Appreciating the Jacaranda

For a long time now, I have viewed trees as a source of meditation and of poetry.  The title of this post is really a metaphor for appreciating our own life and the uniqueness of others.   Jacarandas in Brisbane flower during October/November which is around exam time and their stunning display of purple flowers serves as a reminder of all we have accomplished in formal learning and all the people who have helped us in these achievements.  So, Jacarandas help us to appreciate our life and what we have achieved.  At the same time, they remind us that outward success is ephemeral – impermanent and quickly fading, which is a characteristic of the Jacaranda flowers.  

Savouring your achievements 

In a previous post I discussed in detail how savouring your achievements can be a mindful exercise in appreciating your opportunities in life and valuing what you have been able to achieve through the assistance of others.  Reflection on your study achievements can build confidence and a sense of self-efficacy – your belief in being able to achieve a particular outcome through focus and effort.  You can reflect on what it took personally to graduate at school, university and/or a TAFE College 

You can be grateful that you have acquired the knowledge and skills that come with your study achievements and that have opened the way for many other opportunities in life, e.g. the nature of the work that you do, the opportunity to travel or the ability to build relationships and interact effectively with others. 

Acknowledging the contribution of others 

Recognising that your achievements were accomplished through the support of others is a great leveler and a source of appreciation and gratitude.  Those who have contributed to your achievements could include your parents, schoolteachers, educators, lecturers, trade trainers, or professors. Some had a role to play in your formative years, others in your adulthood as you made your way in the world.  You can value their contributions to your personal growth in knowledge and skill.  

Of particular importance, is focusing on the people who played a significant role at different turning points in your life.  They could be mentors, coaches, friends, bosses, or relatives.  It pays to spend time to focus on a particular individual who has influenced the way you think, how you go about your work, how you relate to others and/or what you consider important.  It may be someone who encouraged you and supported you to believe in yourself and what you are capable of.  This type of reflection reinforces our connectedness and interdependence and can deepen our humility and gratitude.   

Radiant beauty, quickly shed 

A key source of insight when observing or reflecting on Jacarandas is the ephemeral nature of their beauty.  I once captured this thought in a poem about Jacarandas when I wrote, “radiant beauty, quickly shed”.  This is a reminder that external signs of success can quickly fade or disappear – as many people have found during the onset of the global pandemic.  Thomas Merton reminded us that what is important is the “inner landscape”, not externalities, when he wrote:  

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for… 

Savouring our achievements is not designed to be an exercise in considering ourselves to be “better than” others; it is designed to help us to realise the gifts, talents, knowledge, skills and supports that we have to enable us to make a contribution to the welfare of others.  It is one way to help us overcome the barriers to achieving our unique contribution and life purpose.   We can be prompted to ask ourselves, “What am I doing with my life and all that I have been given in terms of opportunities, knowledge, skills and insights?” 

Frank Ostaseski reminds us that one of the lessons from death and dying is the need to cultivate a “don’t know” mind – a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” and willing to learn from anyone, even young children.  He suggests that we need to develop our curiosity and instead of trying to prove that we are “interesting” or learned in our interactions with others, that we focus instead on being  “interested in” others. 

Reflection 

Savouring our achievements can be a source of appreciation and gratitude.  Remembering that our external success is ephemeral and that what is important is our contribution to the welfare of others, can be a source of humility and motivation to pursue our life purpose.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively develop our “inner landscape”, gain insight into our life purpose, and develop the courage and creativity to make our unique contribution. 

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Image by Christian Abella 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. 

Don’t Wait to Forgive

In his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses in depth his first lesson, Don’t Wait, learned from many years of working with the process of dying and death.  He witnessed so many people dying while consumed by hatred, resentment, rage and anger.  He also gives examples of others who were able to offer profound forgiveness on their deathbed.  He urges us not to wait until we are dying to embrace forgiveness for ourselves and others.  He contends that all forgiveness is ultimately self-forgiveness and is hugely beneficial for us – mentally, physically and emotionally.

Resistance to forgiveness

Frank talks about our natural resistance to forgiveness – a form of self-protection, protecting our sense of right and wrong and our elevated sense of who we are.  To forgive is to acknowledge difficult emotions such as anger, regret and resentment.  We tend to run away from these feelings because they cause us pain.  However, the cost and pain of carrying resentment all our lives are far greater than the pain of facing up to those parts of ourselves we are embarrassed by or unwilling to acknowledge. 

We each have an area of darkness that we don’t like to shine a light on.  Recalling events also brings to mind and body, the recollection and re-experiencing of hurt – hurt from other’s words and actions, and also hurt and regret we feel for things that we have said and done that were hurtful towards other.   Facing up to the depth of our difficult emotions is critical for forgiveness and mental health.

Anger and resentment can consume us, constrict our capacity to express kindness and love towards others, even those in close relationships with us.  We can find ourselves constantly playing over events in our head as well as in our conversations, our hurt and resentment growing with each retelling.  Ultimately, forgiveness involves letting go – releasing ourselves from the sustained constriction of negative emotions and giving up others as objects of our resentment.  If we do not forgive others and our self, our difficult emotions find expression in self-defeating ways, including manifesting our anger in such a way that another innocent party is hurt by our outburst or abusive behaviour.

Frank points out that forgiveness does not mean to totally forget an event that was hurtful or condone the actions of another person that were unjust, hateful or revengeful   It does not require reconciliation – sharing your forgiveness with the other person.  It is an internal act encompassing mind, body and heart.  When we overcome the resistance to forgiveness, we open ourselves to kindness and love.

The long journey of forgiveness

As they say, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – forgiveness is a life-time pursuit, not something to begin at the end of life.  Frank recalls his own anger, rage and resentment towards a Colonel in a country at war, when the Colonel refused to assist a five-year old boy who eventually died a very painful death without the medical support the Colonel could have provided.  Frank points out that these complex emotions consumed him and sometimes found expression in his rage.  However, he instituted a daily ritual which, after many years, enabled him to let go of these emotions and find the freedom to forgive and love again.

Frank encourages us to start along the path of forgiveness by first taking on relatively small issues/events in our life, not the big all-consuming hatred or resentment.  He suggests even practicing with small annoyances such as being cut off by someone in traffic or having someone leave a wet towel lying on the bed.  You can progressively build up to dealing with the big issues/areas of resentment and anger.  The process of incorporating forgiveness meditation into your mindfulness practices can be a way to begin and to progress the long journey of forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires absolute  honesty (not projecting an image of ourselves as “perfect”), acknowledgement of our own part in a hurtful interaction, understanding of what is influencing the other person’s behaviour, recognition of our connectedness to everyone and a willingness to face up to, and fully experience, what we don’t like in our selves.   Frank’s strong exhortation is, “Don’t Wait!” until it is too late – until our deathbed when we could be consumed with anger, guilt, regret or rage.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through forgiveness meditation, mindfulness practices and honest reflection, we can more readily recognise when we need to forgive and the hurtfulness that we cause by our words and actions.  We can progressively face up to our “dark side” and our difficult emotions that are harmful to ourselves and others.  We can also bear the pain of naming these feelings and really experiencing their depth, distortion of reality and self-destructive nature.   Forgiveness builds our freedom to express kindness and appreciation and to love openly.

Frank maintains that the foundation for true forgiveness is learning to forgive ourselves with “compassion and mercy” – this is, in itself, a difficult journey and, ideally, a life-time pursuit.

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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.

The Impermanence of Everything and the Preciousness of Life

In Part 1 of his book, The Five Invitations, Frank Ostaseski discusses his first invitation and principle for living, “Don’t Wait”.  Frank, as founder of a hospice and end-of-life carer, has cared for more than a thousand patients during their dying process and death.  In this first part of his book, he highlights the impermanence of everything and the preciousness of each moment of living.   

Frank has been a companion to the deepest grief of friends and relatives of the dying and experienced a depth of vicarious grief that is difficult to conceive – it’s as if the collective grief of others had beset him and brought him to his knees, both physically and metaphorically.  Fortuitously, he was a colleague and friend of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross at the time who supported him in his grief and his work as an end-of-life carer.  Elizabeth developed the classic concept of the five stages of dealing with death and loss in her book On Death and Dying and was also the author of Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss.

The impermanence of everything

If nothing else, the Coronavirus reinforces the impermanence of everything through its pervasive impact on every facet of our daily lives – our home, work location, transportation, schooling and education, shopping, spending, entertainment, health, finances, sport and our very daily interactions and movements.  The on-off nature and varying intensity of imposed restrictions serve to reinforce this message of the changeability of everything.  In these challenging times, we are called to adapt to the unpredictability of our work, our changing home arrangements, the extreme challenge to our health and welfare, and the uncertainty of our income and overall finances.

Without the pandemic, we can still become aware of impermanence – the birth and death cycle for humans, animals and nature.   Relationships end, animals are killed and eaten by other animals in the endless pursuit of food and survival and leaves fall off trees to become life-giving compost for new plant growth.  

The impermanence of everything was brought home to me by two recent incidents.  The first was the disturbing story of a nurse killed suddenly in our city while cycling to work.  Her husband indicated that their day started as normal with a coffee and breakfast together but ended tragically when the nurse was only metres away from her work at the hospital.

The second experience of impermanence occurred when I was walking along the foreshore of Moreton Bay near our home.  I was watching the small fish full of life darting back and forth in the marina when a fast-moving bird dived into the water and retrieved one of the fish for its food – only to be followed by other birds dive-bombing the school of little fish. 

The preciousness of life

Frank describes the process of dying as a “stripping away” of everything including our sense of “self” – our sense of who we think we are and should be, all our roles such as husband/wife, partner, parent, neighbour.  We lose our professional identity, our personal orientation, e.g. as a “people person” and our comparative self-assessment such as well-off or impoverished and successful or an abject failure.  Frank reinforces his view of the inadequacy of the medical model to explain the breadth and depth of the “stripping away” at death.  He maintains that in dying everything is released/dissolved – “the gross physical elements of the body, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, conditioning all dissolving”.  Frank asserts that what is left to discover is “something more elemental and connective” that constitutes the real essence of human nature.

Our awareness of impermanence, accentuated by illness, can lead to anxiety or a readiness to appreciate and savour the preciousness of life, of our relationships and of nature.   Through appreciating the pervasiveness of impermanence, we can more readily accept change and more willingly give up our attachments – the things that we hold onto to define our self and our worth.   This is where meditation can help us both in fully living and preparing for dying and death.

The “Don’t Wait” principle reminds us of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the timing of our death – that it will happen, but we don’t know when or how.  This principle encourages us to value every moment we are alive and to savour what we have in life and the experiences of living.  Frank’s heart attack reinforced this message for him – his sense of self and perception of himself as the “strong one” helping everyone else in need was completely undone.  He encourages us to be curious about ourselves and our preferences/attitudes/ biases and to work at letting go of the identities that we have become attached to.

 Frank maintains that “softening around these identities, we will feel less constraint, more immediacy and presence”.  I am learning the profound truth of this statement through softening my identification with being a “good” tennis player who never or rarely makes mistakes.  Instead of wallowing in negative self-evaluation, I am beginning to enjoy the freedom of progressively loosening this unsustainable identification as I grow older and less physically able.

Reflection

Frank’s book would have to be the easiest and most-engrossing personal development book I have had the privilege to read, and, at the same time, the most profound.  As someone who has had a deep interest in, and knowledge of, his subject, he can communicate his ideas in simple language and practical illustrations.  Each paragraph contains exquisite morsels of wisdom and the book is replete with moving but brief stories that impress indelibly – so, even if you don’t remember the exact wording of his principles, you certainly remember the stories that illustrate them.  Frank’s writing reflects the calmness, humility and depth of insight and wisdom that is evident in his many conversations and podcast interviews about the process of dying and “The Five Invitations”.

“Don’t Wait” is a challenging principle but Coronavirus has forced us to stop, reassess and protect ourselves and others.  It has been the catalyst for incredible acts of courage and kindness – by our health professionals and people from all walks of life.  The Pandemic Kindness group on Facebook©, with over half a million members, is but one of many efforts to encourage and support random acts of kindness in these challenging times.

The “Don’t Wait” principle incorporates many invitations to create change in our lives.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of our attachments (including to harmful self-narratives) and progressively develop the discipline and self-regulation to create real change in our lives to live with more appreciation, thoughtfulness, kindness and compassion.  We can learn to savour every moment of our life and everything that it entails.

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Image by christels 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.

Meditation as Preparation for Dying

Meditating on death helps us to appreciate both the preciousness of life and its precariousness. Thinking about death and the dying process serves to motivate us to live our lives more fully and more aligned to our true purpose in life.  Much as we might like to, death is not something to be swept under the carpet – it is an every life reality.  Meditation itself can help us to prepare for death by helping us to face up to its reality and consciously build the capacity to die peacefully, with acceptance and equanimity.

The reality of our death

Irrespective of our belief about the existence of an afterlife, there are some inescapable facts about death and dying that we each have to face (not deny or ignore, despite cultural “taboos”):

  • The certainty of our death
  • The uncertainty of the timing of our death
  • The unknown about how we will die – there are so many potential internal and external causes of our death
  • The remaining span of our life is decreasing with each day (we are getting closer to death with each day we are alive – our life is inevitably running out, like the waters in an outgoing tide).

We can live our  life in the light of the lessons from death and dying or continue to ignore death’s reality.  One of the lessons Frank Ostaseski learned from observing the dying and practising meditation is that meditation is itself like the dying process.

What meditation and the dying process have in common

Frank identified a number of common elements between the dying process and meditation:

  • Stillness and silence
  • Being fully in the present moment
  • A focus on our inner life – “profound inquiry into the nature of self’
  • Accessing our inner wisdom
  • Progressive release from attachments
  • Deep sense of humility
  • Deep sense of expansiveness and connection to nature and everyone

The benefits of meditation for the dying process

The dying process is a solitary event – no external person or possession or power or wealth or physical beauty can assist us in the process of accepting the inevitable.  What can help us to make the transition easier at the time of death is release from all attachment, comfort with deep self-exploration and reconciliation with ourselves and with others.  What will help too are the positive states that we have formed through meditation – compassion, self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others, patience, wisdom and peace.  The more positive our life has been, the better we will be able to accept all that is happening to us at the time of death. 

Frank suggests that we should aim to replace guilt with remorse – not drowning in our guilt but expressing remorse for having hurt others.  Remorse then motivates us to do better and avoid hurting the people we interact with.  Forgiveness meditation is a powerful aid in this transformation.

Reflection

Once we accept that life is running out like the tide, we can value and appreciate every moment that we are alive, develop loving-kindness and build positive experiences where we contribute to the welfare of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, and especially by meditating on our death, we can create the positive states of acceptance, peace, tranquillity and compassion that will assist us in the dying process.  Meditation helps us to understand and accept the reality of our death and to prepare us for the inevitable (but uncertain) end to our life.

Frank’s book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, can provide us with insights into the dying process and the lessons we can learn and, in the process, build our motivation to develop and sustain a daily meditation practice.

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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.

Living in the Light of the Lessons from Death and Dying

Frank Ostaseski in an interview with Rheanna Hoffmann about death and the process of dying, mentioned his book based on his experiences of being with a thousand people as they died.  His book, The Five Invitations: Discover What Death Can Teach Us About Living Life Fully, provides five principles or guides for living life with integrity, meaningfully and in alignment with our true purpose.  Frank was the co-founder and director of a thousand-bed hospice, so his book is based on lived experiences and real stories of how people faced death, as well as the distillation of the “wisdom of death” from these deeply personal and moving experiences.

Frank maintains that death is the “silent teacher”, imparting understanding and wisdom about how we should live.  He expounds his ideas and principles in a number of recorded podcast interviews, including What Can Death Teach Us About Living Mindfully. His recoded talk at Google focused on his book through the theme, Inviting the Wisdom of Death Into Life.   A succinct explanation of the principles in his book, which he describes as “invitations to living”, is provided in his 26-minute edited interview with Steve Heilig of Palouse Mindfulness.

The five invitations to living learned from the dying

Frank emphasises that these invitations to living have been taught to him by the dying and by compassionately helping many hundreds of people with the process of dying.   Understanding the following five principles and putting them into practice enables us to live life fully and mindfully:

  1. Don’t wait – we assume that life will go on as it always has, that our health, wealth and relationships will persist into the future.  If nothing else, the Coronavirus should disabuse us of this belief and the associated perceptions.  There is a tendency to put off changing the way we live because of this belief in continuity.  However, living is precarious, nothing is certain.  We can become absorbed in the busyness of life and put off any change – avoiding the need to slow down and really experience life and relationships.  We can spend so much of the day planning our next activity or sequence of events. Frank maintains that we are reticent to fully “step into life” – “waiting for the next moment in life, we miss the present”.  Frank urges us not to wait till our death to find out the lessons of dying.
  2. Welcome everything, push nothing away – whether it’s grief, loneliness, boredom or suffering, there is a lesson to learn if we don’t push away the feelings, emotions and thoughts that pervade our life.  Frank suggests that we should welcome grief and fear and difficult feelings because these “moments” of discomfort are pivotal in our life for developing sustainable personal change, if we fully face them.  He spoke of the grief he experienced working with the dying and how he adopted meditation, bodywork (the touch of a practitioner on a source of physical pain in his body) and holding and rocking newly born babies (a life-affirming activity) as a way to face the full emotional, physical and mental experience of grief – it’s as if he ritually experienced the life cycle of birth, living and dying as a way to manage his overwhelming grief.  
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience – Frank made the point that in his work with the dying, the part of him that was most helpful was his vulnerability and helplessness because it acted as an “empathetic bridge to their experience”.  These “weaknesses” became his strengths and enabled him to be fully present to them, to be-with-them.  He has stated previously that authentic presence and compassionate listening are healing and supportive of people’s transition in both the challenges of living and of the dying process.  He asserts that none of us is perfect but that we can bring our whole self to whatever we are experiencing – leaving no part of our self out of the interaction.
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things – we can find a place to rest amidst the turmoil and tenuousness of life and despite overwhelming emotions that beset us.  The “place of rest” could be a breathing exercise, a ritual, mindfulness practice or reconnecting with nature.  Finding such a “place” is critical as a self-care approach for healthcare professional, particularly in these challenging times. Rheanna Hoffmann, who volunteered to work in the Emergency Department of a New York Hospital during the height of the Coronavirus, stated that this principle, explained in Franks’ book, helped her deal with the exhaustion, grief and overwhelm she experienced in helping suffering and dying patients while working under unimaginably difficult conditions. Frank also recounts the story of how he helped a woman to find a place of rest who was dying and experiencing extreme difficulty breathing, a struggle to breathe exacerbated by fear.  He asked her, “Would you like to struggle a little less?”  He then helped her to put her attention to the gap/pause in her breathing and began to pace her by breathing in and out with her.  He reports that “fear left her face” and she died peacefully.  Frank pointed out that none of the conditions had changed for her (including difficulty with breathing), only her relationship to her experience of dying.
  5. Cultivate a don’t know mind – this is not designed to encourage ignorance.  Frank quoted a Zen saying, “Ignorance is not just ‘not knowing something’ but the right thing”.  Ignorance is knowing the wrong thing and insisting on its truth and universality.  The principle is not about accumulating information (the “what”) but cultivating a mind that is “open, receptive and full of wonder” – a mind that is curious and pursues the truth and understanding in everything.  Frank suggested that we should talk with our children about death and, in the process, learn from them (not tell them).  He recounts his experience as a Director of a pre-school when he organised for the children involved to go and collect dead things in the woods nearby.  He marvels at the insight of the children and their perceptiveness.  They had been discussing the theme of endings becoming beginnings, e.g. a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, when a four-year old girl said, “I think the leaves on the trees are very, very generous – they fall and make room for new leaves”.  Frank maintains that a “don’t know mind” is fluid and flexible and “infused with a deep interest to know” and to know what is true right now.

Reflection

Frank’s approach to fully facing all that life presents (both discomfort and joy) is in alignment with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s concept of Full Catastrophe Living and Frank’s personal process for handling his grief accords with Deepak Chopra’s recommendation that we adopt a ritual to symbolise our release from the stranglehold of grief.

Frank epitomises in his life and work what he advocates through his talks and video podcasts.  He pursues a life that is meaningful and purposeful.  For example, in addition to his book and public presentations sharing his knowledge and experience of the dying process and its lessons, he has established a creative approach to educating end-of-life carers through the Metta Institute.  His words and actions manifest a life of integrity, compassion and wisdom.

Steve Heilig, the person who interviewed Frank in one of the video podcasts mentioned above, has also found a way to live a life full of meaning and purpose.  One of his many mindfulness endeavours has been to collect resources and permissions from leading mindfulness practitioners, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, to enable him to provide a free, 8-week, online course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

As we grow in mindfulness, by employing the five principles that Frank espouses, we can live our lives more fully and expansively and truly aligned to our energy and purpose.  We can find our expansiveness and spaciousness which Frank evidenced with people who were dying – their capacity to find the personal resources to face their fear and death despite their belief that the challenge was beyond them.   We can also become a calming presence to others who are experiencing difficulties as we progressively overcome our own reactivity. If we develop the discipline of the daily practice of meditation, we can live in the light of the lessons of dying and death.

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Image by mostafa meraji 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.

Understanding Death and the Process of Dying

Rheanna Hoffmann recently interviewed Frank Ostaseski on healing grief through compassion and love.  Frank founded the Metta Institute whose mission is to provide innovative educational approaches to developing skills in “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.  Rheanna herself is the founder of The Whole Practitioner, dedicated to helping nurses move beyond frustration and burnout to “rediscover, health, balance and their core values”.

Frank and many other writers on the process of dying maintain that it is not just a medical event but is much broader and more holistic than this form of the mechanical model.  Increasingly, research is confirming too that consciousness is more than our physical brains.  Frank argues that the unwillingness in our culture to talk about death and the dying process is preventing us from learning the lessons that the dying can teach us and our children.  He contends that if we learn about the dying process and face the reality of our inevitable death, we can better appreciate the “preciousness of life” and live our lives more fully and in alignment with our values and purpose.

The process of dying

Frank describes dying as a process of “stripping away”.  It’s as if everything that is associated with our “ego” – our sense of self – is peeled away.  Undoubtedly, our mental and physical capacities decline, and this begins with the aging process.  But the stripping away is much more than that – it is losing attachment to everything including our spouse or partner, our home, our roles, our possessions, and the animals in our life.  Frank also talks about dying as a “sacred process of transformation” through which we see things in a new light, have a deeper understanding of the meaning of life and the value and true purpose of our own life – in other words “an awakening”, no longer limited by our concept of a “small separate self”.

Peter Fenwick, when talking about What Really Happens When We Die, suggests that the more we hold on to our ego needs and refuse to let go, the more difficult is the dying process.  Living our life in a selfless way – not totally self-centred — makes the process of dying easier because we are not absorbed in holding on to our attachments.  Being “other-centred” in the pre-transition phase of our life makes dying easier and enables the final transformation that Peter describes as entering a “spiritual domain” where you lose your identity as a separate self and become identified with the total cosmos – the universal whole.

Peter discusses the change in our level of consciousness in the light of research into Near Death Experience (NDE).  He maintains that consciousness research focused around NDE experiences confirm a “widening of consciousness” that manifests in:

  • Losing the self-narrative – the self-talk that we employ to boost or deflate our egos
  • Being just in the moment – not absorbed in the past or anxious about the future
  • Experiencing “unbelievable” happiness
  • Tending to be transcendent – losing a sense of duality (our self and others) and becoming merged with the cosmos.

Peter has co-authored The Art of Dying with Elizabeth Fenwick which provides personal accounts from those who have been dying and people (healthcare professionals, carers and family) who have been with them and supported them in the process of dying.   The accounts discussed, as well as other research into NDE experiences, confirm that consciousness is much more than our physical brains.  Monica Renz, author of Dying: A Transition, provides a process-oriented approach to end-of-life patient care that incorporates confirming the dignity of the patient, understanding the transition process of dying and being able to sensitively engage in the symbolic journey described by dying patients.  Her observations and detailed accounts are based on attending 1,000 cancer patients during the process of dying.  Monica describes the dying process as both an archetypal and a spiritual process and contends that, in the process of transition, patients move through fear into a “space of peace, acceptance, dignity and tranquillity characterised by connectedness and even luminosity”.

Reflection

Our cultural blinkers blind us to the reality of the dying process and the nature of our own inevitable death.  As we become more aware of the dying process through our own research and study, we can learn to appreciate how precarious our life is and how precious is the process of both living and dying.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditating on death and reflecting on its implications for how we live our life, we can progressively come into more alignment with our life force, our values and our life purpose.

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Image by Hans Braxmeier 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.

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.