what death asks of us

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As it happens, especially when the moon is full, I laid awake at 3 am and wrote the bones of this post in my head. I saw a striking image yesterday that demanded my sleep infused awareness. Earlier in the day, Deepak Chopra posted a picture of a giant skeleton laying on it’s back in Tivoli, Italy. He wrote underneath, “Where we are, he once was, where he is, once we will be.”

There is something hugely liberating about this. I almost wrote scary, disturbing, and upsetting which is all true but the word that pushed to the front of the line was none other than liberating.

There is a meditation on death from the Buddhist tradition which may sound morbid  but exists as a way to offer perspective and has even been linked to bringing more joy into our lives. It also reminds us that everything is in a constant state of change. All is fleeting and if we don’t keep check of our attachments, our obsession with things can lead to more struggle and suffering. Every time something breaks, ends, or changes, it is a way to prime ourselves to the ultimate change that we will all experience. It is a way to practice letting go a little bit at a time.

A few weeks ago in our women’s circle, my friend Jenn talked about how she often answers this poignant invitation: “Make every decision from the perspective of your deathbed. As I imagine laying there looking back on my life, will I be glad I did this?” I am trying this. Will I feel guilty about not selling hot dogs at my son’s baseball games? Will I remember the stress involved in selling this house? Will I lay there thinking about all of the things I could have done better? What truly matters at the end should matter all the way throughout.

Losing my mom was heartbreaking. But it was also an opportunity to keep her company on her journey and to experience the sacredness of death. From where I was, the only thing, the absolute only thing that mattered, was her relationships. It was all Love and kindness. It surrounded her every minute of every day. She soaked it up and shared it with us even when she was sleeping most of the time. It was a palpable energy and it too was freeing.

When I sat with her in the days leading up to her death, holding her hand, telling her it was okay to go and sometimes even singing, it reminded me of birthing my babies. Something mysterious and magical, albeit painful and hard, was happening. Something so totally out of my grasp of understanding and day to day living. The intensity of it swallowed me whole. I could only surrender and trust that this was somehow o.k and that she was laboring into a new way of being just as I had labored into becoming a mother just as my babies were also labored into being.

Beloved Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says “Birth is a continuation.” Death is a continuation. This life is a circle. Every end, a new beginning. “Our nature is the nature of no birth and no death.”

When we contemplate death, it affords us a great blessing. It reminds us that we are here for a short blink of the eye in the universe. “Truth brings humility”, says Deepak Chopra. And truth sets us free.

Death asks us to be intentional about our living and reminds us to make our decisions from a seed truth of love instead of fear. When we choose from Love, we come from our highest, most authentic selves not from the ego. We come from a place of deep connection and intimacy and not a place of separation. When we put our egos aside and stop judging and doubting every little thing, we show up with our whole, true, compassionate hearts knowing that we are one and that somehow in some way, we go on forever.

 

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i touch the cloud

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“Everything will take care of itself with unexpected grace. Death is perfectly safe. Death is not the enemy, holding to fear is.” – Stephen Levine

“Radical acceptance tells us that the best way to overcome a perceived threat is not to look for ways to ward it off but to change your relationship to it.” – Sameet M. Kumar

The famed psychologist Carl Jung once said that he never had a patient over the age of forty whose unhappiness did not have its roots in the fear of death.

But even as a young child, I feared losing my parents, and strangely, I worried about them getting in a car accident. When my dad died almost twelve years later, I wondered if my childhood fear was actually a premonition or if the worrying itself caused that awful wreck to happen. I grew panic stricken when I would hear people say “be careful what you wish for” and “your thoughts are powerful.” I am grateful to know now that thoughts are just thoughts, and we choose rather to listen to them or watch them go as quickly as they came.

And now my children ask me questions about death. This summer after my daughter saw a dead cat on a dirt path in Nantucket, she wondered worriedly if he was alright. Later in bed she asked me whether it is possible to talk after we die. And years before, my son needed clarification about heaven existing in the toilet after we said goodbye to his first pet fish, Nova, with a ceremonious flush.

These questions begrudgingly bring up my own fears and confusion about death. But they also remind me to be as honest, real, and present as possible while thinking about my answers. It is my heartfelt wish for my children and for all of us to be brought up understanding – and sometimes I think my kids get this better than me – that death is not separate from but instead is a part of life, and that everything is impermanent. I hope to never let the fear of dying obstruct living life fully (and not in an “I’m invincible, I can do anything kind of way.”) Lastly, I wish for us to all know that death is essentially okay. (And I know, too, that death feels as far away as possible from okay when something tragic happens.)

I am now more likely to meet their questions about what happens after death with the answer, I don’t know.

But I do know that when someone dies, he or she is still with us. And to answer my daughter’s previous question, I also think we can still talk after we die.

The night of my father’s death, he, in fact, spoke to me. He appeared before me while I slept in my high school bedroom with the bright blue walls. Although I was asleep, this meeting was more real, vivid, and vibrant than any dream I have ever had. In fact, it was not really a dream at all.

We had unfinished business, my dad and I, and it felt as if he came to console me. I needed him, and he was there even though he couldn’t be there in the way he used to be.

Wearing a navy blue suit and tie with his signature warmth, he told me not to worry and not to feel guilty about an argument we had had days earlier. He was relaxed, carefree and at complete peace. I heard his message loud and clear: everything is going to be okay.

This particular encounter, and subsequent experiences with people at the end of their lives, stirs in me the soothing, albeit enigmatic realization that when someone close to us dies, he or she remains in our lives forever. And not just in the obvious ways found in old photographs, videos, and memories faded and grown soft with time. This subtle reprieve lies in the knowing that our relationships survive death. And with hopeful watering and loving tending, continue to grow. There, flowers bloom where there was once only dirt.

It is often in the presence of beauty, nature, silence, and serendipitous moments, that we are shown that we too will be okay.

When I feel overwhelmed with the weight of grief or anxiety, I know it is time to simplify…to slow down and feel my feet on the earth. And to stop thinking so much…to not look at the big picture for a spell but instead try to narrow my focus with the eye of an eagle on the miniscule details before me…the hot shower, the dishes in the sink, and the pretty punch-colored petal on the ground.

And while I don’t know much about death, I do believe that when we die, we don’t just disappear. Energy doesn’t vanish, but rather, it changes and transforms. This is not simply spiritual discourse but is in fact the science behind the law of thermodynamics. This theory states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Caterpillars become butterflies; the crushing of shells makes sand by the sea; and fires bring new growth to the forest.

I believe that the light we carry within us never extinguishes but instead transforms into brilliant, omnipresent, and eternal sparks. These sparks move through us. I have felt them manifest as smooth ripples in the ocean, in the smile in my son’s eyes, and the quiet stare of the hawk that visits my mom’s backyard in December.

Through my own misty eyes, I recently read of the cyclical nature of growth and life in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open; How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. She writes of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on death. He says, nothing is born, nothing can die. In the below excerpt, Hanh offers this explanation:

Look into the true nature of the paper. What do you see? You see – in a very tangible, scientific way – that paper is made of non-paper elements. When I touch the paper, I touch the tree, the forest because I know that deep inside there is the existence of the tree, the forest. Right? I also touch the sunshine. Even at midnight touching the sheet of paper, I touch sunshine. I touch the cloud. There is the cloud floating in this sheet of paper. You don’t have to be a poet to see the cloud. Because without the cloud, there would be no rain and no forest could grow. So the cloud is in there. The trees are in there. The sunshine, the minerals from the earth, the earth itself, time, space, people, insects-everything in the cosmos seems to be existing in this sheet of paper. It is very important to see that a sheet of paper is made of – only of – non-paper elements. Our body is also like that.

I don’t know what really happened the night my dad came to me or what happens when we die. And death still makes me anxious and sad. But while it is hard for our human hearts to bear, I also believe that it is okay, just like my dad said.

*I referenced these beautiful and helpful books above and recommend each one wholeheartedly. A Year to Live by Stephen Levine, Grieving Mindfully by Sameet M. Kumar, and Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smiling is good for us

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“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

I am not a fan of the acronym KISS or Keep It Simple Stupid. Does it mean keep it so simple it’s stupid or am I being referred to as stupid? I’m probably stupid for even asking this question. Now, now, I know there is no such thing as a stupid question.

I like simple but I don’t like stupid. Maybe we could change it to: Keep It Simple Smiley. Smiling is good and simple. And it makes us feel better and not inadequate. We literally release positive endorphins when we smile so not only does it makes us feel good, but it is also benefits our overall health!

Smiling has been a precursor to some of my favorite moments in life. In fact, I met one of my closest friends in a Starbucks because she smiled at me.

A smile slows us down. A smile connects us to one another. It is an acknowledgement that we are all in the same boat no matter how rough the water is.

Maybe I am feeling nostalgic today as my youngest turns four, but I am really grateful to my mom for showing me how illuminating a smile can be.

She smiles at everyone. That warm grin of hers has been uplifting those around her for years. Her smiles often turn into conversations. Honestly, I didn’t much appreciate this as a teenager when I felt like every shop owner in town knew when I was having my period.

But now I appreciate it deeply.

My son asks me almost daily after I’m done chatting with someone I just met or greeting a stranger with a wave or smile, “Mom did you know that person?” More often than not I say, “Now I do.” And then I silently thank my mom and her contagious smile for having lit the path before me.

Gay Writes

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Gay Writes

Recently I had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking. He was struggling to understand why his sexuality was a conversation topic amongst friends. He felt it was no one’s business but his own. I appreciated where he was coming from and wondered if it is indeed any of our business. His sexuality is part of who he is and I care about him deeply. I don’t want him to feel he has to hide anything. I just want to love and support him for exactly who he is.

Although I haven’t struggled with my sexual identity, I have struggled with bouts of depression, anxiety and profound shame. At times when I felt I couldn’t be myself, the suffocation of this sensation seemed lethal. The bottom line is we’ve all experienced shame and all have something we would rather not have to be so “out there” about.

I am empathetic to the fact that I don’t truly know how hard it has been to get to where he is now. I can only imagine how annoying it is to feel like you have to announce your sexual preference on a rooftop at Thanksgiving while waving a rainbow flag around simply because you are gay. I also know growing up and feeling “different” can be awfully trying and can lead to some scary places.

Homosexuality is close to my heart because of family and friends whom are gay. I respect and admire them for their resilience and authenticity. I also feel fortunate that my children have role models such as these in their lives. This “issue” is not about politics, or religion, it is simply about love. Maybe I’m old school, but I think we can always use more love in this world. I realize my friend is right, sexual preference is personal. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I also realize it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks as long as my friend loves and accepts himself. And genuine self-acceptance is something we all probably need to work on. We begin by liking ourselves just as we are right now in this perfect moment. (Below are some ideas about how to do this) The more we accept ourselves, the more others will accept themselves.

This honesty and integrity, although invisible to the eye, serves to liberate others and allows us all to embody the truest expression of our divine individuality and sincere authenticity. It is in this space of sacred freedom where we truly come alive and honor one another from the very pit of our stomachs. We owe this to ourselves and to one another. As the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote goes, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Tools for practicing self – acceptance

1) Smiling! The great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “A tiny bud of a smile on your lips nourishes awareness and calms you miraculously.” Science has proven that a smile sends a biochemical message to the nervous system letting the body know its okay to relax. (From Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach)

2) Being gentle with oneself and not “beating yourself up” over making a mistake.

3) Looking in the mirror and saying, I see you, I accept you, I love you.

4) Honoring your intuition when you get a strong internal “yes” or “no” to an invitation.

5) Practicing forgiveness for yourself as well as others.

6) Pausing periodically throughout the day to drop out of your head and into your body, checking in with any emotion or sensation, and noticing where in the body you feel it.

7) Being in silence.

8) Finding an outlet for releasing intense emotions by dancing, playing or listening to music, writing, painting, taking a walk, going out with friends, screaming, punching a pillow, swimming, playing a sport, etc.

9) Loving yourself truly for who you are right now in this present moment and not being attached to some future aspiration that you think will make you more worthy.

10) Most importantly, practicing gratitude…keep a gratitude journal and write down your thankfulness or say it out loud! Thank your body for your health, your vision, your ability to laugh, cry, yawn, play sports…the list is limitless. Thank nature, friends, your parents, your kids! Do this when you first wake up or before you go to sleep. When you practice gratitude in this way, your senses will begin to notice more and more things to be thankful for. Test results reveal that gratitude lessens anxiety (practicing accepting the things we don’t like such as our anxiety is important too) and increases joy!

For more on self-acceptance, check out the book, Radical Acceptance; Embracing You Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D