Meditation on Death

Due to my morbid obsession with death and dying this past week, I started looking for some books to read in order to better cope with these grim ruminations. After a little searching, I came across a book that seems perfect for me. It’s called Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Face of Death by Joan Halifax. I haven’t gotten past the first few chapters yet, but it has already been a great comfort to me.

This book approaches the subject of death from a Buddhist perspective. It highlights the different ways that western and eastern cultures deal with death. It calls attention to the way the fear of death dominates western culture. We do our best to hide it away out of sight. We live most of our lives without ever thinking about the fact that we are all going to die some day. Avoidance seems to be a primary part our lives, especially in America.

The best part about this book is that it is written as a resource for everyone, in any stage of life. It can benefit teenagers, the elderly, caregivers, medical professionals, healthy people, and people that are terminally ill. This book reminds us that death is a natural part of life. It is something that has the potential to bring us all together. It is ultimately the great equalizer. It is a phase of life, a culmination of everything we have experienced here, a right of passage, a necessary darkness we will all pass through one day.

One of the ways I believe this book will help me is by preparing me to be there for my loved ones when they die. I still feel tremendously guilty about how little I was around my grandmother as she was slowly dying from cancer a few years ago. For the most part, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about it. I saw her when we went to my parent’s house on holidays. It was painful just to look at her, to be in that room with her. Even though it was actually the room I grew up in, my childhood bedroom. What a sad, beautiful mixture of things that have gone on within the walls of that room.

When I sat by her bedside those last few times I saw her, I felt paralyzed, petrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to cry. I wanted to ask her so many questions. But instead I sat silently at her side, waiting for any opportunity to leave. I still wonder how she must have felt in her final days. Was she afraid? Did she resent us for not being there for her? Did she find peace? Did she have regrets? Were there things she wanted to tell us, but didn’t? Did we leave her feeling alone? Unloved? What is normal, what is acceptable to say or do around a death bed? Is anything? Does it even matter?

I think our society’s fear and avoidance of death leaves a lot of people to regret their incompetence when dealing with the passing of a loved one. When you avoid something all your life, how can you possibly be expected to handle it when it is in front of you? When it can no longer be avoided? When my other grandmother passes, when my parents pass, I want to be ready. I want to be everything I wished I could have been for my dad’s mom. I want to be brave enough and comfortable enough to discuss these difficult topics with them. I want to be prepared to give them everything that they need, even if they are unable to ask for it when the time comes.

Being with Dying provides exercises to help us work through our aversion and fear of death. The first meditation it suggests is to contemplate both the best and the worst case scenarios for your own death, in as much detail as possible. I want to have my grandmother and my mom do these exercises with me at some point. I want to know everything that I can do to make their deaths peaceful and comfortable and meaningful. However, even the thought of writing such a thing down seems terrifying to me. At the same time, that terror is quite fascinating. To confront this reality, the certainty of death, why is it so very painful? Why does my mind want to avoid even the thought of it at any cost? Do people in other cultures feel the same way? Or are they able to embrace this inevitability with grace and humble surrender?

I think my greatest fear surrounding death, is simply not knowing. It is the ultimate loss of control, a nosedive into a vast unknown. Perhaps it is less daunting if you believe in an afterlife of some kind. But it seems impossible that anyone could have total conviction as they are facing down their own end. There must always be some doubt, some uncertainty. It is not only not knowing what happens after we die, but not knowing when or how we will die that is frightening. I suppose a lot of people are also deeply afraid of death being painful. As someone who hasn’t experienced hardly any physical pain yet in my life, I find this hard to imagine well enough to be afraid of. Besides it always seems like pain can be escaped, even if that escape is death itself. However, that not knowing, that final surrender, will always be there.

I am looking forward to reading more of this book. I am hopeful that it will give me the tools I need to prepare myself for this stage of life, this end of life. Not only for myself but for those around me as well. Even if you think I’m nuts for believing the science that says soon the oceans will be dead along with all of us, I would still recommend this book. Regardless of when you imagine death will touch your life, the fact remains that it will, no matter who you are. It’s much easier to avert our eyes as long as possible, but if you are ready to face that fear head on and take the steps you need to in order to be prepared, Living with Dying seems like a great place to start.

Please make the wonderful effort to show up for your life, every moment, this moment – because it is perfect, just as it is.

Being with Dying
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Outgrowing Selfishness

I’ve always thought of myself as a very self-centered person. Autism could be a contributing factor to a lot of my more selfish tendencies. It’s not ever been a malicious selfishness. I’m not acting in my own interest at the expense of others. If I ever have, I’ve only unwittingly done so. It’s more like sometimes I forget to consider other people entirely, because I am too busy being consumed by my own inner world. I can still remember when I was very young, noticing that other people would often compliment someone else’s clothing or hair, etc. I remember asking my mom why I never felt the urge to do that, even if I did like something about someone else. I assumed it was only because I was shy and socially anxious. Only after I began forcing myself to compliment people did it become a comfortable, natural habit. I was surprised to discover that it even made me happy.

As I continue to get older, I’ve noticed myself becoming more and more interested in being of use to other people. And the way that thinking of and helping others is its own reward. I once thought selfishness was just a personality trait. I’ve now started to wonder if it’s simply an aspect of youth. I remember hearing about older people focusing their remaining energies on giving back to the community and supporting their family. It seems like in the later stages of life, giving back, sharing what you’ve learned and acquired with others, becomes the most personally fulfilling thing. I always had a hard time imagining myself in this role. Now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

I’ve heard the metaphor of life being compared to a wave in the ocean. In the beginning we are one with the sea, then we crest for a time, the illusion of an individual entity, before eventually falling back into the water we came from. The longer I live, the more convinced I become of two things about this life: Everything is a cycle, and everything is one. These are the fundamental truths I keep coming back to when I have my spiritual experiences with LSD. It is comforting and profound. I can see it everywhere I look. It gives me hope that every ending inevitably leads to a new beginning on both a micro and macro scale.

The idea of the fluctuation of selfishness throughout life seems to fall into that framework as well. When we are born, we are totally dependent on others. Although no longer in the womb, we are still very much an extension of our mother, feeding from her very body to survive. Then we slowly but surely begin to gain independence. We revel in this newfound freedom, we test it’s limits, we find our individuality, just like the wave on the ocean. For awhile we are lost in the intoxication of this illusion. The illusion that we are separate.

No matter what, if any, religion or spirituality you subscribe to, getting older tends to remind us that we are all one, with our fellow humans, other species, the earth, everything. We all depend on one another, we all live through and because of one another. We’ve all sprouted from the same source, just as we will all return to it someday. Like waves in the ocean. But just like the ocean, the tide is relentless. There is no ending to the ebb and flow, there is a constant undulating cycle. It is a beautiful thing to be reminded of this. For me especially, it is nice to be reminded of the way things change, the way I change without even realizing it. What may seem terrifying and impossible to accept one day, seems as easy as breathing when the time finally arrives. We don’t need to worry about how we will handle situations in the distant future, because this current version of ourselves won’t be the one dealing with it anyway. We’ve simply got to keep going and trust that when we get there we will be the person we need to be to get through it.

So there is nothing to fear. Not even death. Because no matter how many cycles come to an end, a new one starts simultaneously, spiraling out into infinity. For a time it may be important for us to be selfish, to learn how to best take care of this newfound self. But there is also beauty and comfort in playing with the very idea of “self.” What made me decide to draw the line where I have? Why is this body the only thing I consider me? Maybe I am actually more than this. That boundary seems to be expanding, little by little, every day. And one day this little brief wave that I am will have fully submerged once again.

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