Category Archives: death

What role does ritual play in your life?

Ritual is an inherently human activity. Rituals are created, repeated and relied on, as are habits. Yet rituals are almost the opposite of habits! Instead of making life conveniently manageable as habits tend to do, rituals bring full attention to the moment and the occasion, seeming to slow down time so that what is being experienced can be fully processed in a way that makes a deep and lasting impression.

When I was a teenager, all the formal rituals of life I saw around me seemed inauthentic, just empty gestures. I felt everything should be questioned, and all actions should be done with a freshness of thought and creativity, certainly not by rote. There was a lot I didn’t understand. The rituals I observed seemed dictated by an authority like the church, and I assumed people were just going along out of fear of going to hell. Perhaps some were, but for most there was deep comfort in the rituals they had probably been doing all their lives. I didn’t yet understand the value in that.

Especially at times of overwhelming emotion — at the death of a loved one, for example — long-established formal rituals provide valuable guidance, steps to follow through the maze of grief. Our family didn’t have that when my mother died. We stumbled around the empty space and muddled through somehow.

When it came to such things, we lived in the long shadow of my father’s rebellion against the church where his father had been a minister, and where Dad as an adolescent had to teach Sunday school for seven years. He became what we affectionately called a ‘raving’ atheist’ — probably one of the few who could quote scripture. 

He refused to allow us to put together any kind of memorial gathering for Mom. But he couldn’t refuse her one request she left with me (she didn’t trust Dad to remember!): to scatter her ashes in the wild azalea glen she loved. So I organized the immediate family, including my reluctant father, and we walked the trail to the bridge over a creek where the azaleas bloomed most densely. My brother and I clambered up off the trail and together scattered her ashes. In that moment, time stood still. There was awe and wonder. My nephew said, “Grandma would have been thrilled to death!”

I craved more ritual on that outing. I wanted words from all present, spoken from the heart of that moment. I wanted a picnic afterwards to just be together with our shared emotions and memories. But what we had was a father in not great health in a deep state of mourning saying, ‘Okay, that’s done. Let’s get the hell out of here!’ So we did.

When he died five years later, we had a memorial for them both, in their home surrounded by masses of plum trees in perfect bloom.

Death and marriage have become major industries, monetizing the rituals to extreme degrees. But regardless of how much one spends on a funeral or a wedding, every coming together to release or unite loved ones has that moment of ritualized acknowledgment of what is really happening here. And that is what lives on and sustains us.

Birth too brings celebration in one form or another, though the main participants are often too exhausted to appreciate it. They are living in a world of new tiny rituals that have not yet become habits: nursing, burping, changing diapers, singing lullabies, and gazing deeply into their uniquely amazing child’s eyes.

But what about daily or weekly rituals? What role do they play in our lives? They may provide something seemingly permanent and reliable in a whirl of a constantly changing world. Perhaps it is a place to rest, to renew, to feel connection and to feel supported. Coming together every week in community to meditate, pause, ponder, reflect and share is a valuable ritual to me and my students.

Are there any rituals in your life? Maybe there are but you don’t see them as such? Here are some things to consider:

How would your primary relationship(s) be different if you instilled a little more ritual. My hair stylist said that over the past few months she and her husband had instituted a new tradition of having one glass of wine before dinner and sitting together to talk. Their relationship has improved because they are unplugging from habitual activities and taking that time to practice a little ritual that celebrates themselves as a couple. (Note the only one glass, and of course, the wine could be replaced with something else, as suits your situation.)

Friendships can also have rituals, even if they are just things you enjoy doing together. Making them more regular and giving them your full attention will sweeten the experience. Longtime friendships often have shared language, stories and jokes that are rituals too in their way, even if no one else would consider them so.

If you, like me, struggle with being mindful while eating, take a tip from one of my students who started treating her meals as rituals, from the gathering of simple quality ingredients, taking time to prepare the food, pausing before eating to thank all who shared in this offering to your well being. Then doing a tasting, chewing, swallowing ritual that lets all the flavors and textures come fully alive, pausing to put the fork down and appreciate your surroundings, sensing in to your body to know when you have had enough. Ah, life!

And, ah, death! You might give some thought to how you would like to be commemorated, and make notes. Had my mother made a few more notes, I’m sure she would have added in a picnic. And then we would have had to have one, regardless. So be thorough, but be considerate. This is for those who love you, not for you.

Ritual slows us down, clear our minds, and capture a sense of exaltation, infinite beauty and mystery. One of my students has a ritual of blessing her house, especially when she has been away from it. We could ritualize our daily chores, blessing the floor we are sweeping and the dishes we are washing. Ritualize self-care! Imagine a brushing and flossing ritual that attends every nook and crannie with full attention and lovingkindness, not just out of fear of the dentist.

Fully present, life can be a series of rituals instead of chores to be gotten through in a habituated mindless way. Bringing mindfulness and compassion to everything we do, we stay attuned to the infinite sense of life loving itself.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Whoa! or Wow! or Whatever!

It’s said that newborn babies lack object permanence so when something is gone it’s gone from their minds as well. Maybe we all lack object permanence because we recognize only the most obvious portion of the continuum of life. We see birth and death as the beginning and end. Beyond that, we may have strong beliefs, vague wondering, suspicions or speculations, but most of us see death as an ending to life, maybe even the opposite of life. And we may be like toddlers furious that the party is over, not able to imagine that whatever comes next could just as likely be another aspect of the continuum of being, an infinite loop of life nourishing and regenerating itself.

It could be anything! If we are being honest with ourselves, seeing through the patterns of all our fears and wishes, we don’t know what, if anything, there is beyond our ability to observe it with our physical senses.

And that’s okay. Accepting that we don’t know may be one of life’s great challenges, but the ‘I don’t know’ mind is also one of life’s greatest gifts. It keeps us open, flexible, grateful and joyous as life keeps us in a state of ‘Wow!’

I certainly don’t know. But that doesn’t keep my patterns of thoughts from devising interesting and at times compelling ideas about what ‘lies beyond’ and whether the wall between life and death is permeable. Just like everyone else’s, my mental patterns are by nature untrustworthy, but if I hold them lightly they provide me with intriguing thoughts. The other day I remembered a dream I had after my brother died two years ago. Released from the pain of his wracked body, he was joyfully traveling (by bus!) all over the country seeing all the sights. That dream came back to me recently when my husband and I were deliberating whether to take a major trip. All the planning and expense of transporting, feeding, clothing and sleeping necessary to allow me to experience a different place just seemed overwhelming. And I had the thought that this would all be a lot easier to do later on when I don’t have a body to tend to!

Whoa! or Wow! or Whatever!

(Having such a thought doesn’t mean I’m in any hurry to discard this body that serves me well. And if you are in such a hurry, please seek help from the suicide hotline immediately.)

Because I’m a practitioner and teacher of the Buddha’s concepts, as they’ve been handed down over the millennia, you might assume I’m a believer in reincarnation. But the Buddha’s focus was in this moment and how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. He encouraged his followers to see for themselves what is true. Well, how can we see the truth of what lies beyond the cessation of our breath until that happens to us? Until then thinking about it is a distraction and useless speculation, because we just don’t know.

So let’s be here now. Let’s value all beings in this life just as it is. Let’s take care of ourselves, our communities and our planet, and increase our understanding of how best to do that. And let’s relax around the compulsive need to know what lies beyond this precious experience of life here and now. Because we can’t know. We don’t have existential object permanence.

Photo credit: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The Practice Put to the Test

In recent weeks my meditation practice was put to the test. Together with my husband and five visiting family members, I hosted my brother’s hospice care in our home.

While I won’t go into detail about our experience, I do want to share the ways in which the regular practice of meditation supported me throughout that time and continues to support me now in my mourning of my beloved brother.

Understanding Impermanence
My gratitude for the practice started long before this intensive time in my life. I have been meditating for many years, and for many years I have been aware of how precious and finite our time together on this earth truly is. I bring this awareness into every relationship, and it deepens my appreciation and compassion.

At a recent poetry reading, while my brother was in the hospital, I read a poem I had written many years ago about our relationship.


We used to hum ourselves to sleep, my brother and I,
in the back of our old black ’54 Ford station wagon
where our father had fashioned us bunks upon the luggage,
or when we were lucky, in a real bed in a motor court,
or in a heavy green canvas tent by the bank of a stream where we,
with the industry of beavers, had built an unneeded dam.

Humming began low on the scale, each breath carrying us up a note,
until we reached the dizzying heights of our range
and plunged to the bottom again, that deep bass rumbling in our chests.

Humming was voodoo, ritual magic, a place where the day’s teasing died,
where small dark spaces relaxed into the boundless arms of the soft summer night,
and we were lured into dreaming by our own hypnotic drone.

Humming we greet each other now, tender huggy hums of delight,
hums that pour into our embrace all the precious frayed treasures
of that fragile someday-to-be-forgotten world of our beginnings.

– Stephanie Noble 2003

Written twenty-five years ago, that poem contained the seed of this moment, the understanding of the fleeting nature of life. I am grateful that I have always treasured every moment we’ve spent together in person and talking on the phone over the years of our adult life.

Dependent Co-Arising
Recently I taught about the Buddhist concept of dependent co-arising, and during this hospice experience it helped me immeasurably to recognize that ‘this is like this because that was like that’. It seems so simple, so obvious, but how often in life do we get caught up in hurt feelings and blame because we are in the habit of not seeing or acknowledging all the causes and conditions that created the actions, words and current state of being of those around us?

In his last days, in pain, confusion and delusion, my brother sometimes lashed out with his words at times. It hurt, and is painful still when I think of it, I won’t lie. But I was also able to see how he was reverting to a childhood pattern we shared, one that we had grown out of (with help from his first wife who took us each aside and said ‘You know your (sister/brother) loves you, don’t you?’ We apparently didn’t! We had been so caught in a pattern of teasing and scolding and hurt feelings.) But here it was again, that old pattern arising. He would say my name in the same stern way he did when he was my twelve year old big brother: ‘Stephanie, sit down!’ I began to fear those words, to tremble the way I did as a child. I felt vulnerable because of my deep love, my anticipated loss and my exhaustion as all of us stretched ourselves to the limit of our capacity to learn how to be medical providers on the fly.

At times I cried and was comforted by the team, I could feel their upset on my behalf. What an ungrateful bastard my brother was when I was providing him with the best damn sendoff anyone could ask for. Yeah! I appreciated that support, believe me. At times it felt like we were in a British aristocratic soap opera, with the cranky lord making all kinds of unreasonable demands and harsh judgments, and we, the underlings huddled together around the kitchen table to regroup. Then whoever was on call would descend once more into the fray.

But much of the time he was the loving, funny person he had always been. This experience gave me a deeper understanding and cultivated greater compassion for everyone in relationship with difficult people. If this were not a limited period of time situation, I would not have continued to subject myself to such behavior. After he died, each day those painful moments have softened and have begun to find their very small place in the greater context of seven decades of love. They diminish and may even dissolve. (Not quite yet, perhaps, but in time.)

Practice First and Foremost
As we embarked on this hospice care adventure together, I claimed my regular daily meditation time and quiet private space throughout the experience. This was crucial for maintaining my own stability and endurance. In this way I gave everyone on our team of seven family members encouragement and permission to claim their own time and space for self-care, in whatever form that took for them — runs, yoga classes, an evening out. We made the schedule work as well as possible, taking into consideration everyone’s needs. There was no telling whether we were doing a sprint or a marathon, so we had to take care of ourselves to sustain a marathon.

Especially as women, it is so easy to give up self-care when the needs of others arise, forgetting that when we claim what we need we are always better able to meet the demands of life. So it is a kindness to all to put our meditation practice first. It is the seed that grows the support we will need to balance all that arises. This is no time for skimping!

No Need to Proselytize
Buddhism, at least as we practice it in Insight Meditation, is not full of dogma. It’s full of living wisdom (dharma) that arises from our own practice and experience. Every experience, when met in the moment, contributes to our understanding of the nature of being. And we are so grateful for the teachings, the practice and the community of practitioners. If anyone were to ask us, we would happily share our understanding, and encourage them to take the time to learn to meditate, to develop a practice and to see for themselves.

But if no one asks us, we don’t push our views. We don’t knock on doors to spread the good news. For some this might seem selfish, but if someone is ready, they find a teacher and find a community. And nowadays meditation is on offer everywhere in one form or another. It’s in the air!
A distant ex-relative of my brother’s very much wanted to visit with him ‘to see if he was going to heaven or hell’, and I assume to set him on the straight course. This was done out of deep belief and caring, but it was not anything he was open to, to put it mildly. It was not part of his belief system. It was probably very painful for that distant ex-relative to deal with, and I send her great compassion. How I would have loved to meditate with my brother, to help him handle the physical pain he was in, perhaps even to share some dharma that might have helped. But even knowing I am a Buddhist meditation teacher, he never once asked me to help him in that way. So I didn’t.

On my own I quietly sent him metta, infinite loving-kindness. This is something we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, for difficult people in our lives or the world, always ending with sending it out to all beings everywhere. This is non-invasive. It helps us. And it helps relationships.

Resting in the ‘I don’t know’ mind
My brother did at times ask me questions. When I would take my turn after dinner sitting alone with him, several times he asked me ‘So what’s next?’ I wasn’t sure if he was asking, whether he was in a lucid state of understanding he was dying, or in his delusional state where he would tell friends on the phone that he was on the mend.

My answer to both questions would be the same: ‘I don’t know.’
But even though I had to say ‘I don’t know’, I was also able to tell him the truth of the present moment: ‘I don’t know what will happen next, but whatever happens we are all here together. You are surrounded by family and friends, and we are filled with love. And we will take care of you.’ That seemed to put his mind at rest. In the moment.

The not knowing was not just an answer to give my brother, but something we all had to grapple with. No one could tell us exactly how long this hospice care would go on. We had all put our normal lives on hold to whatever degree we are able. Living with not knowing, embracing uncertainty, is an important part of Buddhist practice. For after all, none of us knows the hour of our own death. None of us can read the future. Situations arise that we could never have imagined. Although there is value in planning, it is always with the understanding that we have no idea what will come.

Planning with impermanence in mind
Sitting in my brother’s world temporarily replicated in a room in our home, with the television news on 24/7, I spent a few minutes pondering what my own final days and hours might be, if I am given the choice, as he was. I know I will want peaceful and beautiful surroundings. I imagine quiet conversations, hand holding and deep gazes and hugs, and simply sitting together in silence. Perhaps this is a fantasy. But it’s also a possibility.
All of us who were caring for him dearly wanted to know what his wishes might be, but we were left guessing for much of it. He hadn’t done any planning. He didn’t like talking about death. He intended to live forever, or some reasonable facsimile, in spite of having been a smoker since the age of thirteen. He didn’t have one document and barely one forced conversation with an old friend who said, so just on the off chance you ever die what do you want to have happen with your remains? In a moment of lucidity he gave his answer, one that we would have guessed, but without his own stamp of approval, how could we know we were fulfilling his wishes?

Wise Speech
My brother’s words were sometimes so hurtful that I wanted to put up a sign in his room reading ‘The words you use now will be emblazoned on the hearts of your loved ones forever, so choose wisely, kindly and with love.’ But I didn’t do that because it would have been unkind.
But in my own life I aspire to remember that, not just in the moments we know are the last we have together, but in every moment, because it could be the last, to use wise speech and speak from love not from fear, anguish and pain. That is an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, a core teaching.

There is a value in recognizing the opportunity to practice being fully present with all the arising emotions of difficult times. Though we certainly wouldn’t wish for them, when they arise, we can recognize that we now have something significant to practice with. We can grow substantially in our understanding at these times. Or we can forget to practice, forget all we learned, and plunge into mindlessness. If we do, may it only be a temporary plunge, rising into greater awareness of the gift of this moment, whatever it brings.

buddha-deathMy brother sank into a deep sleep where he no longer needed to have his suction machine running or the television on. In this unusual quiet and calm, I did my meditation at his bedside, watching him breathe a slow ragged breath. I could see that every ten minutes or so he would grimace with pain. By taking that time, not distracting myself with a book or email, but just sitting watching, sending metta, following my own breath, I was able to see that he needed more medication. It felt like a gift of the training to simply sit and notice all that is arising in the moment, to be able to give him comfort by calling Hospice and getting a nurse to come out and up the morphine drip.

The next afternoon he died, surrounded by his oldest friends and closest family. I sat again with his cooling body as we waited for the mortuary van came, sometimes alone, sometimes with my niece, husband and other brother.

Sitting with death is an important part of Buddhist practice, but even though I had been a caregiver at the end of both my parents’ lives, I had not experienced this before. The only dead bodies I have seen have been embalmed and presented in a box at a funeral. They didn’t look like the relatives I loved. My brother looked exactly like himself, just at complete peace. My grief found a natural home by his side.
I am so grateful for all the well-wishing from friends and extended family. Everyone who knew him loved my brother, and were appreciative of the efforts our team had made on his behalf. I too was grateful that we had the opportunity to give him as loving and beautiful a goodbye as possible. Throughout, as difficult as it was, I was so grateful that he was in safe harbor, here in our home, not on his own in some distant place, struggling to hide his condition from those who love him.

Meditation is not Immunity
In some of the well-wishing messages, there seemed to be an assumption that because I meditate, this experience must be, if not a breeze, then at least far easier.

Although our practice does help us to stay present and to hold whatever experience that arises with more spaciousness and compassion, meditation does not make us immune to pain. Loss is still loss. Grief is still grief.

No one gets through life unscathed by pain. It is a built in feature of earthly existence. But it is how we are in relationship to it that makes all the difference.  My practice has kept me present with my emotions and made it possible to hold them tenderly. The grief is there, and I am able to see it take various forms as the days pass. Even amidst all the practical matters to deal with after his passing, I stayed present. And that is a gift. Now that those responsibilities have been taken care of, my feelings, twelve days out, shift again and again, and I notice them as they arise and fall away.

I also recognize that my grief is not all that is arising. In every moment there is also great beauty, simple pleasures, deep joy, and potential for laughter. They do not erase the grief. They co-exist in the space of my awareness.

I see the nature of my thoughts, too. I see how, like a tongue rubbing against the empty space of a lost tooth, I circle round again and again to that volatile time of caring for my brother at the end of his life — sometimes with smiles, sometimes with tears, sometimes with regret at things said or left unsaid, done or not done. This is a natural course for the mind to take. But I gently encourage myself to also stay present in this moment, not pushing anything away, but opening again and again to all that is arising.

I hope these findings are of value to you, and remind you of the value of the practice.

How do you handle transition in your life?

We all have periods of pronounced transition in our lives: We suffer a loss of a loved one, abilities or possessions; or we make a change in our residence, work or relationship. How does it feel when you go through something like that? Do you feel suddenly weightless? As if the earth under your feet has disappeared?

When we have big changes in our lives, often nothing seems the way it is supposed to be. We may feel disoriented and we struggle to find solid ground. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s better to simply be present with the weightlessness. Awareness of the transitory nature of life is something to appreciate rather than escape. If you think about it, we are always in a moment of transition. Life is like this. Wherever we think we are, we delude ourselves if we think it is solid and unchanging. This moment is always full of infinite possible directions radiating out. In any moment we can decide to go this way rather than that, or the winds of circumstance change our direction. Most of us tend to trod a solid-seeming path. If a GPS tracked our movements we would make a pattern of thick dark lines from home to work to our regular stores, restaurants, paths and hangouts, with a few faint traces for occasional adventures and bigger trips. There is nothing wrong with this. There’s no virtue in ‘shaking it up’ just to be different. But there is value in noticing that we are making choices all the time. Every moment is a point of transition.

There was an image that came to me many years ago that helps me understand this idea of being present with weightlessness: Imagine a balloon. What we call ‘life’ is inside the balloon. What we call ‘death’ is that moment of transition when the balloon pops or deflates and the air is released into the infinite air. And where are we in all this? Well, many of us are clinging to the edge of the inside of the balloon, trying to stay steady on what we believe to be solid ground, clinging to the surface, afraid of falling off. But some of us let go, for varying periods of time or indefinitely. We find that floating is possible, that the air supports us. We see in multiple directions and can turn freely. We can ride the currents, buffeted by winds that, if we were clinging to the side, would have our face smashed up against that chalky latex. Gag. When we’re clinging to the side so tightly, we might poke a hole in the surface.

When the balloon of life pops or deflates, if we are floating in the balloon we are whooshed out. That may be quite a ride but we know how to fly. We are not gripping to or getting entangled in the detritus of the balloon. We are used to being weightless, so even in this vaster air we feel supported.

I recently heard Buddhist teacher Tempel Smith talk about the importance of living a weightless life, so I was reminded of my balloon metaphor. Much of what we learn in Buddhism ultimately prepares us for the greatest transition point of our life, our own death. But the practice of living in a more mindful way has immediate benefits as well. Recognizing the transitional nature of life and noticing how we are in relationship with transition is useful if we are to live with ease, peace, joy and clarity of understanding. In our meditation practice we are cultivating awareness and compassion. No, life is not always pleasant, transitions can be challenging, and that’s part of our experience too. But if we are not clinging to some false sense of solid ground, feeling betrayed by change itself, we can dance in the air of existence, in a state of awe and wonder, weightless!

The Wisdom of the Breath, the last tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta

The fourth and final tetrad of the Anapanasati Sutta is called the Wisdom Group. Continuing to be present with the breath, the Buddha instructs us first to focus on impermanence. We can do this by noting how sensations in the body arise and fall away, how the breath itself changes over the course of our meditation practice.

Then he asks us to focus on ‘fading away’. What could this mean? Is it  the edges of who we hold ourselves to be that fade away? With your eyes closed, see if you can tell where this defined person you call ‘me’ ends and where ‘other’ begins.

Without the sense of sight those edges disappear, don’t they. With the eyes closed the sense of body loses its tight definition. And with a focus on the breath we are even less sure about clearly defined edges, aren’t we? The breath is inside us and outside us. Where are the boundaries we previously took for granted?

Is there also a sense of ‘self’ that softens and loses its edge? Not just the body but our rigid idea of who we are? (Read more about this.)

Next the Buddha asks us to focus on cessation as we breathe. We know that life in this body is temporal, but in this culture we like to pretend that death is an option. I was reminded of this recently when my husband and I were in Mexico writing our Mexican wills and we were asked to write out When I die…. American wills shy away from such a simple statement of fact. I thought maybe they say something like ‘in the case of my demise’ but when I looked up a standard will template I discovered it avoids the mention death at all, just leaps right into instructions to the heirs! That’s how much we are in denial about our own death in this country. The death of strangers in the news, movies and books we find fascinating, but we’re not able to acknowledge that such an event is in the cards for us.

Coming into a deep awareness of the temporal nature of our lives is not depressing but freeing. Our acceptance illuminates the value of being fully here to enjoy life in this moment. It lets us see it as a natural part of the cycle of life.

You can investigate this yourself by sitting with awareness of your temporal nature. You might say to yourself, ‘On some undisclosed date I will definitely die.’ And then sit with that and see what you notice. Is there added tension in the body? Does the breath get shallower? What emotions and thoughts arise in your awareness?

The last step in the Anapanasati Sutta asks us to focus on relinquishment. When we understand and accept the temporal nature of life, accept that this body is an integral part of a whole complex set of processes and is not separate, and accept that everything is impermanent, then what is it we are relinquishing? We relinquish our fear. We relinquish our clinging to beliefs that don’t serve us. We relinquish it all and open to the joy of awakening to this moment, just as it is with clarity and compassion.

So those are the sixteen steps. If it interests you then you can read Larry Rosenberg’s book Breath by Breath. You can also listen to the recordings of Tempel Smith’s daylong retreat at Spirit Rock that I attended in March 2015.

First Foundation of Mindfulness — Dealing with Death

Our class last Thursday was on the day between Halloween and El Día de Los Muertos, so how fortunate that we just happened to be at the place in our study of the First Foundation of Mindfulness where the Buddha asks us to look at death. To get us in the mood, I led a meditation on the skeleton rather than our typical body scan for developing concentration and releasing tension where we find it. Here’s the dharma talk:

Charnel Grounds
The Buddha encouraged spending time in charnel grounds. Charnel grounds? What’s that? A brand of coffee? No. Charnel grounds are areas, usually near river banks in India, where people with no family are cremated or left to decompose. The meditation practice is to sit near a decomposing corpse. (I have read that the historic charnel grounds that are on lists of tourist attractions have been cleaned up so would not provide the same experience.)

You won’t find this practice on offer at Spirit Rock or any meditation center in a western country where by law death is kept tidily under wraps, corpses whisked away, embalmed or cremated in ultra-private settings. So even if we have been present at the death of a loved one, or have attended an open-casket funeral, we have none of us in this culture sat among the decomposing remains of another human being.

If we spend time in nature, we do occasionally come upon a decomposing bird or small animal. Instead of turning away, we could spend some time in contemplation nearby.

But why on earth would we want to do this? Not for some maudlin fascination with death, but for acceptance of death as a natural part of the life cycle. The more squeamish we are about it, the more extreme our reaction to the very idea of it, the more likely we need some form of this practice as a way to come into balance. On the other hand, if you are already fascinated by death, are addicted to movies and books that glorify it in some way, then this practice might be a tempering, a reality check. Remember we are just sitting near the decomposing remains, not handling them. We are sitting and noticing our sensations, thoughts and emotions that are activated by this practice.

For a milder introduction to this contemplation, the next time you are about to toss a bouquet or dead-head a flower in the garden, pause and spend time with the wilting, browning, drying, crumpling state of the flower. Notice your feelings about the impulse to get rid of anything that is not in the ‘perfect bloom’ of life. Can you sit with it? Can you find beauty in it? What thoughts does sitting with it bring up? What emotions? I remember growing up being horrified to find something moldy in the refrigerator. My mom, the refrigerator keeper, would ask ‘Where do you think penicillin comes from?’ I would come back, ‘But Mom, this is a kitchen, not a pharmacy.’ Eeuuw!

Sometimes artists over the centuries have chosen to depict decay — dying flowers, rotting fruit or a well-placed skull — to remind us that all things are transient. Though Western artists, they hit on an Eastern concept and a universal truth. In Theravada Buddhist tradition, impermanence or anicca is one of the Three Marks or Characteristics. Insights arise through meditative practice that awaken us to the nature of impermanence. If we don’t understand the nature of impermanence, we cling in a way that causes suffering.

When we accept impermanence as a natural condition of life, then we are better able to stay present with what is, to value it in this moment, understanding its (and our) temporal nature. We are less likely to take our loved ones for granted, more likely to tell them we love them in this moment rather than putting it off for another day. We are more likely to pause to notice the beauty all around us.

Death and decay are not the only records of impermanence. In the time that I have added a mere wrinkle or two, my two granddaughters have doubled in size and exponentially grown in abilities! I understand the desire to ‘catch the moment’ and I admit I am writing long love letters to each of them in just such an attempt. But I am also simply treasuring this time, knowing it is fleeting. Their father, aunt, uncles and cousins — babies who transformed into adults before my eyes — the absolute proof of that? So not just death but life teaches us impermanence. The awareness of impermanence, the record of change and loss that each of us carries, is awakened in us as we age, creating natural wisdom in those willing to see, accept and even embrace the beauty of the cycles of life, including death and decay, that lead ultimately to rebirth.

We see that when we come into an awareness of impermanence, it is only grim and depressing if we are clinging to the way we want things to stay. It is our clinging and aversion that causes our suffering — the way we relate to experience rather than the experience itself. The only place to find joy in it is in the present moment. If we live each moment full of loving awareness, then time’s passage loses its bitter bite.

What comes up for you when we turn to a discussion of death as a natural part of the life cycle? As an extension of the exploration of our relationship with the body last week, we can add in our relationship to the realization that we and everyone we love will die. How does it feel when we acknowledge that? Notice any resistance or discomfort. Notice any split in the mind, that may say ‘Well of course!’ and the heart that may say, ‘Maybe’ or ‘Not me, not mine.’

We are not trying to change our minds about anything. We are just noticing the natural occurrences of human reactivity. Then we bring ourselves back to an awareness of this moment, through anchoring into the breath or other reliable physical sensation.


This weekend I gave a 40-minute presentation to a large group of non-meditating public speakers on ‘Mindfulness for Ease at the Podium.’ If you are interested in finding more ease in public speaking, check out this downloadable recap. It includes a brief video of me giving one of the experiential exercises I did for the presentation.

Age — What’s in a Number?

In the last class until late February we followed up on how this idea of linear time impacts our perceptions of who we are and the nature of life.

We talked about birthdays, especially those big threshold birthdays that seem ever more daunting. I have a friend who is turning 75 and is terrified of the age. She didn’t know why until she realized that a good friend had died at the age of 75. This is one of the ways we latch on to numbers and turn them into bogeymen.

My beloved aunt was sure she would die at the age of 73. After all her mother and sister both died at that age. Therefore, she would too. It made no difference when we would mention that both of them had been lifelong smokers with emphysema and related issues and she had never smoked. No, to die at 73 was her destiny.

So my phone call to her on her 74th birthday was sweet indeed. It was as if she had been given a whole new life. She is now in her mid-80’s and happier than she was in her 60’s when she foretold her own death.

The husband of a meditator in our group is quite certain he will die this year. He says he has always known that this is the age he will die. He may well do so. Any of us might die this year. Who knows? Like my aunt, nothing anyone says can dissuade him from this belief. So I told his wife that if this was the last year of his life, perhaps he could follow Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live: How to Live this Year as if It Were Your Last. That way whether he dies this year or not, it will have been a rich skillful experience of living fully.

If we were not so attached to this imaginary time line, if we could sense into the spaciousness and compassionate nature of simply being alive in this moment, at one with the cycles and seasons of the natural world, we would be less inclined to vest an imaginary number or date with so much significance. We would be able to release set ideas about what it is to be a certain age, stop hemming ourselves in about what we are able or not able to do, based on a number rather than our sense of being in this moment.
This is the last dharma talk until the end of February as our class is on hiatus. In the interim I encourage you to look over the topics on the right side of this blog and find ones of interest to you. Combine the reading of one post with a meditation before or after. This could be your daily practice, or you could set aside time once a week to read. There are 170 posts. Even for those of you who have read them all, you will find something new now, because you are in a different state of mind and facing different challenges than when you read it before. So explore the blog freely. And please comment at the bottom of any post you read. Just click on ‘QUESTIONS & COMMENTS.’ I would love to read what you have to share or have the opportunity to answer any questions you may have.

If you are new to meditating or feel the need of refreshment instruction, please notice that at the top of this blog there is a tab for a separate page that offers basic meditation instruction. The development of a daily practice of meditation is the greatest gift any of us can give ourselves, for through it we access wisdom, compassion and appreciation for this gift of life in all its seasons.