by Mary Jo Bennett
“The human merry-go-round sees many changes: the illusion that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask is the same illusion that the West has labored just as hard to maintain and strengthen.”
– Hermann Hesse
More and more it seems as if the topic of dying is finding its way into the limelight, and not a moment too soon. Various platforms, from the Death Cafes to the Conversation Project are gently nudging us forward, as a culture, to reconsider our uneasy relationship with death. In our dis-ease with all things pointing to aging, sickness and death, we in the West have strategically piled on the ammunition in waging war against our mortality and I have often asked myself, why? Why this incessant denial and panic about something so intrinsically natural and potentially beautiful?
Think about the magnificence of dying leaves in autumn. Everywhere we look in the nature, we observe the simplistic circle of birth, decay and death. The impermanence of life is what gives each moment its brilliance, but only if we have cultivated the clarity to see it. Our Eastern relations seem to be well ahead of us in this capacity.
Eastern traditions have long established rituals around death which have served the living very well. Death is not hidden away or sanitized, as it so often is in our country. On the contrary, it is a demanding presence in all aspects of daily life, largely due to multi-generational homes, pervasive poverty and the scarcity of affordable, effective medicine. What many Eastern cultures lack in material wealth and medical advancement, perhaps they more than make up for in their practical wisdom in matters of life and death.
Unquestionably, the myriad material comforts of our Western lifestyle have offered many perks, but the disadvantages may have blind-sided us, leaving us woefully ill-prepared to understand and deal with the finite nature of our existence. Allowing ourselves to become multi-layered, accumulating one thing after another, we create an armor inside which we hope to push through life and, ostensibly, keep death out. In so doing, we lose touch with our vulnerability, our humanity and ultimately, our mortality. However, I believe we have the means to redirect our course, reclaiming the stillness, peace and grace that is so often smothered by the busyness and clutter of our days.
Five years ago I opted to pursue this path. Having looked at death up close for many years as a hospice volunteer and a bereavement facilitator for parents who lost infants due to miscarriage, stillbirth and SIDS, this proximity reshaped my life in profound and unexpected ways. It was a good and fulfilling life, as I was also actively engaged as a homemaker, wife and mother of two young children. Then, in gradual and not so gradual, increments, my happy-enough life imploded.
I had started a formal meditation practice and within less than a year, attended my first residential retreat with Roshi Joan Halifax, a longtime Zen practitioner and pioneer in contemplative end-of-life care. Somehow the linking of these two pivotal facets of my life – spirituality with death and dying – served as a potent catalyst, completely reframing my reality.
When the cyclone had done its work, I found myself transported from Montana to Hawai’i; divorced; and without my children. The universe was quite thorough in slicing up my ego and all its attachments. The cumulative deaths I experienced throughout this transition were staggering.
I wanted simplicity – a life of deeper meaning and purpose, without all the camouflage. In short – I wanted to integrate some of the positive attributes of Eastern culture into my very Western, traditional lifestyle. Maybe it was like oil and water; or better yet, TNT and a match. Whatever it was I experienced, it ground me to a pulp, repeatedly, and possessed many similarities to the end-of-life scenarios I had encountered over the years. Utter chaos – fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, grief – in other words, the whole enchilada, strained and broken family relations, loss of control, loss of identity, loss of livelihood –just one huge pile-up of losses one on top of another. But isn’t this what simplicity implies – letting go of things? When huge chunks of our lives are flying out from under us, simplicity may not seem so appealing after all. Be careful what you wish for.
I was careful and have no regrets. Though the process was beyond what I could have ever envisioned, the exterior of my life is now a much truer reflection of what lies within. Throughout this journey, I learned many invaluable lessons about what facilitates ease and comfort and what compounds anxiety and fear. I learned how to question a plethora of beliefs, values and thoughts around which I had created the illusion of a permanent, fixed self and by extension, my life. I emptied all the drawers and cleaned out the closets. I am bringing mindfulness to every nook and cranny. Knowing how to cultivate truly supportive mind states is foundational in sustaining a happy life and certainly critical in facilitating a peaceful death. This cannot be overstated.
No matter how many conversations we have about our end-of-life wishes or how thoroughly we’ve documented and delivered them to all the proper people; no matter how certain we are that life will cooperate on our terms when our dying time comes; no matter how many ducks we’ve lined up, waiting for deployment – there will be suffering. There will be circumstances not quite to our liking. And there will be a pile-up of losses; this you can count on.
If we can find ways today, right now, to gain more simplicity and clarity in our minds and hearts, via meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, Ayurveda or any of the other Eastern philosophies and practices readily available to us, we may be much better equipped to approach our individual end-of-life scenarios. At the end of the day, if outer conditions are congruent with our wishes, wonderful! But if we have practiced well up until this point, the outer conditions, however unpredictable and uncontrollable they may be, could have far less negative impact than had we not given this great matter – our life and death – the attention and intention it truly deserves.
The “Silver Tsunami” – the continuous wave sweeping over the planet, of Baby Boomers aging and approaching death – is upon us. Many, many warning systems have been put into place, all pointing in the same direction: find higher ground.
About Mary Jo Bennett
Through her years of experience in caring for the elderly and attending the bedside of the dying, Mary Jo Bennett has cultivated a deeper awareness of life in its ever changing forms. Teacher, essayist and author of the book, When Autumn Comes: Creating Compassionate Care for the Dying, Mary Jo is passionate about exploring mindfulness as it illumins aging, sickness and death. She lives on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Please visit her website at: www.hospicevolunteer.com