If there was one question you could have answered that was at the heart of life and which when answered would affect every part of your life, what would it be?
That question was the focus of the annual Australian retreat Ruth and I recently attended with Sogyal Rinpoche. The title was "Compassionate Living and Fearless Dying", although Rinpoche chose to concentrate on the big question: what happens when we die and how may it be possible to die well?
A summer holiday or a retreat based on dying? Which would you choose?
For us it was to do with our work, but personally, this is the topic that so many of us really do yearn to have the answers to but usually avoid. The truth is, many people allow their fear of dying to block out anything to do with this subject and in so doing, inhibited their freedom to live really well.
Here then is a constructive challenge. If your inclination is to stop reading, it is probably important to persevere!
Here we go:
We all know the two big truths of life:
1. We are all going to die.
2. We do not know when.
Faced with all the uncertainty and fear these truths commonly hold for us, there seem to be two ways of responding:
1. Deny death.
Pretend death is not a reality; attempt to construct a life around the premise that things can be permanent and if they are, I can be okay. Good plan if it works! But it never can completely because the fact is things just are not permanent. Everything changes sooner or later, even if it is only at the moment of death.
Also, this strategy easily leads to putting things off and potentially missing what is really important for us.
And what of when we really do die? How will we be? Will we be ready? Those who come upon death suddenly, unexpectedly and in an unprepared state, frequently find it unduly traumatic. And so do their families. So what is the second option?
2. Acknowledge death.
Face reality before it is forced upon you. Given we will all die one day, then the real questions are what sort of death will we have and how does death inform our lives?
In a practical sense, contemplating death and impermanence powerfully cuts through the lazy busyness we talked of in the last blog, and helps to focus meaningful priorities.
And when it comes to the truth of our lives, in death, all will be revealed. We will find out the answers to our deepest questions. Clearly when we die, there will either be something or nothing, and if it is something, it is likely to be extraordinary.
Now, the Tibetans have been studying death and dying for centuries. Re-reading Sogyal Rinpoche's book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" yet again, it strikes me how detailed and precise his knowledge is in this field; and how compassionate, practical and accessible the advice is.
You do not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from this knowledge. It has informed the support I have been able to offer to people of all faiths and no faith over many years. Also, I hear of many people whose death or death of a loved one was transformed for the better by applying these teachings and techniques. Here are a few suggestions:
Helping someone you love approaching death:
There is no greater gift of charity than to help a person to die well.
Those close to death tend to be vulnerable to regret, depression, guilt etc. Listen to what they say and aim to create an atmosphere where they can express their inner-most thoughts and feelings, concerns and fears. At the same time, in conversation, dwell on what they accomplished and did well; on their virtues and what they loved.
Encourage them to clear their heart of any hatred or resentment. Not everyone believes in religion, but nearly everyone believes in forgiveness.
Encourage them to let go of attachments and approach death as unencumbered as possible. Dwell on love with them.
Remember that at the time of death two things will be most important - the life you lived and your state of your mind.
Approach death with anger and resentment in your heart and my guess is it will be quite difficult. Approach death with gratitude for the life and lives you have known, with love in your heart; and logically it is bound to be easier.
Moreover, if you have gained some direct experience of your inner essence, your true nature through meditation, then perhaps that is the best preparation of all. Why? At the moment of death, our body dies and our emotions and normal thinking processes cease. The Tibetans say that in that instant, as all else falls away, our inner essence is revealed and we are left with the truth of who we really are. For the Tibetans, the moment of death is actually the best chance we have for enlightenment.
Who knows, death may be the best moment of our lives!
COMMENTS? This is the first blog on death and dying, your questions or feedback are always welcome, let me know via the comments section.
Books: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying - Sogyal Rinpoche
You Can Conquer Cancer - Ian Gawler
Who Dies? - Stephen and Ondrea Levine
Coping With Grief - Mal and Dianne McKissock
CD: Understanding death, helping the dying - Ian Gawler
Programs: Sogyal Rinpoche: Rigpa
The Gawler Foundation
Counselling, groups: The Gawler Foundation
Retreat and go forward
How to cook really healthy food, really quickly. I will share my fast food secrets!