07 September 2015

What sort of death will you have?

Received great news the other day. A lady who has been working hard to overcome a difficult cancer has been found to be cancer free. Great news. But then I thought – she has dodged cancer, but still - what sort of death will she have?

Experience reveals there is much we can do to avert a tough death and much we can do to increase the likelihood of a good one.

Not your average blog post this one. So are you ready to go Out on a Limb once more, pause in your day for a moment and wonder – “What sort of death will I have? And what can I do about it?"

Think it is just random fate - the sort of death you will have? Not me! So let us consider what is possible, but first

                 Thought for the day

     Whatever you get to, you loose it
     Even if you get better, you loose it.

     There are many ways
     But only one common principle,
     An ever-increasing awareness
     Of this

                           Hogan – San, Zen Master

Let us dive into this pretty directly. 

Most of what troubles people in relation to death is to do with fear. Fear of the process. Fear of leaving behind what we know. Fear of what we may or may not be going to.

Fear of the process
People who live well tend to die well. Fact.

Imagine getting to your last breath full of resentment. What sort of death might that be?

Imagine getting to your last breath with gratitude for your life and all who entered into it. What sort of death might that be?

If you come across death suddenly, then there is likely to be a lot of homework to do. And maybe not enough time to do it. All those people to clear your relationships with. To thank. To share your real feelings with. Your own state of mind to address. The fear. The ability to let go (death will do this for us anyway, but can we let go willingly and consciously?).

Then so many practical issues. Stay at home? Be in hospital or hospice? What level of medical intervention? Who to have around? How to prepare in your own mind? And on and on. There is a checklist designed to guide you through all these questions in the new edition of You Can Conquer Cancer (and no, you do NOT need to have cancer to read this book that has so much to do with cancer prevention and living well) and it is highly recommended to write out your own responses and share them with those you are closest to.

To be ready to die well? Lot of homework.

Sad thing I hear sometimes. “Tried all that Lifestyle stuff. Worked for a while; now I am deteriorating, maybe dying. No point now.”

Sad mistake. All this “stuff”, this lifestyle stuff like eating well, attending to relationships, meditating and so on; all this stuff makes dying so much easier – less symptoms, less pain, better relationships, closer spiritual connections. Makes dying a lot easier.

Eating well makes digestion easier. Overcoming fear dramatically reduces pain. Healing relationships brings contentment. Meditation brings inner peace. Everything gets easier.

Fear of  leaving behind what we know
Dying is not to be romanticised too much. The fact is that in many ways it is tough. We will leave behind this world as we know it. People will need to adapt to being without our physical presence. Lots will change. Dramatically. Things will never be the same again for anyone.

How to manage all that?

Consider this.

Life is full of mini deaths.

Everything is changing moment by moment.

This too is just a fact. We can choose to ignore it and attempt to live life as if it is something permanent, as if things will last forever. But then, that is the power of death, it cuts right through that particular notion.

So if in life we learn to deal with the reality of change and impermanence, death may well become easier. Meditation teaches us directly, experientially about impermanence and change. We experience things coming and going, and yet, at the same time, something about us remains the same and endures.

As we become more familiar with that enduring part of ourselves, we have another key to an easier death.

Fear of what we may or may not be going to
Well, who knows for sure. Some may feel they know in advance what we are going to, but one thing we can be confident about is that we will all get to find out one day. Find out what is beyond death.

Strikes me that this is the ultimate adventure. I hope for a conscious death. Would hate to miss it. Actually, while happy to put it off for as long as possible, when the time comes, I am sure it will be fascinating, so actually, I look forward to it.

In the words of Sogyal Rinpoche

Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom.

Just as when the waves lash at the shore, the rocks suffer no damage but are sculpted and eroded into beautiful shapes, so our characters can be moulded and our rough edges worn smooth by changes. 

Through weathering changes, we can learn how to develop a gentle but unshakable composure. Our confidence in ourselves grows, and becomes so much greater that goodness and compassion begin naturally to radiate out from us and bring joy to others.

That goodness is what survives death, a fundamental goodness that is in each and every one of us. The whole of our life is a teaching of how to uncover that strong goodness, and a training toward realising it.

The mind is like an eagle – the higher it soars, the more it sees. I laugh when I see people so unnecessarily troubled in or by their minds, when that mind is itself the most obvious and powerful ally in their salvation.

What sort of death will you have? My wish is that it be a good one. Worth working towards don’t you think?

Oh, and my friend who recovered from cancer? There is a confidence that with all she has done, she will be alright.


BOOKS Understanding death, helping the dying - Chapter in You Can Conquer Cancer full of information including a challenging but very useful Preparation for Death check list – all the things that warrant attention as we set ourselves up for the best possible death, and help those around us during that time and after.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. "I have encountered no book on the interplay between life and death that is more comprehensive, practical and wise."
Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions. 

CD or Download Understanding death, helping the dying – a good way to reflect on the issues and possibilities – either personally or with family or friends. Listening to a section, then discussing it has helped many families catalyse a useful conversation.

- coming soon in New Zealand

Meditation Under the Long White Cloud   24 - 28 October 2015

7 day retreat at Mana Retreat Centre, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

         Take time out from the busyness of everyday life; spend time with your self
      Slow down, reflect, contemplate – regain perspective, vitality, balance and clarity
Deepen your understanding and experience of mindfulness, contemplation and meditation.

The special focus of this meditation retreat will be the theory and practise of contemplation

Full details, CLICK HERE


CANCER and BEYOND     October  2015     Monday 12th to Friday 16th 

Five Day Residential Follow-up Program at the Gawler Cancer Foundation in the Yarra Valley

This program is specifically designed for those with cancer along with their support people who have attended a previous Gawler Cancer Foundation program or equivalent such as with Sabina Rabold, CSWA, Cancer Care SA, CanLive NZ, or with the Gawlers themselves.

A unique opportunity to meet with like-minded people once again, to consolidate what you already know, to learn more from the combined knowledge, experience and wisdom of Ian and Ruth, to reaffirm your good intentions, and to go home refreshed and revitalised.

FULL DETAILS  Click here 

MIND-BODY MEDICINE and CANCER    November  2015    Tuesday 10th to Saturday 14th

         Five day Residential program in the beautiful surrounds of Wanaka, New Zealand
            - an easy drive from Queenstown airport and very accessible for Australians

This program is open to anyone affected by cancer.

While the focus of this program is on therapeutic meditation and nutrition, the power of the mind and emotional health, ample time will be given to answering any questions you may have relating to the Gawler program - exercise, positive thinking, healing, balancing medical options, successful ways of dealing with setbacks, sustaining your good intentions and the relevance of finding meaning in life to healing and recovery.

Health professionals interested to learn more of this work are also welcome to attend.



  1. Thank you for the wonderful post Ian.
    So thought provoking and challenging and actionable.

  2. Thank you for this post Ian. Very comforting. A therapist I am seeing (a beautiful, caring lady), died suddenly last week from cancer. I wonder that if we talked about death more often (after all, it is the most certain thing in life), that we may have less fear about it. Kind of, live life to the fullest, and then come to a peaceful end. Thank you again for this great post.

  3. A conversation worth having more often ... funny how we avoid it. I too have a rough plan for my death (though I'm not in a hurry) and hope to be meditating, but I also know I have little control, which reminds me to come back to now. Que sera sera ...

  4. So true, Ian, what you say about the inevitability of death and our need to prepare for it by cleaning up our act and recognising the truth of impermanence. I do wonder, however, if we need more than meditation to prepare for a 'good' death. For me, the study of Buddhadharma and my subsequent motivation and attempts to follow these teachings and reflect deeply on their meanings in my life are of equal importance to regular meditative practices. I do love the power with which you have written this blog!