Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dying: A Challenge

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...

12 comments:

Mercurious said...

A couple of years ago, I did my own variation of a charnel-ground contemplation.

Upon finding a large dead squirrel in a secluded corner of my yard early one spring, rather than clearing away the corpse, I allowed it to decay over the course ofthe summer. It was interesting to watch my own reactions, as I came upon it during the course of routine gardening, go from revulsion to acceptance, gradually. By the end of the summer all that remained were a few white bones with grasses growing up through them, and the scene was strangely diginified.

Dying is what makes life possible, and thus is is not only natural, but beautiful, in a way.

I, too, am now seeing peers begin to get sick and die, and so I imagine this contemplation will become more important for me.

thailandchani said...

Not in Thailand. Abandoned and alone. I don't think much about the specific circumstances but those are the things that stand out. And when I think about those things, they're probably not as relevant as I am conjuring them up to be.

I strongly believe in an afterlife and that makes what happens here have less of a sting.

PeterAtLarge said...

Chani--"abandoned and alone": I guess even in Thailand, under a pile of rubble (earthquake-induced, say) the scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility... I honor your belief in an afterlife, and wish I could share it. It's really a struggle for me.

Mercurious--that's an interesting and difficult experiment you describe. And yes, I get the view that death is beautiful, but it remains a big challenge for me as I age. More to come on this, in due course. Joan Roshi's follow-up questions have also a good deal to teach.

Cardozo said...

Some combination of drowning and being attacked by a sea creature...either a stingray or a giant squid, perhaps.

Much the way Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter," met his end.

(I have the shivers now)

thailandchani said...

Don't get me wrong! I don't believe in "heaven" or somesuch.. but I do believe we come back multiple times - and obviously we go somewhere between lives to wait.

What about you? What do you believe?

As for not in Thailand, it's not an option. :) I refuse to die before getting there for good!

PeterAtLarge said...

Chani, yes, I do get that this is not about heaven or hell. But rebirth in any form is a concept I struggle with. I suppose, if pushed to it, I believe in some kind of life force, or energy, that finds a new mode of existence once my human life comes to an end. Is this "rebirth"? Maybe...

MandT said...

Forty years ago a long stay in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges removed abstraction and reduced it to essence. In those days the mass of dying every day was an experience beyond description. There are moments of hilarious black humor: these days vultures are want to drop body parts on the elegant terraces of India's new high-rise wealthy. :}

citizen of the world said...

This is one I'd have trouble with. The idea of death doesn'tbother me. Except for leaving my children without a mother, I could accept dying with some degree of grace, I think. But teh idea of great pain as I'm dying completely freaks me out. Especially inflicted pain - I can not even force myself to stay with that image long.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Daniel Perlman's horrific death comes to mind and then I try hard to turn my mind away lest I put that out in the universe as something I want for myself.

I would prefer to consider my perfect death: I am 100 years old and still in good health, mentally and physically, my loved ones are with me, and I exchange loving words with each of them and go sweetly to sleep.

August said...

Peter, thank you for this post. It's a question I frequently try to answer, but am confronted with gripping fear. I realise it is in large part why I'm not living to my fullest.

Just seeing Daniel Perlman's name in heartsinsanfrancisco's comment box makes me clench my teeth. Having lost my father to a similarly gruesome death, the thought of it is paralysing.

I shall certainly give the question another go, summoning all the ease of spirit I can.

August

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

This is a remarkable and most useful post, Peter. Thank you.

PeterAtLarge said...

MandT--surprising, no, how close the gruesome and the farcical can be? I had a teacher once whose thesis was that farce is the equivalent of tragedy in a word without the gods...

Citizen--it is tough, yes. But it's surprisingly rewarding, and one that brings a measure of freedom from those fears.

Heart--I love that vision of the perfect death. But you anticipate my next entry in this series...

August--so sorry about your father. I hear in your tone that the pain lives on. What a burden to have to carry with you. If "another go" helps bring some healing, that would be truly wonderful.

And Nick--good to hear from you, and thank you for the compliment on my post!

May all beings find happiness in their lives