death

Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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What the death of an animal can teach us about the power of ritual

a ceremony to help children process a death

I am fascinated and touched and inspired by the deep love many children have for wild animals. It’s a love that seems natural, and sometimes more immediate than what many adults (including me) have to offer, at least on the surface.

Yesterday, my nine year old saw from the front porch that a raccoon had been killed by a car on our street. It was a terrible sight. She called her siblings out to see. The littler one, who is six, was very sad: “I just feel so bad for the raccoon.”

I felt bad too, and tried not to let the experience become a symbol for all the sadness I have about these sorts of things.

I suggested we light a candle for the raccoon. It occurred to me that the driver who hit the raccoon probably felt awful about it, so I shared that too and wished that person well.

And then, though that was all I had at the moment, my kids took it from there.

They gathered a wreath, the nine year old making the label “raccoon,” and the 6 year old making the picture above, which includes an assortment of vehicles with a big X through them.

“Why can’t everyone just ride bikes?” he asked (although in the picture I think the bike got an X too.)

This whole thing happened and the candle burned for the next couple hours and they told dad about it later … and all of this helped them work through their feelings. Me too.

It was a sad situation, but I felt comfort witnessing their feelings of love and connection, their care for another living being and for one another, AND the seeming effectiveness of this ritual.

It taught me about what I can do to manage my own sadnesses. It taught me that these rituals and gestures can be effective and meaningful. And it taught me about the loving kindness that lives inside us and is right there to tap into.

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You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

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Dead or just meditating? An Indian court to decide

wildmind meditation newsDean Nelson, TheAge.com.au: The family and followers of one of India’s wealthiest Hindu spiritual leaders are fighting a legal battle over whether he is dead or simply in a deep state of meditation.

His Holiness Shri Ashutosh Maharaj, the founder of the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan religious order, with a property estate worth an estimated £100 million ($181 million), died in January, according to his wife and son.
However, his disciples at his ashram have refused to let the family take his body for cremation because they claim he is still alive.

According to his followers, based in the Punjab city of Jalandhar, he …

Read the original article »

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I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about

tara-brachWriting and speaking about the nature of awareness is a humbling process; as the third Zen patriarch said, “Words! The way is beyond language.” Whatever words are used, whatever thoughts they evoke, that’s not it! Just as we can’t see our own eyes, we can’t see awareness. What we are looking for is what is looking. Awareness is not another object or concept that our mind can grasp. We can only be awareness.

A friend who is a Unitarian minister told me about an interfaith gathering that she attended. It opened with an inquiry: What is our agreed-upon language for referring to the divine? Shall we call it God? “No way” responded a feminist Wiccan. “What about Goddess?” A Baptist minister laughed and said, “Spirit?” Upon which an atheist replied, “Nope.” Discussion went on for a while. Finally, a Native American suggested “the great mystery” and they all agreed. Each knew that whatever his or her personal understanding, the sacred was in essence a mystery.

Awareness, true nature, what we are—is a mystery. We encounter the same wordless mystery when someone dies. After his mother passed away, my husband Jonathan looked at me and said, “Where did she go?” I remember sitting with my father as he was dying—he was there, and then he wasn’t. His spirit, that animating consciousness, was no longer present in his body.

Nothing in this world of experience is more jarring to our view than death. It takes away all our conceptual props. We can’t understand with our minds what has occurred. Love is the same way. We talk endlessly about love, yet when we bring to mind someone we love and really investigate, “What is this love?”, we drop into the mystery. What is this existence itself, with all its particularity, its strange life forms, its beauty, its cruelty? We can’t understand. When we ask “Who am I?” or “Who is aware?” and really pause to examine, we can’t find an answer.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

True Refuge, published Jan 2013. Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Tibetan teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes, “If everything … changes, then what is really true? Is there something behind the appearances, something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place? Is there something in fact we can depend on, that does survive what we call death?”

This inquiry turns us toward the timeless refuge of pure awareness. When we ask ourselves, “Is awareness here?” most of us probably pause, sense the presence of awareness, and say yes. Yet every day we restlessly pull away from this open awareness and immerse ourselves in busyness and planning. Our conditioning prevents us from discovering the peace and happiness that are intrinsic in taking refuge in awareness. Seeing how we paper over the mystery of who we are is an essential part of finding freedom.

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley called awareness “Mind at Large” and reminded us: “Each one of us is potentially Mind at Large. But in so far as we are animals, our business is at all costs to survive. To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet.”

From an evolutionary perspective, our brain’s primary function is to block out too much information, and to select and organize the information that will allow us to thrive. The more stress we feel, the smaller the aperture of our attention. If we’re hungry, we obsess about food. If we’re threatened, we fixate on defending ourselves or striking first to remove the threat. Our narrowly focused attention is the key navigational instrument of the ego-identified self.

I saw a cartoon once in which a guy at a bar is telling the bartender: “I’m nothing, yet I’m all I can think about.” If you reflect on how often you are moving through your day trying to “figure something out,” you’ll get a sense of how the reducing valve is shaping your experience. And if you notice how many thoughts are about yourself, you’ll see how the valve creates a completely self-centered universe. It’s true for all of us!

This incessant spinning of thoughts continually resurrects what I often call our space-suit identity. Our stories keep reminding us that we need to improve our circumstances, get more security or pleasure, avoid mistakes and trouble. Even when there are no real problems, we have the sense that we should be doing something different from whatever we are doing in the moment. “Why are you unhappy?” asks writer Wei Wu Wei. “Because 99.9% of everything you do is for yourself … and there isn’t one.”

While we might grasp this conceptually, the self-sense can seem very gritty and real. Even single-cell creatures have a rudimentary sense of “self in here, world out there.” As Huxley acknowledges, developing a functional self was basic to evolution on our particular planet. But this does not mean the space-suit self marks the end of our evolutionary journey. We have the capacity to realize our true belonging to something infinitely larger.

If we fail to wake up to who we are beyond the story of self, our system will register a “stuckness.” It’s a developmental arrest that shows up as dissatisfaction, endless stress, loneliness, fear, and joylessness. This emotional pain is not a sign that we need to discard our functional self. It’s a sign that the timeless dimension of our being is awaiting realization. As executive coach and author Stephen Josephs teaches, “We can still function as an apparent separate entity, while enjoying the parallel reality of our infinite vast presence. We need both realms. When the cop pulls us over we still need to show him our license, not simply point to the sky.”

Most of us are too quick to reach for our license. If our sense of identity is bound to the egoic self, we will spend our lives tensing against the certainty of loss and death. We will not be able to open fully to the aliveness and love that are here in the present moment. As Sri Nisargadatta writes, “As long as you imagine yourself to be something tangible and solid, a thing among things, you seem short-lived and vulnerable, and of course you will feel anxious to survive. But when you know yourself to be beyond space and time, you will be afraid no longer.”

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Defending against loss

The Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain.

Yet, this life is not only burning and falling apart; sorrow and joy are woven inextricably together. When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

One of my clients, Justin, distracted himself from the loss of his wife, Donna, by armoring himself with anger. He’d met her in college, and married her right after graduation. Donna went on to law school and to teaching law; Justin taught history and coached basketball at a small urban college. With their teaching, passion for tennis, and shared dedication to advocating for disadvantaged youth, their life together was full and satisfying.

On the day that Justin received the unexpected news of his promotion to full professor, Donna was away at a conference, and caught an early flight back to celebrate with him. On her way home from the airport, a large truck overturned and crushed her car, killing her instantly.

Almost a year after her death, Justin asked me for phone counseling. “I need to get back to mindfulness,” he wrote. “Anger is threatening to take away the rest of my life.”

During our first call, Justin told me that his initial response to Donna’s death was rage at an unjust God. “It doesn’t matter that I always tried to do my best, be a good person, a good Christian. God turned his back on me,” he told me. Yet his initial anger at God had morphed into a more general rage at injustice and a desire to confront those in power. He’d always been involved with social causes, but now he became a lightning rod for conflict, aggressively leading the fight for diversity on campus, and publicly attacking the school administration for its lack of commitment to the surrounding community.

His department chairman had previously been a staunch ally; now their communication was badly strained. “It’s not your activism,” his chairman told him. “It’s your antagonism, your attitude.” Justin’s older sister, his lifelong confidant, had also confronted him. “Your basic life stance is suspicion and hostility,” she’d said. When I asked him whether that rang true, he replied, “When I lost Donna, I lost my faith. I used to think that some basic sanity could prevail in this world. But now, well, it’s hard not to feel hostile.”

The pain of loss often inspires activism. Mothers have lobbied tirelessly for laws preventing drunk driving; others struggle for legislation to reduce gun violence; gay rights activists devote themselves to halting hate crimes. Such dedication to change can be a vital and empowering part of healing. But Justin’s unprocessed anger had aborted the process of mourning. His anger might have given him some feeling of meaning or purpose, but instead he remained a victim, at war with God and life, unable to truly heal.

Loss exposes our essential powerlessness, and often we will do whatever’s possible to subdue the primal fear that comes with feeling out of control. Much of our daily activity is a vigilant effort to stay on top of things—to feel prepared and avoid trouble. When this fails, our next line of defense is to whip ourselves into shape: Maybe if we can change, we think, we can protect ourselves from more suffering. Sadly, going to war with ourselves only compounds our pain.

A few months after my first phone consultation with Justin, his seventy-five-year-old mother had a stroke. His voice filled with agitation as he told me about the wall he’d hit when he tried to communicate with her insurance company. They couldn’t seem to understand that her recovery depended on more comprehensive rehab. “There’s nothing I can do to reach this goddamned, heartless bureaucracy … nothing!”

Justin was once again living in the shadow of loss, and gripped in reactivity. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring mindfulness to his immediate experience. He began by quickly identifying what he called “pure, righteous anger” before pausing, and allowing it to be there. Then, after a several rounds of investigation, he came upon something else. “My chest. It’s like there’s a gripping there, like a big claw that’s just frozen in place. And I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked gently. After a long pause, Justin spoke in a low voice. “She’ll probably come through this fine, but a part of me is afraid I’m going to lose her too.”

We stayed on the phone as Justin breathed with his fear, feeling its frozen grip on his chest. Then he asked if he could call me back later in the week. “This is a deep pain,” he said. “I need to spend time with it.”

A few days later, he told me, “Something cracked open, Tara. Being worried about my mom is all mixed up with Donna dying. It’s like Donna just died yesterday, and I’m all broken up. Something in me is dying all over again . . .” Justin had to wait a few moments before continuing. “I wasn’t done grieving. I never let myself feel how part of me died with her.” He could barely get out the words before he began weeping deeply.

Whenever we find ourselves lacking control of a situation, there’s an opening to just be with what is. Now that Justin had once again found himself in a situation he couldn’t control, he was willing this time to be with the loss he’d never fully grieved. Instead of rushing into a new cause, he spent the next couple of months focused on caring for his mom. He also spent hours alone shooting hoops, or hitting tennis balls against a wall. Sometimes he’d walk into his empty house and feel like he had just lost Donna all over again. It was that raw.

Justin had finally opened to the presence that could release his hill of tears. Six months later, during our last consultation, he told me that he was back in action. “I’m in the thick of diversity work again, and probably more effective. Makes sense . . . According to my sister, I’m no longer at war with the world.”

By opening to his own grief instead of armoring himself with anger, Justin was finally able to start the healing process. His grief had never gone away; it had just been hidden. Once he was willing to open to it and feel it, his own sorrow could show him the way home to peace. As Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue tells us:

All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

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Life is short. Be kind.

A lot of people I know have experienced loss recently. Loss is particularly hard when your last words to the deceased person were spoken in anger.

I don’t know whether you’ll get married. I don’t know whether you’ll have children or grandchildren. I don’t know if you’ll be kind. But I know you’ll die. Because that’s something we all do. Death is something we often don’t want to think about, even though it’s inescapable and a simple fact of life.

Hence,in the Buddhist teachings, we find reflections such as this:

Those who have come to be,
those who will be:
All will go,
leaving the body behind.
The skillful person,
realizing the loss of all,
should live the holy life
ardently.

And this:

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

We don’t want to think about death, so we have to make a conscious effort to do so.

This may, for all we know, be my last post on this blog. You, for all I know, may have already passed away before my finger hits the “publish” button. For all I know, this post has been written by a corpse, for a corpse.

Life is short. Be kind.

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“Stone, Sea and Sand: Poems and Reflections on the Buddha’s Teaching on Impermanence” by Satyadevi

Between November 2010 and February 2011, New Zealand, a country of 4 million people, suffered two of the biggest disasters in its history.

The Chilean mining disaster had many of us riveted to our TV screens as miner after miner was brought to safety, having been trapped underground for 69 days. This was not to be the case in New Zealand. After an explosion at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand’s South Island, anxious families, buoyed by the Chilean experience, waited for long days and nights for a breakthrough that might bring their men home. None of the 29 miners and contractors survived.

Only three months later, Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city, was decimated by its second major earthquake in a year. This event killed 185 and maimed many more, both physically and mentally. Currently many of the historical buildings are being demolished and hundreds of city residents are in no-man’s-land awaiting the bureaucratic Earthquake Commission’s decision as to whether their homes are viable or not. They have been through a freezing winter with major cracks in walls with only tarpaulins to keep the wind out, a bit like Haiti, with snow. Homicide, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicides have risen indicating many inhabitants continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

The desire to make sense of these tragedies led Satyadevi to compile and publish some of her poetry, donating half the proceeds to the Christchurch Earthquake Red Cross Appeal, with the remainder going towards improving facilities at the beautiful 250 acre valley that is home to Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre. The photo on the cover features Dhardo Rimpoche’s stupa at the facility.

Satyadevi’s volume combines threads of the raw energy of New Zealand with her Buddhist reflections on impermanence. Receptivity to the underlying drumbeat of this nation’s painful seismic birth and her awareness that it is all but a splash on the tabula rasa of becoming, imbues her poetry with poignancy, beauty and acceptance.

Satyadevi’s own personal grief, like that of Kisagotami, found universalization and acceptance which she has expressed movingly in waiata (Maori lament)

In ancient India, a young mother called Kisagotami had just lost her young son and was mad with grief. She could not accept that her beloved first born was dead. With the dead child in her arms, she ran from house to house asking for medicine for her little son. At every door she begged: “Please give me some medicine for my child,” but the people replied that medicine would not help any more, the child was dead. Kisagotami refused to accept this, despite the coldness and stiffness of his little body. One kind person suggested she go and find the Buddha who was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anathapindika’s monastery.

She burst into the middle of a discourse being given by the Buddha to a large gathering. Totally despairing and in tears, with the corpse of the child in her arms, she begged the Buddha, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” The Awakened One interrupted his teaching and replied kindly that he knew of a medicine. Amazed, she asked what this could be.

“Mustard seeds,” the Enlightened One replied, astounding everyone present.

The Buddha replied that she need only bring a very small quantity from any house where no one had died. Joyfully Kisagotami ran back to the town. At the first house, she asked whether any mustard seeds were available. “Certainly,” was the reply. But then she remembered to ask the second question, whether anyone had died in this house. “But of course,” the woman told her, and crestfallen, she withdrew. She went from door to door but was unable to find any house where no one had died. The dead are more numerous than the living, she was gravely informed.

Towards evening she finally realized that, as she had suffered, so many others had suffered. Her heart opened in compassion to the reality of universal suffering through death. In this way, the Buddha was able to heal her obsession and bring her to acceptance of reality. Kisagotami no longer refused to believe that her child was dead, but understood that death is the destiny of all beings, sooner or later.

She then became a disciple of the Buddha and found peace.

Satyadevi dedicated her poem “Kisagotami” to the families of the Pike River Miners. She writes:

In time Kisagotami’s heart found full release and the end of grief –
when she perceived that all things worldly must decline
when their conditions cease.

The poetry is not only an expression of the mystery of death but a way in which we can come to terms with it, or if we cannot make sense of it, to use it to become better human beings.

In this crowded world of the sound byte, it is increasingly rare to find material born of deep reflection and solitude. Such a volume of work sings songs of fresh possibilities in a fragmented, troubled era.

Stone, Sea, and Sand is available from Lotus Realm.

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I love you and one day I will die

I love you and one day I will die. I can not escape it. Death comes to everyone, including me.

Death is unavoidable; it will come to all of us, today, tomorrow, next month, next year.
Death is unavoidable; even I will die. Even you will die. Everyone we know will die.

Death is unavoidable, you and I may die before our parents. You and I may die before our children. You and I may die before our friends. You and I may die before our loved ones. You and I may die after our loved ones.

Death is unavoidable; this is the only thing we can guarantee in life. During this next year someone we know will die, or we will know of someone who knows someone who has died. In five years some of us may have even died. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

Death is not a tragedy. How we respond to death can be a tragedy. Denial of death is a tragedy. Blame is a tragedy. Saying it’s not fare is a tragedy. Death will come – all we can hope for is that we have a happy death.
Death is unavoidable, why not die well. One can hope for a non violent death, one can hope for a death from the failing body, from sickness or old age.

Detox Your Heart, by Vimalasara: Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.ca

The longer we live, the more we will see die. In 20 years more of us would have died, and in 60 years most of us would have died.

Never be to overjoyed when someone arrives. Never be to saddened when someone leaves. This can be a mini rehearsal for learning to mourn who we lose.

Always hold lightly in your heart that this may be the last time you see the person you are with now.

If you can live like this only loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and peace will flow from your heart.

Death is unavoidable and it will come to all of us.

What does the gap between birth and death mean to you?

How are you living your life?

We may die a sudden death without saying goodbye to our loved ones, family, friends – what is it that we need to tell them so we have no regret if this happens?

How are you preparing for your death?

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Tibetan sky burial photographs

An astonishing series of photographs of a Tibetan “sky burial,” where a corpse is cut up and fed to vultures, with the remains being pounded into dust, has been viewed almost three quarters of a million times in 24 hours.

The images (view here) are very graphic, but as Justin Whitaker says, “As a poignant reminder of the impermanence of this body, they’re worth viewing.”

According to Wikipedia, in Tibet the practice is known as jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds.”

Sky burial is traditional in Tibet, where the ground is too rock for interment to be practical, and where a lack of wood similarly makes cremation unfeasible for people.

This kind of burial is a kind of meditation in itself. There’s long been a tradition in Buddhism of using corpses in order to reflect on impermanence and to reduce attachment to the human form. For example, in order to develop mindfulness the monk is encouraged to see his own body in the following way…

..as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures… a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons… a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons… a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons… bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a breast bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull… the bones whitened, somewhat like the color of shells… piled up, more than a year old… decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.’

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