we have the courage to be gentle? Can we hold it above productivity and success, above accomplishment? Can we learn to be humble?  We don’t necessarily have to have answers, we can simply sit with another in shared awareness of  helplessness. That can be powerful, even life changing.

How do we know what path to follow in the days we have remaining on earth to live, so that when we come to the end of our days, we will be able to climb the mountain, or find our selves able to keep peddling into the wind and the rain though we feel our legs are leaden, so that we can find the boat that will carry us onward? How easily we get thrown off track of what is important, pulled in to world of worrying about the uncertainties. Thomas Merton in his book, Thoughts on Solitude, suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers. In his prayer, he says, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” We don’t have certainty. Even Jesus’s own disciples asked who Jesus was. And they walked and lived with him. All of us are incomplete. The path we walk isn’t about achievement or accomplishment. It is about walking the path—the journey. It is in our reaching out in the intention to love, to be, and to be made whole that matters in spite of our questions and uncertainty, our incompleteness.

I noticed the trees were filled with leaves today as I rode down the streets, biking not necessarily to anywhere, just weaving back and forth along the pavement, practicing what it is to move, to be alive in this moment just as it is. Breathing in, I said to myself, “peace,” as I lifted my leg on the pedal. Breathing out I thought, “blessings.” Blessings on those around me who suffer. Blessings on the world that suffers because we don’t know how to be gentle. Blessings to all of us traveling from uncertainty to uncertainty.


A Wider Perspective

It has been a summer of work–building a framed structure with bird netting to protect the berries, laying a stone walkway, planting, cleaning, sweeping, hanging doors, moping, waxing, cutting glass for cabinets, hanging lights, organizing workers to lay tile, build a stone wall, make cabinets and more. Through it all, my husband and I have watched the grape vines at the entrance to our gate grow foot by foot, first reaching to the top of the trellis, then growing one by one down the crossbars overhead, the vibrant green leaves a symbol of the beauty and fullness of our lives here under the rich blue skies and the perfumed air of the Santa Cruz mountains. Then, last night my husband got up to get a middle of the night snack when he noticed the leaves were missing on the grape vines. He came to tell me, and I, too, got up and went outside to examine the damage. The vines were, indeed, bare. The deer, perhaps the very same beautiful deer I wrote about a couple of postings ago who mysteriously stared at us at us for so long from the edge of the forest, had indiscriminately eaten what we had watered every morning, and that had brought so much joy to our hearts.

“It’s deermagedon,” my husband explained this morning, as we further perused the damage, discovering the deer had eaten the strawberry plants, and the kale as well. “We work without rest, and then what we work so hard for is gone over night. It makes me wonder what we are doing,” he said. I thought about those who lost their loved ones in the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and in Japan, the Chinese girls who died in the recent plane crash at the San Francisco airport. We’ve all lost things precious to us, but to lose a family member in such a way would be truly tragic. Most of our losses in life aren’t as enormous or as difficult as what happens when a natural disaster strikes or a terrible accident, but still the losses must be confronted, and perhaps the way we deal with smaller losses gives us practice for how we will deal with me difficult losses when the arrive. We’re all bound to face serious losses in our lives when we lose the ones we love to death, and all will die one day. To protect our garden we had built an eight foot deer fence, not exactly the walled garden of Luso, Portugal, filled with exotic trees and hermitages, but peaceful, and precious to us, though we don’t yet have a latch on the gate. Sadly, the deer discovered our vulnerability and boldly ate our plants.

So what did we do after “deermagedon”–how did we deal with the loss? After an hour of sleeplessness, and a bit of rest, we woke and assessed the damage in the daylight, and noted that the vine stems were still present. Also, not all the leaves had been eaten. The ones that were too high for the deer to reach, and the ones the deer had to bend to low to eat still remained. The vine wouldn’t die. The base of the strawberry plants were still there, along with some of the strawberries, and about a third of the leaves. The kale was pretty much done for, but at least we had had the opportunity to eat some of the kale the previous night. We watered the plants and sent them some words of encouragement, told the story to a few friends and family members. Then, we got back to work, though we still took notice of the plants through the day.

Does loss cause us to change direction in what we are doing? That probably depends on the severity of the loss, and though we were upset by what the deer had done and how something we treasure was lost, we knew we could recover. Rick Hanson suggests in his blog post, “Drop the Case” that when someone has wronged you, a good thing to do is get a wider perspective on the situation so that you can “drop your case” rather than letting it get its hooks in to you. The deer was just being a deer. We can make it less inviting for it to come in our yard once we get a latch made.

Loss can also be a matter of perspective. When you think about it, we’re losing something all the time as our lives change and morph. When we leave one city, one state, or one country for another, we lose things–the people we know from that locale are left behind, as are the geographic uniquenesses of that particular location–the plants, animals, landmarks, the food specialties from the area. The history of the place we move to is different. If we are choosing to move from the area, losing these things has a different feeling than if we are forced to leave, however. If our choosing to leave something, someone or some place behind, helps us to deal with loss more constructively, then perhaps a key to dealing with loss is to change our perspective.

Years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, where he talked about how you can’t receive anything new until you let go of what you are holding on to so tightly. “You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.” Once you talk like that, you’ve already given up believing that your life might be otherwise. You’ve already let the hope for a new life float by. Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts. You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender.” (beliefnet) Nouwen clearly describes the consequence of trying to hold on to what we have lost or are afraid of losing–we end up with something small and clammy, when we could be opening ourselves to a new adventure, an new way of being that is reaching out to us, ready to embrace us.

Carrie Newcomer’s lovely song, “Leaves Don’t Drop” shares a wonderful insight about trees. “Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,” Newcomer sings, illustrating an interesting paradox that in letting go–in dying, we make space for something new to grow. “To die and live is life’s refrain,” describes Newcomer. In death is life. This is an ancient truth that many religions describe. Jewish scriptures in Ecclesiastes tell us that “For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” Christians trust the paradox found in Jesus’s death: through it life is found.” In Chinese belief, the yin yang symbol teaches us that in life is the seed of death, and in death the seed of life. They are interrelated and part of each other.

Losing the leaves off the plants in the yard was disheartening, but in the bigger picture, not so bad. I’m made aware, again, that I share my space here with deer, birds, insects, and gophers. Getting along with everyone’s needs is challenging, and yes, I could even say an adventure.