Living and dying

How can we reflect on our own death in a way that helps deepen our understanding? Part of the answer is to look at our ageing selves from different angles.

There is a lot of wisdom in the pages of Atul Gawande’s non-fiction book, Being Mortal, some of which may help us to accept our mortality. Here is a small and (I think) relevant sample:

It turns out that inheritance has surprising little influence on longevity…If our genes explain less than we imagined, the classical wear-and-tear model may explain more than we knew. Leonid Gavrilov, a researcher at the University of Chicago, argues that human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually. As engineers have long recognized, simple devices typically do not age. They function reliably until a critical component fails, and the whole thing dies in an instant. A windup toy, for example, works smoothly until a gear rusts or a spring breaks, and then it doesn’t work at all. But complex systems – power plants, say – have to survive and function despite having thousands of critical, potentially fragile components. Engineers therefore design these machines with multiple layers of redundancy: with backup systems and backup systems for the backup systems. The backups may not be as efficient as the first-line components, but they allow the machine to keep going even as damage accumulates. Gavrilov argues that, within the parameters established by our genes, that’s exactly how human beings appear to work.
…Nonetheless, as the defects in a complex system increase, the time comes when just one more defect is enough to impair the whole, resulting in the condition known as frailty. It happens to power plants, cars, and large organisations. And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.
…I asked Silverstone whether gerontologists have discerned any particular, reproducible pathway to ageing. “No,” he said. “We just fall apart.”

We can shift gears from fretting about ourselves to seeing that we are like everyone else, and that all of us are ageing all the time. Barring an accident, we are likely to die of either a specific disease or the gradual accumulation of broken bits of the complex system that is our body. Modern medicine has extended the average lifespan significantly, but it hasn’t changed the essential functioning of our bodies. Eventually, we just fall apart, and this is not a crisis but the normal, unstoppable work of nature. Accepting this reality may allow us to relax, enjoy the days that we have, and give a thought to what’s most important right now.

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Our existential dilemma

“…the fear of death is rooted in an instinct for self-preservation that humans share with other species. Although we share this instinct with other species, only we are aware that death is inevitable…this combination of an instinctive drive for self-preservation with an awareness of the inevitability of death creates the potential for terror.”
Harmon-Jones et al 1997:24 – as quoted in a footnote in Perspectives on Satipattana by Ven. Analayo

This succinctly describes our existential dilemma. We know that we cannot live forever, that there was a time when we were not on the earth, and there will be a time again when we are not here. But our visceral fear of ego-death is often strong enough to block out that awareness. We spend untold energy pretending that our life will not end; that although everything around us is being born, decaying, dying and regenerating, somehow this doesn’t apply to us.

Nyer Grim Reaper cartoon

This cartoon from a recent New Yorker magazine made me laugh out loud. We train like mad to delay death (we hope), and we look over our shoulders to see if death is gaining on us. But no matter where we are, death is our close companion; it is the other side of life. Can we make peace with this companion?

By denying the fact of death (especially our own), we cut ourselves off from reality; we spend our time running away from that which can never be escaped. If we live in a distorted world where we continually seek pleasurable sensual experiences and look away from unpleasant realities, we may be inclined to behave in ways that are harmful, to ourselves and others.

One way to reduce or eliminate a terror of death is by widening our scope of concern while we live. It is possible to re-frame how we think of ourselves so that we are not the center of the world, but one locus of changing energy among billions of other, while recognizing that it’s only our own actions and reactions that we have the power to alter. This is, of course, a gradual process. It starts with taking others’ needs and hopes and fears as seriously as our own. Dukkha, the Buddha’s first noble truth, is not just about acknowledging our own feelings of pain or aversion, but seeing that our suffering is not unique; others suffer just as we do. The universality of our existential dilemma can open wide the door to compassion. It’s a start.

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Ordinary happiness

Before we dig deeper into death and how we relate to this reality, we ought to think about the happy feelings we regularly experience. Our days are made up of periods of positive and negative feeling. How clear is our awareness of joy?

A few excerpts from a lovely article by James Baraz, co-author of Awakening Joy:

Although I’m all for enjoying peak experiences when they arise, measuring that ideal against a moderate level of okayness can easily render this moment as “not good enough.”

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons starts off with a smiling Calvin saying, “Here I am happy and content.” In the next frame, he further reflects: “But not euphoric.” Third frame: “So I’m no longer content. My day is completely ruined.” Last frame: “I should have stopped thinking while I was ahead.”

…I recommend that one simply begins to notice moments of feeling okay. If you tend to have a life filled with intense drama, I often suggest being aware of moments when you’re not miserable. That’s a good start.

…As neuroscience expert Rick Hanson says: “The brain is like Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones.”

…So if you’re trying to cultivate genuine happiness within yourself, you might consider letting go of trying to experience a gusher of intensity. Awakening joy comes naturally from truly appreciating the simple moments of well-being in our lives.

The full article is here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-baraz/happiness-tips_b_6642432.html

The question we need to ask ourselves is: when we are happy, do we know it? How happy do we have to be before we can honestly say that we are well and contented? Can we identify in our experience a minimum “baseline” of happiness where the only criterion is that nothing in particular is wrong, no active pain or anxiety?

Often we float through our days, oblivious to our mind/feeling state unless something is extraordinarily awful or extraordinarily wonderful. How about all those less dramatic moments? Are we happy without realizing it?

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Practicing with illness

The Buddha’s references to illness cover the whole range, from a mosquito bite to a death rattle. The body is vulnerable to assaults from within and from outside; headaches, stomachaches, earaches, sore joints, stuffy noses, allergies, infections, stubbed toes, scraped knees, broken bones, problems with various internal organs, cancers, heart disease, and a long list of less common diseases.

Even the healthiest person we know is subject to the full range of physical problems. Chance, genetics, and (to some extent) lifestyle determine whether we get some illnesses or not, but no one, no one at all, is exempt. This is only bad news if we take it personally. All life forms suffer from parasites and disease; birds have fleas, plants have pests.

We can use our mildly inconvenient illnesses to train for larger ones to come. We can notice, when we have a cold, whether we consider ourselves unfairly singled out for punishment, or whether we can remember that everyone gets colds. Everyone has, at some time, suffered as we are now suffering; it’s just our turn. The choice before us is how we’ll respond; how will we adjust our activities and attitudes to accommodate this new, (usually) temporary reality? If we can develop openness and patience with passing conditions, we strengthen our ability to maintain mindfulness in more distressing situations, benefiting both ourselves and others.

People with chronic pain or a chronic illness have a special burden and a unique opportunity. By seeing illness as a teacher, we can go deeply into our own hearts. I refer you to Toni Bernhard’s excellent book, How to Be Sick. This path is not easy, but it can be fruitful.

And then there’s sickness that we know we’ll never recover from. This is an excerpt from a sermon called Love and Death, delivered in 2008 by UU minister Forrest Church:

How easily this tendency can kick in when we are dying. The once clear [window] pane of our health, which we rarely bothered admiring the view through when all was well with our bodies, goes dark, and we can see nothing beyond our sickness. With our nose pressed up against the
one frame we can see nothing through, all our other lights go out. We then invest our life’s remaining meaning in what may be impossible, namely beating our sickness. Nothing else matters…. What concerns me is this: Even as we do everything in our power to get healthy again, we may obsess so on our sickness that we lose appreciation for all those things in our life that we would dearly pray be returned to us if someone suddenly snatched them away. The lovingkindness of a spouse or partner. The care and concern of a parent or child. The joy of lifelong friends, whose friendship seems to blossom into full flower with the recognition that we may have precious little time to enjoy each other’s company.

Full sermon is here: http://www.allsoulsnyc2.org/publications/sermons/fcsermons/GA-2008-Love-and-Death.pdf

We start where we are. What do we know about our ailments, past and present, and how we view them?

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Illness is our birthright

From AN 5.57, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
Bhikkhus, there are these five themes that should often be reflected upon by a woman or a man, by a householder or one gone forth. What five? [second of the five]
(2) A woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’

and later

(2) And for the sake of what benefit should a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness’? In a state of health beings are intoxicated with their health, and when they are intoxicated with their health they engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon this theme, the intoxication with health is either completely abandoned or diminished. It is for the sake of this benefit that a woman or a man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus: ‘I am subject to illness; I am not exempt from illness.’

and later

(2) This noble disciple reflects thus: ‘I am not the only one who is subject to illness, not exempt from illness. All beings that come and go, that pass away and undergo rebirth, are subject to illness; none are exempt from illness.’ As he often reflects on this theme, the path is generated. He pursues this path, develops it, and cultivates it. As he does so, the fetters are entirely abandoned and the underlying tendencies are uprooted.

Moving on from the closely related subject of ageing, we come to a reflection on illness. When we are well, we could often be called “intoxicated” with health. We take the attitude that we are superior to those who are not healthy; we may pity them, if we think about them at all. It is hard, when we’re well, to remember having been ill. Likewise, when we’re ill, we fear the illness will never end; it becomes hard to recall how it felt to be healthy and strong.

For many of us, there is more fear associated with illness than there is with ageing or even death. Death seems remote until we’re right next to it; but sickness is an ever-present threat. This may be why we are so vulnerable to sellers of false remedies for sickness.

When a young person comes down with a serious illness, we are reminded that there is no justice in the world, at least on a scale that humans can make sense of. We don’t like acknowledging that sickness is just as much a part of our life story as birth and death are, and that it’s outside of our control. We cling to the delusion that we can keep ourselves safe from the dangers of nature, when the truth is that we can only control our own actions and reactions.

It came as a shock to me that everything, even trees (even our dear, 200-year-old elm tree), has a natural, finite lifespan. No part of nature escapes the “inconveniences” of ageing, becoming sick, and dying. We’re all in this together.

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Repairing our lives

Once we acknowledge that our time is limited, it becomes urgent that we bring ourselves to a state from which we’d be ready to exit this life. Some of us already feel that our lives are “in order”; we don’t have any crippling neuroses, disabling fears or dominant resentments. But for others, knowing that we may be in the final phase of life can bring our broken places into bold relief.

There are a number of reflections and exercises that Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi recommends in his book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing. One of them is re-framing past experience that we consider “bad”. What did we learn from those experiences or people? If we were forced off a path that we thought was certain, what happened instead? What did we discover? With the perspective of years or decades, how does that difficult or painful experience look now? Can we find anything positive that came out of it? Did we learn (at least) to accept that things were not as we thought they were? Did we develop self-reliance? Resilience? Perseverance? This way of thinking can free us from the burden of old resentments and self-pity. It may take some effort, but this reflection can help us escape mental ruts that keep us in unhappy states.

If we need help exorcising old demons, now’s the time to find appropriate therapeutic support. It could be a close friend, a clergy-person, a peer support group, a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. If we can articulate a problem, we can find someone to help us resolve it.

In hospice work, it’s thought that there may only be a few things that need to be said before we are ready to die:
— I’m sorry
— Please forgive me
— I forgive you
— I love you
— Goodbye

That seems to me a pretty comprehensive list. If we live in a state where we don’t owe these words to anyone, we can be at peace. If we part from each person in a way that we’d be glad to remember as our last time with them, then we are always ready for whatever may come.

By “finishing business”, [we] remove the calluses that obstruct the heart, the spontaneous, loving core that connects [us] with [our] essential nature. Without the need to hide behind inauthentic masks, [we] become sensitive and innocent again, awakened to the piercing beauty and preciousness of life. – From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p.159

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Expansion and contraction

“While we have an organic familiarity with death, our culture, steeped in denial, can only deal comfortably with expansion, activity, achievement, and goal orientation…But it’s extremely uncomfortable, almost panic-stricken when dealing with contraction, quiescence, lack of activity and inwardness…”
-from a chapter called “The Art of Life Completion” in From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller.

We can lose sight of the fact that we need a balance of outward and inward movement to our lives. A move towards quiescence or inwardness is not a danger or a problem. Quite naturally, our early lives are more active than the final phase, but all along the way there’s an ebb and flow of energy, of doing and reflecting. Being aware of this dynamic can help us steer a course of our choosing.

We seem to have more role models available for the most active stages of life than we do for ageing well. We are creating our own sage-ing myths as we carry on through the trials, the satisfactions and the letting go of ageing.

I once had the thought that as we get older, more and more often, we’ll be thrust into the care-taker role, for parents, siblings, neighbors, and community members. There was aversion attached to this thought until I realized that I would also probably be forcing others into the caretaker role. Then it occurred to me: what could be more appropriate? We’ll all be getting older together, it will be perfectly natural to look after each other. Is there anything more important for us to do?

A wise friend once suggested we review our lives to determine what activities and relationships we carry that no longer serve our needs or purpose. This reflection is appropriate at any age. Are our actions and activities aligned with our best intentions? Are we facing in the direction we’ve chosen to move or are we just drifting? Does our balance of expansive and contractive activities feel right?

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