For today, a change of pace...
Here's a wonderful meditation practice for being with the dying by Joan Halifax Roshi, the long-respected Zen teacher and Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, as it appeared in the current issue of Tricycle magazine. Accompanying it was the description of three exercises that I thought might make a useful challenge for The Buddha Diaries and its readers. (I debated initially the possibility of sending it out as one of those "memes," but then I decided, no, what right had I to burden others with so tough a task without having first addressed it for myself? These are tough questions. Some will prefer to choose another moment in their lives to address them. And they can't be answered without some possibly painful self-examination.)
First question, then, from Joan Roshi (seen to the right with... you know who!): "What is your worst-case scenario of how you will die?" "Write it all down," she says: ""freely and in detail--how, when, of what with whom, and where you'll die."
Thanks, Joan! I actually did a very similar exercise, a few years back, when I was reading Ken McLeod's Wake Up to Your Life for review in the Los Angeles Times. Let me revisit this uncomfortable scene, however: I'm trapped under mountains of rubble, wounded, in great pain, alone. I have enough breathing space to last for a few days, and my wounds are bad enough to cause me agony--but not serious enough to result in a speedy and merciful death. It takes a long time before I start moving in and out of consciousness, and longer still before I die. I can imagine no worse way to go.
Just writing down the words is enough to summon the terror of this imagined death, and the terror becomes an actual physical sensation. It's a panic around the heart, an empty, fluttering sensation which slides down to the gut, where it becomes a serious, burning ache. My mind slips sideways, desperate to find other things to "think about." I remind myself that blogging it is a relatively easy way to go; much harder is the hour's meditation, repeated at regular intervals, that McLeod suggests to get the full benefit from the exercise.
(By way of comfort and inspiration for anyone in the predicament I have described, by the way, Joan Roshi recalls the story of Martin Toler, the miner who died in the Sago Mine accident in West Virginia, who found the presence of mind to scratch out a note with the last of his energy. It read: "Tell all--I see them on the other side. It wasn't bad, I just went to sleep. I love you.")
"Practicing dying," writes this teacher, "is also practicing living." I get that. Particularly now that I have reached an age past that at which an awfully large number of my fellow beings die. And lest anyone think that this is "depressing" stuff, let me hasten to add that the result is greater freedom--and with greater freedom, greater access to happiness.
No meme, I promise. But I would be interested in hearing from anyone who wants to give this exercise a moment's thought. This, by the way, is the least pleasant of the three-part exercise. I'll tackle the other two in future posts...