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Posts Tagged ‘dying’

The subtle suffering in our lives may seem unimportant. But if we attend to the small ways that we suffer, we create a context of greater ease, peace, and responsibility, which can make it easier to deal with the bigger difficulties when they arise.

Gil Fronsdal, “Living Two Traditions”

Have you ever listened to your thoughts?

I mean really listened?

Take 5 minutes right now and open Pages or Word and just type whatever comes to mind.

Or scroll through your wall on facebook.

Really pay attention to what’s there.

Do you see (hear) your thinking?

Do you see (hear) the suffering there?

Listen carefully. . . I’m such an idiot (because your computer and ipad weren’t on the same network and wouldn’t sync).

I’m such a loser (because I’m tired at work and bored with what I do because it seems so meaningless).

You’re welcome! (when the person you let go through the stop sign and they don’t wave to you in thanks or acknowledgment).

What the hell’s wrong with you? (when the person in the right lane moves ahead of you in your lane and never uses a signal light AND slows down).

I’m such a slacker (spending one weekend in pain from a root canal and the next two weekends out flat with a migraine).

Do you hear it?  Does it sound familiar?

Whining about the weather being too hot, too cold.

Not having enough money and wanting stuff that can really wait.

I keep crying, I’m such a baby (or one that bugs me. . . for you guys. . . when you say or think I’m crying like a little girl). . . because someone you love has died.

We bombard ourselves with stuff like this all day, all night, every day.

Would you talk to your kids this way?  Your best friend?  Would you let others talk to you this way?

There is a lot of talk today about bullying. . . and we need to talk about it.

And I think we need to first be aware of our own thinking and our own speech.

We can be pretty cruel and cause ourselves so much unnecessary suffering.

Life can be filled with pain, heartache, injustice, loss, and other tragedies. . . why do we add to all of this?

Stephen Levine, in The Grief Process, talks about the little injuries and losses that we sustain throughout our lives that we overlook and let chip away at us.

He questions, at one point, if we were able to have mercy for ourselves and acknowledge these little losses, would the losses of those we love be as big and hurt so much.

A new wound is most likely going to hurt more if it is at the point of a reopened wound.

So mindfulness helps us learn to acknowledge and bring into our full consciousness that which is usually below the surface, despite how much it can impact us.

With practice, we practice having compassion for these thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  Even if it feels rote or fake, we go through the process until our barriers begin to melt and we can hold our pain, our grief, our illness in our conscious awareness and experience patience, compassion, and equanimity.

This isn’t an easy practice but it is a life saving one.  And our very practice helps us to strengthen this life saving tool.

Listen to how you talk to yourself about your practice. . . do you make excuses for not getting on the cushion.  Do you beat up on yourself when you have a “bad session”?

Great moments to practice patience.

Maybe it will be easier to practice compassion for yourself in these moment than when you are in the midst of intense emotions or safer than situations (or people) that are really hurtful.

Life is filled with pain, danger, illness, discomfort, and other difficulties.  But it is vital to learn the difference between what is inherent because of the human condition of fragility and what is our own creation . . . our own layer of additional suffering.

And then of course, as those start to become clearer, mindfulness and lovingkindness give us the tools to transform suffering into peace.

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English: Thumbnail portrait of Atisha based on...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

The Sixth of the Nine Contemplations of Atisha. . . your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Think about how easily we can be overcome by something microscopic like a germ cell.  We don’t need a tiger to kill us, a few cells can do the trick.

It’s been over 90 in the Midwest for a couple of weeks and it’s been several days with temperatures above 100, without the heat index and on the news last night we heard that two elderly people in the area had died because they had stayed in their homes without air conditioning.  So even something that cannot be seen under a microscope can take these very lives of ours.

Our own bodies can turn on us, as when we have an autoimmune disease.

We grow up in this country to believe that we are rugged individualists, that we have boundless freedom and are invincible when we get good grades, get a job, marry, and raise the perfect family.  And most people can probably name at least a handful of people for whom this narrative isn’t the case.

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Our teeth decay.

Our muscles grow weak.

Our cells multiple, sometimes out of control and cancer grows.

Sometimes our bones break.

Our sleep gets disturbed.

We “catch” the flu.

Our muscles spasm and our arches fall.

It doesn’t take much water or ice on the floor to bring us to our knees or drop us on our heads.

Think about your mindful breathing. . .

Don’t you take for granted that as you focus on your in-breath that an out-breath will follow and then another in breath?

Would you if you had asthma?

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

And what about our minds?  We often forget that there is interconnection between our minds and bodies and think of them as separate entities.

It doesn’t take a lot for our minds to “betray” us too.

We have afflictive emotions.  We have perceptions, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

We can have hallucinations, dreams, and forgetfulness.

We take little pills to change our thinking and feelings.

Some of us will be born and develop depression, schizophrenia, autism, or dementia and although we see the effects of these diseases, we can only conjecture what really happens, despite our collective belief in levels of serotonin, problems with synapses, etc.

Your body is fragile and vulnerable.

Illness, like death, is an edge for us.  It is a mindfulness bell.  We usually don’t appreciate good health until we have lost it much in the same way that our love grows fonder and deeper when the object of our love has died.

A sore tooth or an aching back remind me of how fragile my physical life is.

I appreciate the rest of the teeth I have while I am sitting with the discomfort of a root canal.

When I have a migraine, I am painfully aware of the week I have had without the pain, sensitivity, nausea, etc. but that does not mean that I have been mindful to the lack of pain during that week.

So, can we use our physical presence and bodies in our meditations?

Definitely!

We cultivate awareness with meditations like body scans and progressive muscle relaxations.

Or focus on attention by practicing Yoga Nidra.

We allow our awareness to the sensation of our abdomen rise and fall with our inhalation and exhalation.

I remember a story from my first philosophy teacher. . . she was the one who introduced me to Buddhism and meditation.  I remember her telling me that her friend, during meditation, knew that there was something wrong with her kidneys and was able to get hydrated and get to the doctor before it was too late.

Our bodies may be weak, vulnerable, and fragile and we will ultimately die from something.  Not even the Buddha himself was able to avoid it.

But our cultivated aware and attention can be powerful as we practice meditation.

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“Don’t grieve.
Anything you lose comes
round in another form.”
Rumi
 

 I would SO love to tell you, “Yeah, don’t grieve.  It’s not spiritually necessary or enlightened.  We are transcendent beings. . . ”

Whatever!

Most of us are not there and many give lip service to those kinds of messages if we are honest with ourselves.

We hurt when we lose something.

We really hurt when we lose someone.

We have deep connections with the person we loved who died.

They co-create our world with us.

Sometimes they gave life to us (or we to them) and then we created a history, a storyline, a relationship, a family, a network of friends, etc.

We derive meaning and pleasure from our connection.

We sometimes sustain wounds and hardships in those relationships as well.

But they (the person and our experiences with them) are as much a part of us as our arm or leg and there is pain when someone dies as there is when we sustain a physical injury.

What I have come to learn, through my experience and the experience of those around me, is when we acknowledge the presence of the pain, (the upheaval, and the sense of being distraught) and can hold it in our awareness, even if for moments, healing occurs.

We do more harm, expend more energy, and suffer longer when we disavow the pain.

I think we can get to a place of understanding that others really “never leave us” because we get in touch with our interconnectedness with them.  But when we don’t touch the pain and allow it to be, it is harder to connect with more transcendent concepts.

This is one of the reasons why practices like mindfulness are beneficial to our “grief work.”  The practice teaches us to be present, moment to moment, and to accept rather than to fight off.

We then have the energy to live with what “is” and to have compassion for the situation as it presents itself.

So, I don’t think we need to throw ideas like Rumi’s out altogether.  I think we just need to practice a lot of compassion on the way to having a lived-bodily experience of what it truly means.

And without that experience, those words can be hurtful and harmful to someone who is still defending from their pain.

~~As a side note, today is my dad’s birthday!  I can’t be with him today but I am NEVER far away from my thoughts and heart.  Happy Birthday Daddy!  Thank you for all of these decades of love, support, and lessons.

 

~~~~~~~

For more information about learning to allow pain and sorrow, check out Stephen Levine‘s work Unattended Sorrow or The Grief Process CD/Audio.

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Have you started at the beginning?

Have you read my first two posts on the 5 precepts of being a compassionate companion?

If you haven’t seen the my introduction or the First precept, please click these links before you read about Frank Ostaseski’s Second Precept.

. . .

Now that you are up to speed, let’s take a look at the Second Precept:  Bring your whole self to the experience.

I don’t want to sound redundant, especially if you just read my introduction and what I wrote about the first precept, but suffice it to say, that I will.  .  . There is nothing simple about this precept and yet, if healing is to occur, bringing our whole self is vital.

My training is in humanistic/existential therapy and I have had some amazing teachers along the way.  I had a teacher my first year in college in NY tell us a story about a client that used to come to therapy every week, dressed to the 9s.  It was as if her clothing was her protective mask, the image she wanted to portray and to use as camouflage from letting her true self come to the relationship.

He told us that every week he wore jeans and a sweatshirt on the day he saw her.  It wasn’t like it was a mission but he just “came as he was”.  He said over time she experienced him as genuine and heartfelt and well, real.  She connected with him and as she did, that protective mask started to chip away.  When she could come into the consultation room, “just as she was”, with mascara running down her face, or scuffed sneakers, or cheeks inflamed from anger, her healing could begin.

Bringing your whole self to the experience means not relying on technique, distance, or feeling like you have some magic that the other person doesn’t.  It’s not about you fixing your family, the person whose home you are volunteering in, your elderly grandmother who is living with dementia.  It’s about being present and being genuine and congruent.  It’s about understanding that in any relationship there are two people who create the space.

There is no time when faced with dying to stand on ceremony.  There’s no time for platitudes like, “I know just how you feel.”  When we use nothing but techniques and hide behind our title (whatever it might be — daughter, therapist, best friend, lover, etc) we stay in the realm of false pity rather than being able to be truly open to one’s pain with genuine empathy.

Our head nurse at hospice used to say leave your baggage at the door (before going in to be with a family) and while that was true, you didn’t want to let your frustration about traffic distract you from your encounter, we can’t leave the important parts of ourselves by the welcome mat.

Bringing your whole self to the experience.  Frank suggests, in his training, that it is in our exploring our own suffering that helps us to create an empathetic bridge with the other.  I love that idea and believe it is because of this very thing that healing takes place.  And I think we have to be honest and face facts. . . whether you are a therapist or a companion to the dying, when you are together you are both touched, both changed forever, both healed.

Not too long ago, someone complimented me on my “skills” when talking to someone who was in the midst of grieving.  Although I knew the compliment was being truly offered in a sincere way, I chuckled to myself.  There was no pretense on my part, no thinking in my head, “what would Roshi Joan say” or “what task would Teresa Rando say this person is on in their grief process.”

It was about opening the heart, extending one’s self to a person whose heart might be hurting.  It’s about every so lightly, touching the memory of my own grief experiences and allowing that to be close to me.  It was about a genuine care and concern for another individual, even though it was someone I do not know very well.

And with that came curiosity, not rubbernecking, morbid curiosity but wanting someone to know that I wouldn’t side step her grief just because we were at work.  I wanted that person to know that I was open to listening if she wanted to tell her story.

To me, bringing your whole self to the experience is about not sitting with a desk between you and your client.  It’s not about wearing a white jacket.  It’s none of that professional coldness that gets drilled into us.  It’s not about never touching a patient who is struggling to talk and having difficulty breathing from the intensity of their anxiety about death approaching.

It is about being vulnerable and at the same time not letting the situation be all about me.  It’s about meeting a situation and being okay to see where it takes you, or more appropriately, allowing yourself to be led instead of trying to fix the other person.

Can you have enough compassion for yourself and the person you are with so that you can be open to the reciprocal gifts of the moment?

Bring your whole self to the experience.

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“You cannot go into the room where someone is dying

and not pay attention.  Everything is

pulling you into the moment.”  ~~ Frank Ostaseki

In 1987, Frank Ostaseski helped form the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in America. In 2004, he created Metta Institute to broaden this work and seed the culture with innovative approaches to end-of-life care that reaffirm the spiritual dimensions of dying.

I love listening to his 3 tape series entitled, Being a Compassionate Companion.  It has so much heart and he conveys the teachings of the Buddhist Path and the hospice experience in such a natural, gentle way.

In these three tapes, Frank gives guidance and explains these important teachings for cultivating a compassionate presence at the bedside:

Over the next few days, I will be sharing more about each of these precepts (teachings).

I hope that I can share what I learned from Frank and from working at hospice.  Most importantly, I hope that when you encounter another person, you learn to take a deep breath and settle in and truly open yourself to the experience.

More to come.

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Atisha with Twenty-eight of the Eighty-four Ma...

Atisha with Twenty-eight of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed

Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed

I had a client that had major complications after a surgery that was supposed to be “routine”.  Multiple systems shutting down and getting restored which shut down other systems, etc.  It was like a negative feedback loop for a while.

We were sure that she was going to die.  I was totally convinced.  I was the hospice expert, I knew these things.

Well, not really.

I just am more okay with dying taken place when it may be the ultimate healing experience for that person.

But with today’s medical technology, we can sometimes sustain someone well beyond what nature may have had in mind and give them a chance they would have never had before now.

That, however, is not my experience, but it does happen.

My “for sure” was no match for crazy (or what I thought was crazy) medical and scientific intervention.  And she lived on.

Your life span, like that of all living beings, is not fixed

Yet, I remember someone I knew telling me that his mother had gone into the hospital for something acute and the family was told that she was riddled with cancer.

There was an emergency that sent her to the hospital.

She was diagnosed.

The family was trying to make sense out of what was happening that night; trying to wrap their minds around it.

She died the next morning… not from the cancer and not from the acute crisis.

As one of the other Contemplations states, we do not have control over when and how our death will ultimately come.

How many times have you heard, “She was the picture of health”?  That was the case with my mentor who died.  Running 5 miles every morning, yoga, healthy eating, great relationships, ideal jobs for her, etc.

Or how many times have you heard, “He smoked cigars since the age of 12 and his mom fed him lard” and he died when he was 97?

We have no fixed time or fixed amount of breaths that we will take.

We do not know if it will be right now, tonight, tomorrow, or in ten years.

And yet, we live like it we have been granted this fragile life forever.

Everyone we have ever known to die, whether a beloved grandfather or a teen idol, has not lived forever and has had that unexpected time come.

Why do we think that we are exempt and will be the one person to make it out of life alive?

And how many of us take so much for granted because deep down inside, we really believe that we’ll be that one?

How long will you suffer with what is before you create the life you want before it’s too late?

How many times will you walk away angry and not say I love you before you are left with the guilt of having not done that very thing?

I ask these questions, not just of you, but of myself?

Will I learn this time?

Will I be more present, more proactive, more loving, more compassionate, etc?

Your life span, (and my life span) like that of all living beings, is not fixed.

With that knowledge, can we learn to embrace it, in a lived, total way, and create the life that we want because we became active agents during the moments we do have here on earth?

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By Doug Smith, MDiv.

“When we label some deaths right,

and other deaths become wrong.

When we label some deaths good,

and other deaths become bad.

Living and dying create each other.

The easy way and the difficult way are

interdependent.

The long life and the short life are relative.

The first days and the last days accompany each other.

Therefore, the true caregiver of the dying does all

that needs to be done without asserting herself,

and saying all that needs to be said without

saying anything.

Things happen, and she allows them to happen.

Things fail to happen, and she allows them to fail

to happen.

She is always there, but it is as though she is not there.

She realizes that she does nothing,

yet all that needs to be done is done.

In letting go,

there is gain.

In giving up,

there is advancement.

Don’t practice controlling.

Practice allowing.

Such is the mystery of happiness.

Such is the mystery of wealth.

Such is the mystery of power.

Such is the mystery of living and dying.

Excerpt from:  Caregiving:  Hospice-proven Techniques for Healing Body and Soul.

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