Making Friends with Death

Judith Lief
Judith Lief

I spent a couple of hours Friday night, all day on Saturday and most of the day on Sunday at a weekend programme called “Making Friends with Death” at a local Buddhist meditation center, led by acharya Judith Lief. (Acharya means senior teacher in Sanskrit.) Lief’s teacher is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
We had three or so meditation sessions per day on Saturday and Sunday.

Friday evening was mostly spent watching and talking about a film titled Pioneers of Hospice: Changing the Face of Dying, about the inception of hospice in the UK, Canada, and the U.S., focusing on four movers & shakers: Cecily Saunders, Florence Wald, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and Balfour Mount.

On Saturday and Sunday, we meditated on our breath for 20-30 mins on arriving each day. On Saturday, we participated in a guided meditation on death, and later in a taking-and-giving kindness meditation (called tong-len) with a partner; on Sunday, we did several simple silent meditations. [Pema Chödrön on tong-len; Unitarian perspective on tong-len.]

These periods of silence were balanced with periods when Judith Lief taught, as we sat in a circle or facing her, and with several periods of discussion in a large group, and, for 45 minutes on Sunday, in a small group of about 8 people each. We also took bathroom/stretching breaks, tea breaks, and lunch breaks.

First, after meditating, Judith introduced us to the topic of death/Death. Then we spent about an hour, maybe more, introducing ourselves (there were perhaps 35 of us) and saying something about why we were there. I was there to explore more deeply the death of self, of ego, of identity — that kind of dissolution — but I forgot to say that and said something else instead, about wanting to explore everyday death, loss, transition, impermanence, and living fully with every day. I loved hearing why others were there and what they hoped to do with the weekend.

For the rest of the weekend we were led to discuss a few key topics, most of which are more broadly developed in Judith’s book, Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, which focuses on “seeing the immediacy of death as an aspect of everyday life” and accepting “the ongoing reality of impermanence and transition.”

Specifically, we talked first about death: our experience with death in general; about what is it exactly that we fear we will lose when we die (what is the nature of the loss, what is the nature of the fear); about how it may be difficult to believe that we really will die, even though we know others do; about the unpredictability of death; about the moment of death.

Then we talked about compassion and its components (awareness or knowledge or intelligence, kindness or friendliness, and openness), and how although we and others might have good intentions to be compassionate, good intentions are not enoughthere is skill required to effectively be compassionate, there are pitfalls in intending compassion, it is a tricky thing. We discussed in the group many of the pitfalls Judith names in her book (without referencing the book), including:

prepackaged or simplistic compassion (one-size-fits-all),

manipulative compassion which expects appreciation or some certain response,

viewing compassion as a key part of our identity or credentials (in the book, she says this can make us less like white knights and more like vampires),

guilt-based compassion,

and heavy-handed compassion.

Perhaps not incidentally, this teaching came during the heart of the weekend, on Saturday afternoon and continuing on Sunday morning.

Next, we talked about slogans relevant to dying and to caring for the dying. They balance each other in terms of doing and being, effort and letting go, expansiveness and focus. The slogans, which we discussed in the small group break-out session, are:

  • Start with Knowledge: Four kinds: knowledge of externals, such as symptoms, institutions, legalities, etc; knowledge of self, limitations, our own rackets and justifications; attentiveness, tuning in to the atmosphere, the changing situation, subtle vibrations through our “antennae”; and intuitive knowledge, accessed through dreams and visions.
  • Give and Receive: This generated the most discussion in our group and in others’. This slogan focuses on generosity, on graciously sharing what we have and graciously accepting what is shared with us. Specifically, those cared for often feel they are in a one-down situation, with perhaps nothing of value to give, while caretakers can feel they are in a one-up position, powerfully providing what is needed. This slogan acknowledges the need to be aware of this imbalance and to be open to generosity in all ways, in receiving and in giving. The idea is to give and receive in ways that are clean, i.e., without strings attached, and not to manipulate, to belittle, or to deplete another. True generosity enriches both the giver and receiver.
  • Pay Attention to Details: There is power in small gestures, like giving ice, removing or giving a blanket, opening or closing a window … not standing on someone’s oxygen hose …
  • Slow Down: This is about pacing oneself to the person who is dying, and being patient in the moment. Stopping spinning like a dervish on a mission, stopping frenetic action, perhaps even releasing a need to be efficient; and focusing with compassion, time, and awareness on the situation at hand and on the other. This might take the form of speaking more slowly so that someone who is ill can follow the conversation, of allowing silence between thoughts, of waiting for a full response before asking the next question. Like the others, quite useful in non-dying situations, too (if there can be said to be any)!
  • Don’t Give Up: This is not “don’t give up on life, keep fighting to be cured.” This slogan is about developing effort that is reliable and steady, able to respond effectively. We might also think about this slogan as asking us not to give up on the patient, whether because she seems to be in denial about her illness or death, and we wish she would “face” it, or because he is unconscious or in a coma. Each person, while alive, is 100% alive and is worthy of respect as a human being.
  • Be Present: Be present in body with the other. Be embodied. When we share our essence, our presence, with another, we give a valuable gift, and this way of being may evoke the quality of presence in others, too. To do this well requires a connection with our own bodies, an awareness that silence is powerful, and the courage not to defect in place or to disappear in some essential way from the interaction.

Finally, we talked about the Buddhist idea of death, what happens immediately after biological death, and the importance and potency of all liminal places, of those thresholds between one space and another, including between death and life.

At some point I will probably offer some specific reflections on the weekend. In general, I found it worthwhile, even powerful in places, and the conversation and teaching always engaging, the other participants wise, courageous, open and interesting. The Buddhism, as was noted near the end of the session, was soft-pedaled, for which I was appreciative; there was almost nothing said that I felt wasn’t easily applicable to my more Jesus-focused walk.

I can recall only one statement that evoked in me a “no” and it was said in passing, early on, so I may easily have misunderstood it. (And even now, I think it is just something I would like to have talked about more in the group.) It was something about noticing how we go to sleep each night, a sort of losing of ourselves, then wake up and there we are again. That way of saying it felt untrue to my experience, which is that I am more awake at night than during most days. I don’t feel that some part of me — or perhaps, that an essential part of me — is gone when I sleep … it feels prominent then, in the multitude of vivid dreams I have every night. I would like to explore this further.

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