The topic of birth and death have been very much a part of my practice and as emphasized by so many teachers who have interpreted the teachings of the Buddha: this is a pathway to awakening and to liberation.
I have had the opportunity to participate in workshops, lectures, read books and articles, hear dharma talks, sit in guided meditations, as well as our own discussions which have repeatedly focussed on these very challenging, but omnipresent topics. There is no escaping either their impact on our psyche or on the day to day unfolding of each and every one of our lives.
The very fact that Maureen’s life was so dramatically effected by the passing of her friend, that she chose death as a topic to offer for our last evening together, is another example of how death is our constant companion in life, even though most of us live lives that do not usually acknowledge this truth. The poetry and readings Maureen chose to support her topic were thoughtful and thought provoking and lead to some rich insights. The story about the Buddha questioning his monks about the frequency of their contemplating death was worth revisiting………. the first monk states, “every sunrise.” “Not good enough” replies the Buddha…..the second monk states, “every time I sit to meditate.” “Not good enough” replies the Buddha…………. No, you must contemplate death with every breath you take.
This goes back to the teaching that “we are born and die in every moment.” This is not some kind of metaphor for the spiritual life, but rather a statement of cold hard scientific fact. Life is impermanent, the universe is impermanent. Everything in existence form the tiniest sub-atomic particles to entire galaxies are in constant flux. Our physical bodies are made up of trillions of cells, with millions of them being created and dying off every second. We are quite literally being born and dying, you might say, in every moment. And it is death itself that supports life. We can see this clearly expressed in nature when we see that it is the death of plants and animals that sustains the life of whatever is eating it.
When we think of our lives as humans and coincidentally as medatators the breath is the foundation. When we are born into this life the inbreath is our first act as we exit the womb and the outbreath will be our last as we complete our journey in this particular form. It is often suggested in meditation instructions for breath awareness: to think of each inbreath “as if were our first” and look at each out breath “as if it were our last” to become intimate with this fundamental process of life as it expresses itself through our beings. Larry Rosenberg expands our understanding with his instructions to receive each new inbreath (as our bodies take in what is needed to sustain life) and to observe the letting go and passing away of each outbreath (as our bodies expel waste), thereby making room for the following inbreath. So, here again, it is the passing away that creates the space for the new life to manifest.
Even though each of us is aware of our mortality, on some level, it seems that our fear of the circumstances surrounding our death and what will follow (basically the unknown), have traditionally been an area of great suffering for the human race. And not without good reason. We have come to associate death with pain, loss, heartache, loneliness, isolation, and a whole raft of other negative emotions. Little surprise, that there aren’t long line-ups at funeral homes for folks wanting to sign up. Nope, we come from the other team where, folks do just about anything to keep that topic as far away as possible. You know: avoidance, denial, hiding our heads in the sand, with a sort of “I’ll deal with that when I have to” approach, as if somehow hoping that if we don’t think about it, it will go away!
This is where I found some of the comments from the other night quite revealing and helpful too. This is scary stuff, difficult stuff, but ultimately rich in food for our “dharma souls.”
Jack’s offering the Ram Das quote “comparing death, to running around all day with a shoe that was too tight and what it would feel like to come home and finally remove the shoe,” was just beautiful. Can you imagine! total liberation, an end to suffering. What if that were true?
And how about Ross’s lovely story of the old men at the pool? We see these fellows, through Ross’s eyes, having a grand old time. Loving every moment of life, kinda like every moment counted and was another opportunity for joy. How about that for a practice?
And I truly loved Maureen’s recollections about her friend that just passed away. She spoke of a woman whose life touched so many. A person whose actions were a result of her care and compassion for others, and whose lives, just as Maureen’s, were altered from that love. It sounded like the memorial was a celebration. As I watched Maureen speak, I did not feel a sense of sorrow as much as a deep sense of appreciation and respect. To me this was an example of the seeds this woman sowed during her lifetime, germinating, growing, and bearing fruit. Is this not a passing away and a rebirth as well?
We get so confused, don’t we? We think we are supposed to rush around accumulating stuff, accomplishing great things, “making hay while the sun shines,” as if some day they’ll give us some kind of award for bravery in the line of duty, maybe a congressional medal of honour, Nobel prize for peace, or they might put a statue up in the centre of town, or name a library after us. We’ve been fooled into thinking that we have to do something grandiose for it to be worthwhile. Yea, “I could teach a chimp to do that!!” So we run around with these deep rooted feelings of inferiority, if it didn’t come from our parents, it certainly came from our teachers, or our coaches, or our peers, the media, and our society. You remember, don’t you? Johnny is a good student, BUT!!! if he only……..
This is where I think Jack Kornfield’s practice for contemplating the time nearing death can be enormously helpful. He asks us to bring to mind two good deeds that we have done in our lives. To visualize them and really take notice of how the body feels and how these recollections effect us. When I first did this, the first thought I had, was an event that happened around 12 years ago and requires a bit of a story to explain:
When I was a kid my best friend’s father was a small town doctor. “Doc Demaree,” was old school, he had an office in town, he was the doctor for our schools, was on the football field at all home games, delivered over two thousand babies, did house calls, you know the drill… everyone knew “Doc.” He had six kids all a year apart so we were all in school and grew up together. Doc and Mom Demaree were very generous and loving and took in every “stray” kid that there sons and daughter brought home kinda like surrogate parents, for a whole crew of us. The Demaree house was a hangout. It certainly was my home away from home. I would manoeuvre my way over there on school nights and we wouldn’t do homework or go to sleep early, no, we’d play games and stay up and watch TV.
The next morning I woke up early and made a fruit salad and omelette’s at Pete’s because they had to get ready for the funeral that was for the immediate family only. We ate and Pete came up to me and said four words, “you’re a good friend.”
That’s it!!! That was the first thought I had for a good deed: making a simple breakfast. And if I understand it correctly, that’s pretty much what happens with most of us. What we remember is not necessarily some fantastic deed, but rather a simple act of love or caring. I believe that this is the power of this practice: to remind us that the meaning in this journey lies in small acts and maybe being a good friend is enough.
Thanks to Ross for the article by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thanks to all of you for your participation, input, and sharing. This gives me ample opportunity to explore the inner landscape each week and look forward to our coming together.
May we all find the necessary courage and receive the peace that this practice promises,
The following article by John O’Donohue reveals another perspective on this:
Humans have an uncanny ability to domesticate everything they touch. Eventually, even the strangest things become absorbed into the routine of the daily mind with its steady geographies of endurance, anxiety and contentment. Only seldom does the haze lift, and we glimpse for a second, the amazing plenitude of being here. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is suffering or threat that awakens us. It could happen that one evening, you are busy with many things, netted into your role and the phone rings. Someone you love is suddenly in the grip of an illness that could end their life within hours. It only takes a few seconds to receive that news. Yet, when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. All you know has just been rendered unsure and dangerous. You realise that the ground has turned into quicksand. Now it seems to you that even mountains are suspended on strings.
Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns. Now you realise how precious your time here is. You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language. You see through the rosters of expectation which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity. Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change. You want your work to become an expression of your gift. You want your relationship to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells. You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits.
CONTACT JohnODonohue.com regarding any permission requests for use of John’s work