Time traveler ~ rebirth part 5

recycle wasted time
recycle wasted time

A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.

We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.

So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime :-)

Expanding the mind

At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.

Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.

Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.

Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.

you grow to heavenTo explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.

Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.

Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, small problem filling mindif our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.

If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.

Sixth and final installment coming soon.

What is the point of training the brain!? ~ rebirth part 4

then what

My grandfather lived to 100. He was a spiritual person, and he probably could have lived to 110 as he was immensely fit, but unfortunately he was run over by a car. During his last 6 weeks, spent in hospital, he went through a lot of stuff, going in and out of pain, in and out of lucidity, and having some moments of great insight. One day he said to my brother:

“In the light of eternity I can see very clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.”

then whatWhen we get to the end of our life, it is like last night’s dream upon awakening — however long it felt at the time, it’s barely a moment. There is no difference between a dream of long duration and one of short duration, once it’s finished. So whether we live a long life or a short life, it’s still insubstantial, it’s not who we really are. It’s just who we think we are at the moment. In fact, if we’re imputing ourselves on the body of this life, the people of this life, the jobs of this life, the money of this life, the surroundings of this life, and so on, then we are not relating to ourselves as who we really are.

As mentioned in previous articles on rebirth, we are actually a traveler who has come from countless previous lives and is going to countless future lives. That sense of being a continuum of awareness is immensely mind expanding. If we don’t have it, we limit our self to superficial, fleeting appearances.

It is like getting in a train carriage and putting up the curtains, marrying the person in the next seat, settling down forever, complaining about the neighbors in the next row. When we get to the end of the line and the conductor says, “All disembark!”, we panic, “Oh no, you can’t make me get off! This is who I am, this is me and my friends on this train. This is my real world. This is where I belong.” But it’s not. train tracks

We do ourselves a great disservice because of identifying so strongly with the things of this life. We are upset when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting any perspective on them, we grasp at everything as being very important; and also we do not set our sights on spiritual training because in fact we’re not identifying ourselves as spiritual beings. To become interested in our spiritual nature entails understanding the nature of consciousness. I don’t think there is any other way around it. If we understand the nature, function, and continuum, or cycle, of consciousness, and if we know that this body will eventually perish, we know that our mind will continue past the duration of this body.  From that we’ll conclude that it is extremely important that we take care of purifying and training it so that we experience happiness and freedom not just now but forever.

If we get interested in Buddhism, we find that we can train to overcome our anger, for example, and our attachment, our addictions. We can overcome our fear, we can even uproot our ignorance. During this life we can purify our mind of all its negative actions and pathways to suffering. We can develop universal love and compassion. We can develop bliss and omniscient wisdom. Perhaps we hear these things and we think, “What a great idea!”, but then at the same time, if we’re going to be dead in a few hundred months, and if our mind is the brain, then at that point the candle is going out. If that’s what we think, that the mind is finite, then what’s the point really of training it? Of course it will make us happier and so on, and increase our gray matter, but what is the real point? There’s not much point really, is there? If our mind is just a piece of shriveling soft tissue headed for annihilation, we might as well sit this one out. Just wait for it to pass. Wait for extinction.

Of course that’s not what happens. The whole point is that the mind and the body are not the same.

I have a story about my grandmother too. When I was younger and became interested in Buddhism, doing jobs in Buddhist centers and so on, I got paid a pittance. (Working for Buddhist centers is not a career move by the way ;-)) And my grandmother noticed this and thought, basically, that I wasn’t taking enough care of the things of this life. She would say, “You’re not working hard enough to make money! What about your pension? What’s going to happen when you get to my age and you’ve no money?” One Christmas party she also cornered a good family friend of mine, Pagpa, a Buddhist monk, and spent over an hour telling him the same things …

samsara attachment to homeThese were valid points; it is not like what she was saying didn’t have any reality. However, she felt that everything was wrapped up just with who I was in this life and that I was therefore badly letting myself down. And I was trying to explain to her that, regardless of what happens when I retire, my death and future lives may come sooner and I needed to prepare for those.

As my grandmother got old, on one of my visits to see her at her house in the south of England she said, “You know, as I am heading now towards my death and looking back on my life, all these things, such as having money, feel hollow to me. They don’t feel like who I am.” And we talked about this and she asked me, “What can I do? What does Buddhism say about this? What will happen when I die and afterwards?” I showed her the book, Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, which I had on me. She read the title out loud and then said, sadly, “It is too late now to make that blissful journey. My life is almost over.” It was very poignant, actually, the way she said it. But anyway I tried to encourage her; I said it is never too late to get interested in spiritual life. Which I think is true, as long as we do get interested when we hear about it.

Later on, my grandmother suffered from dementia and needed full-time care. From having a big house with lots of books, she went down to having whatever could fit in one small room in a nursing home. When I visited her there, I success 1saw that on her book shelf she had just two books. One of them was Transform Your Life.

Many people do have this kind of experience as they get older. As they get close to death they don’t really know who they are anymore. This is because all the things that were propping them up, everything they thought they were, is no longer working. The career is over, they’re retired, the children are grown, health, energy, and looks are failing, and it is clear now that money can’t buy happiness All those measures of who we are and what constitutes wellbeing or success in life are becoming increasingly hollow. But in fact they’re always hollow. It’s just that sometimes as we get older it becomes more evident.

More coming soon.

Where were you before you were born? ~ rebirth part 2

stones

We are travelers. Here’s a Buddhist meditation we can do to help us gain a feel for this.

stonesWe can begin by simply sitting comfortably, back straight, shoulders level, hands resting in our lap, right hand on top of left, palms upward, thumbs slightly raised and touching. (If you’re used to putting your hands in a different position to meditate, that’s fine also.)  Our head is tilted slightly forward, mouth closed, tongue on our upper palate, breathing through our nose. Our eyes are also lightly closed or ever so slightly open. We can take a few deeper breaths than normal as we settle into this position, focus on how we’re sitting, and forget about everything else.

The world around us in all directions melts into light and disappears. Everything before this moment evaporates, like last night’s dream. Everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. We are in the present moment, the here and the now. There is no other place or time to be.

We feel all the weight and tension of our body fall away, every muscle relaxes, and our body melts into a light like a hologram. We could pass our hand through it without obstruction.

We encourage ourselves to concentrate on this meditation, thinking:

“Through meditating on my own mind I can come to understand who I am. If I understand who I am, I can change who I am. This understanding will expand my horizons, open me up to extraordinary spiritual possibilities. For this reason I will focus on this meditation happily, not following distractions.”

To help us overcome mental distractions directed outward, and to rest and relax the mind, we can spend a couple of minutes focusing just on our breath as it enters and leaves our nostrils. We let all other thoughts go. (We can also feel our subtle inner energy winds that “carry” our minds change direction from going out to coming in.)

As our mind is settling, a natural feeling of peace, space, and contentment arises in our heart. We feel that we are centered in our heart, the center of our chest, our so-called “heart chakra” where our root mind is located. We drop from our head into our heart. We absorb inward.HUM

From within this space we can now spend a couple of minutes watching our thoughts or awarenesses (sense or mental) arise and dissolve away. We don’t follow our thoughts or think them – just observe them as they appear and disappear again. Whatever ideas, daydreams, awarenesses of sounds, memories, etc. that appear to the mind, we allow these to arise in the present moment and subside, without reacting to or intruding on them.

After a little while we can ask:

“What is this thought? Where is it? Where does each thought come from? Where does each thought go? What is that space between the ending of one thought and the rising of the next?”

Each thought is clarity, is formless. Each thought arises from the deep inner clarity of our root mind at our heart and dissolves back into it. We now let all our thoughts dissolve into a clarity at our heart, a boundless clear awareness, like an inner empty space.

This is my mind. My mind is clarity, which is formless, empty of shape, empty of size. It has no color, no touch, no taste, no smell, no physical properties whatsoever. We meditate on this clarity which is empty of form.

The function of my mind is to cognize, to know, to experience, to be aware. My mind also has the power to create everything — everything comes from our mind, with our thoughts we create our world.

If it helps, you can think of your mind like a boundless clear ocean and any distracting thoughts that arise are like bubbles – bubbles have nowhere to go, disregard them and they will dissolve back into the clarity of your mind at your heart.

Everything has dissolved into a crystal clear and peaceful or even blissful awareness at our heart — all thoughts and their objects have dissolved.

This awareness is impermanent, constantly changing moment by moment, always clarity, always cognizing, but never staying the same. We get a sense now of how our mind is a becoming, a moment by moment transformation, a mental continuum. This moment arose naturally from the previous moment of mind in an unbroken continuum, and the mind of this moment will transform into the mind of the next moment, a never ending flow.

time is empty 3And where did today’s mind come from? We can trace it back to the mind of last night’s dream. And that came from the mind of yesterday, which came from the mind of the day before, and so on. If we had good mindfulness or memory we would be able to trace back our mind to the moment of our birth. And where did that mind come from? It came from the mind of the baby in the womb. Where did our mind as a baby in the womb come from? Mind is caused by mind, not by physical objects. The mind in the womb came from the mind of our previous life.

Death is the permanent separation of body and mind. This meaty body skids to a halt, but formless mind continues in an unbroken continuum. When the body perishes, what will happen to the last moment of the mind of this life? It will be the cause of the first moment of the mind in the bardo, or intermediate state. And that mind in turn will transform seamlessly into the mind of our next life.

As Buddha Shakyamuni explained, our root mind is beginningless and endless and, when fully purified and transformed, will become the mind of a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. This is who we are, this is who we can be.

Whatever understanding we have gleaned of the nature, function, and continuum of our mind from our own experience, we now focus on it single-pointedly.

(See also pages 26-7 of Meaningful to Behold for more on this meditation and subject.)

What are the implications of all this?! More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are welcome.

A storm on Belleair Beach

struck by lightning

When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.

She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.

And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.

You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:

“It happens all the time around here.”

The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.

Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.

We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.

Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.

Phyllis 2

These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound. 

Karma strikes again

Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?

According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”

Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.

Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.

I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.

Brief encounters

A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too. 

A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss

DianneI first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.

A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog. 

Collective karma

Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)

All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, Losang Tenpacompassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

Is compassion happy or sad?

ostrich head in sand

Compassion is the fuel of spiritual progress, but is it a sad or a happy state of mind? The Buddhist scriptures all say it is a peaceful, happy mind, but how does it feel in our own experience? How is it even possible to be happy or calm when caring about the horrible suffering of others? It seems crucial to know this if we are going to put any energy into contemplating suffering as opposed to digging our heads into the sand or switching channels.

I first decided to explore this subject when I was with Ralph the kitten. This is what I wrote down at the time.

After Ralph’s death:

Today, two days after his death, tears still spring to my eyes when my mind alights upon any details of his final hours. I even miss meditating with him (nothing like having a helpless kitten on your lap to help you meditate.) I managed to meditate for 30 years without him, but today I missed him all tucked up in my overalls.

But this sadness, though moving, is not unhappy, if you know what I mean. I am not averse to it. It is mixed with a sort of smile.

There is a part of me that misses him out of attachment, but I also know that this is looking backward rather than forward, and the past does not even exist. I am missing a non-existent kitten. There is no point in that. There is no point in even wanting him to still be a kitten, healthy or not. Better to think of him in the present, wishing him all happiness wherever he is, with any luck out of his limited cat body and in the Pure Land.

Two days earlier, in the ER waiting room:

I don’t know if I want any cats now. (I was planning on rescuing a couple in the Fall). Where is that coming from? A friend of mine lost her beloved cat recently in a nasty freak accident and it crushed her. Right now I understand why she said she didn’t ever want another cat. My mother always resisted our having pets and would say it was because her beloved guinea pigs were eaten by rats when she was a kid. (The more obvious reason was that we were continuously traveling around the world, but for some reason she’d usually play the guinea pig card). It slightly irked me when she did this, as I really wanted pets and had to make do with collecting ants and cocoons; but I understand her reluctance better now.

But cats still need homes. So do guinea pigs and other animals. American comedian George Carlin said that getting a pet is a tragedy waiting to happen, as they always “go away”, unless we are 80 and get a tortoise. But we do it anyway. And as they say:

“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Everyone “goes away” — we’ll have to watch all our loved ones go away, if we don’t go away first. I think we have to be brave enough right now to accept a certain amount of sadness when the people we know are suffering. This is part of our training. One day our compassion will be bliss, but even if it is now mixed with minds that cause some sadness – such as fear, worry, and attachment – it is still better not to shrink away from getting involved with others.

Back to today:

However, at the same time we can work on removing the sad and worried part and increasing the happy and blissful part, and, starting in this article, that’s what I want to look at (with more help from you and my Facebook friends!)

Waves of worry

We worry about ourselves (and loved ones) all the time. Parents can worry about their children every single day. In samsara, worries are waves on an ocean – there is never an end of things we can worry about because everything can go wrong. We think short-term: “Oh it’ll be alright if he just gets a job! Or if his sickness is cured!”, but it still isn’t alright. Perhaps a brief respite, but then a new worry rolls onto the shore.

So we have to go deeper for both our own and others’ sake. We have to want us all to have real, lasting freedom. Where does this come from? Only from peaceful and controlled minds. If we wish that for them, in this wish we discover there is peace. There is also some peace to be had in accepting that we cannot control their minds for them, nor their karmic path.

I think realistically that our wish for them to have real freedom by overcoming the delusions and impure karma is more attainable than our wish for them to be free from one samsaric problem at a time! The waves of suffering cannot end until the ocean of samsara — created by delusions and impure karma — is dried up. Focusing on this doesn’t mean that we don’t take the cat to the vet, but it does mean we keep things in perspective, which helps a great deal.

dry up the ocean of samsara

Getting practical

A practical thing to do on a daily basis is to catch those worries as they start to roll in and transform them into bigger and better non-worries! For example, a friend of mine lost her job quite a while ago and is still finding it hard to get another, despite great efforts. I feel sad for her every time I think of how disappointed she feels. (And she is not alone, of course — finding someone who never has any financial concerns is almost impossible.) However, if I go deeper and wish for her to have complete freedom from this and all worries by drying up the entire ocean of samsara, immediately there is some mental peace. The same goes for worry about a loved one’s cancer results, or a cat’s infected eyes. “May they be free from ALL suffering and its causes. I will make this happen.” This wish galvanizes us and we have some control again.

More ideas coming in the next article.

Your turn: In your own experience, do you find compassion to be happy or sad?

Please share these articles if you find any of them helpful, on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever (there are some useful buttons for doing this below).

Preparing for the Pure Land

the best way to get to heaven

(Apologies in advance for the relatively esoteric nature of this article! I’ll attempt to give some background at the end for those of you who are interested.)

While I was staying with Sue Hulley in November, it was becoming apparent that the chemotherapy was not working to reduce the tumor – she could feel a lump growing daily in her side, and later tests confirmed this. When I first asked her how long she thought she had left to live, she speculated two years, but within a week she had revised that down to a matter of months. Not long after, it was only weeks. She accepted her rapidly shrinking lifespan with her characteristic calm and good humor.

Sue was all about cherishing others, and in very practical ways. Something I wrote at the time gives a glimpse: “On Sunday morning I woke at 7am to find Sue attempting to bake for the Tuesday night meditation class. She couldn’t stand up, much less reach things, so this was going to take all day… instead I offered to be her hands and we made a rather nice cake. If anyone has an excuse to beg off baking duties and be unhelpful, it is Sue. But cherishing others is what she does – she is going to die as she lives and live as she dies.”

Sue was not sentimental about her death. Her last email to her fellow Teacher Training students, people she had been close to for 15 years, was factual, let everyone know that she could no longer receive visits or phone calls, and ended simply with: “I look forward to studying with you in Keajra. Love Sue.” She also wrote some Christmas cards not long before she died, on which she wrote messages like: “Merry Christmas. Have a great rest of your life! Love, Sue.”

Our conversations

The most important thing we talked about during my ten-day visit was preparing for her death and next life. Our conversations started in the car, like this:

Me: Where are you planning on going when you die?

Sue: Hmmm, well, I was talking about this with someone the other day, and we concluded that we would like to go wherever Geshe-la wants us.

Me: Where do you think that is?

Sue: I suppose Keajra? (the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka and Buddha Vajrayogini).

Me: Are you feeling a bit vague about this?

Sue: I suppose I am.

Me: I think if we want to go to Keajra, we have to start believing that we are in Keajra now. I don’t think it works to assume that we’ll just suddenly go there if we haven’t gotten used to being there ahead of our death.

Sue: (goes very thoughtful). Yes, I have been thinking of it more along the lines of “I’ll keep my nose clean and then with any luck go to a Pure Land. It is a bit dualistic. I’m putting it off.”

Me: That dualistic view is quite natural for us, and perhaps it is like some people’s idea of a Christian heaven. But in Buddhism we have to put our mind where we want it to be – it is not a question of being rewarded sometime in the future.

We have to have no reservation either. We have to really want to be there, more than anything else. (This point is at least implicit in the first of the so-called “five forces”, aspiration – we do have to know clearly what we want and actually want it!) If Buddha was to appear right now and say to you: “Sue, I am going to give you a choice. You can stay in Marin for another twenty years and then die and go to Keajra, or you can be in Keajra right now without delay”, which would you choose?!

Sue: (laughing) Good point. I would want to hang out here with my friends for another 20 years and then go! But I have to want it MORE than this.

Me: Yes, and the only way that’ll happen is if we’re thinking about it all the time, and what it actually means to be in the Pure Land. As you know, it is not a real physical place with lovely fountains and whispering trees (looking a bit like Marin!) that we are going to magically turn up in sometime in the future if we create some vague aspirations and causes for it now. It is, of course, primarily a state of mind. We have to practice being there until we are.

Then, there will be no contradiction between being in Marin and being in the Pure Land :-) For example, when the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa was asked in which Pure Land he attained enlightenment, he pointed to his empty cave.

We can describe the Pure Land as like heaven, but it is not really the same as many Christians’  or Muslims’ notion of heaven (depending, I suppose, on what they mean when they say “heaven on earth” ?!)  We are not buying into this human life and using it to garner a reward, or a “promotion”. We want the Pure Land now. It seems to me that if we don’t want it now, it means we still have attachment to a more ordinary life, and these are stones around our feet that will prevent us from leaving samsara. Do you agree? To go there, we have to want it more than this. And we have to want it now. There is only now.

Sue and I then had several discussions about what state of mind Keajra or the Pure Land was, and Sue spent a lot of time focusing on this. As a result, she said that death no longer felt like such a “big deal” to her, more of a seamless transition, and she found a deep peace with it. There is a description of sincere Tantric practitioners in the Root Tantra of Heruka:

For such practitioners, death is just mere name –
They are simply moved from the prison of samsara
To the Pure Land of Buddha Heruka.

Death is smoother if we are already living as if we are in our next life. Less “bells and whistles”, less of a “razzmatazz and production”, as Sue put it, with accompanying wand gestures. Our friend Marsha Remas had been telling us about the title of a book she was reading, “This IS your next life!” Sue loved that.

There need be no contradiction between living this life and preparing for the future if we are now putting our mind where we want it to be in our next life.

I think that a Pure Land has basically three ingredients: faith, motivation, and view. This will mean different things to different people, including those in other spiritual traditions. For me, in brief, and for Sue, faith means a profound feeling of closeness to my Spiritual Guide, the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Sangha, holding them all in my heart. Motivation means renunciation (the wish for true mental freedom) and bodhichitta (the wish for enlightenment for the sake of all living beings), which keeps me very close to others, free from attachment, also holding them all in my heart, even when the fleeting appearances of this world and body dissolve away. View means the wisdom realizing the empty dream-like nature of all phenomena, inseparably mixed with the clear light mind of bliss. (Tantric practitioners can combine these three with self-generation, you can find out more about that in Modern Buddhism).

It seems to me that this is the best way not to be separated from those we hold dear. With faith, motivation, and view, we lose nothing when we die. There is nothing to fear. We are where we want to be, for our own and others’ sake.

When Sue and Bill dropped me at the airport, in what turned out to be Sue’s last “outing”, she said: “This was not a dead flower visit. This was very ‘real’.”

When Sue died, her family stayed with her for an hour and a half, and then left her alone for another hour and a half. When they returned, her left hand, which had been by her side, was over her heart, and her mouth, which had been open, was now closed in a peaceful half-smile.

Your turn: Where are you planning on going when you die, and what are you doing now to get there?

Some background information

We have the potential or seeds for both heaven and hell. Which comes to fruition depends on which seeds we water.

According to Buddhism, the “Pure Land” is the experience of a purified mind, whereas “samsara” is the experience of an impure mind that is still contaminated by the inner poison of delusions. Here is a short description taken from Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully:

In a Buddha’s Pure Land everything is pure; there are no sufferings, no contaminated environments, and no impure enjoyments. Beings born there are free from sickness, ageing, poverty, war, harm from fire, water, earth, and wind, and so forth. They have the ability to control their death and rebirth, and they experience physical and mental suppleness throughout their life. Just being there naturally gives rise to a deep experience of bliss.

The Pure Land could be considered similar to the Christian idea of heaven (or other religions’ idea of paradise), but in Buddhism a Pure Land is the experience of a pure mind — there is no external creator who rewards us with it (or who, alternatively, can send us to hell.) The mind is the creator of all. To attain a Pure Land primarily involves purifying and controlling our own mind. Faith (mixing with the pure minds of holy beings) and positive karmic potentials also play a part in helping us reach the Pure Land.

Sue’s parting advice

Bill and Sue

Click here for a 30 second video of Sue: Sue Hulley, Marin, CA, November 2011.

Click here for a tribute to Sue from her son, Tim.

Sue Hulley, November 2011

Sue Hulley, who died yesterday, was able to greet her illness and death with grace, compassion, and humor. So about a month ago I asked her if she would kindly write something to help the rest of us get ready for the inevitable. She managed to finish several articles, mainly on the practical side of things, with the help of her partner Bill and her son Tim. Here they are.

Diagnosis

It seems very sudden when you hear that voice at the end of the phone, or coming right at you in the office, informing you that you have a life-threatening diagnosis. It’s hard for me to know which one I wanted. I guess having it on the phone would make it seem less real, give me a layer of protection, some time to control my responses.

Instead, it felt like Dr. Sowerby really got through to me. And it felt as if this really was harder for him than for me, although he didn’t say that. After all, he was the man who diagnosed me with pylori without a biopsy hoping, i guess, that i did have what causes 9out of 10 ulcers.

And this was the man who knew what lay ahead, in all of its gory, after the endoscopy. He knew that my life would never be the same. That, in fact, a whole new life – albeit probably of limited duration and often of maximal intensity — was beginning. His empathy told me as much. And I was so grateful. Let’s face it, bearing details of future pleasures is nice, but getting such a definite demarcation between past and future from someone who cares is so meaningful. You can start to take care of yourself and look out after the rest of the people in your life.

Taking care of business

If there’s one most important thing to do before tackling a serious illness, it’s to get your affairs in order.  Of course, this advice could feel as if you’ve been told to get good genes, but you DO have control over this. Actually, you usually hear this phrase after you’ve been told about your illness; the irony is that you should have done this years before. But the usual American understanding is that if you get serious bad news, THEN you start planning. Although this attitude is understandable — based on our denial and wishful thinking — it can have serious negative effects on the loved ones around us.

So what affairs are we putting in order? In my life, there seemed to have been two areas, one the more practical, the other the more psychological / spiritual. In the practical realm, having a will, doing some estate planning, and communicating the result to those involved are all critical. That way, you enter any possibly life-threatening situation with everyone around you knowing what it will mean for them in practical terms. Hopefully, they all even agree among themselves about what these are, and their roles after you’re gone. If they can know the professionals involved in these decisions, so much the better; this can transform them from isolated individuals into a powerful team working on your and their own behalf.

Having covered these knotty matters, I should mention the easy, carefree aspect of your job — human relationships. We all have our own set, with its complications and intricacies. And most of us, myself included, know that every relationship that went west was because of the other person. However, it’s a good idea to wash as much of this laundry as you can before you hit the skids. And, since none of us knows when that’s going to be, I would advise you to start ASAP. Of course, you may be reading this having already received your diagnosis, or already involved in your dire situation. But you could help your loved ones, or survive your illness, or possibly you don’t have the bad situation yet; and I hope for your sake, one or more of these is true. That would leave you totally free to follow this advice.

In addition, it’s a really good idea to find some tradition, practice, belief, or activity that fulfills your spiritual needs. It’s more important to have one, than what it is. That way, when the news comes, you’re not just one more deer in the headlights. For example, when someone asked me, “When you got your diagnosis, what did you answer when you asked, ‘Why me?'” All I could say to her was that that thought had never occurred to me. Because Buddhists believe that we cause our own destiny through the millions of thoughts or actions we have over our numerous lifetimes, I don’t view events as happening TO me, but as coming FROM me. This means that I both caused this present situation, in this or another lifetime, and that it is extremely important for my future how I respond to it.

This practice is a resource you can draw from, throughout whatever lies ahead. Of course, it CAN be developed after your diagnosis, but because of its timing, it could be suspect. If this happens for you, be sure to search your mind very carefully about your own motives, and upgrade them as much as you can.

Caregiver(s)

While exercising my arm patting myself on the back for my excellent grasp of taking care of business, it suddenly occurred to me that something had been left out – who’s taking care of you all this time? And it occurred to me that even if you haven’t done any of the things I recommended previously, the fact remains that we all need someone to take care of us. Actually, this is a pretty interesting area, because it involves personal relationships, possibly your loved ones, financial issues, and, depending on the expertise of your caregiver(s), help with solutions to all of the issues we’ve talked about up until now. For example, my primary caregiver is also able to deal with my finances by paying bills and such.

One place where people often start is to consider your practical living situation, and what physical needs you might have. Take a couple of inventories – what support system or resources have you already built up, and your remaining needs if any. Even if you are well equipped to handle your current situation, plan for the future, when your needs could increase. AND do it sooner, don’t wait until it becomes an emergency. For example, you might have a great cleaning lady, and she might know other people who could do related household tasks. Or, where we live, there’s a pool of Fijians, who often move from household to household. (They are especially popular because of their dispositions and the fact that many of them are quite strong. Given how hard it is to find affordable hoists, they have saved many the back of a less robust caregiver.) So get your resources set up for the inevitable ahead of time. Of course, your inventory of needs would depend on your specific situation.

Interacting with people regarding your illness and evolving situation

It would be a good idea at the very beginning, while you still have a lot of energy, to make up email groups of your various communities.

Interacting with doctors

In the past, talking to your doctor has typically meant listening to your doctor. But times are changing. We as patients are being encouraged to be informed consumers, and to take a more active part in our treatment. What this means for you and your doctor is that rather than being a one-down participant, you are in a collaborative partnership.

However, there is no doubt that you are much less knowledgeable than your doctor in the area of your illness. So it’s a good idea to do some general research and learn as much as you can about your disease and its treatment, before you meet. Additionally, it’s critical to take somebody to your appointments with you, to take notes and ask questions. Also this gives you someone to discuss your situation with in an ongoing way, based on the same experience.

It also helps to make a list of questions to ask the doctors. For example, “Given my kind of cancer, what are the expected things that might happen at each phase, and what kinds of things can my caregiver(s) and I do ahead of time, to counter each of these?” Also you can ask your doctor of any item along the way, “Why is this necessary?”

If your doctor can’t tell you anything without using Latin terms, it’s time to get a new one. It’s really important to see how you feel, being with your doctor. As when you meet any other person, it’s important how you feel about your relationship. With one of my doctors, I never felt I could say, “MY oncologist”. You want to feel that this is your doctor in a personal sense, fighting for your personal interests. With this particular doctor, I always felt that he came in and just read my chart. Anyone can read your chart, but you want someone who cares. If this is not happening, you CAN ask to change doctors, or get a second opinion.

Sometimes people get embarrassed about asking questions from doctors, but don’t forget that YOUR health is the goal here. So the doctor is working for you (whether they realize it or not). According to the HIPAA rules, the patient has the right to get all the information relevant to their situation. This means you can ask for copies of any of your test results, the analysis, and any other medical notes. For any tests that are taken, you can ask why it is being done, what the possible outcomes might be, and what those results would mean.

If you go through your treatment not asking, you’re more likely to feel like a deer in the headlights in each meeting. Or even worse, when looking back, like a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed manure).

I am so grateful to Sue for writing these articles for us in the last few weeks. She also had more articles planned, to do specifically with spiritual practice, but she ran out of time to write them down. Later, however, I can try to relay some good conversations we had in November on the subject.

Bill, Sue’s partner and main caregiver, also contributed the following from the caregiving point of view, for which I am also very grateful.

The Caregiver

Caregiving might seem like an easy task, but the routine and stress builds slowly and imperceptibly.  I was blessed with a friend who had “gone through it”.  We could talk openly and frankly about the process, the ugly parts and the end — good and bad.    I hope you, the reader, can find such a friend.

Now to the job at hand.

Timeliness

No matter how many ups and downs there are, the path may very well be downward.  The word again is imperceptible.  Because many processes are imperceptible, you need to build up an intellectual wall against complacency.  If you think something should be done, like talking to a lawyer, fixing a stair step, or writing a letter to an old friend, DO IT NOW.  We missed a lot of opportunities by thinking we could do it later.  Later never came.

Visitors

When one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances find out about the diagnosis, they will immediately want to see your charge.   For some, it will be what we call the “dead flower” visit – one time with flowers and very awkward as no one wants to talk about what might happen.  Early on for Sue, she rejected many of these visits but was happy to talk on the phone.  As time went on, the “Rules” changed.  Make sure that all visitors, by phone or in person, understand her current limits on time, people and time of day.  Do not waver from your rules.  When in doubt just ask the patient if you can and live with the answer.

Accepting gifts of time and food

Many people will volunteer time and food.  One of the most difficult things for me was to find things for others to do and especially to cook since the nature of Sue’s cancer made it very difficult for her to eat.

As you go on, you should make up a list of things others might do.  They need not be totally useful and may also be menial.   You will be surprised at what you can come up with if you give up the notion that you are the only one who knows what is needed.  In fact, even if it doesn’t do you any good or save you any time, it may be good for the giver. And, don’t forget afterwards.  There are many people to tell and personal items to gather and distribute, so outside help will be useful for this difficult task.

In our case, Sue’s son and partner were here for most of the difficult times.  Therefore respite and physical health care from others (except Hospice) wasn’t needed; and we could spell each other.  In most cases, respite help will not be as available as the offerers hope, so burnout due to lack of respite is possible.

You should use the respite care resources volunteered by others.  Start early, it will be particularly useful to “train” caregivers so that you can trust them later when the patient is less able to communicate their needs and your respite needs will be greater.

As Sue got worse, the caregiving became 24/7.  Few of us can deal with this, so we strongly advise making appropriate arrangements with relatives, friends or hired home health care workers. Remember, it’s easier to cancel help then to implement a strategy under pressure.

More food concerns

I suppose that there are cancers and chemotherapies that do not significantly modify what or how much the patient can eat.  Sue’s chemotherapy greatly modified what she was willing to eat.  And she suffered from temperature sensitivity called neuropathy during most of her chemotherapy.  This was a constant concern as we would occasionally forget and give her (cold) tap water, which was painful to her.

As time went on, we were continually changing the food that she was willing to eat and the volume of her meals went down to essentially nothing. If there are favorite foods, then by all means, ask for culinary help.  But be firm about accepting only the first unsolicited dish.  From then on – food only by order.  We let it be known that Sue liked Pomegranate sorbet.  We never finished the deluge that showed up.

Finally, it is time to give up food strictures once you are in Hospice i.e. gluten free, organic etc.  Let’s face it; what is the worst thing that can happen?  That’s right, cancer a few years down the road.

Capabilities

The patient will be unable to perform functions that earlier on were simple and easy.  The patient is even more aware of these limitations than you are.  How frustrating it must be when the patient knows that he or she could do things before but now cannot.  As you might expect, it was frustrating for me to watch her fumbling away trying to do some, for her, difficult task.  But she did not appreciate unsolicited help. She needed to know that her capabilities had not all been taken from her.  We eventually had to evoke a rule on ourselves that unsolicited help was only given when needed for safety.  Sometimes it took a little patience as she fumbled.  However, our relationship improved.  When the time came that something was no longer possible, she was grateful to accept the proffered help.

Similarly, the empowerment of asking for what she wanted was well received.  Sometimes we overachieved, but mostly it helped her spirits to be able to make decisions.  Not all of them were what we wanted, but if you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t ask the question.

Medical help

Everybody has heard about a miracle drug or treatment from “Timbucktu”.  Of course you will want to fly off there to get it.  (One person who was trying to help did not understand the irony of recommending a “healer” who failed to cure his uncle!) Early on, decide which organizations/ therapists you want to go to and stick with that decision.  We’re glad that we did that.  As it was, before the end we had gathered over thirty drugs, supplements and a few exercise regimens.

For others

If you read the above, there is probably little more to add. By all means send cards and e-mails.  If you phone, ask if the patient can talk, even if it is the patient who answers.  If you want to visit, ask if you can visit beforehand and how long you can stay.  If you plan to bring something, ask if you may.  On the other hand, when a visit is contemplated, ask if you can help by bringing or purchasing something on the way.

**************************************

The Aftermath by Bill Ring

Bill and Sue

“It’s over!”  That’s what I said to Tim and Meg when they answered my call.  It was over for Sue, but not for the rest of us.  We thought the pain of seeing Sue gradually fail would finally be ended.  It was, but it was replaced by the thought that we would never have the ability to say and do the things we wanted to say and do before she died.  In her last days, Sue didn’t care about many things we thought were important. She was focused on her next lifetime and the hope that it would be a good and fruitful one.

Grief is a many-faceted emotion.  A turning point came when I realized that many of the facets had to do with me feeling sorry for myself.  We always look out for number one, don’t we?  Another facet was realizing that when issues she cared about when living were resolved after she died, she probably no longer cares about the resolution.  That we could not tell her about them is simply another way to feel sorry for ourselves.  When I realized that much of the grieving was turning into ways for me to feel sorry for me, I rejected them and things began to look up.

There were far too many times when Sue and I thought we could discuss and plan later, tomorrow. Far too many tomorrows never came.  This is my main regret.  Lesson for caregiver and patient:  Live like tomorrow will be too late, because it might be.

Sue became a very picky eater.  She blamed the chemotherapy, but when it ended, the food-fussiness increased.  Finally, the light dawned on us.  Food was her one remaining pleasure.  She could control very little in her life.  What little she could control, she wanted to control.  When the realization struck, eating became a comfort and pleasure for her and food preparation a labor of love.  Lesson for caregivers:  Give the patient what she wants, “It’s not going to kill her!” – the disease will.

Bill and Sue

On the practical side, the Hospice form taped to the refrigerator was valuable in listing the things she did and did not want to happen to her during her last days. The form is blunt and thorough. Lesson: Fill it out.

One thing that chokes me up, (which is a form of grief I have not yet mastered), is being able to complete Sue’s last requests.  I believe that I know what she wanted and it is a great comfort to be able to do it all. Lesson for caregivers:  Make sure you know what the patient wants and plan to do it. It will be good for both of you.

For reasons that you do not need to know about, her estate was very complex.  The ability to defer the tax paperwork is invaluable. Lesson: Use this time.  By the time the forms must be submitted and the bills paid, one can deal with them more easily.  But, there is another, more important lesson for the patient and caregivers:  Read and reread the living trusts and wills.  Things change and these directives must change to accommodate them.  We also discovered many errors that were hard to rectify once discovered.

The final stage for me is building a new life without Sue.  I haven’t mastered this yet, but if you don’t try, I believe you will be mired in your misery and that is surely NOT what she would want.  Final lesson:  Talk about the survivor’s life afterwards.  Should you keep the house?  How about a new significant other?  Your relationship with the in-laws?

I hope the above will be valuable to patients and caregivers.  I wish someone had given me the information in the blog you have just read.


 

Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead … more from our social worker

death5

This is the sixth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. The others can be found here.

At this time of year, Mexicans specifically remember the dead with the Day of the Dead.  Traditionally, on the 1st or 2nd November for Mexicans, the souls of dead loved ones are invited back to visit the living.  Communities across Mexico and elsewhere gather together to remember dead relatives and friends, toast their memory and reaffirm their feelings for loved ones who have died.

Health agencies around the world now celebrate the Day of The Dead to raise awareness of death issues to get people talking more about death for, as I try to point out in the following articles, it is important individually and collectively that we do so.  In the UK, the Day of the Dead is the 4th November.  Watch out for news and events relating to this, or why not do something yourself?

In my next couple of articles, I’ll be explaining how I used Buddhism and meditation to help me in my care of the elderly and the dying.

How to help the dying

In my third and final year as a student social worker I decided that my Buddhist values were best suited to the care of older people and the dying as there is less theorising about different types of care and more practical and dynamic compassion.  I feel the elderly, frail and dying are the best service user group where Buddhism could have a lot to offer. There is a lot of good information in this website and in Geshe Kelsang’s book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.

In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully (2009) Geshe Kelsang says you can benefit those who are about to die. He encourages those benefiting the dying to help keep the dying person’s mind calm and peaceful, trying to prevent them from becoming upset or unhappy.  He stresses the importance of dying peacefully without any disturbance.

Geshe Kelsang (2010) also talks about the power of prayer. He says:

Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara

The power of our prayers depends upon the strength and purity of our intention and that having a mind of compassion for the dying or deceased is very important – if we have a genuinely compassionate motivation our prayers will definitely be effective.

Several times a day I dedicate my good fortune/merit to the vulnerable people I meet in my work as a student social worker; and when a service user I know dies, I do “powa” puja for them (transference of consciousness).

And how not to

During my final year of training I worked in an acute hospital trust within a discharge liaison team and I also focussed my dissertation on the care of older people and the dying. At work I played a part in helping service users leave hospital swiftly, but safely and legally.  It’s been my toughest job so far because it can be a very busy environment in which to remain calm (I had to interrupt busy doctors and nurses in their wards – asking them to improve their paperwork and inform me about discharges).  I was not Mr Popular with them but I managed the conflict well and made sure I got all the necessary information.

In my work it was challenging to see health and social care professionals disagree at times over the care and funding of care of a dying person. One memory that stands out is of a team colleague liaising in the battle between health and social care over who was going to pay for the service user’s care – whilst the actual service user was in the process of dying.  What affect must this have had on the service user?

Most discharges are not deaths; they are often issues around finding an appropriate care home for the service user, perhaps issues around mental capacity and their medical fitness.  Whenever there was a death there was often confusion about what was the appropriate action to take, whether to rush them off to home to die or to allow them to die in hospital.  This was the topic of my dissertation – how to have a good death.

Where would you like to die?

In the UK, 56 to 74 per cent of us would like to die at home but 60 per cent of us actually die in hospital.  Numbers of home deaths have been declining (to below 20 percent).  Roughly 500,000 people die each year with fewer than 8,000 specialist doctors and nurses, so there is not sufficient capacity. This combined with an ever increasing ageing population and more people living with multiple and degenerate conditions means there are increasing pressures on the health and social care system. Many people are not getting their wishes fulfilled of having a good death – at home.

Talking openly about death

There is an increasing awareness campaign in the UK to address these problems and in the future there may be more of a role for social care and social work to pre-empt matters.  The campaign is a continuous one that encourages everyone in our society to talk openly about death e.g. making wills well in advance, and planning and caring well for those who we know are very ill and perhaps dying. They even discuss issues around advance directives involving not using resuscitations and switching off life support machines, in certain circumstances.

I found similarities with this campaign and Buddhism in that they both recognise that we don’t like to talk about death too much.  In Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully, Geshe-la says:

Although intellectually we all know that one day we shall die, generally we are so reluctant to think about our death that this knowledge does not touch our hearts, and we live our life as if we were going to be in this world forever.

Through my dissertation research I found sociologists who agreed with this view, saying that, historically, institutions in our society have protected us from thinking about death, helping us suppress or suspend our thoughts about death.

At Kadampa Buddhist Centres we don’t have to wait for the Day of the Dead to discuss death and dying and how an awareness of death can enrich our spiritual practice :-) These kinds of discussion take place regularly!

Your turn
What do you think? Is it too morbid or depressing to think or talk about death? Or has it helped you live a happier, fuller life, and/or to help others who are dying or bereaved?

How to handle things falling apart …

subatomic particles

subatomic particles

Quantum mechanics and laws of physics alone show that nothing stays the same, from the smallest to the biggest thing. Subatomic particles are whizzing about in your body and even the seemingly solid walls around you. The blood never stops rushing through your veins. The earth never stops journeying. Our galaxy is flying away from other galaxies at an inconceivable speed. Mentally, no moment of mind has the power to linger. Buddha explained this very clearly in his teachings on subtle impermanence. Blink and it’s a new world. 

Everything is momentarily impermanent, infinitely complex and interdependent. We may feel permanent, solid and independent, but that is one hell of an illusion. Especially if we go on assuming that we are not going to die anytime soon, including today.

galaxy

Normally we try to hold tightly onto the infrastructure of our lives – our relationships, our money, our car, our pets, our children, our house, our job, our career, our status, our power, our control. Much of our current self-image is based on these very concrete, solid, pretty much permanent things that seem to define us. The stronger we grasp at this chunky restrictive sense of self, the more attachment we will need to generate for all these things in order to keep the illusion alive, and the more fear we will have of losing them. Like trying to hang onto the deck furniture on the Titanic, or a sandcastle by the rising tide, our desires and efforts are doomed to failure. Every small loss of, say, a turret on our castle is disillusioning for us because we wanted it to be permanent and fixed, and it ended up being the opposite. Then when the whole lot gets swept away at death…

Does the idea of change frighten you? Losing everything you know? How can we learn not to be frightened of the inevitable?

I find this the most helpful consideration: we can understand that the pain and fear is not actually coming from what we must lose but from our mind that holds on.

Can you remember a time long ago when you were so in love (or attachment) that the very thought of losing that person struck you with terror? But then the years passed and you both went your separate ways and now when you see that person they are middle-aged, like you, with a pot belly and no hair? And you wonder at the love (lust) you felt for them because it has now gone, all gone. But there is no pain in that. It doesn’t matter that it has all gone, because the attachment has also gone. It is only while we had attachment that we needed this person to try and fulfill attachment’s desires. There is, in fact, no loss at all. The mind is peaceful with respect to that person. The tension of holding on has all gone.

Meditation on death is like the elephant’s deepest footprint in terms of the impression it makes on our mind as we can finally see how futile it is to try and hold onto all this stuff that is right now, and constantly, slipping between our fingers. The other day in the shower I was trying to hold onto a bar of hard slippery soap, but it kept slipping through my fingers, and it  reminded me that the more tightly I hold onto stuff, the more quickly it seems to slip from my grasp. If we want to enjoy our life while we still have it, it makes sense to stop grasping with attachment and just go with the flow of reality, like gently letting the soap rest in our hands. Take it or leave it, it is all good.

The fact is, if we relinquish our attachment, it doesn’t mean we are going to suffer loss. The opposite is true. It is only if we keep our attachment that we will experience the pain of loss. And we don’t need it.

Getting rid of attachment is not the same as relinquishing desire. We need desires – to be authentically happy, to love others, to attain liberation and enlightenment, even to put on our socks, etc. We don’t become a detached automaton without attachment. In fact, attachment deadens and dulls us as it is always hankering after an idealized image of something that we feel we must have if we are to be happy, causing us to miss out on what is actually going on under our nose. Without attachment, quite the opposite of becoming detached or hopeless, we can become connected and fully alive to each present moment.

So we don’t need to fear or resist the meditation on impermanence and death because we have nothing to lose but our attachment, and it is attachment that has given rise to all the agony of loss we have experienced since beginningless time.

Do you agree?! Please share this article if you like it. And do like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you want to see interesting links and join in or start your own discussions about meditation in daily life.

Meaning of life ~ try this experiment

egg timer

Premise: If we don’t remember death each day, we are bound to neglect what is actually important in life, our perspective will be skewwhiff. True or false?

Please humor me by doing this experiment! :-) You’ll need 10 minutes or so. Get out a pen and piece of paper (or its hi-tech equivalent). Now please ask yourself the following questions, one by one, giving yourself time for each one to close your eyes and think carefully about it first, before moving onto the next question. Then write down your answers:

(1)   If I was never going to die, what would I do today?

(2)   If I was going to die in 50 years, what would I do today?

(3)   If I was going to die in 10 years, what would I do today?

(4)   If I was going to die in 1 year, what would I do today?

(5)   If I was going to die in 1 month, what would I do today?

(6)   If I was going to die in 1 week, what would I do today?

(7)   If I was going to die today, what would I do today?

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Do the answers change? Which answer do you reckon is the most realistic or makes the most sense?

Can you work out from your answers what matters most in your own life? And what matters most to you today?

Looking forward to reading your feedback! Please comment below, and share this article if you like it.

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