death

How thinking about death can lead to a better life

Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies. Even non-conscious thinking about death – say walking by a cemetery – could prompt positive changes and promote helping others.

Past research suggests that thinking about death is destructive and dangerous, fueling everything from prejudice and greed to violence. Such studies related to terror management theory (TMT), which posits that we uphold certain cultural beliefs to manage our feelings of mortality, have rarely explored the potential benefits of death awareness.

“This tendency for TMT research to primarily deal with negative attitudes and harmful behaviors has become so deeply entrenched in our field that some have recently suggested that death awareness is simply a bleak force of social destruction,” says Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, lead author of the new study in the online edition of Personality and Social Psychology Review this month. “There has been very little integrative understanding of how subtle, day-to-day, death awareness might be capable of motivating attitudes and behaviors that can minimize harm to oneself and others, and can promote well-being.”

In constructing a new model for how we think about our own mortality, Vail and colleagues performed an extensive review of recent studies on the topic. They found numerous examples of experiments both in the lab and field that suggest a positive side to natural reminders about mortality.

For example, Vail points to a study by Matthew Gailliot and colleagues in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2008 that tested how just being physically near a cemetery affects how willing people are to help a stranger. “Researchers hypothesized that if the cultural value of helping was made important to people, then the heightened awareness of death would motivate an increase in helping behaviors,” Vail says.

The researchers observed people who were either passing through a cemetery or were one block away, out of sight of the cemetery. Actors at each location talked near the participants about either the value of helping others or a control topic, and then some moments later, another actor dropped her notebook. The researchers then tested in each condition how many people helped the stranger.

“When the value of helping was made salient, the number of participants who helped the second confederate with her notebook was 40% greater at the cemetery than a block away from the cemetery,” Vail says. “Other field experiments and tightly controlled laboratory experiments have replicated these and similar findings, showing that the awareness of death can motivate increased expressions of tolerance, egalitarianism, compassion, empathy, and pacifism.”

For example, a 2010 study by Immo Fritsche of the University of Leipzig and co-authors revealed how increased death awareness can motivate sustainable behaviors when pro-environmental norms are made salient. And a study by Zachary Rothschild of the University of Kansas and co-workers in 2009 showed how an increased awareness of death can motivate American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to display peaceful compassion toward members of other groups when religious texts make such values more important.

Thinking about death can also promote better health. Recent studies have shown that when reminded of death people may opt for better health choices, such as using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise. A 2011 study by D.P. Cooper and co-authors found that death reminders increased intentions to perform breast self-exams when women were exposed to information that linked the behavior to self-empowerment.

One major implication of this body of work, Vail says, is that we should “turn attention and research efforts toward better understanding of how the motivations triggered by death awareness can actually improve people’s lives, rather than how it can cause malady and social strife.” Write the authors: “The dance with death can be a delicate but potentially elegant stride toward living the good life.”

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Top five regrets of the dying

Susie Steiner, The Guardian: A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’.

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

There was no mention of more sex or bungee jumps.

A palliative nurse who has counselled the dying in their last days has revealed the most common regrets we have at the end of our lives. And among the top, from men in particular, is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Ware writes of the phenomenal clarity of vision that people …

Read the original article »

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A path to live life to the fullest

Path through golden woodland

In Buddhism there are four reminders, things we should consider to make the most of our lives and to prepare us for death.

The four reminders are:

  • our lives are precious
  • we are not immortal
  • our actions have consequences and
  • we can learn to transcend pain.

These reminders can make a difference in how we live our lives, if we keep them in mind and reflect on them each day.

1. The preciousness of life – our lives are precious and our physical and mental health, energy, freedom, food, and money give us opportunities to make the most of each and every day. So each day, we might ask ourselves, “Am I making the most of my life?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “Am I aware of my thoughts, speech and actions?” “Do I react by habit or respond creatively to situations and people?” “Am I working at a job that is ethical and helpful to people?” “Am I spending as much time with my family as I want to?” “Am I spending as much time with my friends as I want to?” “Do I take time for leisure activities?” “Am I getting enough rest and sleep?” There may be other questions you would add to this list.

2. We are not immortal, although, in our culture we do not think about death until a loved one is very ill or we hear of someone dear to us who is dying. One thing is for certain — we will all die. We cannot avoid death. We all age, day by day we get older. We may think we are immune, but we are not. And there are other causes of death: illness, accidents, natural disasters and violence. We may die after an illness or we may die suddenly without being able to say good-bye to friends and family. Facing death takes courage and a clear conscience. We become more alive when we contemplate death.

3. Actions have consequences. We are the sum of many influences: family, religion, culture, education, relationships, friendships, diet, exercise and more. We are also the sum total of all the many choices and decisions we have made; our actions and our emotional lives. There may be some things we cannot change and we must accept that we cannot change them. We can, however, change the way we think (rather than letting the mind think in a random, unrestrained way). We can become more positive and loving by practicing meditation and yoga. When our actions are honest; when our speech is kind, helpful and harmonious; when we are positive, generous, loving and wise — all this will affect how we feel. We can commit to acting in a way that is beneficial to ourselves, to those around us, and to the world.

4. Learning to transcend pain and suffering.  Each day there is stress and striving. We are always searching for something: a faster, newer car; an updated computer; the latest technological toy; something different in our marriage; a new relationship; more fashionable clothing; a different job; an understanding boss; people to act differently; a bigger house; or greener grass. The list is endless — take a few moments and consider what you strive for, what you would like to be different or new in your life. Along with striving and stress — there is illness, injury, depression, fear, mental anguish — all of which contribute to feeling that we do not have enough, we are intrinsically not enough, we wish things/people/situations were different. Our bodies continue to grow older, our thoughts never end and keep us awake at night and distracted during the day. This is life, what the Buddha called samsara. We search for happiness and fulfillment in what we do not have, rather than finding contentment and joy in what we do have.

This dissatisfaction often brings us to question the meaning of life, or to a spiritual quest. We often need a wake up call to be jolted out of our complacency. We need to wake up to the truth – that we will not live forever, our actions have consequences for ourselves, others and the world, we can find happiness and joy, and we need to be aware enough to make the most of this precious life.

There are different ways of reflecting on these four reminders: meditation, silent reflection, writing and discussions with others.

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Secular prayer flags

Secular prayer flags made by students at Timberlane High School, New Hampshire

A few days ago I gave a talk at a high school about 40 minutes from my house. Some of the students had made secular “prayer flags,” which had the purpose of expressing their positive thoughts and sending them out into the world.

The prayer flags had been hung where they would brighten up a rather unattractive central courtyard, which now contained a “ger” (Tibetan yurt), designed (I think) in the geometry class. You can just see the ger in the background of the second photograph.

Some of the images were intriguing, and I wish I’d been able to talk more with individual students to discover more about what they were trying to communicate.

Below, you’ll find the text of the address I gave to the students who made these flags.

Secular prayer flag with image of Audrey Hepburn

 

String of secular prayer flags created by high school students in New Hampshire

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidabiity of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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Steve Jobs on death

Steve Jobs

I’m sad that Steve Jobs has died. No one has had as much effect on the computer industry as he has. His company, Apple, has transformed the way we relate to computers.

I only recently learned that Jobs was a Buddhist. According to his Wikipedia biography, he went to India in the 1970s and came back a Buddhist. In 1991 his wedding ceremony was performed by a Zen priest. He was a very private man, and I don’t think he talked much about his religion.

I thought a fitting tribute would be Jobs own words, from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he eloquently discusses how an awareness of death and impermanence inspired him to live life to the fullest.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

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“Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows,” by Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle

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Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows

To be clear from the start, this book is worthy of the rich praise it has received. The inner jacket liner contains three pages crammed with accolades from what could be easily construed as the Who’s Who of leading contemporary spiritual leaders and health professionals. The book is a moving and loving story of this extraordinary couple’s experience.

It is a love story. It is a love story written from the deeply touching and personal perspective of a remarkable woman living through her equally remarkable husband’s dementia and death. The book covers the six years from his first symptoms to his death as she emotionally lived the various pieces of their life together as it changed profoundly. The book is drawn from her journals, giving the reader the direct expression of her emotions as they went through her.

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The theme and tone of the book are both poignantly captured in a phrase that is the Postlude to the narrative, “Dance me to the End of Love,” a line drawn from a Leonard Cohen poem. The book is a dance in its delicate movement, its cadence and its intimate flowing emotion. The reader is watching lovers dance, from inside one of the dancers. It is sweeping love story between two extraordinary people who, as we learn from the book, and feel from its author, have each lived extraordinary lives.

Title: Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows: A Couple’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s
Author: Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
Publisher: Tartcher/Penguin
ISBN: 978-1-58542-827-4
Available from: Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, and Amazon.com or Amazon.com Kindle Store.

The extraordinary qualities of the writer, of her husband and of their lives together are stamped throughout the book, from the jacket liner to the back cover. This entices the reader; gives a sense of wonder and awe to the experience of the close connection with their lives, their struggles and their needs, each of them, to come to so ordinary a thing as death. It is a strength of the book; two sparkling, talented people who lives have soared above us in a glorious flight of remarkable accomplishments, experiences, encounters, facing together an ignoble debilitating illness and the commonness of death. This also is a puzzle for the reader.

What is so very extraordinary about the lives of the writer and her husband removes them from what is all too ordinary, the plight of most people and families who face the same challenge. When we bring to mind the estimated 5.4 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disorder, and their 14.9 million unpaid caretakers we are carried to a different and less exalted reaction than the one we are left with at the end of this beautiful and extraordinary experience. Every family’s story, of course, is different and singular.

What is incongruent is that we cannot conceive of most of these millions (millions that will swell in a few decades to tens of millions in what has been described as an epidemic) as extraordinary. We cannot conceive of these millions having the resources financially for the care that is described in “Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows”. We cannot imagine millions having the homes in Vermont and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We cannot imagine millions with the support of a large network of loving and distinguished friends, and of renowned spiritual leaders. We cannot imagine millions dying peacefully in their homes surrounded by loving caregivers.

In this way the ordinary and the extraordinary are juxtaposed too nearly. We suspect the wreckage of dementia on the many millions and their families is something quite different than what this book has told of. We suspect that so many die alone. We suspect that so many are broken by the financial impossibilities of good care. We suspect the isolation and loneliness of those families who cannot afford care, who chose to leave their jobs to care for their stricken relatives, whose world then becomes a small one of long and weary days and sleepless nights. We know of the number caretakers who die early, earlier than their loved one with Alzheimer’s. We know of those who live with Alzheimer’s much longer than the six years described so movingly by Olivia Hoblitzelle, many of whom, unlike her husband, dwell in silence or are unable for years to remember who is in the room with them or what they did or said two minutes ago.

So we remind ourselves that “Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows” is a particular story about particular people. It is a tender and touching love story that can give us comfort and inspiration. It is not about us. But may still be a help to us. The “Suggestions” at each Chapter’s end may be practical reminders for some of us. The “Seed Thoughts” also at the conclusion of each Chapter will be consistently useful to us (“May I cultivate compassion toward myself and others”, May I find new ways of handling my negative emotions.” “May I accept the challenge of this situation”, “Let me be calm”).

“Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows” is uplifting for us in the way that all stories of courageous struggle are. And it brings that us that sweet and painful poignancy of all powerful love stories.

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This precious human birth

When one of Sunada’s best friends from college lost her brother recently, it served as a wake up call for her. It was a reminder that life is short, and there really is no time to lose.

My friend Cecily recently lost her brother to illness. He had just turned 50 the week before he died. She is devastated.

Cecily is one of my best friends from college. We’ve known each other for 32 years. It’s that rare kind of friendship where even if months pass without connecting, we still pick right up where we left off. We’ve never lived anywhere near each other since graduation, but we’ve stayed in touch through all our ups and downs. It’s a friendship I treasure.

When she came to visit after her loss, there was something very poignant about it. It turned into something of a wake up call for me.

I’ve written here many times about my busy-holic tendencies. It turns out I’m in one of my legitimately busiest periods in years. I recently took on a new part-time job, on top of working to build my coaching practice, and teach meditation and dharma. This week, I start attending a training program one day a week. My husband wants to start some home renovations to prepare our townhouse for sale. And I’m keeping up with my singing engagements and voice lessons. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again. Everything I’m doing is very important to me. I have a hard time seeing what to cut.

But sometimes I take things too seriously. I get so driven and sucked into my vision of where I want to go that I forget to live my life right now. And Cecily’s visit reminded me of that.

At my sangha group this week, it was timely that we discussed the traditional Buddhist teaching on the Four Reminders. Here’s one presentation of them, in verse form:

This human birth is precious,
our opportunity to awaken.
The body is impermanent,
and time of death is uncertain.
The cause and effect of karma
shapes the course of our lives.
Life has inevitable difficulties,
no one can control it all.

This life we must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

Therefore I recall
My inspiration and aspiration
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night to realize it.

– Compiled by Viveka Chen, based on verses by Tsongkhapa (14th century Tibetan master)

What this teaching says to me is this. Of all the millions of different circumstances that I might have been born into, I was given this fortunate human birth. I have everything I need, and the freedom to choose how to live. How foolish it is to spend my life like a hungry ghost — constantly grasping after some elusive future.

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Right Now is a good time to appreciate what precious gifts I’ve been given. And make the best use of them, both for my own benefit and for everyone else’s. When else could I do that? Besides, I don’t know how long my good fortune will last. Things could change tomorrow. I don’t know. And the opportunity might not come again.

For now, I’m not in a position to change my overloaded schedule. But I can change my mindset. For one, I realize how precious Cecily’s friendship is to me. Even though we’ve been friends for 32 years, there have been big chunks of time when we weren’t connecting. Now that we’re both in our 50s, I’m seeing more clearly how the time ahead of us is finite.

Seeing her and reflecting on the Four Reminders have given me my wake up call. There really is no time to lose.

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“Lessons For The Living,” by Stan Goldberg

lessons for the living

Given the fact that we’re all going to die, it’s remarkable how little thought most of us give to the actual process of dying. In Lessons For The Living Stan Goldberg seeks to illuminate this most universal of experiences by sharing the lessons he learned during his time as a hospice volunteer.

Title: Lessons For The Living
Author: Stan Goldberg
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1-59030-676-5
Available from: Random House, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

What drew Goldberg into volunteering was the discovery that he himself was living with an incurable cancer. Part memoir and part practical guide, this book should be of interest to us all, and in particular to those of us wondering how to best help our loved ones as they approach the end of life.

By learning how to help others in the last days and hours of their lives, Goldberg discovered a blueprint for living which applies equally well to our entire lifespan, not just the end-point. Under such headings as “Forgiveness”, “Letting Go,” and “The Dilemma of Hope,” Goldberg describes the lessons he learned and applied, not only in helping others, but also while coming to grips with his own mortality: “I no longer invest energy in hoping that the cancer will remain under control — I’m too busy living.”

As Goldberg delves deeper into his own fears and uncertainties surrounding his own future he comes to understand the often illusive nature of hope: “The absence of hope isn’t a negative state. The disappearance of hope put me squarely into the present, since I know I can die at any time.” By being present and aware, both hope and fear tend to fade away, replaced by a clear and open mind. It is just such a mind which is best suited, Goldberg discovers, to attending not only to the actively dying, but to our own daily tasks.

During the course of more than six years as a hospice volunteer, Goldberg came to know hundreds of individuals facing their own deaths. When asked by one man dying of AIDS what possible motivation he could have for doing this, Goldberg cleared up the myth of selfless service with a touch of humor: “I do it because a day doesn’t go by when after I leave you I don’t learn something about myself. I’m with you every week, not because I like you, but because I’m a selfish son of a bitch.”

The tendency to view the sick, the dying, the elderly, as somehow “other”, as “exceptions”, obscures the fact that we are all subject to falling apart in one way or another. By being of service to others we can learn to dissolve this view and to accept our common bond. “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time … As I think about what I’ve gained by serving the dying, and how it gave purpose to my life and changed me, I realize I’m not paying enough rent.”

In closing, Goldberg describes a startling realization he has while guiding his family through the death of his brother-in-law, Tom: “We stood around him and reminisced about his life. It was only then that I realized I was wrong in thinking the goal of my journey was to prepare Tom and my family for Tom’s death. That was an offshoot. The purpose of the journey had always been to prepare my family for my own death.”

For Goldberg, the service rendered during his hospice career allowed a gradual softening of the heart, which in turn brought him closer to accepting his own eventual death. This, Goldberg realized, was truly a priceless gift, one which he generously passes on, not only to his loved ones, but to anyone willing to put aside their discomfort with death long enough to read his book . Whether your primary concern is for your own family, or for yourself in facing the eventual loss of a loved one, this book will provide a useful and poignant guide for traversing this final terrain.

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Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull

Dharma in Hell, Fleet Maull

In a sense we all live in a prison, but a life of literal confinement can force us to confront our existential situation — and our need for change — with unflinching honesty.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a collection of writings; of the nine chapters comprising the body of this text five appear to be written while the author was still in prison. A sixth chapter appears to have been composed within two weeks of his release. The remaining three chapters recount the nature and experience of the author in relation to practicing the Buddha’s path.

Title: Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull
Author: Fleet Maull
Publisher: Prison Dharma Network
ISBN: 0-9718143-1-7
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Chapter one carries the book’s title and also expands on the theme with the subheading “Practicing in Prisons and Charnel Grounds”. Here, the author compares the experience of living and practicing in prison with doctrinal reasons for and benefits of practicing in charnel grounds, a main point being that both prisons and charnel grounds thrust one directly into experience of mental poisons, that is, into direct contact with greed, anger, and ignorance. The chapter begins by explaining just what is a charnel ground, and by extension what charnel grounds represent. This makes it possible to explain, in Buddhist terms, what is a charnel ground practice, both traditionally and in contemporary terms. Lastly, the reader is given a glimpse inside Fleet Maull’s prison experience, showing just how the prison conditions, both external/physical and internal/psychological, provided him with the opportunity for charnel ground practice.

Chapter two looks at Buddhist practice in prison as a form of monasticism, particularly the author’s experience of taking and applying monastic vows in prison. First we get to see that Buddhist practice in prison is very different from its counterpart in a monastery. “Noise and chaos are a prison’s most pervasive qualities” (p.41). Eventually it becomes evident that while formal practice is very difficult the practice of mindfulness throughout daily life is crucial in prison.

See also:

Chapter three, like the previous chapter, is an edited excerpt of previously published material. It addresses “Money and Livelihood Behind Bars.” There is an economy in prison. Wages can be earned and trade does occur, and there is inevitably a black market where goods and services can be bought. While it is possible to live on very little, everything about prison life and western society at large tends to ensnare us in economic gain. With his pre-incarceration livelihood coming from drug smuggling, the author realized upon entering prison that it would be necessary for him to practice Right Livelihood, with its attendant honesty.

In chapter four the author considers “Death Without Dogma”. In this chapter Maull recounts his interaction with dying inmates while performing hospice work. The stories are very personal and give a real flavor of how he brought practice into his interactions with inmates of other faiths.

Chapter five speaks of the widespread phenomenon of depression. Although this problem is not specific to prison or charnel grounds, in this case prison is the framework for examining and understanding depression. And, although this is the shortest chapter of the book, the author makes quick work of explaining just how potent a steady meditation practice can be at dissolving the life-sapping darkness of depression and hopelessness.

In chapter six, “Rumblings from Inside,” we get a look at the psychology of the incarcerated. Emphasis is placed on considering the effects of penal methods (punishment vs. rehabilitation) for the inmate in terms of taking responsibility for his or her life. Negative mental states abound, and are structurally encouraged, in prison life. The author suggests that real change can come about when inmates learn to be of service to others. He also speaks of the value meditation offers in seeing inmates’ responsibility for their current conditions.

Chapter seven, “A Taste of Freedom” looks at the experience of stepping outside the role of prisoner for a three day unescorted furlough. The author has been in prison for thirteen years by the time we get to this chapter. The sudden shift to experiencing freedom outside of prison prompts the author to reflect on his years of prison conditioning, conditioning that he realizes can be met with mindfulness and emotional receptivity.

Chapter eight sees the author finally released from prison and embarking on life afterward, speaking to a Buddhist audience about “Transforming Obstacles into Path”, and explaining how he came to see that whatever difficulties encountered can be met without reactivity and used as fuel for practice. By this point in the book much of the material has been stated in prior chapters.

And lastly, chapter nine discusses the “Path of Service”. Here Fleet Maull explains how service to others in prison benefited him, allowing him to get beyond his own personal drama. He also explains how he thinks that service to others is offers healing to those still in prison. Getting out of the endless loops of our mind by helping others makes it possible to let go of our own self-perpetuated suffering. As is stated in the opening verse of the Dhammapada:

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”

Life in prison can easily be seen as life in hell, but as Fleet Maull illustrates it need not be so.

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Joliet hospice to break ground on labyrinth

The Joliet Area Community Hospice Home will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a labyrinth and meditation garden at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday on the hospice property, 250 Water Stone Circle, off of McDonough Street.

The public is invited.

Funded by a $25,000 grant from Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel, the labyrinth and surrounding garden design were developed by Joliet Junior College Professor Greg Pierceall and his horticulture students. The event will begin with refreshments, followed by a short program at 10 a.m.

“Hospice provides a professional, caring service at a most difficult time of life, while allowing for comfort and support for numerous families,” said Darren VanDover, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah’s Joliet Casino & Hotel. “Harrah’s is honored to be able to contribute to their amenities with the hope that the meditation garden will provide solace and peace to families in crisis.”

A labyrinth is a single path that leads walkers to a center. The labyrinth planned for the hospice is off of an existing pathway, and hospice officials hope it will be a place for meditation and reflection for patients and their families.

“We would like this space to offer those dealing with loss and end of life either a relaxing or energizing experience,” said Ava Shapard, hospice director of development.

“This labyrinth is one of the many amenities provided to patients and families coping with loss and end of life at the hospice home, all designed to provide peace and tranquility in their hours of need.”

For more information or to RSVP, contact Jill Madison at jmadison@harrahs.com or 815-740-7829; Ava Shapard at ashapard@joliethospice.org or 815-460-3250; or Kelly Rohder at 815-280-2915 or krohder@jjc.edu.

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