I thought to offer something more personal along with the more formal articles on this same subject. For some reason death had been something that had been on my mind since a very early age. When I was six years old I walked into my Mum's bedroom in floods of tears saying,
'We're all going to die Mummy, we're all going to die,' I can remember it now. As I grew older, thinking about death became the root of my philosophical nature, and yet let me first of all be very honest about how clueless I was in the face of death – the reality – at the outset. This fact speaks a lot for itself. Let me tell you a story from my early encounters with death in the form of a letter to a friend of mine, long dead, a story that pictures my reaction and also introduces the kind of opening of heart that is always there, it seems to me, at the outset of every truly wise encounter with death.
It is very many years since we last met and you are long dead. I am writing to you now to say how much I loved you. I could never have said it back then, it would not have been right. We had met in an Old People's Home in Stepney where I was working, having just graduated in psychology and doing a fill in job as a nursing assistant. You lived in the Home and had lived in a Council flat in Stepney all your life. In fact, as you told me when you introduced yourself, you had only ever been to the seaside at Southend and had only ever done washing up as a job. You had never married. I knew you had been through the war in the docklands, the fire bombing and all the rest, but you never spoke about it like many of the other residents did. You never said much. Your breathing was not so good. You liked a nice cup of tea and smiled a lot. You would take my hand sometimes and give it a gentle squeeze when I talked too much.
You used to sit in your wheelchair by the main doors, wrapped in all your hand-knitted blankets so you could watch the cars go past on the road outside. You said it made you feel like you were still part of it all somehow. This all inspired me to take you out. After my shift was over I would push you around the streets and you would tell me when I asked a little bit about what it used to be like. I even took you to see my parents in Kent in their posh old house. I remember you saying over and over, so simply, 'thank you kindly,' in a way that made me gradually realise that you were quite happy not to go out. I kept getting the feeling that you were looking after me rather than me looking after you even although you did not seem to be doing very much.
Then one day I heard you had been admitted to hospital. I went to see you there. This hospital had a reputation locally as the place the elderly went to and never came out of alive. We sat on the ward together and several times you told me, lightly, that you were afraid that you were going to die there too. There was a television in the ward and I found myself watching the football. Chelsea were playing. I never watched football. I truly could not understand why I was watching it. I cannot remember how I managed to excuse myself and go home. A week or so later I heard that you had died. I was completely stunned and dismayed. Somehow that possibility had not even entered my mind, my romantic mind. I had not at all realised either just how frail you were. You must have been so strong to get up and stay sitting all day the way you did but you were someone whose very nature, it seemed, was to face the world straight on.
Looking back at our last moments together I realised that I had not known what to say. I realised that you had told me of your fears several times to give me the chance to say something. I don't think it would have mattered what I had said so much but to say something would have made me feel better. Yet the fact was that I did not even know that I did not know what to say, so empty had I been of any kind of response despite all that I had thought of you, all that I had thought about you, indeed all that I had thought about life.
I am writing to you now not because I have an answer but because I realise that no answer is a way to become free. Not a way to go anywhere else, just a way to be freely alive and a way to freely die. There is something there in the silence of no answer which holds its own answer.
I offer you my silent love, just straight, without the romance, wherever you are.
Be free, dear Jane.
Let me tell you another story where I found myself at the receiving end of this same kind of loving silence:
At times of great tragedy we can want so much to help, with answers or in other ways, when there is really not very much we can do to change things. I thought to recount a story of how doing nothing can actually achieve so much.
Just a few days after my father died suddenly, a family friend came to visit. I opened the door and he stood there and said, steadily,
‘I don’t know what to say but I thought I would come.’
I just replied,
‘That’s OK Ron. Come in if you like.’
Our friend was one of the naturally quietest people I have ever met. He entered slowly and sat down, saying nothing. Eventually he repeated the same phrase, steadily,
‘I don’t know what to say but I thought I would come.’
Naturally enough everyone else who had come had wanted to talk, but not Ron. Neither did I feel any pressure from him to say anything. He seemed comfortable enough sitting there in silence without trying to say anything or do anything. He began looking around the room, as he always did. I did not feel the need to do anything. I felt tears welling up.
A pain I had been feeling inside seemed strangely to have disappeared.
I realised that the pressure I had been feeling to try to do something about my feelings and those of others had suddenly lifted. I got up and made him a cup of tea. Still he said nothing. Now it felt strangely like he was holding the grief for me somehow, although I knew he was not. We said nothing until someone else entered and broke the spell so to speak.
Afterwards I felt so much respect for this man. After all, there was nothing to say, nothing that could be done. Not even at this seemingly critical time. In fact, perhaps, there is nothing that can be done most especially at these critical times. There was no answer to these feelings, just a truth about them. That is somehow such a central paradox, this kind of doing by not doing. But it takes a special kind of courage to do nothing, to just sit there.
So it was in this spirit that I entered into my professional life, working on hospitals, to reflect with a more open mind on death and dying and more generally on the whole matter of human suffering, with a wish to help others. What I discovered was something much more radical, even at the outset, than I ever thought I would. All the years I worked in hospitals as a psychologist and in rehabilitation research, there was the mystery of why some people had small problems and suffered a lot and others had huge problems and showed tremendous courage and fortitude. Over and over again I was astonished at the difference.
As a Buddhist this was the clearest evidence I could see of another dimension to the human mind, one that was beyond the suffering of life, a truly spiritual dimension. What was also clear throughout was that these truths held true for both patient and carer and that perhaps most interestingly there could be times when patient and carer came together very strongly through a shared, deep perception of a situation. I became curious to see how this could work. There was the possibility there of a deep learning happening between patient and carer. It was also revealing to see which kind of people had this kind of inner strength as well as the circumstances in which it would arise. In terms of my research, however, the best I have to offer are not the formal studies but examples from my own experience that effected me most deeply, not in an intellectual way but as a human being. For here I was shown this dimension for myself. Always the wisdom and the love came together and to talk about the wisdom separately is not my intention. So first of all I would want to express my love for the people in the examples that follow and hope this carries through the analytical aspect of the text. There was never any lack of love, quite the reverse. These are experiences, encounters I will never forget on my spiritual path.
Most obviously there were glowingly clear examples of the power of religious faith:
Glynis had been on the ward for many weeks. She was dying of cancer. She was well overdue to go. There was very little left of her body. However, as her body faded her spirit grew daily brighter. Staff started to come to the ward especially to see her. She looked so good despite her appalling physical state. To the Christian nurses she was especially inspiring. She never talked about herself. She was interested only in her visitors, and in God.
In some cases it was clear that the person concerned had developed fortitude through living a tough life and come through:
Bob, a farmer from Northumberland, had a heart attack at three a.m. He did not call the doctor until the surgery opened at 8.30 a.m. He said he did not want to get the doctor out of bed.
In other cases it was clear that people went beyond their limits through love:
Alan’s wife was dying of cancer in the hospice. He went every day. All his friends criticised him for not looking after himself. The house was a mess. He said nothing. After his wife died, he went to the doctor. He was in terrible pain and bleeding profusely from his anus. He had cancer. He had been hiding it from everyone so his wife would not worry.
He died in the same hospice a few weeks later.
Whatever our spiritual practise might be one of the great mistakes is to waver when life gets difficult and think that we need to change the way we practice. What holds us together through the difficult times is the faith to just keep going. This is equally true even if we are dying. If we are really practising then if we were to hear that we have only a short time to live there would be no change in our lives, it would be business as usual.
Furthermore, to a truly deep Dhamma practitioner, the art of living and the art of death and dying are the same. The mind of the practitioner is always looking for the way out of suffering whatever situation it finds itself in, but to the deep practitioner this goes all the way and includes suffering with mental or physical origin. So while being with a dying person we can find ourselves trying the same way to let go of the body as the person dying. Our advantage is that we do not have bodily pain to overcome.
So where do we look for our escape from the body? How do we let go? Our attachment to the body is a matter of perception. The power of perception was very clear in many different ways. A person's sense of who they were, was all dependent on their perception of their relationship to their own body or the perceived relationship between mind and body.
What we are looking for is the perception we need to be able to find release, at a given moment. This is the one that goes counter to our hindrances (anger, lust, doubt, restlessness or sleepiness). At each moment we need to counter the hindrance we have. If we are angry or averse to the body, we need to find love to let go. If we are greedy for more, we need to see the disadvantage of bodily life to let go.
In any case we need also to find somewhere for the mind to go. We find this place, when our mindfulness strengthens into samādhi, not somewhere else in time or space but somewhere in our minds. We find our minds beyond the body in the course of our experience of the body, to a perception beyond materiality, to a pure inner image. This is the place that is beyond suffering where it is only the suffering that is absent from the experience and nothing else. This is our path to freedom here and now.
We refine this image to take the mind deeper and deeper. There are different truths that can reveal themselves when the mind gets beyond the hindrances. Students of Dhamma will know these already as the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and not-self. First and foremost is to simply see the suffering of the body in a clear, unambiguous, compassionate and accepting way – natural, impersonal. Then the perception of suffering can relieve us of the experience of suffering to one degree or another. This can be largely a measure of the level of meditative calm we can take with us in to a difficult situation. We are not rendered unfeeling, our feelings are transformed.
The impermanence of the body in terms of its mortality is the most liberating perception, but a very difficult thing to grasp, especially for the patient in whom it can be most urgently needed. If the truth of suffering is seen as described, a window can open at least to the changing, unreliable nature of our physical experience. This points us in the direction of seeing deeper. To really see death and let go, all kinds of things have to come just right without us trying to make them so.
Then there are various ways in which we see that the body and mind are separate and free ourselves from being bound to the body by our perception – we see the body as not self. There were times when it was clear to see the fact that the body was beyond the control of the mind. This could be very liberating. It seemed that particularly powerful were occasions of death or dying when a touch of the absurd entered into a situation to throw the mind off its current perception in one way or another. There also needed to be a caring softness, compassion in the mind for the heart to let go and be at peace. Most importantly there could be no sense of looking for anything from the experience; this would make the heart merely into some kind of strange voyeur looking for a Dhamma experience, for a result. The heart must be simply giving itself to the moment in an open, peaceful way. We merely create the conditions for an experience to happen by putting ourselves in the right place with the right attitude. It must be emphasised that I am not talking about 'Dhamma method' or '-technique' but true 'Dhamma life'. We are not trying to construct a situation, but learn from the presently apparent situation in a direct way how the mind and heart work. Then the experience will be truly an experiential proof of the Dhamma – not an intellectual proof, a view or opinion.
We can have many different perceptions of death, all of which may be completely unknown to us or contrary to what we thought. We can discover that how ever much we may have thought about death, when we come close to the reality our reactions reveal very different perceptions to the one we thought we had.
We can have the perception that death is a terrible and traumatic experience yet sometimes it is the most peaceful thing you could imagine:
One time I was working my way routinely through a care of the elderly ward and noticed one of the patients had been lying in exactly the same position, on his back for many hours. I reached under him to turn him gently on his side. He sighed so deeply, so peacefully, melting. I could not believe it, he had died in my arms, just like that. I kept remembering him as I was meditating, letting out that long out breath...
Even in cases of traumatic death there can be a moment when time seems to stand still giving us a space in which to see things in a new light:
His face went blue, heart attack. He went straight down, hitting the deck with the same sound that trousers with pockets full of coins make when they hit the floor. I stepped back and sat down. I was reminded of an embarrassing moment, dropping my trousers in a public toilet. It felt so incongruous to feel that embarrassment again now as the crash team arrived it seemed to put me in another space, light and open to the frantic scene of that was unfolding in front of my eyes.
Humour and irony can also enable the mind to remain light. This goes beyond simply finding something funny – in the humour of letting go, there needs to be some kind of twist to the perception, seeing afresh to see beyond:
He was so sweet, so very camp. Every day he harmlessly attempted a little innuendo. It wasn't easy, he gasped for breath. He was a very sick man. One day he asked me if I was an angel. The next day he was in ITU, comatose. He died there. I never saw him again. If I had known he was so close to the edge, I thought to myself I could have said 'yes' or even better perhaps, 'maybe'. I think he knew he was dying but maybe this would have been a beautiful way of letting him know how close he really was.
Even deeper can be irony without word or thought. The peaceful mind lets go most deeply:
I had gone to see him to gather a sample of sputum for the lab. He was so freshly dead snot still hung suspended from one nostril, his head tilted to one side. There was a strange irony there that rooted me to the spot as the nurses laid out the body
Another occasion we may see afresh is when someone acts or speaks completely out of character:
A very upper class elderly cancer patient was referred to me with the idea of improving his mobility. He was already very weak. I had to explain to him there was nothing I could do. He said it was o.k. He understood. He was so sweet. I was there to visit him again at the last to check his lungs He writhed in agony at the last in a pool of blood and faeces. It was a tragic sight. He could not help but say, 'Shit! Shit! with the pain and then lose control of his bowels. The irony was so strong he smiled an embarrassed stiff-upper-lip smile.
I smiled back and there was a moment of mutual recognition, a shared space, that makes this possibly the most important example of all – there was a palpable lightening of the heaviest of situations.
When there is something we see there that just does not make sense, a questioning, this opens the mind:
A patient of mine tragically had a second stroke. She lay so limp I knew she was a going to die soon. She was put in a single room for no medical reason I could fathom. As I looked in the door on passing, the room seemed like some strange attempt just to make death look more peaceful by giving it a peaceful surrounding.
On very many occasions outside of death and dying, it was clear the power of perception for the patient, again not always in the obvious or seemingly deep way, and yet there could be a tremendous strength of mind there to tap into:
Tom was a big old East-ender, a retired builder. A stroke had left one side paralysed; he had lost his speech but managed to lightly tease everyone with playful mimicry. But he was struggling to recover.
The breakthrough came when the doctors said he would never walk again – he was a fighter. It took us four months to get him back on his feet. Every day he would haul himself up with his good arm and growl with determination. I have never forgotten that growl. But he could only stand and for weeks failed to take a single step forward.
Then one day we put a football in front of his paralysed leg and he kicked it. Everyone cheered like he had scored a goal. At the time it seemed like a miracle.
There are times too when we are taken off guard and the role of patient and carer is reversed. This is an especially interesting way in which our view of a patient is transformed, we see a human being suffering, not a job to do, perhaps:
As a student on a General Medical ward, I took pity on a patient admitted with Korsakoff’s syndrome (alcoholic pre-senile dementia). I offered to help him saying,
‘If there‘s anything you need let me know.’
‘If you want to help me, mate you can go out tonight after work and have a bloody good time!’
Always a mind that sees differently can share the perception or just the lightness of heart that comes from it. What is most often the obstacle to such a shift of perception is an established existing cultural norm or tradition. There is, for example, the hospital culture around the death process. When someone died on the hospital wards in England the body was always laid out quickly behind the curtain and, out of sight, usually with disdain, almost with aggression. When they came from the morgue all the curtains were drawn around all the beds so that nobody saw the body go. The bed was then restored to perfection. Death was made to disappear.
There was always silence yet everybody knew. The tea was passed out with extra care. Everyone tenderly took extra sugar. There were more biscuits than usual. Nothing was ever said. But to me the silence said it all. Often these things are pointed to as examples of a culture in denial of death, hiding and protecting us from it and yet in my experience the irony was that for the patients, such traditions became more a show of respect and a ritual that drew people's attention to the event rather than away from it.
But why would anyone want to think about death? When we are a carer, when we lose someone or when our own lives are under threat we come to the point where we cannot avoid the issue of course, but even before this time the contemplation of death if done in the right way can be hugely life enhancing rather than life denying. Ultimately for those in search of enlightenment it is the key that opens the door.
If we can find a good way to stay with the reality of death and dying we will grow in wisdom and compassion toward release, to freedom of heart. The tragedy of my father's death I would say has now been so transformed in my mind:
When my father died I was so unhappy. I realised just how much it could hurt to lose someone you love. I tried so hard to get away from the terrible feelings of grief but I realised that the more I tried to get away the more they followed me. Bearing through the feelings they came very strongly and then passed and I was just left with the undeniable, gritty truth of the loss, imprinted very heavily on my mind. Yet there was a solace in the sense of truth in and of itself that became like a pearl forming out of the grit. Maturing, this sense of truth was completely open to life and unshakeable, like space.
This unshakeable quality began to stand out. There was a clarity there and I felt so real. This feeling has remained with me and the more true, the more real my life became the more valuable it seemed. I no longer sought anything unreal. Watching a movie, for example, even reading a book I would feel lost and unhappy.
As I stayed with the realities the truth grew and grew. The truth had a brightness in the mind and heart that gained a mysterious quality, like the brightness of an angel. And the deeper truths seemed everlasting.
And well the truth is everlasting isn't it, what else is? And the truth is universal. Realising truth deeply like this is like entering into a greater space. The little truths of our domesticated lives are like the rooms we inhabit. The greater truth can take us completely out of this limited space for the very first time. We feel truly free, as though we had the wings of an angel.
Now I spend hours drawing angels and people think I am 'away with the fairies' not realising that the angels arise out of the most down-to-earth truths of life and that the whole experience can be like heaven brought to earth, like an angel in the living room.
Or maybe not just like an angel...
From a different angle, the angel could be real...my father's spirit even...
Reflections on death and dying
It may seem in poor taste but I thought to offer some reflections on death and dying in the shape of a few bullet points. I will not offer much explanation. The value of reflection lies often in the process of trying to accept or work something out for ourselves by repeated reflection on a given theme, here are some suggestions:
• we do not even really know that we are going to die
• dying and the fact of death are our ultimate test in life
• to allow the fact of death to change our lives in a positive way is wisdom
• to accept that we are going to die and to do nothing is the ultimate folly
• getting used to the idea (by thinking about death on a sunny day when we are well and happy and joking about it to dispel our fear) is a good start
• ultimately we must look for something beyond
• belief is not enough
• beliefs alone will let us down
• we have to see beyond
• seeing is believing, believing is not seeing
• it is the experience of the body as not-self, the seeing of this, that leads to the end of fear and anxiety and opens us up to a new vision of reality
• if we see the body as not-self we realise the possibility that when the body dies something can continue, we will naturally have no fear of old age, sickness or death; we will furthermore see all other things as not-self and realise that death is not what it seems to be in terms of the mind
• we can realise that we do not have to survive as a body or as a self to survive
• all of us leave our karma behind us, in this way we survive
• if we see deeper we realise that when conditions are here we manifest, when conditions are no longer here we do not but then when conditions come around again we re-manifest
• we are a manifestation of the greater Mind; we must not, however, confuse this greater Mind with the imagination, the personal mind or the abstract mathematical mind
• we don't have to survive as an individual in order to survive, in fact group karma is stronger than individual karma
• if we see deeper still we realise that the truths that underlie our existence are eternal
• the relationship between personal truth and universal truth, whatever this is, is our personal relationship to the universal
• the deepest truth is the truth of death – if we can see death, the mind will let go and we will see the deathless
• ultimately, through truth we find a refuge in reality, the way out is in
• we take refuge in reality not apart from it: heaven and the supernatural, and ultimately the transcendent – Nibbāna – is here, not somewhere else
• the intersection of the timeless with time is the timeless, the only timeless, because there is nothing other than the things of time – there is nowhere else to go
• there is, however, no need to be anything, the spiritual 'man of light' is an image not a being
• light reveals truth; this light is not a mystical energy but a purity, an emptiness of mind
• our survival, our refuge, is in the truth that underlies the purest emptiness, not in the emptiness itself – the illusion of an eternal soul
• during our lives this refuge can be found and strengthened as the non-dual knowingness of the mind – this is perception raised to the level of wisdom
In this way the process of reflection can find its own way beyond death and dying. A commitment to wisdom in itself providing a vehicle for the mind. Consider this as a statement of such commitment:
One day I shall lay down these bones,
look up at the sky
and be neither here nor there.
One day I shall be in between
a whispering nowhere.
In between the lines of life I will gently, humbly care.
I will serve the truth until the end of time,
so I swear.
I offer this for your reflection
Generosity is the beginning of the spiritual life. While we still have worldly, sensuous desires and priorities, we begin by sharing what we have with others. This is the first way we open the mind beyond ourselves. There can be a lot of joy in this. We can go further and start giving things away. We can begin to enjoy clearing things out and wonder why we held on to so much stuff. This can be our first real taste of renunciation.
A life of sharing brings us naturally closer to our fellow human beings. We consequently become more sensitive to how other people feel. We do not want to cause suffering in others and we feel naturally inclined to live a virtuous life. We thus develop a sense of contentment and a mind clear of regret. Rather we develop a mind that cares. This way is now more pleasant than the sensuous life, and our desires begin to naturally fade.
The fading of desire gives us a new set of eyes on the world, especially on the body. The mind free of desire sees the body very differently and we are led toward a life of renunciation, of complete freedom from desire.
I offer this for your reflection,