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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I Will Be Grateful for This Day

I will be grateful for this day.

I will be grateful for each day to come.

– Bright Eyes

After watching the devastating documentary, Seaspiracy, on Sunday, I feel as though I was given a death sentence. I imagine it feels similar to going to your doctor and being diagnosed with a terminal illness. In some ways it’s not that bad. I should at least have a few decades rather than only a few months or years. Additionally, I’ll hopefully be able to enjoy good health up until that point. However, in other ways it is worse. A terminal illness is merely a personal end. Whereas, this will result in the end of all life. Certainly all human life.

I actually cried on my drive to work this morning. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the trees and the grass on the side of the highway, the cows calmly grazing in the fields, the sun, the atmosphere, the air we breathe. How much longer do I have to bask in the absolutely majesty of these things? How much time have I spent allowing myself to be distracted by insignificant nonsense? Why have I continued to waste my time and energy on anything other than love?

It is really hard for me to fully wrap my mind around all the information I now have. I feel as though I need to start living each day as if it were my last. How exactly do I do that though? That has been my issue. Even with death hanging over my head, it is still surprisingly hard to let go of all of my ridiculous habits. It feels like I have been primed since childhood to plan for the future. We are all encouraged by our schools, by our families, to make decisions and go about our days in ways that will benefit us in the future. Being able to delay gratification is a coveted and admired character trait. Years of living each day with my mind in the distant future, has made it quite hard to be comfortable just living in the present moment.

I don’t want to waste any more of the limited time I have to love and be loved on this dying planet in the middle of the vacuum of space. I have been reminding myself to be grateful for every moment. I am even going to invest in some books about coping with death and mortality. I was actually somewhat excited and relieved when I realized that these types of resources might be able to help me. For years now I have been struggling with how to seek help for myself given that most people don’t take my concerns seriously. Viewing this as a terminal illness has really allowed me to open my eyes to the vast amount of self-help materials that are out there for me.

Yesterday, my mother, who is skeptical about all of this data, asked me what the point of people making these documentaries is if we are all doomed anyway? I’ve been taking some time to think about that myself. It seems like the people that make these films somehow still hold out hope that we will be able to come back from this. I personally think they are in denial. However, even though I believe we no longer have a chance to change things, I still feel the need to spread this information and share it with those around me. I didn’t really understand why I felt it was important to do that though.

After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided that it is still important to get this information out there even if nothing can be done. It is important because I think people have the right to know this information. Most won’t believe it, but that’s their choice. I just want to make sure that for those that are willing to accept this data, they are given the opportunity to know about this harsh reality. Perhaps this will give them the motivation to live these final years in a more meaningful way. Maybe others will have moments of simple joy and happy tears just from the sight of trees and grass like I did this morning. Either way, I believe that knowledge is important in its own right. Reality matters.

For me, I am going to use this grim information to inspire me to live what remains of my life in a way I can be proud of. I want to give away all the love I have within me before my time is up. I want to be helpful and make a difference in the lives of those around me, those I care about. I want to savor each sweet moment of experience on this beautiful Earth. I’m going to spend more time outside in the sun, feeling the cool soil beneath my feet. I’m going to spend more time with my loved ones. I may not be able to save the world, but I can save myself by being grateful for the time I have.

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Seaspiracy

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There is a new documentary on Netflix that you need to watch. From the same people that made Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy is a similar film about the devastation that humanity is currently inflicting upon the world’s oceans and sea life. While I thought I already knew the extent to which we are decimating our ocean ecosystems through fishing and various forms of pollution, sadly it is even more dire than I thought.

One of the things I find most alarming is that these plummeting numbers of fish populations seems to have only really started to accelerate within the past 50 years or so. Yet across the board, 90% of the life we have been tracking in the oceans since then are now gone. Everyone always shows so much concern for endangered species, but it has come to the point were all life in the ocean is critically endangered. And once these beings are completely gone from our planet, we won’t be able to survive here any longer either.

Ecosystems are very complex and fragile things. I am in disbelief that we have even been able to cause this mass scale destruction for so long with as few consequences as we have. However, our carelessness, stupidity, and greed are finally coming to a head. After watching Seaspiracy, I feel as though life on earth as we now know it could end at any moment. If I wasn’t already certain that I would see the end of the world in my lifetime, I am after watching this documentary. Frankly, I don’t see how we aren’t already dead. I guess once that tipping point comes (and it’s coming very, very soon) it will be a RAPID decline into oblivion.

I really don’t know how to take all of this new information about the world’s impending demise. I’m afraid. I’m really afraid. While I am certain the end is coming, the logistics of what exactly will occur seem unimaginable. I just hope that it will be quick, but I highly doubt that will be possible. It seems inevitable that there will be chaos and mass panic before the end. That is one of the things I fear the most.

It makes me feel sick and almost dizzy to know that right now, as I’m writing this, these unbelievably detrimental fishing practices are still going on all around the world. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of fish are being slaughtered at this very moment. And most of them not even for food (as if that would be a justification anyway), but as by-catch. These are the fish, sea turtles, sea birds, etc. that are caught “accidentally” by fishing nets. These poor animals are tossed right back into the ocean like garbage, dead and discarded. Every minute is an absolute massacre. The thought is simply too much to bear.

One of the saddest parts of this documentary was the “hopeful” ending. There were inspiring words about how we can still save ourselves and the planet, how there is still time to change. I just don’t know how anyone that knows and understands this information can truly believe that. We have already nearly obliterated the ocean’s ecosystems. I’m not confident that even if everyone stopped fishing this minute and a piece of plastic was never put into the ocean again that we would be able to come back from the damage that we have already caused. Perhaps we would just slow our descent towards our dooms.

Still I am going to keep doing what I can, living by example, and urgently spreading this information to everyone that will listen. Even though I believe it’s already hopeless, there is nothing else I can do, and maybe (hopefully) I’m wrong and we can still salvage some life on this planet. Other than that, I am just going to try to be grateful for each and every moment that I have on this beautiful earth. I am going to keep my loved ones close and make sure they know how much they mean to me. I am going to try to enjoy and make the most of whatever time we’ve got left.

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Cycles

Everything’s a cycle. You’ve gotta let it come to you. And when it does, you will know what to do.

– Bright Eyes

Happy spring, everyone! I am so pleased to welcome this most lovely of seasons back again. While I adore the summer months, spring is probably my true favorite. There is nothing quite like the fresh, bright, vibrant energy of this time of year. There is so much beauty in contrast. I’ve always found it funny the way 55-60 degree weather in the fall seems dreadfully cold to me, yet the very same temperature is a godsend in the spring. At the end of the year I’d consider this weather too chilly for a walk, but now I am itching to be outdoors in the sunshine again. I used to dream about moving somewhere south so that I wouldn’t have to experience the snow and bitter cold of winter every year, but as I’ve grown older I’ve developed an attachment to this area of the country. Sometimes we need to face discomfort or adversity in order to fully appreciate and savor the rest of life. There is a lot that the cycling of seasons has to teach us if we are willing to witness their endless unfolding.

There is a strange comfort that repetition brings us. This constant ebb and flow that exists everywhere in this life is truly something beautiful to behold. This constant churning keeps life from becoming stagnant. It really is true that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Without the colorless cold, the bitter wind, the once lush trees reduced to creaking black skeletons, we would not be able to fully appreciate watching the landscape come alive again. We wouldn’t be able to experience this bustling, rustling, vibrating energy as the earth comes alive once more. The sensation of new life, of awakening, of hope that spring stirs within us is unparalleled. It never gets old no matter how many years we have had here.

Spring reminds us that we need not fear the winter. It also insinuates that we need not fear even death. Imagine how frightened the first conscious creatures were that lived through winter. Surely with no guarantee, I would have assumed all was ending forever. Just as many of us feel facing death without faith in a god or an afterlife. There are no guarantees. No scientific evidence that we can analyze to suggest that anything exists beyond our final breaths. Still I find my own kind of faith in all of the cycles I see around me every day. Some cycles are as short as the ever-present rhythm of the breath, some are too long for us to comprehend or observe in a single lifetime. But I trust in the cyclical systems that surround us, that are within us, that we are inextricably involved in. While I may not be able to say what the cycle of life and death fully looks like, or even what it means for me, I am confident it is still a cycle all the same. I may not be there to witness the spring that blooms on the other side of my existence on this earth, in this body, in this mind, but I am confident that that spring exists. But for now, while I am still here, I am going to keep trying to learn from these cycles, to be mindful of them, to be grateful for them, to be patient with them, and to honor and accept where I am within them.

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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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On Death

For some reason, recently I’ve been morbidly obsessed with death. My own death to be more exact. The mere fact that it has been on my mind so much lately makes me fearful. Even though I’m young, I know that my death could ultimately come at any time. I’ve finally been able to contemplate this grim fact with a small semblance of calm and clarity.

I have come to a few surprising realizations. The first is that were I told I was dying, I would start living a vastly different life. Just imagining this makes the things I truly value in this life clear and certain. The surprising part is that I find myself unable to put those things first now. We are all dying. Any one of us could have a fatal car accident or a brain aneurism tomorrow. Why then does the nearness of death factor in at all? There is a bizarre sense of fear that wells up within me when I consider living my ideal life.

I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why that provokes fear and anxiety. It brings me great peace and happiness to imagine waking up tomorrow and living this new life. But the prospect of actually following through with this terrifies me. It is so sad.

Each day on this Earth is a magnificent gift that I am not owed. How am I so easily able to take it for granted? How have I managed to take it for granted for all these years? It is so easy to forget what a miracle it is to simply exist. To stand under the sun and feel it’s warm rays on my skin. To listen to music. To love. To have a home and a family and friendships.

Yet some how I am still able to spend the majority of my time here bafflingly ungrateful. Anxious and afraid. Displeased by the smallest things. I should be shedding tears of joy the moment my eyes open each morning upon another day. I don’t want to allow myself to forget this.

It still feel impossible to change for some reason. But I need to try. I want to be mindful and present in each breathtaking moment of existence. I don’t want to be ungrateful for a single second, constantly reminding myself what a wonder it is to be alive in such a beautiful world. Perhaps I can make myself a small token to carry with me that will embody this intention for myself. Something I can wear or rub between my fingers whenever I notice myself losing sight of things. I have to try.

I will be grateful for this day. I will be grateful for each day to come.

Conor Oberst

What Is This?

I once read that coming back to the thought what is this in meditation can help bring you back to experiencing the present moment. I often do this during my meditations and throughout my day when I notice myself becoming wrapped up in anxious thoughts. It has been surprisingly effective for me. It helps me come back into my body and just notice what it feels like to exist in this very moment. Yogic philosophy and meditation have made me see a lot of things from a new perspective.

I have been atheist since I was in middle school. I still remember the moment I lost my faith, breaking down in tears while washing the dishes as the vast emptiness of the universe opened up to swallow me. I had never felt so truly alone before that moment of realization. I knew there would be no place for religion in my life from that point forward. Yet, yoga has opened me up to spirituality.

I think we all feel there is something that connects us to others and this world. There are certainly a lot of things we still don’t understand about life and death. And quite possibly never will. Still a skeptic at heart, I won’t pretend to know or make any bold claims. But I do like to let myself wonder.

I wonder what this life is. What awaits us at the end? What is the point? What IS this? I was pondering all of this while I drove the other day. I began to consider that perhaps we truly are all one. Perhaps we are each the same universe, the same grand existence, experiencing itself in different ways.

I have always struggled with the idea of death and dying. I don’t want to believe that I will die one day. It seems impossible to imagine not existing anymore. To grow old, and suffer, and disappear. Part of me hopes that I will continue existing somehow. It’s hard to even explain adequately.

There is a strange duality I feel when I consider all of existence as being one. In a sense, nothing can ever die. No one is ever alone. Yet at the same time we are always alone. There is only one. It is bizarre to feel my mind grasping at concepts it can’t quite comprehend.

All I know is that after experiencing LSD when I was younger, I realized that there is so much more to existence than what I am able perceive and understand. It brings that deep peace, that feeling of oneness. I hope that after death, there is something just as unexpected, as unimaginable waiting for us. So what do you think? What is this?