Completely Rethinking the Inevitable
Mindfully Understanding Dying and Death, Grieving and Mourning
On this page of Deep Dharma you will find Carl’s observations (with some input from Andy) and practice suggestions in contemplating and dealing with death and dying. Or: Carl’s riffs on death and dying, DeepDharma-style!
In Western cultures, it is believed that death is a terrible and justifiably terrifying event. And there is a considerable body of literature which assumes we should suffer around dying and death. Amazingly, this formidable body of literature seems not to point in any one direction!
Not only is there this intellectual understanding of the event, but theories of emotional stages have been developed and ingrained into our pastoral, academic, and medical communities to verify the horror around death, further distorting the way we perceive dying and death
In contrast, we see examples in other cultures, particularly non-Western cultures, where death is simply a natural event, a part of family life in which a burial takes place. Not insignificant, but not terrifying. Sometimes death is seen as so natural a part of life that there is almost no suffering or ceremony involved–a burial with very limited grieving and virtually no mourning. An example is the Air Funeral tradition of Mongolia. A Mongolian nomad explained to a visiting American that when his grandmother died (she had reared him from childhood and they shared the same yurt their entire lives), he simply rode out into a desert with her naked corpse, laid her on the ground, and rode back to his tent to have dinner with the family. The air had given her to us and now she was returning to the air, the completion of a natural cycle.
As Buddhists, we can relate to this other option. Indeed, to view death as a natural (dare I say: an ordinary) event rather than painful aberration, is a central point of Buddhism.
Mustard seed story: An ancient Buddhist story tells of how the Buddha helped a bereaved woman accept the reality of her child’s death. The woman’s child died not long after it could walk, and in a distressed state the woman wandered the streets for days with the child in her arms asking everyone for a medicine to save her child. When she approached the Buddha he told her that he knew of a medicine to help her but first she had to collect a handful of mustard seeds, one each from a house that had not seen death. As she went from house to house unable to collect the seeds she realized that death, in general and the death of her child in particular, was a natural part of life. Through insight she discarded her irrational behavior.
The mustard seed story reaches to the heart of a mindfulness-based approach to dying and death, grieving and mourning: seeing clearly, responding appropriately, and discarding our wrong and painful, irrational views of reality–thinking that the natural is somehow an aberration, that change is inherently difficult.
Let’s look at another story. In a conversation with a family, who were exploring some of the broader and deeper concepts of a mindfulness practice and how they could incorporate them into their lives, I suggested I could prove to the two teenage girls in the family that their parents did not care if they died. They all agreed; a little disbelieving but open-minded. Here’s what I said to the parents:
If your children died peacefully in their sleep at the age of 95, having lived long, healthy and happy lives and having had the joy of seeing their grandchildren graduation from college and become successful, would this be a problem for you? “No” both parents replied emphatically.
“So,” I said: “You don’t care if your children die, as long as (1) they do it on your schedule and (2) they do it in a way you approve of.”
In a class a few days after Joan Rivers died, one student said, “She died before her time.” Another student, a physician, chimed in, “No she didn’t; she died when her heart stopped!” It seems we can develop post mortem death schedules for people we don’t even know and in doing so, make ourselves unnecessarily uncomfortable with their deaths too. Hmmm…this needs to be rethought.
The demand that we and those close to us, and even those we don’t know, die on our schedule in a way we approve of, is the antithesis of what a mindfulness and meditation practice teaches us. This unnecessarily makes death into a painful existential issue that causes us to suffer, sometimes for years, about a perfectly natural phenomenon.
In a sentence, mindfulness and meditation teach us to see change (impermanence) as the natural order of things. As mindfulness and meditation become increasingly popular, it becomes important to include them as a springboard for understanding and dealing with dying and death.
A simple shift in how we view, and openness in how we communicate about death and the world, can minimize, reduce, even virtually end these “issues” and the attendant suffering deemed so necessary and inherent in them. Dying and death, grieving and mourning, generally are thought of as involving a range of difficult and painful choices and adjustments that vary from simple to extremely complex. These often include, for example, practical, psychosocial, spiritual, moral or ethical, existential, legal, material, ethical or medical issues. Even simple decisions can become complex when family members with conflicting views become involved. For the most part, this need not be.
Instead of creating suffering around death, as the dharma teaches, it is possible to shift one’s view so that death becomes a natural event, much like the understanding the Mongolian guide holds. Traditionally, the change occurs with two kinds of practices: contemplative and mindfulness meditations, and intellectual scrutiny. Hopefully, the information below will open the door for you to these two practices and lead you to a calm and peacefulness with dying and death, be it yours or that of those you love and know.
“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”
It’s not a koan, but the title of an HBO documentary featuring
Mel Brooks, Norman Lear and Carl Reiner (all nonagenarians)
The How-To Section
Contemplative Mindfulness of Death Meditation
Consider through contemplative meditation (sit in a meditative position, take a few deep breaths and settle yourself, and focus you mind on each of the following, analyzing and exploring them with concentrated attention looking for deeper and deeper insights into their meaning in the context of your life:
- the fragility of life,
- the certainty of death,
- the uncertainty of its timing,
- its many causes,
- proportionately its very few nourishments
- death is just a change in conditions, a natural part of life, not a difficult aberration
until your mind is undisturbed by the thought of death.
Death Is Two-Sided
A fundamental feature of death that is rarely discussed, but which is key to understanding it from a Buddhist perspective, is its two-sidedness. There is the person who dies and there are the survivors, the bereaved. Statements like this one from an adult child who was viewing her mother in the casket the day before the public viewing said: “We need to change the dress. She wouldn’t want to be buried in that dress.” Knowing the thoughts of dead people and believing they need to be fulfilled is a common mistake in dealing with death that has lost sight of this as a mindfulness-needing event and is about us not them. Not realizing that we have made the event totally about us, not the deceased, is a seriously problematic delusion.
Well before one is dying, choices about the desired degree of family involvement in caregiving and decision-making, legal decisions about wills, advanced directives, a durable power of attorney, and the like can be made. An estate plan could be in place, and could be frequently reviewed and revised as conditions in one’s life change. The tendency, for those do who have a well-structured and planned estate, is to make it and consider it done; not to review it and revise it as conditions change.
Just as we plan for any big life event, we should have plans in place for dying and death, and they should be current and updated. The pragmatist in me likes to think that estate planning is on or near the top of everyone’s to-do list, but I know better. I know life happens to us and flooded basements, shifting work conditions, children’s dance recitals and baseball schedules can keep us so constantly on the go that estate planning and revising easily falls to the bottom of the list. From a Buddhist perspective, it needs to be at the top.
Change as the Natural Order
Practical issues aside, dying peacefully means shifting our view of the world. Although sometimes death feels so threatening that we would rather suffer than explore a new option, mindfulness tells us that a shift in how we understand this event is essential to a peaceful life and death. It’s helpful to note that our minds are not always as rational as they present themselves to be, especially around death in the West, and our doctors are not always allies in establishing a peaceful death.
After a lecture at a local nonprofit (a Cancer Wellness Center) on living peacefully with a terminal illness, one woman said to me, “I know everything you said was true; I just can’t believe it.” Information outside our ken, especially on subject like death, can be very difficult to even consider no less accept and act upon.
Most important is that we develop a world view, a mindful approach to life, where change (another way of saying dying and death) is not a personal problem.
A mindful approach to death, as a new way of seeing the world, is being suggested here as a possibility. This new view (which really isn’t new, it is 2500 years old) says we examine the condition clearly and make decisions from that level of data–not from an old narrative or from a doctor or medical community or even our friends that reify or even anthropomorphize an illness like cancer, talking about it as though it were a being making war on us, and telling us “to fight.” Respirators and feeding tubes, which will never be removed, are not patient-centered, not concerned with the well-being of the person and their family, but are disease-centered, stop-change centered, and often include a component of income-centeredness on the part of the doctor or the medical facility or both. “Don’t leave money on the table,” a mentality that unfortunately seems present in the U.S. healthcare system.
Metamorphoses, the early first century Roman narrative poem by Ovid, recounts stories from Greek and Roman mythology and is a seminal literary work in Western culture. Metamorphoses inspired such authors as Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, to name just a few. It is the main source for Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. Its fundamental theme? Change is the natural order of things. Whether we are seeing it through the eyes of a donkey in Metamorphoses or just using common sense to think about it, recognizing change as the natural order is the course to ending our suffering around dying and death, grieving and mourning (and everything else, but that is for another articles).
One man, with whom I worked, made a shift in his thinking just two months before he died. Having battled and fought cancer painfully for years, refusing to accept death as a possibility, when all of the treatments had failed, we talked and he decided to get off the battlefield and leave one final lesson for his family and friends: to show them that one could die with a warm, open and peaceful heart. That new goal became the focus of the last weeks of his life.
On the other hand, an eighty-year-old man was brought to me by his daughter; they were both distraught. He was in the end stages of liver cancer. Medical options had been exhausted. The daughter wanted to save him; he adamantly and stubbornly didn’t want to die. He told me he had seen a rabbi who told him to visualize massaging the cancer out of his liver. When that didn’t seem to cure him, he went to a priest who told him to visualize the cancer being washed out of him by taking long showers. I gently explained that I didn’t have a spiritual cure for cancer, but could coach him in better ways to die peacefully and gracefully.
He said that was not what he came for and wasn’t interested. He left in a huff with his daughter apologetically trailing behind. I never saw him again. For some, the existential angst is so strong it overrides reason and logic. Stage 4 liver cancer that has metastasized throughout the body doesn’t wash away in the shower!
Further, if one truly believed that change is a natural phenomenon, not a personal problem, then one would not only make every moment of one’s life count, make each moment of one’s life be meaningful, but one would bring each action and interaction and event to a peaceful closure because of the recognition that each moment is a rebirth and a death.
Don’t Make the Death About You
If we think of ourselves as neuro-processors, which is a useful perspective here, then we see that we absorb information through our senses and our brain processes it into thoughts that tell us how to behave. The problem is that the brain seriously distorts the information in the processing. First, it makes Me the center of every event (even someone else’s dying); second, it leads us to believe that everything it tells us is true. Yes, the brain emphasizes my understanding that this is being done to me – silly, isn’t it, when we realize we hear ourselves saying to ourselves that people die to hurt us or inconvenience us, no matter how illogical or unreasonable that may be; and it establishes interpersonal relationships between me and inanimate objects–a corpse, for example, remains “my mother.” This deluded perspective is an unnecessary source of suffering over a death.
Responding to Conditions
A common course of action when death is near is to fulfill the dying person’s wishes. We hope that they will have participated in decisions about how to live and die. Within reason, these should be respected. If the dying individual has not been able to participate in formulating final plans, the usual recommendation is that you should strive to do what this person would want. That is standard end of life, palliative care philosophy, but it may not be sound. More important is that the primary course of action taken be appropriate; that conditions be mindfully assessed and used as determinant. The best course of action may not be what the dead person wanted.
Consider the 50-year-old man who tells his wife he wants to die at home. So, a handicapped ramp is built at the front door, the living room furniture is removed and a hospital bed is set up where the sofa had been. The house becomes a mini-hospital, and day after day for weeks and then months, his three teenage children watch as doctors and nurses and various therapists come and go, and eventually they begin to hope for their father’s death. The guilt and anger eventually surfaces and turns into battles with Mom. The kitchen became a visitors’ hangout and candy and cake buffet, the kids hated having to mix with all the family friends just to get a snack or a meal. Ultimately, the father died and soon thereafter, all three kids began to exhibit manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dad’s desire to die at home had a devastating effect on the family.
I listened to a minister talk to a man dying of AIDS. The man had been a generous donor and important member in the church and there were frequent ministerial visits. At each visit it seemed the dying man wanted to change the hymn and order of his memorial service. The minister always agreed. When I asked about it, the minister said: “We’re going to do the service as it was originally planned, when the congregant was fully cognizant. There is no reason to change that.” He was not being insensitive; he was responding to conditions, being appropriate with a congregant who was developing dementia.
I watched a woman dying of cancer who was in considerable pain. The husband had refused the repeated suggestions of the hospice caregivers, and even the wife herself, that she receive more morphine for the pain. That was unexpected as the wife was in considerable pain and I had always known the husband as sensitive and compassionate, and you could see his suffering at watching his wife. As I listened to the bedside family discussions, I heard one of the children say: “More morphine will speed up her death and we need to give God all the time He wants to save her.” So, the desires of the kids aren’t necessarily appropriate either.
Someone else’s death should never be made a cause celebre for us to validate ourselves. We need to look at the conditions clearly, including the wishes of the person dying if they are known and appropriate, and act mindfully from what those conditions are telling us. But we should neither blindly follow them nor blindly ignore them in favor of a personal self-centered belief or a “promise” to the deceased.
As long as we assume that others die to do something to us (He left me), as long as we assume that death is an aberration (She died before her time), recovering from the death of someone close will be profoundly and unnecessarily difficult.
Stages of Grieving, the Unexamined Assumptions
When bright people observe behavior, they often describe it in ways that appear, at least until scrutinized, to be true. This is certainly the case with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory that there are five emotion stages experienced by survivors of the death of someone close. Her five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While this model is often discussed as though the general public has bought into it, and is taught in academic and medical practice settings, on close examination there is no evidence to support Kubler-Ross’s idea.
Theories involving stages of grieving abound by leaders in this field: Parkes suggests four stages of grief: shock and numbness, yearning and searching, despair and disorganization, and reorganization and recovery, while Averill three: shock, despair and recovery. Worden, on the other hand, encourages a more active approach by specifying various tasks that must be accomplished before grief can be resolved. The four tasks that Worden claims are necessary are: Task 1, accept the reality of the loss; Task 2, experience the pain of the grief; Task 3, adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing; Task 4, withdraw emotional energy from the deceased and reinvest it in other social activity without uncertainty or guilt. And it goes on: Shuchter and Zisook suggest a ten-category model, each category with one, two or three stages. All of these “systems” are purely speculative, and are simply self-reinforcing by being taught and accepted.
There are many other speculations about death that are unhelpful to one who is seeking to live and die peacefully. Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, for example, sees the world as a place where we must deny and bury our “terror of dying” in our unconscious. He sees all human conflicts in terms of “terrifying” life and death struggles. Really? Humanity is defined by to its inherent drive to deny its mortality? That’s a thought the New York Times called “destined to endure,” from a book that won the Pulitzer Prize.
A mindfulness and meditation practice makes that all sound like nonsense. First, there is the inherent part, which even Becker says is questionable, and then his intriguing ideas are predicated on uniting psychoanalysis (do we really believe in the 21st century we are driven by an Oedipus Complex and our anal upbringing?) Had he looked more closely, he would have seen that there was another non-Western approach to death and dying that did not require his kind of duality and conflict.
While some of Becker’s ideas and the stages-concepts occasionally may be useful in therapeutic situations, to a mindfulness practitioner they fundamentally miss the point. Internally, for all of us there are always other options for grieving and mourning that are not included in these models, although Shuchter and Zisook certainly try to include everything, burdensomely so. None of this is necessary if mindfulness and meditation, particularly around change and impermanence, are the ground of one’s worldview.
Shockingly, none of these speculators on dying and death, grieving and mourning seem to have looked at how their minds work or they would have seen these speculations are Disney-like fantasies.
We’ve Got It Backwards: It’s Not a Terror of Dying; It’s a Proclivity for Existence.
Natural selection, or just common sense, tells us that we need to understand ourselves and our world in a consistent way. The single most important thing mindfulness and meditation tells us is that we process all the information we get through our thoughts and senses in a way that is consistent with what we already know. “A proclivity for becoming,” is an ancient Buddhist phrase for this. And we do this, and it is problematic on a big bang scale.
Key here is understanding that we create and recreate ourselves through telling ourselves consistent stories about who we are and what we are doing, and our “selves” are simply the accumulation of these past stories. What millennia of meditation have shown us is that we have a mental proclivity, an imperative in fact, to exist – and to exist in a way that is consistent with our previous understanding of ourselves. How our brain does this is by creating stories about who we are and what we are doing. Every fraction of a second there is a new story, a new understanding of who we are. The aggregation of all these decades and decades of stories is the who we perceive as our “self.” Unfortunately, there is no way to end the proclivity. To make up a story (or, more accurately, to perceive the fact) that I don’t exist is beyond cognitive dissonance. It is simply not possible for the brain to concoct a story that is inconsistent with us (Me) existing. The result of this evolutionary neuro hard wiring is that we create before-birth and after-death worlds and realms that ultimately causes more suffering than they alleviate!
Note common phrases like, “I was born on November 8th” imply that I existed before I was born; and “after I die” certainly does suggest that the Me I know now will be the Me after I am dead. This inability to be consistent with our idea of our existence is the problem, unless of course, we see change as the natural order and give up believing that there are beginnings and endings in the way we imagine them.
To resolve this dilemma, we need to learn to see the way things appear to our senses is deceptive and completely contradictory to the way in which they actually exist. And around issues of death and dying, we need to know how the brain’s proclivity for existence produces suffering in this life and even fantasizes it continuing in the next, whether in an Abrahamic heaven or hell or through punitive reincarnations in complex multilevel cosmologies of heavens and hells in Eastern spiritual systems.
The Two Big Bad Stories
As already mentioned, grieving and mourning arise from two specific stories we write about the dead person. First, that they did not did on my time schedule—they abandoned me. Second, that they did not die in a way I approve of. We know that death (change) is inevitable, and we know that natural forces causing death are unpredictable and uncontrollable, hence any surprise at a death only makes sense when we have accepted the self-imposed burden of expecting a certain course of life.
Common sense tells us that they are both silly and foolish. When a child dies, and I recognize that some of these deaths are horrific, we need to be careful and mindful not to become so overwhelmed by our affective impulse and attachment to our big bad stories that we develop post-traumatic stress which can take years and years to overcome.
Remembering the Dead
Contrary to what we have been and are being taught, meaning in life doesn’t arise from remembering those who have died, from objectifying a legacy. What we remember, after all, are just fictions about them embellished over time making them into whatever shape and form we want to remember them as. It is not about remembrance, that is far too unstable a place to settle ourselves. Meaning in life is found in understanding change as the nature of things, and mindfulness and meditation as practices which ground us in that concept.
Mindfulness and Meditation in the Context of Dying and Death
Todd Kashdan, in Psychology Today, wrote:
“Death can be terrifying. Recognizing that death is inescapable and unpredictable makes us incredibly vulnerable. This disrupts our instinct to remain a living, breathing organism. So what do we do? We try to manage this terror. Generally, when reminded of our mortality, when the potential to experience existential anxiety is heightened, we are extremely defensive. Like little kids who nearly suffocate under blanket protection to fend off the monster in the closet, the first thing we try to do is purge any death-related thoughts or feelings from our mind. We try to think about something else, stuff our face with Cheez Doodles, anything to gain some composure. Only one problem. Ever try to ignore a cockroach that skittered across the bedroom and return to sleep? Doesn’t work so well.”
Because avoiding the issue is ineffective, our death-related thoughts continue to infect us. But unfortunately, we often ignore that there is a mental virus pushing and pulling us around in all sorts of strange ways.
When we realize that there is no need for death to be perceived as a threat, we have begun to the process of finding a cure for the virus. The cure for this mental virus is mindfulness and mindfulness.
Mindful awareness, as it is becoming understood in Western thought, is generally described as open, present and non-judgmental. This means giving yourself over fully: being present with an undemanding, open heart and mind: curious, exploring without either an affinity or an aversion to the conditions, and doing this with empathy and wisdom. It is seeing the present moment as insubstantial and ever-changing, and it tells us that, whether we are living or to dying, this insubstantial instant suggests we make it meaningful with patience, compassion and generosity. This is also the adopting of a way of looking at the world wherein one sees change as the natural order.
A mindful outlook produces a peaceful realization that everything, from a blade of grass to universes, is impermanent–constantly arising, abiding and ceasing. Like us, everything is born, ages and dies.
A mindful outlook sees this ever-present change and impermanence as the natural order of things and does not make it into a static personal problem. This is the wisdom of a contemplative mindfulness practice. There are no regrets, no wishes for things to be other than what they are, no desire to somehow deny and change reality to better fit one’s narrative about how it should be. If something is awry, we simply fix it: when my hair gets long, I go to the barber, when the lab report indicates I have cancer, I go to the oncologist. No stories preceding one’s awareness of the conditions. With enough practice, we respond to a cancer diagnosis the same as the need for a haircut. I have both. I know it works. And it is the same with dying and death.
Being that our brains feed us information that is reified, making everything appear solid and separate and autonomous, this idea that everything is always in flux is particularly difficult to understand. Developing a mindfulness meditation practice helps us over this hump. Further, mindfulness teaches us that beginnings and endings, as our brains tell us to perceive them, are an illusion.
A Quick, Dense, Philosophic Look at Death
The 3rd century Indian philosopher, Nagarjuna, is generally considered the single most important Buddhist philosopher–he is often referred to as the second Buddha. His major contribution was to explain emptiness, the most difficult of all Buddhist concepts to understand. In a nutshell, Nagarjuna wanted us to understand that nothing was permanent–everything was “empty of permanence.” His prove of this is irrefutably delineated in his seminal work, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. (See elsewhere on deepdharma.org for a detailed explanation of this work)
Most of us readily concede that life lacks permanence–of course everyone dies at some time. But Nagarjuna takes us much more deeply into understanding this so we won’t create narratives around death that cause us to suffer. He explains that, everything lacking permanence, there cannot be beginnings and endings as those are, by definition, set start and stop points in time and space. On a practical level perhaps we can say someone is born and someone dies, but not on the deeper level of understanding of the natural order of things where there is no permanent, separate beginning or ending to anything, just interconnectedness and flow.
Death as a Characteristic – There Are No Characteristics
In his Twelve Gate Treatise, Nagarjuna is very clear about another aspect that begs to be applied here. He says there are no characteristics. There are not autonomous or inherent qualities to people or things. Death certainly is the most emphatic of characteristics, and certainly seems permanent. Still, it is a false perception of what is. Ultimately what is is beginningless and endless change. And too, saying someone is dead is attributing a characteristic to a non-entity, which makes no sense.
Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha
The Japanese tell a story about the great 8th century Buddhist monk, Master Ma-tzu. Once a man of great physical presence and prowess, he is lying quietly, old, sick and about to die. His attendant enters and asks, “How are you feeling?”
While this is always an inappropriate question for someone on his or her deathbed, Master Ma says, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”
In Buddhist mythology, the Sun-faced Buddha lives for eighteen hundred years in brightness and good health; the Moon-faced Buddha lives only one night, in darkness and ill-health.
Master Ma uses his final moments of life to teach his student that whether one is “sick” or “healthy” is just a label and is unimportant. How we live that final moment is what counts.
All one does, his answer suggests, regardless of the conditions, regardless of whether one is feeling like a Sun-faced Buddha or a Moon-faced Buddha, regardless of what our diagnosis or prognosis or no-nosis is at all, all one does is look at the morning and go forth completely mindful, with an open, curious, and accepting mind, mindful of conditions as they arise from moment to moment and responding appropriately.
To live this way, to be peaceful in the face of the unwanted, to be peaceful when “perceived injustices” arise, we must learn to be honest with ourselves and to see things as they really are.
“As they really are” means that, regardless of the label, we simply respond appropriately, without anxiety or stress, instead with patience, compassion and generosity. Being able to do this requires understanding and meditation. That will lead you to a very clear and powerful engagement with every moment, with a sense of awe and wonder that arises from within at just being alive. Nothing is richer or more powerful than to be able to say, from deep inside yourself, with a big smile, “I am here, I am right now-with judgements, without expectations.
Forest Dwelling, An Elegant Endgame
This is the very short final chapter in Wendy Doniger’s insightful and personal book, On Hinduism, which became unexpectedly notorious when it was declared heretical by the Indian government and sales were banned in India.
In the midst of the great city of Chicago, I live as a forest-dweller. Forest dwelling is where I am now in my life, and I am satisfied–or, more precisely, grateful-to be there.
Ancient Hindu texts wisely divide life into three basic stages: in the first, you study; in the second, you marry and become a householder; and in the third, you go and live in the forest. (It has similarly been said about dogs that in the first stage, they play; in the second, they eat; and in
the third, they sleep). The Hindu texts say that when you see your first grey hairs, or your grandchildren, it is time to take your wife or husband and head for the forest, where you live simply but not grimly, and have time to think about things. (Some texts also suggest a fourth stage, of total renunciation, all by yourself, but I am, like most Hindus, temperamentally ill equipped for that sort of thing.)
Forest dwelling is not necessarily retirement; it is more a state of mind than a plan of action. It is the time in which things do not matter in the same way they did when we were younger, the time when we achieve the attitude prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘action without ambition’ (nishkama karma). I still teach and write as I have done for over forty years, more than ever, in fact, but without the all-consuming hunger for achievement that drove me for so many years. At last I am content with where I am in my life. Race horses usually keep on running after they pass the finish line, no longer running for the prize, nor running quite so hard, running just for the sheer joy of running. I feel like that sort of horse.
I’ve done most of the things I wanted to do, and I no longer want or need to do them again; I take satisfaction in having done them. I lived for a year in India, for a year in Moscow (during the Cold War!), for ten years in England, other places, too. But I am always happy to come home to my dog. Some years ago, I gave up riding Arabian horses, as I had given up ballet dancing many years before that. For each thing, its season.
I’m not ready to die yet. I still have wonderful students whom I want to see through the final writing of their dissertations, and to guide into their first jobs. There are still a number of books I want to write (a memoir of my mother, perhaps my own memoir) or rewrite (my novel, of which little but the title has survived massive revisions, but it’s a good title: Horses for Lovers, Dogs for Husbands) or write about (the ancient Indian textbook of politics, the Arthashastra) or finish (my half-completed book on the cross-cultural mythology of women and their jewelry). There are still places I’d like to visit-see the penguins in Antarctica, the fjords of Norway, visit Shirnla, go back to the west coast of Ireland–novels I want to read, films I want to see, music I want to listen to. But there’s something satisfying in the knowledge that, if I were to die today, no one could possibly say of me, ‘Tragically struck down in her youth, so much promise unfulfilled.’ There’s something liberating about living on borrowed time.
There are of course things about aging that I don’t enjoy. I hate it when various parts of my body stubbornly refuse to do their jobs. And it irks me that some of the younger generation of scholars in my field regard my work as vieux jeu; somehow I went to bed one night an enfant terrible and woke up an old fuddy-duddy. Yet I would not for a minute change places with those young scholars, who must make their way with such caution, afraid that, if they say the wrong things, make the wrong enemies at this point, they might be kicked out, denied tenure, their careers blighted. I can say, and write, whatever I really think, one of the privileges of an eminence grise (or old fuddy-duddy).
Best of all, I have finally discovered the pleasures of solitude, of sitting on the deck of a house overlooking a freshwater marsh in Cape Cod, with the waves streaming in onto the beach of the Bay beyond, just sitting there, listening to the wind in the trees, looking at the sky, at the water, watching the red-tailed hawks cruising, and the otter making his way up the river, and the doe with her fawn coming to the bank of the river to drink. This, too, is my forest-dwelling.
Whether we are discussing the life and death of a person or the beginning and end of a bowl of candy or of the universe, we notice, using Nagarjuna’s reasoning, that beginnings and endings, starting points or initiating moments and final points or last moments, only exist as conventional understandings, and even as such are logically indefensible fictions or perspectives. Because the middle path leaves us without a belief in permanent beginnings and endings, all our confusion about birth, and death drops off, leaving us dramatically and emphatically more peaceful than had we had a more traditional Abrahamic or purely secular understanding of death. So death, or birth and death, is just a useful conventional story, nothing more, and certainly nothing to attach to, either in us or in others. Understanding the meaning of death leads directly to a more meaningful life and provides a pathway to lessen our suffering.
Tibetan Meditation on Death
Consider contemplating this classic Tibetan death meditation, not to learn more about death, but to learn more about how to live a happy, healthy, beneficial life. Start with Root One, Point One. Arrange yourself comfortably in a sitting meditation position, chair or cushion, your choice, then read point one aloud several times. Close your eyes, take 10 long slow breaths, then begin thinking about what this first point means, what it tells you about yourself and how you live and how to relate to others; what it means in the big picture, in the small picture, how it might be understand in terms of the meaning of life, and so on. Contemplate it in this way for three or four minutes (you can use a timer), and then move on to the second, and then third points, contemplating each in the same way.
Repeat each day for a week, then do Root Two for the next week, and finally contemplate Root Three each day on the third week. Repeat the cycle through all three roots and nine points every few months until you feel you have deeply penetrated its meaning to you in your life. (See Contemplative Meditations for further contemplation instructions.)
Three Root Meditation on Death
Root One: Death is Certain
- There is no possible way to escape death. No one ever has. Of the current world population of over 7 billion people, virtually none will be alive in 100 years’ time.
- Life has a definite limit. And although it is not defined, each moment brings us closer to death. We are dying from the moment we are born.
- Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates us from the next life is one breath.
First Conviction: To practice the spiritual path, to cultivate positive, wholesome mental qualities and abandon unwholesome, negative mental qualities.
Root Two: The Time of Death is Uncertain
- The duration of our life is uncertain. The young can die before the old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
- There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that favor the sustenance of life. Even things that sustain life can kill us.
- The weakness and fragility of one’s physical body contribute to life’s uncertainty. The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident.
Second Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay; to practice being beneficial in every moment as though it were our last.
Root Three: The Only Thing That Can Help Us At The Time of Death Is Our Mental/Spiritual Development
- Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can’t stop death
- Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with or for us.
- Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.
Third Conviction: To work with great diligence on purifying body, speech and mind, without staining our efforts with attachment to worldly things and concerns.