Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Death & Dying: The Third Challenge

Okay, so here we are, arriving at the third and final episode in Joan Halifax Roshi’s challenge about death and dying from the current issue of Tricycle magazine. The first, as you’ll remember, was about the way in which you most fear dying; the second, about how you would want to die, if you were granted your choice. The third question is this: What are you willing to do in order to die the way you want to?

That one took my breath away. It handed me the responsibility for my own manner of dying. Unless, or course, the choice is wrested from my hands by accident, debilitating disease, dementia… all of which must be entertained as possibilities. Even so, to be given the sense of responsibility for preparing for my death came as a real, and even more perplexing challenge than the first two.

Okay, though. Let’s try it. The first thing I can do is to prepare myself to let go of everything I think I own—to recognize that none of it is truly “mine,” as I have always liked to believe. That includes this lovely cottage in Laguna Beach, where I sit writing these words; the art work on the walls, which I have come to love; the computer on which I’m privileged to write (for how many years did I use, first, pens and pencils, then a manual, then an electric typewriter?) It’s a cliché, perhaps, but one worth recalling: there is not one single thing I can take with me on my not too distant journey into the unknown. Might was well train the mind to let them go NOW. That would be one thing I could do.

Next, as I wrote only yesterday in these pages, I can prepare to let go of the stories that I so much treasure. My own, to start with: the story of Peter, the writer, husband of Ellie, son of Harry and Peggy, now deceased; father of Matthew and Jason and Sarah; and grandfather of Alice, Georgia and Joseph. Human companion—I hate to say “owner,” which reminds me of slavery—of George the dog. I have a great deal vested in that story, I remind myself, and have no wish for it to reach some arbitrary end.

Next, harder still, I can prepare to let go of all those that I love, and all those who love me, some of them not included in the list above. That would include friends, teachers, fellow practitioners, some I have worked with in various capacities. If I can find the wisdom to be able to say goodbye to them all NOW, it will be easier, perhaps, to say goodbye to them when the time comes.

I recall that in answer to the second challenge, a part of my wish was to be conscious at the moment of my death. In order to make this possible I need to do everything I can to avoid disease, senility, unconsciousness. It behooves me, then, to be as conscious as possible at every moment I have yet to live: conscious of body, health, care for myself and those around me. Meditation will help here, I believe, so one more thing I can do in order to die the way I want to is to continue with, and enhance, my daily meditation practice, especially with an awareness of the aging process and the inevitability of death.

These are things that I can do. There may be others that have not yet come to mind, and I’m sure that there will be many lapses in both attention and intention along the way. But the hard part is not being able but being willing to do them—to make that commitment to myself. The first, easy impulse is to say that I will try, but “trying,” of course, is never enough. Keep trying to feed the dog, and the dog inevitably goes hungry. And I don’t want to make any easy promises, if only to myself.

So this is something I will need to meditate on further. I see it as a process rather than a race. Commitment will require full prior understanding of what is I’m committing to. In the meantime, though, I would like to thank Joan Roshi for having brought these matters to my attention, and providing me with sane and practical counsel as I approach my final path.


MandT said...

Well done----an important discussion. Having just turned 62 I recall:
A monk: "What is the fundamental teaching?" Yun-men: "No question, no answer."
There is a sneaking hunch that it makes no difference what so ever one packing a significant amount of bagged before dying. By all means take the most lovely and meaninful of it along---all the way. Better to enjoy the journey than fret about problems at customs. LOL :) MandT

PeterAtLarge said...

A nice conceit! Thanks, Peter

thailandchani said...

I like MandT's comment. Sometimes all of this controlling gets wearisome. Maybe it is better to let nature take care of certain things?

I'm not even certain I would want to control the circumstances of my death. Beyond a wholesome caution in my personal behaviors and choices, it seems rather vain.

What's your opinion? :)