Savour Life

This morning I attended the funeral service for our colleague and friend, Joyce Maris, who joined our human resource consulting organisation in 2014. She had previously worked for the Australian Taxation Office for 30 years. Joyce drowned in a rip while swimming at Kingscliff on Sunday 10 March 2019. She was 58 years old.

Joyce was someone who savoured life. She loved her tennis and was a member of a cycling group who rode regularly. She savoured her friendships and loved those who were closest to her – her mother, children and grandchildren. Joyce always had a smile, enjoyed travel and lived life to the full. Her cycling group had a spontaneous memorial ride on the Tuesday after her death – wearing black armbands, praying together and riding in silence for part of their journey as they each remembered their constant riding companion.

Savouring life

There is so much in life to savour – we can value our work, savour our achievements and rewards, value the space of being alone and even savour the freedom of boredom which can be the fertile ground for personal growth and creativity. If we can slow our life to appreciate what we have and express gratitude, we can begin to savour everything in our life and live fully in the present moment. Holly Butcher, who died of cancer at the age of 27, urged us to value every aspect of our lives, and refrain from contaminating the lives of others through complaining and whinging about minor issues.

Meditating on death

Joyce’s sudden death was a stark reminder of our own mortality and the unpredictability of our own death. Mindfulness teachers remind us of the benefits of meditating on death – overcoming the fear of dying and increasing our commitment to savour life. The death of a friend, family member or colleague can be a catalyst for us to meditate on our own death.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection on the life of someone who has died and through meditating on death, we can learn to fully savour life and surf all its waves. We can admire the life balance achieved by someone like Joyce who was fit, professional in her consulting work and a loving mother and grandmother. We can hope, too, that Joyce is enjoying the light, love and peace reported in many near-death experiences.

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Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Engaging With and Accepting Death

Annie Robinson, in her article, How Mindfulness Can Ease the Fear of Death and Dying, asserts that there is a strong movement in the West to reengage with death, encourage open conversations about death, and to pursue choices in dying that respect the values and vision of the dying person.  This is also the theme of Lucy Kalanithi’s TED talk and Paul Kalanithi’s book,  When Breath Becomes Air, which he wrote while suffering from terminal cancer.

There are a number of characteristics of this movement and approach which involve dying mindfully:

Acceptance of death

Acceptance involves not only acknowledging the onset of death but all the feelings and thoughts that go with it.  This includes denial, sadness, suffering, anger, fear, grief and sense of loss associated with declining mental and physical capacity as well as the ultimate separation from loved ones.  It also includes accepting the loss of our old identity and an envisioned future and progressively forging a new identity and vision of dying.  Mindful acceptance does not remove the suffering but can reduce the pain and fear of death.

Being attuned to sensory experience

This involves paying attention to our senses – touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell- and experiencing the sensations such as a beautiful scene or sweet-smelling flower to a heightened degree.  It involves resting in these sensations while we can still experience them.  Some of these sensations will be intensified as we focus on them with our waning energy.  Annie suggests that being attuned to our sensory experience can develop joy and mindfulness.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses, has demonstrated that focused attention on our senses can alleviate pain and help us to rewrite the narrative in our heads (including the narrative of fear and depression).

Finding balance through openness to love

Remaining open to love and caring of a partner, parents, children and relatives enables the dying person to find some level of balance as they alternate between pain and joy.  This requires vulnerability as their faculties decline and dependence increases; it also means that bitterness over loss on every dimension is not permitted to gain a stranglehold on emotions.  In his book, Paul Kalanithi was able to talk about marriage difficulties arising from his extreme workload as a neurosurgeon resident, working from 6am to late at night, 7 days a week.   His wife, Lucy, in the Epilogue to Paul’s book acknowledged that the cancer diagnosis enabled them to reinvigorate and deepen their love for each other and, in the face of  Paul’s dying, “to be vulnerable, kind, generous, grateful”.

Lucy wrote about the balance that emerged through their complete acceptance and trust in each other:

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love (p.219)

Lucy acknowledged that as you grow in mindfulness, you can find joy amidst the pain and grief, meaning when all seems lost and a profound gratitude that engenders fortitude and courage.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of realworkhard on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

Dying Mindfully

Lucy Kalanithi, in her Ted talk, What makes life worth living in the face of death, shared the story of her last 22 months with her husband who was suffering from terminal cancer.   Her husband, Paul, a young neurosurgeon, was able to continue his practice for a while after his cancer diagnosis owing to his oncologist’s management of his chemotherapy.

After Paul was unable to continue as a neurosurgeon, he turned to writing which he continued to do until the last months of his life.  Paul’s book is titled, When Breath Becomes Air.   The book is a reflection on the task of transitioning from doctor to patient.  It describes the challenge of facing his own death –  a challenge that both Paul and Lucy had assisted their patients to face.

Lucy explained in her talk that together they accepted that suffering and death were part of life – but this did not remove the pain and suffering involved.  When reflecting on life and its purpose she said:

Engaging in the full range of experience — living and dying, love and loss — is what we get to do.  

Lucy said that instead of fighting against fate, she and Paul learnt together how to deal with the here and now of suffering and loss – they worked together to help each other through.

Part of their approach to Paul’s dying was to talk with each other openly and honestly about their feelings and the difficult decisions that they faced progressively:

  • whether to have a child (with Paul’s uncertain life expectancy)
  • whether Lucy should remarry after Paul died
  • what level of medical intervention they would accept at different stages of Paul’s illness
  • when to turn off life support.

Lucy commented that talking through the options, helping each other make those decisions and accepting the pain and loss involved at each stage, gave her a new insight into the meaning of resilience – because it could not mean, in their circumstances, “bouncing back” to a prior state.  Paul had to redefine his identity throughout the illness as he lost physical and mental capacities and Lucy had to find a new meaning in her role as “caregiver”.  Together, though, they showed the resilience of facing dying mindfully, of being present to the current reality confronting them and not meeting it with denial.

Paul also used his final months to reflect on what he was experiencing in the hope that his written reflections could help other patients going through what he was experiencing and help clinicians to understand the dying patient’s journey from the inside.

In her final comment, Lucy stated that exercise and mindfulness meditation helped her a lot.  As we grow in midnfulness, we can help each other during the experience of dying and develop a new resilience in the face of an inevitable, changed reality.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of rawpixel on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Meditating on Death

This has been one of the hardest blog posts for me to write.  It is difficult to write about death when there are so many different views about death from various philosophical, spiritual and religious perspectives.  It is even more difficult to confront the reality of your own death – accepting its inevitability and the impermanence of life on earth.

Our concept of death develops as we grow older and its inevitability becomes part of our consciousness.  However, there is a real taboo about talking about, or thinking about, death.   We fear death and avoid it – but we cannot avoid its inevitability despite the stories we might tell ourselves to stave off the fear of death.

The benefits of meditating on death

One of the primary benefits of meditating on death is to overcome this fear.  Annie Robinson, for example, suggests that mindfulness can “ease our fear of death and dying” – it can also help to reduce the pain, anger, grief and denial that occurs with dying.  Other authors support this view and add that meditation on dying enables us to better assist those closest to us with the process of dying.

One of the really strong and lasting benefits of meditating on dying is appreciation for the life that we have to live – valuing each day as the first day of the rest of our life.  This encourages us to live mindfully in every aspect of our life – to value nature, our freedom, our friendships, our gifts and talents and our close relationships.  This was the very clear message of Holly Butcher as she confronted her imminent death from cancer.

What people value when dying

Mathew O’Reilly, a critical care, medical emergency technician, spoke during a TED talk about his experiences in helping people who were very near death as a result of an accident or a natural disaster.  In his early career, he felt that he needed to lie to these critically ill people who had moments to live to protect them from the fear of death.  Once he decided to tell the truth about their impending death, where there was nothing that he could do for them, he found that the majority of people faced their death with peace and acceptance.

What he found too was that three things were important to different people at the time of death:

  1. wanting forgiveness
  2. wanting to know that their life had meaning
  3. wanting to be remembered (even by Matthew and his team).

Meditating on death

Pursuing three questions

One form of meditation on death is to pursue the above three things for yourself.  You could ask yourself one or more of these following questions, thinking about how you would respond at the time of death, if you knew it was imminent:

  1. Who do I need forgiveness from – who have I neglected or caused suffering to?
  2. What meaning does my life have? What have I actually contributed to make this world a better place for others, near and far?
  3. What will I be remembered for?
Writing your own obituary

Some mindfulness experts suggest a form of meditation on death is to write your own obituary.  Lux Narayan, in his TED talk, shared his experience of reading 2,000 published obituaries of people who died.  What he found was that both the famous and not-so-famous did extraordinary things to help make society a better place – “they made a positive dent in the fabric of life”.  He asks that we consider how we are using our talents to help society so that our obituary will reflect the “positive dent” also.

Buddhism Nine Points Meditation
Buddhism  offers Nine Points Meditation on Death which reflects the foregoing discussion of what people value at death and what obituaries say about people who have lived a meaningful life:

It is vital that when we die, we will have as many positive imprints—which will bring good experience and as few negative imprints—which will bring suffering—on our mind as possible. Also, we should aim to die at peace with ourselves, feeling good about how we lived our life, and not leaving behind any unresolved conflicts with people.

The nine points meditation on death explores this rear-mirror perspective after helping us to confront both the inevitability of our death and the uncertainty about the timing or means of our death.  It concludes by reminding us that, as we live, we still have time to live a life that is “meaningful, beneficial and positive.”

Mindfulness of Death Meditation

WikiHow provides a detailed Mindfulness of Death Meditation that covers the potential distractions (in part, generated by discomfort with the topic of meditation), explores the reality of death and your feelings about it, and assist you to identify ways to improve the wellness of your life here and now.

A Death Meditation method

This is a detailed meditation on death that involves relaxing your body in the first instance, then imagining the dying process with energy progressively leaving all parts of your body, then identifying the real self that remains and following this with reintegrating with your body.  This can be a confronting meditation initially but lead to a sense of peace and relaxation.  The author suggests that you first read about preparing for the death meditation.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death, we can achieve a level of peace and acceptance and, at the same time, increase our motivation to live our life in a positive, helpful and meaningful way.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of leninscape  on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Post-Holiday Blues

If you have recently returned from a holiday away, the normal reaction is to focus on the loss resulting from your return home.  You might miss the break away from work and home responsibilities, the free time, the opportunity to see new things, meet new people and have time to yourself.

People often feel sad at the end of a holiday, wishing they had made better use of their break, visited some particular attraction or brought a particular item of clothing that they really liked.

So we can experience depression by focusing on our recent past holiday which invariably “seemed to go all too quickly”.

You might also not be looking forward to the responsibilities of work, the time pressures, the repetition that is present in any job, the pressure to produce, unfinished business from the time before you went away and the inevitable conflict with one or more colleagues, staff or clients/ customers.

This focus, in turn, can make us anxious as we look to the future and all the demands we expect to be placed on us.

Alternatively, we can avoid depression and anxiety by focusing on the present moment, appreciating what we do have – health, home, family, work and friends.

We could express gratitude for the time we did have away, all the individual activities that brought joy and happiness, the highlights that we really value and the. companionship we enjoyed.

We could focus on the precious moments when we were able to stop and be mindful in the presence of nature’s stunning variety and beauty, the ingenuity of men and women, the artistry of sculptors and artists of long ago or the magnificence of architecture we observed.

We might also express empathy and compassion for those who had real loss and grief during the holiday period – the loss of family members through accidents or illness or suicide, the break-up of an intimate relationship or a fracture of the relationship with a son or daughter or other family member.

Appreciating what we do have, being grateful for what we were able to experience on our holiday and/or thinking empathetically about others and their loss, can take us outside of our self-focus and enable us to experience the richness of the present moment in our lives.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are better able to savour the present moment and avoid depression resulting from a focus on the past or anxiety arising from a focus on the future.

We can learn a lot from Holly Butcher who died on 4 January 2018, at the age of 27, from a rare form of cancer and had written a powerful letter just before her death which her family published on her Facebook page the day she died.  Some of her comments are especially relevant for the topic of this blog post:

Those times you are whinging about ridiculous things (something I have noticed so much these past few months), just think about someone who is really facing a problem. Be grateful for your minor issue and get over it. It’s okay to acknowledge that something is annoying but try not to carry on about it and negatively effect other people’s days…

I hear people complaining about how terrible work is or about how hard it is to exercise – Be grateful you are physically able to. Work and exercise may seem like such trivial things … until your body doesn’t allow you to do either of them.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

 

Looking For Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere if we just look out for it.  However, as mentioned in the previous post, we tend to become focused on negative news, rather than positive stories.  Inspiration leads to health and well-being, while negative-oriented news creates distraction and emotional disturbance – especially where events are sensationalised to create the maximum emotional impact.

One of the very helpful sources of inspirational stories is TED Talks – an endless source of video presentations on every conceivable topic by numerous people from different corners of the world who have achieved much to improve the human condition.

One such talk was given by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi – What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death?  In this outstanding presentation, Lucy discusses how she and her husband Paul, a neuroscientist, coped with the knowledge that at the age of 37 he was dying from Stage IV lung cancer.

In her optimistic -and sometimes humourous – talk, Lucy makes some key points:

  • the critical importance to keep talking to each other, with no topic off limits
  • realising that the person who is dying must work to reshape their identity
  • making conscious choices together about ongoing health care
  • learning to accept the pain of your dying partner
  • finding beauty and purpose amidst the sadness
  • learning that resilience, in this situation, means bouncing back to real living without denying the reality of impending death.

The video of the presentation by Dr. Lucy Kalanithi is given below:

Besides building bonfires on the beach and watching the sunset with her friends, Lucy found that “exercise and mindfulness meditation helped a lot” after Paul’s death.

Both Paul and Lucy were noted for their compassion towards others. As they were able to grow in mindfulness through this compassion and their intense living-in-the moment, they were better able to cope with the reality of Paul’s terminal illness.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of martythelewis on Pixabay

Dying for Tomorrow or Living Today?

In February 2016, news.com.au reported on the story of Jake Bailey who got out of his hospital bed to deliver his Captain’s address at the 2015 Christchurch Boys’ High School Prize Giving ceremony.  Jake, in his final year, had been diagnosed with cancer and was on his fourth chemotherapy treatment when he left his hospital bed to give the speech.

Despite his illness, Jake passed the year 12 exams and expressed gratitude for the support he received from near and far.  His speech is very moving and, at times, confronting.  He makes the point that when you are confronted with death you are forced to reflect on who you are and what you are doing with your life.  In his own words, Jake reminds us that we so often overlook the present because we are so focused on tomorrow:

I was dying for the weekends, I was dying for the school holidays.  Before I knew it, I was dying.

Jake reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to live the present fully:

Here’s the thing – none of us get out of life alive. So be gallant, be great, be gracious, and be grateful for the opportunities that you have.

The full speech is available on YouTube and the video of his speech has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people at the time of writing this post.

Jake’s speech causes you to ask the question:

Are you dying for tomorrow or living today?

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com