“When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” ~ A story of hope and transformation

As mentioned in this article, Maynor was tortured and murdered in the Honduras aged 19, trampled by drug wars he had nothing to do with. Jeffery “Black Nature” was also at Maynor’s powa (transference of consciousness) puja at Saraha Center in San Francisco.

At the 20th anniversary of Saraha Center, a few days earlier, Michael Rollins, a dear friend, told me about the band Black Nature of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, which was just about to play — Michael had at the last minute invited them. Jeffery “Black Nature”, the lead vocalist and drummer, was the youngest member of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars band, which was the subject of a PBS documentary in 2007 .

Extract from movie description: “The plight of the refugee in today’s war-torn world is captured in the African proverb: “When two elephants are fighting, the grass dem’ a-suffer.” So it was in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, when the government and various rebel factions carried out a brutal civil war in which the terrorizing of civilians — by killing, mutilation, rape and forced conscription — was common practice on all sides. The war sent hundreds of thousands of ordinary Sierra Leoneans fleeing to refugee camps in the neighboring West African nation of the Republic of Guinea. That’s where the remarkable story told by the new documentary Sierra Leone‘s Refugee All Stars began…

… At 15, Alhadji Jeffery Kamara, called “Black Nature,” is the youngest of the group. Orphaned by the war and tortured by police in Guinea, to which he had fled, Black Nature is perhaps the most traumatized and is considered an adopted son by the others.”

Michael Rollins

Jeffery has now started his own band, with the All Stars’ blessing. He met Michael by chance in the guitar shop where Michael works, and invited him to play bass for him and help him find the other musicians. Before one of their songs, Michael stood up to speak:

“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”

That, Michael had told me, was the thought keeping him sane during this nightmare. Nature was nodding his head in agreement through Michael’s short speech.

Nature’s story dwarfs most stories. I’ll share some of the main elements as told to me by Michael, hopefully not blowing the plot of the movie that I think could be made about him (and hopefully his new band). 🙂

Nature was 11 when the rebels came to his house. His mother had gone missing. He was forced to watch as they set his father alight, telling him that they’d do the same to him if he cried. Then they took him. They taught him how to kill, keeping him and the other child soldiers ramped up on drugs so that life and shooting felt unreal, like a video game. They filled the children’s heads with tales of how evil their parents and neighbors had been, but Nature said he never bought into what they said. Instead, he always tried to escape.

And during some fighting, he did manage to get away. Later one of the older soldiers found him but, in a lucky break, decided not to take him back but instead to flee with him and a couple of other escapees. He helped them make their way toward Guinea, but en route this new father figure was also blown up by a mine in front of Jeffery’s eyes.

The boys managed to get over the border into Guinea but the terror was not over. They were captured by police and, accused of being rebel soldiers, kept in cages not tall enough to stand up in. Nature has a stoop to this day. They’d be taken out and tortured, and periodically made to look at a pit of dead bodies, told that they were headed there themselves.

I’m a little hazy as to how they managed to escape this new nightmare, but at some point it involved Jeffery being plucked up miraculously by someone in a UN convoy truck as it was driving away from some war zone with things being blown up all around them. That is how he ended up in a squalid, dangerous, soulless refugee camp for the remainder of his teenage years, but how he also managed by another lucky break to meet the other members of the Refugees All Stars Band, including a musician whom he had greatly admired as a young boy in pre-war days. The band was eventually invited to travel, and they tour to this day.

At the tea Esmerelda made after the powa, Jeffery spoke softly to Maynor’s family and us, saying that the only thing we have to fear is mental bondage, and people can enslave or destroy our body but no one else can enslave our mind. He seems well on his way to extracting retribution from anger and other delusions.

Michael told me that Jeffery spontaneously gives a helpful hand wherever he goes and to whomever he meets. He also supports and encourages musicians back in Sierra Leone and in his new adopted city of San Francisco in particular. I found him to be gentle, kind, and humble, very easy to be with. At tea, he laughed at how during his time in the Refugee All Stars he had hung out with Angelina Jolie, been on Oprah, and appeared with Leonardo diCapria, only realizing from people’s reactions later how famous these people are.

I have not begun to do justice to his story and I apologize for any mistake in details, but the movie version will set us straight! In any event, what is powerful about meeting Black Nature is witnessing how he has transformed all this to end up the person he is today. By comparison any hardships I might have had in this human life are not even a walk in the park, more like a gentle stroll.

Offering music to the Buddhas

After Michael’s short speech, the band did a song about sending love to Maynor and to everyone in the world.  It was “real” – they were walking the talk – and everyone loved it. They say that their intention is not to make lots of money with their new band but to spread joy and sanity in our troubled world. I see no reason why they won’t reach and move new audiences with their music, because if Jeffery Black Nature and Maynor’s brother in law can forgive and find peace, surely there is hope for all of us?

(Michael told me yesterday that they are now recording a song dedicated to Maynor and the family.)

Please share this article if you like it, and leave your comments in the box below.

Here is a short video. You can look at Black Nature Band Facebook page to find out more.

Why am I so sad? Removing the two ego minds at the source of our pain.

In a recent article I tried to explain how self-grasping and self-cherishing, and the delusions they spawn, entirely undermine our happiness. Luckily, nothing is fixed – if we can understand these two ego-centered states of mind at the source of our pain and dissatisfaction, that’s the first step to removing them. We don’t need them to survive, to live. The actual nature of our mind is purity – all our delusions are temporary defilements like clouds obscuring a clear sky. 

Who comes first?

Not only are we not more important than anybody else, we’re certainly not more important than everybody else, which is what self-cherishing actually thinks. “My happiness comes first.” What does that mean?  My happiness comes first means it comes before the happiness of everybody else. That’s what “first” means, doesn’t it? There are millions of beings in the area around us alone, and our self-cherishing still manages to hold onto the thought, “I’m more important than all of them.” We may not admit that in polite company, it’s way too embarrassing to say it out loud at a dinner party; but if we check what motivates our thoughts and actions day and night, we are trying to serve and protect this sense of me or I, holding it to be the most important me in the world.

Stepping into others’ shoes

When our mind is less ignorant and deluded — for instance when we manage out of love to step out of our shoes and into somebody else’s — then what happens to our sense of self at that time, and our sense of other? It is less polarized, isn’t it? It evens out somewhat. Others feel more like “us” and we feel closer to them. When we do the meditation on equalizing self and others for example, we’re equalizing our sense of self and our sense of other so that we no longer have the sense that our self is like this incredibly important weighty thing and others are neither here nor there. When there is love, empathy, consideration, and so on, our sense of self is far, far less exaggerated and we see no real difference between our self and others.

Big fat ME

But when a delusion such as attachment, anger, jealousy or miserliness is arising, there’s a big fat sense of ME. Why do we cling tightly to our possessions, for example, or our time? Why do we not share ourselves with others, and instead hold ourselves back?  Because we’re trying to defend this isolated castle of me against the hordes of other. On the other hand, when we’re feeling really open and generous, that sense of me is greatly reduced.

Referring to cherishing others on the one hand, and the self-cherishing that thinks our happiness matters most on the other, Shantideva says:

All the happiness there is in the world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

Destruction

I sometimes get the New York Times on Sunday. The cashier in Publix the other day wanted to know, “What’s in that paper that’s worth the six bucks?!” And, apart from using it to develop renunciation and compassion, I’m not sure why I do pay good money to torment myself with it for, as they say, no news is good news. Where does this seemingly endless array of disasters around our world actually come from? I think it’s easy to see how much suffering comes from negative, destructive actions — actions motivated by attachment and greed such as pollution and theft, actions motivated by hatred and anger, such as war and murder. When people’s minds are peaceful, calm, and loving, they don’t engage in negative actions (and generally they don’t make the news…)

According to Buddhism, our negativity all comes from our negative minds. This negativity gives rise to suffering, both in the short term, and, from a karmic point of view, in the long term. So these negative actions are all coming from our delusions, these delusions are all coming from our self-cherishing, and our self-cherishing is coming from our self-grasping ignorance.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

All negative actions are motivated by delusions, which in turn arise from self-cherishing.  First we develop the thought,    “I am important,” and because of this we feel that the fulfillment our wishes is of paramount importance. Then we desire for ourself that which appears attractive and develop attachment, we feel aversion for that which appears unattractive and develop anger, and we feel indifference toward that which appears neutral and develop ignorance. From these three delusions, all other delusions arise. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are the roots of the tree of suffering, delusions such as anger and attachment are its trunk, negative actions are its branches, and the miseries and pains of samsara are its bitter fruit.

Samsara refers to a life seeded by and poisoned by delusions and suffering, the world described for example in the New York Times. Those who live free from delusions are not in samsara; they are called Foe Destroyers as they have destroyed the foe of delusions (and presumably have their own rather more cheerful newspaper.)

So, who does come first?

The fact is that we’re not the most important person. We’ll never get anyone to agree with us that we are, except possibly our mother (sometimes). We have this strong sense of self-importance, but everybody is exactly the same in that they’re seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. Everyone is equal in that respect, and their happiness and their suffering are just as significant as ours. When our mind is in a balanced non-deluded state, we understand this.

Everybody is me or I. We pay lip service to equality – it is even in the American constitution!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

It would be wonderful if we could really feel that everybody was equal. It would instantly solve so many problems arising from self-cherishing and other delusions.

The Mahayana Buddhist path involves reducing our delusions, especially self-cherishing and self-grasping, and increasing all our positive minds that are the opponents to those delusions, especially compassion and wisdom.

Conclusion
Which direction, samsara or liberation?

As I said at the beginning of this short series of articles, Buddha’s synopsis of the human condition is very encouraging because we are not evil, much less doomed. It is possible for all of us to overcome all our suffering if we simply overcome our ignorance. When we finally cut the root of delusions and suffering through realizing selflessness, delusions and suffering cannot survive. For a full understanding of this, check out the Ultimate Truth chapter in Modern Buddhism, which you can download entirely for free!!

Your turn. Where do you think all pain comes from?! Please share your experiences in the comments and or on the Facebook page, and also give this article to others if it’s useful.

Previous articles in this series:
What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?

Must we all suffer?
Why can’t I be happy?

In praise of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s presentation of modern Buddhism

Click on the image for your free gift!

(I guess this particular article is directed mainly at Kadampas, though I hope the rest of you find it a bit interesting too.)

Have you had a chance yet to download your gift ebook of Modern Buddhism?! It’s wonderful that it is completely free, because reading and practicing all the instructions in this book is, I think, like reading and practicing all of Buddha’s essential teachings on Sutra and Tantra.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has presented Kadampa Buddhism with mind-boggling skill. For example, in the “old days” (circa early 1980s), we all practiced the long sadhanas (prayer booklets) that took hours because that is all we had; also we arguably had more time as we had less aggressive distractions. Now Geshe Kelsang has provided his students with short practices such as Heart Jewel, Prayers for Meditation or, most recently, The Yoga of Buddha Heruka, which nonetheless contain absolutely everything. In his books and live teachings, he has encouraged us to dive straight into the very essence of Buddha’s teachings from the beginning, and then unravel it all backward.

From the get-go, practitioners are now encouraged to meditate daily on bliss and emptiness, which is the ultimate Buddhist meditation and actually contains every meaning of the spiritual path (included in the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and generation stage and completion stage of Highest Yoga Tantra). We truly learn to sow all five seeds together and reap their results together, as advised by Geshe Kelsang’s teacher’s teacher, Je Phabongkhapa. This is the real union of Sutra and Tantra as taught by the Kadampa tradition’s founder Je Tsongkhapa

But at the same time we are encouraged to learn and deepen our experience of all these five seeds (and their components) by gradually receiving teachings on all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra, which are taught in authentic and practical detail in 22 outstanding books and on the three study programs worldwide. This is skilful (a) because it shows a complete understanding of how little time (and patience!) we have, and how we cannot and will not wait for years to get to the essential point, and (b) because starting at the end and working backwards is the very best way for us to practice! It truly brings the future result of our spiritual practice into the present path, making it happen now, not some time in the ever-receding future. (See this article for how simply to relate to our best and purest potential whenever we practice.)

Whenever we are connected to a peaceful mind we are connected to Buddha’s mind. It is connecting with our Buddha nature. We need to associate with that potential, get there, and stay there. We want to liberate our peace, our love, our compassion, our wisdom so they expand and pervade the universe. We are removing the obstructions from our Buddha nature.

I think of Modern Buddhism as being our modern-day Kadam Emanation Scripture. It is a magical, blessed book as it can be read on so many different levels. If you are just getting interested in Buddhism, you can download the book for free and find out all about Buddhism in general and bliss and emptiness in particular. Then, if you wish, you can slowly but surely gain a more extensive understanding of all these subjects through more reading and meditating on the other books. And people who have been around for a while say they find Modern Buddhism exceedingly helpful in presenting the very essence of everything they have already learned.

“We need modern ideas, but we also need ancient wisdom. If we deny ancient wisdom we are making a big mistake.” ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

It is possible to take Geshe Kelsang’s presentation for granted if it is all we have known. However, just from my relatively short experience of how things have evolved in the past 30 years, let alone taken in the historical context of the presentation of Buddhism over the past 2500 years, I am aware that it is uncommonly skillful. Geshe Kelsang is a spiritual genius, wielding Manjushri’s wisdom sword to cut through the labrynthine complications of modern living and modern mind-sets — all the more miraculous given his entirely unwired background (it’s safe to say there was no Tweeting in Tibet…).

But do you agree that each of us could do with thinking about how to keep these teachings alive ourselves by figuring out how to practice effectively in our own modern wired life? Can we, the Smartphone generation, learn to meditate?! Can we gain all the same realizations as our predecessors?! Geshe Kelsang has done everything in his power to help us, so what do we need to do from our own side? If we can figure this out together, then we can repay the kindness of Geshe Kelsang’s and of his teachers all the way back to Buddha, and make sure there is hope for future generations.

Your turn: In the comments, I would love to hear if and how you are all using modern-day methods to stitch Buddhism into the fabric of your daily life and make actual progress.

Try a short meditation

Remember that new year’s resolution!? Here are two meditations you can practice at home. All you need is a comfortable chair or cushion and five to ten minutes’ free time.

Enjoy!

Meditation 1 – Finding a still point

Finding a still point in meditation – where busy mental activity subsides for a few moments – helps you to relieve stress and keep a clear head throughout the day.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation with your mind. Follow your breath, not your thoughts.
  4. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. Gradually you will feel the stress in your body and mind melt away and experience a deep, inner stillness and peace.
  6. Stay with this stillness for a while, giving yourself permission to enjoy it.
  7. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the merit from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  8. Throughout the day, try to remember the still point you reached in meditation and return to it as often as you can.

You can find our more about this meditation here.

Meditation 2 – Clearing the inner energies

Most of our problems come from our negative states of mind, which depend upon negative energy inside us. This meditation helps to eliminate negative energy and build up positive energy.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of thick smoke, which completely disappears into space.
  6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear light, which fills your entire body and mind.
  7. Continue in this way for a few minutes, then conclude by focusing on the clean, blissful feeling pervading your body and mind.
  8. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  9. Throughout the day, try to keep this clean, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.

You can find out more about this meditation in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, pages 51-2.

If any of your family or friends have expressed interest in learning to meditate, please feel free to pass on this article, and/or this related article.

Martin Luther King and the power of love

This short article below appeared on Kadampa Life in 2011, but the blog was in its infancy so not many of you have seen it. Here it is again, to celebrate Martin Luther King Day today.

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A Kadampa nun gave the annual Martin Luther King lecture at Montana State University last Monday, speaking to about 400 students, professors and community members.

King proved power of love, nonviolence, speaker says

Martin Luther King Jr. achieved incredible changes in American law and society, yet it all sprang from what was within his mind, a philosophy based on love, compassion and wisdom, a Buddhist nun told a Bozeman crowd Wednesday.

Gen Varahi spoke in Washington DC, a breath of fresh air in a city known at the moment mainly for its partisan bickering.

Democrat or Republican, the only way to make a lasting difference in our world is to have a good intention — beginning, middle and end. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in Mahamudra Tantra (page 9):

Wherever we go and whatever we do depends upon our intention. No matter how powerful our body and speech may be, we shall never be able to do anything if we lack the intention to do it. If our intention is incorrect we shall naturally perform incorrect actions, which give rise to unpleasant results, but if our intention is correct the opposite will be true.

As Gen Varahi, a former medical doctor, points out:

King was a hero, who led a movement that took America out of a “very shameful” position to one we can be proud of”… “We can be like Martin Luther King if we train our minds to react with compassion and wisdom…. King’s use of the practical philosophy of nonviolent worked. It showed us the power of love.”

I read last Sunday’s papers yesterday and came to my usual conclusion that the world is a mess.

Africa — disaster
Arab world — disaster
Afghanistan — disaster
American job situation — disaster

And that is just the A’s.

And why? We can point the finger at any number of external causes and conditions, and usually do. In politics different people point fingers at different causes, and then spend most of the time arguing about what they’re pointing at.

But the real causes are the delusions — i.e. unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — of everyone involved. Anger, greed, ignorance, pride, hubris, hypocrisy, selfishness, the eight worldly concerns… These are all states of mind, nothing external.

Imagine if  they were replaced by love, generosity, wisdom, humility, straightforwardness, honesty, unselfishness, equanimity…?

“King realized that you cannot separate the ends and means”, Varahi said. “Over time, violent methods do not result in peace.”

(See the article for her reply on the efficacy non-violence in the face of violent dictators).

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang is fond of saying:

“Without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”

Atisha, the original Kadampa Teacher, said:

“Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.”

It might sound obvious when we see it, so why do we keep pointing the finger elsewhere when things go wrong?After all, whenever we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us.

Preparing for the Pure Land

(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

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.

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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.