“Welcome, Adversity”

mimi-young

Mimi young.jpg I recently said good bye to Mimi Waring. On this occasion she was lying half in and half out of her bed, after a brush with extreme nausea lovingly cleared up by her husband Richard, and she was out of it. But I knew she could hear me ok, so I held her hand and brushed her cheek and said, “Bye bye Mimi. I know we’ll see each other again, one way or another. Send us blessings from the other side.” To which she half-opened her eyes, smiled, and nodded her head. And I added, “You know what to do.” To which she responded by nodding her head even harder.

I had spent longer with her a few days ago. I visited her at her house for, in a stroke of good timing, I happened to be in Seattle. She had saved her energy up for this visit, not seeing anyone all week, heroically making it out of the bed she had been bound in for days and, leaning on her special rolling chair, walking out to the deck where we had lunch in the sunshine. Delicious lunch, actually, vegetarian BLT sandwiches made by the aforementioned Richard. Did I mention too that that man is a saint? (He even made me more BLT sandwiches today for my flight because he knew I loved them, as if he had nothing better to do while his wife is dying.)

mimi-and-richardWe three had a very meaningful conversation, I thought; this was not a dead flowers’ visit as Sue Hulley would have said. I asked Mimi where she thought she was going, where she wanted to go; and, in response to some of her concerns, suggested that she spend these next few weeks or so not feeling the need to say goodbye to everyone, for she has done that already and everyone knows she is off, but instead getting ready for her trip. Mimi is a very faithful disciple of Geshe Kelsang and has deep refuge in her Sangha and Dharma too. She has also been very generous to her Kadampa Meditation Center in Seattle, and helped them buy their beautiful buildings. So, she has already started packing well for this next trip, where a new assignment awaits her.

Time for your next adventure

I think of Mimi’s departure as a bit like when Geshe Kelsang calls one of his disciples and asks them to go teach or administrate in some far-flung part of the world where they have never been before and where they don’t even speak the language. “Oh, and can you go next week?!”

af1qippowwd73fe2ltchtew15zmgfnuf1crw5xq6f7fei

All leaves must leave.

If you get that phone call, you don’t spend the whole last week saying goodbye to everyone. Pretty immediately you start trying to figure out what you are going to need, you start to get ready and pack, you start to imagine where you will be and what you will be doing and who you will be relying upon. I think death is a bit like that. And if you are a Dharma practitioner, as Mimi said herself, you want to end up in a place where you can meet the same Spiritual Guide and the same teachings and help lots of people; that is what she wants most. It’s a good thing there are so many of her fellow Sangha building centers and temples all over this world — we are ready for her. Watch out for a baby coming somewhere soon in the Kadampa mandala, a baby with a glint in her eyes.

We’ve done death countless times before, of course. Amazing, as Richard said to me today as I was leaving, how we forget that, how it is so normal and yet still so challenging. As I shuffle through the Fall leaves, I am reminded that none of us stays in one place for long — wherever we are and whoever is next to us, it is only a matter of months or days before we are blown by the winds of karma to somewhere completely different.

Before I left our lunch date, Mimi wanted to show me the sign that is prominent on the shrine in her room, currently next to the commode: “Welcome, adversity!” Adversity, she told me, has been invaluable to her.

It’s the heart that counts
mimi-goodbye-picture

Some of Mimi’s friends at Manjushri KMC in early August.

I wrote the above in late August. Today it is October 31, and Mimi passed away this morning at 3am. I heard last night that she was dying, so she has been in my thoughts and prayers constantly ~ and I feel good about where she is now, that her Spiritual Guide really does have her safe. Tributes and prayers are flowing in.

Mimi had brain cancer and, despite her formidable intelligence, was not always able to use her gross mind very well toward the end, as might be expected — though she did incredibly well with that.

And someone asked me the other day about what happens when we lose our ability to “think,” is that disastrous for a mindful death? A lot of people ask this question, is it possible to die peacefully if you have “lost your mind”, as it were? So I thought I might address that question here, Mimi won’t mind. In fact, Mimi asked me umpteen curious questions 😍  — it was one of the things I loved about her. Feel free too, please, to jump in the comments if you have any input on this.

mimis-seattle

Sunset Hill, Seattle

The point is, I think, that you haven’t really lost your mind, just some conceptual thoughts. The mind which counts is the mind at our heart. One case in point is an elderly Buddhist monk called Trinlay who died a few years ago in Southampton. Trinlay lost his memory and was bedbound with lots of physical complications. But in the last year of his life, even when he had pus oozing from his painful legs, he managed to stay positive. He would say, “I get happier and happier every day. I am a monk living in a Buddhist Center.” He also would say “I am a millionaire; I have said millions of mantras.” The day before he died, he removed the mask over his mouth in response to the question “How are you feeling” and smiled, “I am tired but inspired.” He was a love bomb, complimenting anyone who came near him, even if he didn’t remember who they were, making everyone around him feel happy. He died very peacefully.

So, is it possible to have a good death and lead-up to death if you have lost your brain functions? I think so, yes. If you are in your heart. If you have given up malice. If you have faith and/or love. If you have peace. All these things are in the heart, not the head. The important thing for all of us is to practice now, to learn how to enter the refuge zone. And Mimi, who died peacefully surrounded by her husband and close Sangha friends, is a beautiful demonstration of that.

Suffering has good qualitiesmimi

Mimi has been a force of nature these last 7 years, defying all doctors’ expectations, showing that suffering can indeed have good qualities, insisting on flying to festivals and celebrations and retreats even in the midst of treatments for brain cancer, never regretting any of her foolhardy but totally virtuous exertions. Always wanting to learn, and devoid of self-pity.

I will let her tell you about this journey herself, posthumously, in her wonderful blog This Mountain, That Mountain. If you want to know how to cope well with your own adversity, illness, and death, her blog will give you many inspiring ideas.

Please pray that Mimi comes back safely and soon to our world, in a brand new healthy comfortable human body, so that she can keep on inspiring us all with her faith, quirkiness, and sheer joyful (yep, bloody-minded) perseverance.

Comments are most welcome.

Top Five Regrets of the Dying – and a Buddhist’s perspective

disappearing world

A hospice worker called Bronnie Ware wrote a very interesting article called “Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. I (and others) posted it on Facebook and it garnered a lot of attention, probably as all of us are dying sooner or later, and who wants to die with regrets?! Other hospice workers chimed in to agree that they found these to be the top five regrets amongst their patients too.

I think Buddha’s meditations can help us prevent all of these (as well as  a few other regrets I can think of) and make the most of the time we have left. I hope she doesn’t mind, but I’m going to borrow Bronnie Ware’s points and share just a few more ideas below; and please add your own ideas in the comments.

Meditating on death awareness now — remembering the fact that we are definitely going to die and lose everything external, and that this could happen any time, even today – is probably the most effective preparation for preventing these regrets. If we live each week, or day, as if it is our last, this tends to get our priorities straight! And it doesn’t have to be scary either, it can be very liberating. (You can try this experiment to see if this is true.)

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

We are often wrapped up in the so-called “worldly concerns” of wishing to experience praise and a good reputation and not criticism and a bad reputation, and this can make us overly fearful. We need integrity – knowing based on our own wisdom (not blind allegiance) what is good and kind, and sticking to it regardless of what everyone around us thinks or does. We need a self-worth based not on distracting, fleeting concerns like our reputation and whether or not people like us, but based on the good qualities we are developing in own mind – our own love, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and so on. These are what make us feel good about ourselves both now and at the time of our death.

If we imagine what it is going to be like to lose everything – our body, our possessions, our career, our friends, even our most dearly beloved who seems to have been validating our existence – what do we want to have left? Does it matter at that time what others expected of us? Or does it matter more that we have tried to live up to our highest ideals?

If any of you have lost your job recently, or a loved one, or your health, did you find this to be the case?

When we meditate on death awareness, we think of what it’ll be like to lose EVERYTHING, the entire infrastructure of our life, including our friends, our possessions and even our own body. This can have a dramatic effect on our mind because it puts us in touch with the naked truth. But sometimes I think it can also be very powerful to meditate on losing one thing at a time. You can start by imagining that you are fired from your long-term job/career (you can also imagine what often goes along with it, such as being pitied and/or criticized behind your back, and no longer having anything in common with the people you made your working life with.) You can imagine that your most dearly beloved partner, parent or child dies. You can imagine losing your health. What matters at these times, what protects you from pain, what do you have left, what do you want to have left?

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

So true, isn’t it, that old adage that no one’s last words are “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”?!

Of course, it depends what we’re working hard doing, and especially why. If we are motivated by a desire just for making this life comfortable, and especially if we become addicted to earning more and more money, status etc, when we see that these pursuits are pointless in the light of death we are bound to feel some regret for the wasted time and energy. But if we work hard to help others, motivated by a wish to bring happiness and freedom into others’ lives, I doubt we’ll regret that. It doesn’t matter so much what job we have to do to earn our keep and look after our loved ones. It matters far more why we are going to work each day.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

Bronnie explains that “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

I think this is related to #1 above. It’s a good idea not to suppress our emotions/pretend we’re someone different. Bodhisattvas have a vow to avoid both “pretension” and “deceit”. But nor do we have to suddenly tell everyone exactly what we think of them, especially if it may hurt them (see this article about criticism) – we’ll probably regret that too! Better to work on overcoming the resentment by learning to love unconditionally, based on a genuine self-confidence. From our side, do we really need to worry quite so much about what people think or say about us, or even say to us? It means very little in the grand scheme of things.

There is a Kadampa motto:

“Help others as much as you can. Harm your delusions as much as you can.”

Following this advice gives us the courage we need.

4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends

See, Facebook is helpful!! Children of my nieces’ generation will never have to lose a friend again; they’ll be followed from crib to grave by hundreds upon hundreds of friends…!!

Actually, of course, we don’t want attachment to our friends, as this will cause us pain at the time of death when we understand we have to lose them in this current form. But if we have the three types of love – warm affection, cherishing them as precious, and wishing them to be happy – we’ll never truly be separated from our friends. (You can find out more about the difference between the positive mind of love and the delusion of attachment in Joyful Path.)

It is good to live as if every encounter we have with another may be our last – it’ll naturally prevent our being cross with them, and mean that we appreciate every moment we have together.

5. I wish I’d let myself be happier

Bronnie says:

“Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice.”

So, the sooner we realize this, the better! Enough said.

Please add your own observations on these or any other likely deathbed regrets you can think of. And share this article if you feel like it.

%d bloggers like this: