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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday
buy one death; get the second
@ 1/2 off
Black Friday . . .
what the inside of a coffin looks like
at the end of the work week
Black Friday
saving merchants; going down
with the barge to China
3am to 1pm only
60% off your death plus free monogram
Black Friday

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

not 2
not 1
not zero
. . . signing out
would you be kind enough to
dot the i in epste-n
I become a button hole
the wind passes through
that last candle
flaring out
is me
peaceful death?
odds are one
in a million
a better place?
did you get that feedback
from the ants and worms?
wings of fortune
flying me to
God only knows
next train to London
leaving on runway # 5 with
a stopover in Hades
last call
for the bullet train to
wings of desire
won't take me all the way
to the moon
catch a ride?
only Satan's taxi
runs on Sunday
car won't start?
well then we'll walk
to the unpromised land
deep winter
this time it's not just
the battery. . .


my call

look for me
among the bushes
where the finches play
with the redwood tree tops
I too brush the sky

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

spreading cream cheese
on toast brings dad
back to life
that missing word
I can't remember for the life of me
that's death
Others may have seen the following poem attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye many times, but it's new to me. I am posting it here for those who have not had occasion to read it before.


Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.
November sunset
that mountain is putting out
my blood red eyes
November dusk
will you be kind enough
to close my eyes
haunting this site
my namesake
home sick
could this be
the last round
this morning
awakening to
no body

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Again and again, I am astonished by the freshness of J. Krishnamurti's understanding of life-and-death (from ON LIVING AND DYING):

"Actually, death is not something far away; it is here and now. It is here when you are talking, when you are enjoying yourself, when you are listening, when you are going to the office. It is here at every minute of life, just as love is. . . .

"The mind that is dying each minute, never accumulating, never gathering experience, is innocent, and is therefore in a constant state of love."

table for one
the odd feeling of
not being alone
remember. . .
turn. . . the lights
last orange
I wish I'd learned to
taste it
what I can't see
my last breath
your in-breath
the plans we had
for this weekend
death dream
screaming my way
back to life
night stand vase
just a single flower
my last day
to have the strength. . .
I love you
late autumn evening
not noticing the last cricket
has fallen silent

all night long
the last cricket's
old book
the pages coming apart
words wander on
the view
not from 6 feet under but
6 miles high
cul de sac
this morning and my life sentence
have broken

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

turn left, turn right
I can find my own way to
the cemetery, thank you
to believe
or not to believe. . .
hillside grass near my grave

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

lilac days*
taking them with me
to the grave

*Based on a love haiku to appear in a forthcoming Magnapoets anthology.
I'm not superstitious
why do you ask
about God
the way clouds
quietly disperse
final nights
in the house
a new creak
last night
during a dream about my departed dad
I followed him
opening the blinds
she would have been 110*

* Honoring my mother's mother, Magaret Deutsch, whose birthday was August 24th
all the places
I never saw
buried with me
December 31st
one of those days
my death day
It dawned on me that I don't necessarily have to share musings before I can post a poem... I can simply post a poem. That's what I may do for a while. Here is one that I wrote on Sunday:

fading fast
the low hoot
of an owl

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Irvin Yalom is a renowned existential psychiatrist, and has written a book about facing one's anxiety about death; it's called STARING AT THE SUN. He was recently interviewed and asked directly if death anxiety ever grabs hold of him any more (he's in his later 70s). Yalom responded: "Every once in a while, your barriers break down. You get back to this certain gasp, because there's no way to reverse time."

I was taken aback by Yalom's use of the word gasp. That is exactly what happens when the mind comes face-to-face every so often with one's own finiteness. There's the shock of truth and a gasp--a sudden, momentary loss of breath. The mind seizes for an instant.

There's nothing to be done about this. The truth of mortality or impermanence is inescapable despite the mind's determined efforts to escape. Well, if we can't escape, perhaps we can at least build a poem around the inescapable fact of life... turning a gasp into...

suddenly there's a window
in the sky

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Last night, during a moment of ease, I looked around our living room while sitting in a comfortable recliner. I looked at a large bookcase that is filled to the brim with books; I gazed at the piano that my partner used to enjoy playing before she became chronically ill. There are some prints on the wall that we enjoy looking at and there are a few ceramic pieces that I made some twenty years ago which are scattered about the living room.

One day all of these will be cleared out and shipped off to the Salvation Army or Good Will or tossed in a big dumpster and hauled to the local dump. These possessions are all valuable to me now but will have no meaning at all once I'm gone. I mistakenly believe that they represent me in some way. They are not me; even this body is not me. It is a "rental"; all of it is on loan, belonging to nobody, in the end.

checkout time is noon
I turn in the key
and everything else
Without agreeing or disagreeing, I invite you to listen to an observation that J. Krishnamurti made in a talk entitled, "The Full Significance of Death," which appears in THE POCKET KRISHNAMURTI:

"As one is the master of psychological time, can one live with death and not keep it separate as something to be avoided, postponed, something to be put away? Death is part of life. Can one live with death and understand the meaning of ending? That is[,] to understand the meaning of negation; ending one's attachments, ending one's beliefs, by negating. When one negates, end, there is something totally new. So, while living, can one negate attachment completely? That is living with death."

I am struck by two things in the forgoing chapter: I am the master of psychological time; and to negate--end--my attachments is living with death. I ordinarily think of myself as the victim of time; I am powerless before the bulldozer of time. Krishnamurti is saying precisely the opposite: I am the master of time, which is psychologically constructed. From his point of view, the ending of thought is the ending of psychologically constructed time and, with the ending of time, one is instantly--and forever--freed from the fear fear of death.

To realize the "me" IS what generates time is the first and last step in attaining freedom. The self continues through thought, through attachment and identification. Krishnamurti proposes that through meditative awareness the ending of attachment is possible. Without attachment, clinging, the self dissolves. In fact, in another essay entitled, "Understand What Love Is," he explicitly observes: "Can we live with death, and can thought and time have a stop? They are all related. Do not separate time, thought, and death. It is all one thing."

Yes. dying to thought, to time, to ego or self, is to enter into Eternity. There is nothing nihilistic in what Krishnamurti is proposing. The body has its inevitable end, but not awareness. Through the negation of attachment there is the quiet and pervasive joy of unending awareness.

not smoke
not ashes
blue gray sky

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Every once in a while it hits me: One day I will no longer be on this plant in human form. This realization never ceases to shock me. I can't recall what jolted me into this latest awareness. Writing about death puts death at a safe distance even as it enables me to study it more closely.

I am filled with great sadness when I think of being gone. It's a tender sadness--a soft spot, an aching--in the heart area of my chest. I don't want to die. I want to live forever, and I can't. No one does.

There is nothing to be done about this. It just is. All I can do is take care of my life while I am still alive. There's a feeling of kindness toward myself that comes into awareness when I think about my own limited time remaining. This feeling of kindness has been a long time coming.

cold, unmoving
a hospice nurse
pulls up the blanket

Sunday, September 12, 2010

My mother, who is in her 84th year, has struggled with disabling guilt all her life. Everything "bad" that happens in life is somehow made to be her fault in my mother's mind.

Since my father died, my mother has spent more and more time watching television. She's obsessed with the weather channel and the news. My mother knew more about the recent fire/explosion in San Bruno, which is 3,000 miles from her, than I did. Slowly but surely, she has come to see that the planet is very complex and volatile, resulting in many natural disasters. When I talked to her by phone the other day, she had a spring in her voice when she told me, "I have the title for the book I'm going to write." Excitedly, I asked her what it was. "IT'S THE PLANET'S FAULT, NOT MINE," my mother announced. "That's great!" I responded; "I will do my best to get you an advance and a contract with a publisher. I expect to see a first draft by December." Mom said: "Yes, well, don't hold your breath." We both laughed.

Guilt is disabling and cuts off life. We were not put on the planet to shoulder responsibility for every mishap and hardship that occurs. It's possible for the mind to change even in old age. Old dogs aren't dead yet, after all. Freedom is always just a breath away.

old dog
sniffing the tree where
she'll be buried

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Poet and Buddhist teacher Norman Fischer goes right to the heart of the matter regarding life-and-death during an interview with author Victoria Jean Dimidjian in JOURNEYING EAST. Victoria remarks on a comment Norman made about facing his mortality every day: "You're describing a way of living that acknowledges that death is already here."

"Right," Norman avers. "Because that's what time is, right? Time tells us that there is death every moment. And it's wonderful to live that reality. . . . To me that's the deepest satisfaction, when you are truly aware of death, it's a serious and deep encounter with life."

A serious encounter with life. How many of us encounter life with any seriousness? Life too often feels so difficult, so stressful, so painful, that we turn turn to a myriad of escapes as often as we can. But, to run away from life, because it is hard, is to turn one's back on the treasures of life, as well. I want to leave this world brimming over, not with things but with the love and tenderness, the wholesomeness and beauty that exist in great abundance right alongside the heartaches and sorrows.

not waiting
for a friend's diagnosis to say
I love you

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I got a sickening call from the husband of someone that I have supervised at work for several years and care a great deal about. His wife, he told me in a voice choked by emotion, was in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, due to what doctors hope is no more than a brain infection. This coworker who is dear to me also has cancer, and treatment has been postponed until the brain infection is stabilized.

I got off the telephone and cried and cried. I don't want this dear colleague to die. She is in the prime of her life with three young children under the age of ten.

No amount of writing or meditating on death immunizes one against the upset that invariably floods the heart and soul in the face of a threat to life. Liberation is not synonymous with emotionlessness. On the contrary, the more intimate one becomes with death the more one is stricken by the loss of life . . . or a threat to life. I pray my young colleague recovers her health and her life.

that yellow bird
passing behind the mountain
swings back again
Every so often, usually at night or in the morning, I will lie for a while in a corpse position, legs uncrossed, with my hands resting comfortably on my chest. This is not intended to be a meditation "practice," as I don't believe in practice. I am not preparing for death, but simply lying in this corpse position. My mind empties, my breath flows effortlessly for the most part and my attention turns to the darkness that occurs with having my eyes closed. Nothing is going on. Its' peaceful. That's all, really.

fallen squirrel
how still
the sky

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I had a dream last night that our childhood dog, Corky, was alive but not well. I threw snow at the living room wall of our house, which slid down behind the sofa. When we went looking for Corky, we found him behind the couch under a blanket. He wasn't moving but his eyes looked sad, almost vacant. I was relieved that he was still alive, because a voice in my head (during the dream) said he had been dead for many years. So, I was both startled and relieved to find him still alive.

But then I woke up and realized that it was only a dream and that, in fact, Corky has been dead for over thirty years.

I am reminded of the story about Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage, who famously wrote that he wasn't sure if he was Chuang Tzu who dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly that dreamed he was Chuang Tzu.

What is the difference between dreaming and wakefulness? Is there a world of difference or no more than a fine line? Am I Robert dreaming that I am alive, or God dreaming that He is Robert?

after I'm gone
don't call me Buddha*
I will still be Robert

* In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that when someone dies they become a Buddha, an enlightened being.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In the US today there is a holiday called "Labor Day." I don't know the origins of the holiday, but many Americans (those, at least, not working) spend it shopping for sales. After shopping, people make their way to someone's house who has a barbecue going in the backyard. Hotdogs, hamburgers, and beer--what could be more satisfying than that. (I wouldn't know; I don't drink or eat meat.)

Much of the world is obsessed with work... work provides identity, income, and pride of accomplishment. Of course, work can often be--usually is--stressful in significant ways. Hence, many, if not most, look forward to the weekends, and to holidays such as Labor Day, to relax, unwind, shake off the aggravation of the work week.

All of this seems rather strange from the vantage point of death. Why stress about work when one is going to end up in the grave? Such pent up frustration and tension seem so unnecessary, if not silly, when seen from one's coffin. Few take the long view, however. Most of us get caught up in the moment, which is not to say that one is fully present in the here-and-now. Ironically, being caught up in the moment feels like life-or-death. Perhaps that is the hint we are not heeding: from the vantage point of death this deadline or that coworker conflict which seems to be looming so large is, in actuality, trivial, at least compared to the matter of one's mortality. Knowing this, perhaps the next time I feel caught in a life-or-death matter, I might be able to take a breath--after all, breath is life--and extricate myself from the realm of stress which, by and large, only exists in the mind.

Labor Day
working hard to
stave off death
If you have ever found yourself subtly or not so subtly dissatisfied with life, with how things are, then how have you explained that dissatisfaction to yourself? Have you blamed your upbringing, your personality, the culture you've grown up in?

In the final analysis, I don't think it's any of these. I'm taking a clue from Buddha here. Buddha maintained that life itself is inherently unsatisfying. And, why is that? Because we all die. There is nothing permanent to hold onto. We try and try to latch onto something real and enduring--work, relationship, projects, power, fame--but they don't satisfy. Something goes awry and we end up frustrated, disappointed, angry or hurt. From Buddha's point of view, this is inevitable.

Is there any way to gain freedom from the suffering that goes-with the search for permanent satisfaction or happiness? There is, but it entails coming to terms with one's own death, and this is not something most people want to hear... understandably so. I don't believe the fundamental challenge lies in overcoming our fear of death, but in embracing death as an intimate companion in life. If I am one with death, there is nothing to fear and nothing to avoid. Dissatisfaction ends with taking death into oneself such that the "I" dies into the unknown. This is already too conceptual; and it is not an idea or goal. I hasten to add that death and I are not one; but I'm open to the possibility and that, I suppose, is a start.

cemetery walk
in the shade a moment
my shadow disappears

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I would like to quote hospice worker Rodney Smith again. In an interview with author Victoria Dimidijian in JOURNEYING EAST, Rodney says: "Death always holds the possibility of growth."

Whatever could he mean by this? Doesn't he know that death is the end, the final act? How can there be growth without a future?

Growth doesn't take place in the future; it takes place in the here-and-now. To the extent that one is alive, growth is possible. I prefer learning to growth. We are capable of learning all the way to, and through, our last breath. Zen masters even use their very last breath as an opportunity for teaching, for the transmission of truth, that might spark enlightenment in his or her students. Of course, one doesn't have to be a student of zen to learn from the death of another.

Why would one want be interested in learning on one's deathbed? By that point, hasn't one learned everything there is to learn and, besides, what's the point? After all, life's over; you can't take the learning with you to the grave? This is a very narrow-minded way of thinking. To learn is to love. Love is learning. Love never ends; it continues to reverberate even after the last exhalation. Love requires no motive, no gain. Love acts for itself.

in the far corner
of an empty cave
that sliver of sun
In the back of our minds, there is a secret desire for a good death or dignified death. I've written about this; I suppose that the notion of a good death is proof that one has lived a good life. Is it intended to be the unexcelled performance of a lifetime? I pray not! I am no more interested in performance at the end of my life than I have been throughout my life. Dignity cannot be rooted in outward appearances.

How does one preserve one's dignity in the face of losing control over one's bodily functions? Is a baby less dignified because he or she depends on others to wipe its butt? Babies don't care who wipes their butts. We don't tend to think in terms of dignity when talking about newborns; and why is that? You might be inclined to say, "Well, because they don't have a sense of self yet." Is dignity only possible when selfhood is born?

I think not. Dignity is not dependent upon consciousness, upon selfhood. Dignity is either present by virtue of being, or it is not present at all. This is true of non-humans as well as humans, as far as I am concerned. Where being is regarded as sacred, precious, there is a reverence for life--all life.

I don't confer dignity on another. Dignity is there by virtue of being alive. Even this is not all together accurate, because a dead body is still deserving of dignity. So, dignity must be rooted in something deeper than life only. Indeed, dignity is grounded in the realization that life-and-death, as one, not separate, is sacred. That is not a grammatical error in the last sentence; it is intentional: life-and-death is sacred. I use the singular because they are one, inseparable. Dignity is the affirmation of this holy truth in the one who is dying and those around the one who is dying. Perhaps dignity returns to, or melts into, innocence at the end of life because innocence is the purest form of holiness. Innocence is not dependent on conditions or circumstances nor appearances. It is a pure manifestation of the unnamable.

the way it flutters
to the ground
any leaf
I am impressed with the insights that come when someone combines meditation with hospice work. Listen to what Rodney Smith has realized with regards to time:

With death, we have no more time to procrastinate. No more endless tomorrows. Time comes screeching to a halt, and suddenly the heart opens. Why does the heart open when time isn't there? Thinking in terms of time, living in terms of time is the very blockage of the heart." (emphasis added)

Living in terms of time is the very blockage of the heart. Ah, this is so true! Of course, it is thought that creates the big cage of time. Time didn't create itself; it is the product of the thinking mind, whose sole existence is the establishment of safety or security. We spend our entire lives searching for a refuge, not just from life's hardships, but from life's built-in atomic bomb; that is, death. But, there is no bunker to retreat to; time cannot take us to eternity, at least not by means of thought. So, we only end up living like a refugee, like a fugitive... constantly on the run. It's not until we truly face our mortality, once and for all, that we free ourselves to living. This is why Rodney says, at the end of his interview with author Victoria Jean Dimidjian in JOURNEYING EAST, "When we keep our death close, we remain in touch with how to live." Yes, but this can only be done, unself-consciously, that is, without a self, without a director. And, I probably should add, there is no "how."

trail head
trail's end
that butterfly

Friday, September 3, 2010

Life presents an infinity of distractions. There is so much splendor to behold and unspeakable sorrows to witness. It appears to take an extraordinary amount of effort to see past or through these formidable distractions to the still, shimmering light that is our very nature.

Death, says hospice worker Rodney Smith, burns everything else away at the end of our lives. This is why everyone sees the light: because death clears away the brush to expose the view. "You take everything else away--what else is there" but light?

Ah, light. I have come to depend on sunlight; with each passing year, I seem to need it more and more. The shortening of days, at the end of summer, fills me with sadness... and anger. I want to wave my fist in the air and declare: "Don't take my sunlight from me! Don't shorten the days I love so much." Is this a foreshadowing??

morning light
accompanying me
into the shower

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I wrote a haiku not long ago that centered around "don't wait." I don't think this is a helpful way of relating to one's life or one's death. Don't wait, for all its good intentions, seems rooted in fear and anxiety.

We have all the time in the world, at least with regards to the present moment. I know that this may sound confusing insofar as the present moment is always fleeting, always departing. But, the present moment is also contained in the Eternal Now, where there is ample time to say hello; goodbye; and I love you.

So, there's no need to scare oneself, to rush, to be hasty. Take a breath, let it out... ah. That's enough. That's just right. Life and death are right here, always waiting. If I wait too, I am synchronized with life and death.

winter bus stop
the bus nears and a few
cherry blossoms fall

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Walt Whitman did not write haiku, nor was he aware, to my knowledge, of Japanese haiku poetry. Still, I wish to quote a beautiful passage of his from Song of Myself, which comes from LEAVES OF GRASS. I don't feel impelled to comment on Whitman's words, as they speak for themselves, more eloquently than anything I could say.

I depart as air--I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
An filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.
Joan Halifax is a Zen Buddhist who has been working with the dying in New Mexico for the past thirty years. In an interview, she was asked what her vision was of her own death. She spontaneously responded: "I can't think that way! I can't live that way! I don't know what my death will be."

I love Roshi Halifax's honesty. She is not relating to her life from her small self, which mistakenly believes it is in charge. Rather, she is fully in touch with her whole being, which is spontaneous, unplanned, non-organized. Recalling the death of a dear friend and fellow Buddhist, Issan Dorsey, Roshi Halifax shared a passage from the poet Rilke that resonated deeply for her: "Love and death are the great gifts that are given to us. Mostly they are passed on unopened."

How true... and how sad! It takes a deep soul such as Rilke's to apprehend the intimate connection between love and death. Whatever could he mean that love and death are great gifts? Each of us needs to answer this question ourselves. It could be seen as a true, everyday koan or challenge that life-and-death poses for us. In responding to the koan, we open the gift boxes and release the treasure within. A gift is to be opened and passed on.

Love teaches us to bear life; death teaches us to appreciate love. This is what occurs to me here-and-now. Don't expect me to answer the same way later today or tomorrow!

Already, something new is surfacing: Love is the extraordinary gift at the center of life; love is the extraordinary gift at the center of death.

And, now this: Love is death's gift to life; death is love's gift to life. As you can probably tell, each answer contains within it a new koan, a new challenge. That's because life-and-death constitute an artichoke that goes on peel after peel into eternity.

sunrise sunset dusk
sunrise sunset dusk
sunrise sunset dusk

Monday, August 30, 2010

I have been reading a book of interviews on the subject of aging and dying. All of a sudden, I felt this kinship with the dead. No, this was not a scary turn toward the morbid for me, but it was a turn. Up to this moment, I have always identified with the living, which is almost too obvious to even state. But, the point is that such identification occurs unconsciously; that is how the ego operates and maintains itself. But, while reading a brief account of a woman who was dying, my orientation suddenly switched: I will be that dying person one day, and then I will be dead. Those who have passed on constitute a community unto themselves.

I have always shied away from communities and organizations and associations. Perhaps it's the introvert in me; I am happy to be alone. Even so, I have no aversion to joining the DEAD CLUB. It's almost heart-warming to belong. How odd is that?

summer light
in this handful of earth
untold lives
In a telephone conversation with my mother today, she remarked, in passing, that she didn't know how long she's going to be around for (that is, alive on earth). My mother turned 84 this past June (2010). I asked her if she had checked in with God. My mom responded by saying she didn't have His number. I replied, "Are you sure you don't have Him on speed dial? Would you like me to check information for His listing?" We both laughed.

My mother sounded matter-of-fact about her mortality. I didn't detect much in the way of fear or anxiety. That might be because she hasn't been all that happy with her life, since my father died eight years ago. Indeed, she has felt rather directionless since the love of her life passed away. She told me not long ago that with each passing day, she misses my father more, not less. I think my mom expects to be reunited with my dad when she dies, although she hasn't said this in so many words. All she knows is that life has lost much of its meaning for her.

I empathize deeply with my mother. Losing a lifelong partner can be devastating. Certainly, if your lives have revolved around one another, the death of one's spouse or partner is shattering; existentially, one's world collapses. It can be extremely difficult to pick up the pieces and cobble together a new life that feels even remotely worth living. And, yet I know that this is what my father would want for my mother. He would have gone on if she had died.

Our lives are intertwined. I am inspired in some way by my mother's apparent lack of death anxiety. If she can face death squarely, I can too. Each death is unique; I can't expect to face death the same way my mother will face hers; but that is not the point. The point is to meet one's death however it manifests. That's all.

that maple leaf
taking directions from
a strong November wind

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nobody knows what his or her last words will be. If I die in my sleep, my last words could be "good night," or "see you tomorrow." But, if you could, what would you want your last words to be?

Or, does it matter? Why is such great emphasis placed on words? We mistake the world created by language as the real world--the world that matters most. But, language is a poor substitute for what is, I think. We hardly ever live in the world as-it-is. It is a world beyond words. I have no objection to language and communication; please do not misunderstand. I only mean to suggest that the world built on language is but a shadow of what's there. Poetry is an attempt to add in lines, dimension, depth. Of course, it too relies on words or, rather imagery and intuition, yet these are helpful in discerning what is, I think.

So, maybe last words don't matter as much as we have thought. Gandhi, pointing beyond words, said: "My life is my message." That's a different way of being in the world. His last words were "Ram, ram"--a Hindu word for God. So, at least with Gandhi, there seemed to be some congruence between his life message and his last words. If I'm honest, I'm not sure my life has conveyed any discernible message. I wish it would be: Love. But I know I haven't lived it.

returning home
carefully moving snails
by moonlight

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ambiguity. Nothing characterizes death more vividly than ambiguity. Death is utterly ambiguous! And, we tend to react to ambiguity, as we do to anxiety, by trying to exert control, naively convinced that, in doing so, we can drive out
both anxiety and ambiguity. Not so, when it comes to death!

I think we need ambiguity in our lives. How else would we sharpen our attention, grow in courage, or deepen our ability to be present? Poetic perception arises out of the willingness to move in the swamp of ambiguity, where the ancient reptiles still abide. Of course, there is a great risk of being devoured alive, but this is unavoidable in life, anyway, despite our best efforts to survive. All of the great poets-- Pope, Shelley, Byron, Rilke, eliot, Thomas, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Tagore, Basho, Issa, Shiki and many others--died there in the swamps they waded into, but left immeasurable riches behind, for others to enjoy. Shall we too then?

deathbed evening
what's that sound
floorboards creaking
It is possible, I think, to visit with death at certain times; for me, one such time is in the early morning, when no one is awake and it is very still. The sun has just come up, it is a new day, and not even the birds have roused themselves yet. I too am not fully awake. The presence of death can be felt, though it is somewhat fuzzy, slightly remote.

Death itself is silent, unmoving. It is simply a presence at the periphery of my consciousness. Waiting. Simply waiting, wordlessly. I don't find myself frightened or jolted. Death has no depth or substance; it is all together sheer, transparent, invisible really, but still there, nonetheless. I don't believe death is present as a reminder to live any more than my shadow exists to communicate something about life or death. Death stands motionless like a redwood or cypress or rock (but without density). Ah, yes, before the day has begun, I know that you (death) are here. There is in effect no forgetting.

heading to the car
an ant carrying another
I was reading an interview with Ram Dass, the psychology professor who got kicked out of Harvard for experimenting with LSD back in the 60s, and he said something very poignant about his mother who had died six months prior to his trip to India: Until he met his guru, he had only viewed his relationship with his mother as that between mother and son. After meeting his guru, he related to her as one soul to another.

I found this disclosure very moving. Most of the time, we relate to people--even those close to us--from our roles; the ego feels in charge in the realm of roles and images. But, we are not fundamentally our roles; we are souls. It is vital that we recover the soul dimension while still alive. That's what the word Namaste (a Sanskrit term) is all about: From the place inside me that is divine and holy, I recognize that place inside you which is also divine and holy.


last breaths
a ladybug has
found its way in

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To continue a little while longer on the theme of loneliness... Loneliness could be the voice of death, calling us home. Loneliness may reflect an estrangement from the self. We don't always know what we want or what matters most in life. We may mistakenly believe that what we're missing is praise or love, approval, acceptance, attention from the outside world. I may want to be popular and part of a particular circle or crowd and feel terrible because I am not. Such suffering could be due to overvaluing the ego's longings, which are a substitute for being grounded in truth. Praise and approval are not existentially valid aspirations; our suffering is a reflection of this, not proof of unworthiness.

Again, death shines a light on what is most precious in life; it may do this through the language of suffering. Loneliness is part of that language of suffering, and it's important to know what it communicates. Feeling lonely could mean that we have strayed from the path of what really matters in life; if we return to the path, loneliness fades away, like a fellow traveler who takes leave when he or she has provided directions. Our task, then, is to listen to what loneliness has to say about what matters in life, knowing it has been sent by death, one of life's dearest siblings.

stopping to sit
I recognize this rock
from somewhere
I won't say that each parting, each goodbye, is a death, because this sounds unnecessarily melodramatic. After all, the parties who are taking leave do go on living (most of the time, at any rate). Still, such goodbyes are a harbinger of the final goodbye, where there is no return, no reunion. So, how mindful are we of death in the wings as we are hugging, shaking hands, kissing one another on the cheek?

I don't want to be weeping uncontrollably as I say, "See you... til next time." I think it would be alarming to my friend or family member. I do cry, however, and unavoidably, when my family from New York leave for the airport. This has happened so many times that I think they have come to expect me to get choked up and tearful. It is all right; I don't mind being embarrassed over loving and missing my dear family. Nor will I regret all the sorrow if I discover, after death, that we are reunited, for all eternity. I am happy that loved ones know they are loved; nothing is more satisfying to me than this.

Death and love are entwined with one another. And that, it seems to me, is as it should be. Death spotlights what is dearest to us and so illuminates the path through life.

summer moonlight
just enough for
our goodnight hug

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is loneliness a foreshadowing of death? Do we fear loneliness because of its intimations of death?

Throughout history, writers, poets and philosophers have maintained that we come into the world alone and depart alone. But, is this true, in fact? We don't come into the world alone: Your mother would vociferously object to that contention! Labor pains alone would refute the idea that we come into the world alone. And, the midwife or doctor who held our tiny, wet bodies would argue, no doubt, that they were present and accounted for at the moment of birth.

Unless we die in our sleep, we most likely will not die alone. And, even in such a case, there are dream figures who may accompany each of us during those last, unconscious moments. I will remain silent as to the question of God's or a Higher Power's presence as we take our last breaths.

Loneliness has to do with one's ego, the small self; it fears being abandoned on an uninhabited island. But, there is no such island. Only if we discount the animal, insect, and plant life can one say that an island is uninhabited. That reflects are estrangement from Nature, nothing more. In truth, we are never alone; there is no basis for loneliness. Loneliness is Nature's way of calling us back home.

a lone gnarled oak
beckoning crows
and me

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Death desires an encounter with each of us, the living. But it is not a vampire, consumed by a longing to suck the blood out of us. Death desires contact because of it's inextricable connection with life. Death goes with life the way a cat's tail goes with the rest of the cat. Even saying death desires an encounter with us is saying too much, personifying death. The cat's tail doesn't "desire" contact with the cat's torso; it is already one with the cat's body.

Perhaps, then, it is more accurate to say that death realizes life because death goes-with life. Life renders life real; and death renders death real. There is a rendering that is called for. To render means to give back. Death dares to give back to the mystery, the unknowable, and there can be no interference, no altering of this. Death is the one absolute, the most complete rendering.

dried blood from its nose
the black tailed deer
lying in the ditch
Have you ever wondered what drives time or, rather, our sense of time? Philosophers have pondered this question for millennia? I think it was St. Augustine who put the riddle into memorable terms: When he's meditating on time he knows, but when he tries to record what he knows, it eludes him.

Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist teacher I quoted from his book, SAILING HOME, in the previous post, has this to say about time and it's relation to death:

But what is death? We can't say. And yet this unsayable fact
--that fact of absence or unbeing-- is what makes time flow
and life go on.

It never occurred to me that what is unsayable is what calls time into life and keeps it going. Of course! Unbeing and life go together, so the fact of death or non-existence is what sets time in motion. We ordinarily think it is birth that sets the clock in motion, but insofar as death and life are inextricably related, as I maintain they are, it is death no less than life which generates time. It all depends on which direction one is facing: to view birth is to see death; to face death is to encompass birth.

I am relieved to hear Norman acknowledge that, if asked, we cannot say anything definitive about death. The most complete and accurate thing we can say about death is that we can't say. Thus, those who have had near-death experiences are describing, not death, but their near-death encounters. I can live with that til I get there myself. In the meantime, I content myself with a poem:

vibrating madly
in the spider's web
the last flutters of time
Lest anyone still be confused about why I am writing about death and death awareness poems, Norman Fischer makes a clear and forceful statement which answers the question for me. Norman Fischer is a longtime Zen Buddhist, writer and poet. His most recent book, SAILING HOME, is about Homer's classic, THE ODYSSEY. The following passage is from this book: "Abandoning our pretty fantasies about death and facing our fear of death's inconceivable strangeness is a necessity: for life."

I write about death to explicate life. Don't be deceived: We no more understand life than we do death. Fischer's phrase-- inconceivable strangeness--rings so true! Insofar as we are alive and living in the moment for the first time, of course everything is new and strange to us... meaning unfamiliar. This strangeness is inconceivable because each moment is utterly original; no two moments are alike; hence, we can't predict anything at all based on what has come before. To be fully in touch with this newness and strangeness is what Suzuki Roshi (Norman's first teacher) referred to as "beginner's mind." I am more in love than ever with beginner's mind!

What is the relation, then, between life and death? Again, Fischer leans into a compelling truth when referring to death's inconceivable strangeness. Both life and death are inconceivably and equally strange! To awaken to this actuality is to free oneself, spiritually speaking, from the wheel of birth-and-death.

that fly
lifeless on the window sill
who made it

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How is it possible to live, each and every day, each and every moment, not knowing when I will breathe my last? It is really quite extraordinary, upon reflection, that I am able to function at all while living on the edge of an abyss or on the ledge of a sixty story building. I think if I were to let in the full measure of this existential reality I might go insane. That, at least, is the common consensus: The reality of death appears so paralyzing that it must be repressed in order for us to live and function in one's daily life.

Do you agree? Is death so terrifying that all but a sliver of awareness must be swept away so we can live with a modicum of tranquillity?

I'm not inclined to believe that we humans are so fragile that we can't handle more than a sliver of reality. I give us more credit than that. I digest the fact of death a little at a time... until a monumental loss happens, such as the death of a parent or other loved one, and reality comes crashing down. We face our own mortality at such times and pick up the pieces of our shattered life and return to daily living, sobered.

empty snail shell
could be, will be
I have no objections to writing or speaking about a subject for which nothing can be said with any certainty. Such is the gift of language that we can lean into a subject, brailling our way toward knowing. At the same time, it is good to pause from time to time and let silence permeate one's consciousness. Silence seems to me the most sensitive response to the fact of death. Silence is not evidence of defeat or resignation, but of acknowledging the great mystery that is life-and-death.

that gossamer
wordlessly drifting off
my death poem

Friday, August 20, 2010

We refer to death in everyday conversation. Two examples come to mind. One often hears how ready a person is to punch out when mortified in public: "I'm so embarrassed I could die." Another will exclaim upon over-exertion: "That nearly killed me."

Death appears to be right below our consciousness, and is readily called up in extreme circumstances. I don't believe that those who refer to death at such times are all histrionic personality disorders. If they had their wits about them and could take a moment or two to calm down, I bet they wouldn't, in fact, want to die as a means of escaping embarrassment. Yes, embarrassment--a milder form of shame--is highly uncomfortable, even painful, but bearable. All of us survive multiple embarrassing occasions over the course of a lifetime. And though we strain ourselves yet too we survive such over-exertions. In truth we are way more hardy than we give ourselves credit for.

So sturdy and durable are we that each and every one of us even endures the most arduous undertaking of all: death itself. From this vantage point, there is no greater test of endurance and all of us--no exceptions--live through it. It is only in the realm of thought, then, that we see ourselves as too delicate or frail to survive embarrassment or harsh conditions. Not so.

that snail
knocked off eight times
ninth time climbs the wall
I think what's missing in our lives is enough silence. We have acclimated to the overloading of ours senses and in the process deadened ourselves as well. There is so much peace and serenity that returns when the outside world is silent. The mind then mirrors that silence within. To return to silence is not at all frightening. In the midst of that unmoving stillness, the willingness to die arises naturally and effortlessly.

listening to water
lap against rock
I'm ready to depart
For years I was angry at my parents because I believed they hadn't loved me adequately while growing up. I suffered a lot due to this belief. To free myself, I created an imaginary Zen master and engaged in some dialogue in my journal. I was completely shocked by the turn this journal writing took when the Zen master pointed out that the belief that my parents didn't love me enough was based on a key illusion: Love would save me from death. When I realized love in fact can't save me from death the old suffering dissolved once and for all. I was free... to live my mortality.

Love can't undo our finiteness, but love can enable us to bear the unbearable. This was the essence of Corky's (our childhood dog who appeared to me in a dream a month before he died) message to me, which I wrote about in a previous post: We must continue on, lovingly. And so I have tried.

broken vase
restoring emptiness
piece by piece

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I remember, as a five year old, waiting excitedly for my dear grandmother to step off the bus in Saddle Brook, having made the long trip out to us from Manhattan. No doubt you have found yourself waiting on many occasions for one person or another: at a restaurant, for a friend or relative; for your spouse or partner, to get ready to go out; for a plane to take off or land; for the dentist or doctor, who will see you now; for your turn at the DMV window; for the surgeon to enter the waiting room and inform you whether the operation was successful or not... the list goes on and on. We spend countless hours waiting over the course of a lifetime.

Do you know where you go during those endless moments of waiting? Have you caught glimpse of what happens to your mind as you sit (or pace) while waiting?

Waiting is preparation for death. We virtually never think of it in such stark terms, but it's true. In the void of waiting, death lingers at the periphery of our vision, like ghosts do. Again, I don't mean to sound morbid, but simply to call attention to the omnipresence of death in our lives. Though I've said it before, it bears saying again: death and life are inseparable.

I recall a story I heard many years ago, which comes at the issue from the other end: Long ago, a man, accustomed to living a harried life, caught glimpse of death and was completely spooked. He jumped on the first horse he could find and rode fast and furious in the opposite direction of death. One horse after another collapsed under him, but he persisted in his escape. Finally, the fugitive from death made his way to an oasis in the farthest corner of the land he grew up in. There, at the fountain, was death, who glanced down at his watch and remarked: "I didn't think you were going to make it on time."

one after another
summer clouds
Music comes and goes. I listen to my favorite bands and performers in the car on the way to work, and when the song is over the sound stops, fades away. Sound does not cling to anything in hopes of persevering.

What if we were like sound: here now and then gone, no trace? In this way, sound appears and disappears like birds in the sky: no trace. (Of course, we can find traces of birds on the sidewalk, on the car roof and, on not-so-rare occasions, on our shoulder or head but still these wash away.)

Why does the ego model itself after stone and not sound? It wants to live forever, to be immortal and indestructible, and so we suffer because human existence is, and always will be, impermanent. I will endeavor to redirect my ego to the Way of Sound and see what new dialogue occurs between sound and death.

his flute
and the wind in the pines
joining silence

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I don't believe that we ever "get over" the loss of a loved one. I realize that this is contrary to the collective view of old-school griefwork experts, who maintained that resolution of mourning culminates in letting the loved one go. This strikes me as contrary to all that I know about mourning from my own personal losses and from observing how my therapy clients have faced the deaths of loved ones.

It is the belief that death has severed all connection with the loved one that perpetuates grief, it seems to me. I realized long ago that death need not sever the relationship with loved ones who have died. Death means the end of an embodied existence; that's all I know. My dear relatives, friends and father live on in my memory and in my heart. I still have access to each one of them if I so choose. There have been times when I have asked for my father's support; have I received it? I don't know and it matters less than that I felt I could reach out to him. Am I simply perpetuating an illusion to protect me from feeling the depth of sorrow in the face of his death? I don't think so. I mourned my father's death at the time and still feel sad when I think of him, which is nearly every day. But, I don't believe I am in denial that he is gone.

One of my dear friends knows with absolute conviction that there is life after death, so she has no fear of dying at all. Her fear is with living... given all the violence, crime, misery and suffering that abounds in the world. Since I am more uncertain about what happens after death, fear still arises when I think about my own mortality. I have not bridged this gap, which is okay with me. We shall see.

a morning so still
I can almost hear
the clouds move
I know I have said that I don't believe in life after death or, more accurately, I don't know what happens to us after we die. That said, I want to recount what happened three days after my father died on June 9, 2002. In New York, after my father's funeral, my sister asked for a sign that my father was okay, and she felt that she had received such a sign. (When the family had returned from the funeral service, my sister went up to the hallway bathroom and found that the clock had stopped. She asked my father to set the clock working again and, when she returned twenty or so minutes later, it had.) When my sister recounted what she had observed, I wanted a sign, too.

I was waiting in the front yard for my mate so we could go out to dinner. In an area in the front yard where I had been weeding was an object that looked vaguely like a coin, but it was too caked with dirt to know for sure what it was. I picked it up and could tell from its shape that it was, in fact, a coin. I took it immediately into the house and ran hot water over it to wash away the dirt. I managed to scrape off enough dirt to see that it was a quarter. I looked at the date, as I do whenever I find a coin on the street or sidewalk, and burst into tears: the date was the year of my birth, 1954. In that instant, I knew my father would be okay... and that I would be, too.

Father's Day
birds he imitated
at the cemetery

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The existential psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, coined a new term for living beyond one's death: rippling. Rippling refers to the salutary effects that one can have on others while still alive. If I am kind to people, my kindness can ripple in the minds of those I have affected. This is as close as one can come, the existential therapist believes, to immortality. It's a significant concession for someone who doesn't believe in life after death. You can find Yalom's musings on rippling in a recent book he wrote about death anxiety called, STARING AT THE SUN.

I question why one needs to believe that humans live on after death. The longing for immortality is rooted in the ego's terror of annihilation, non-being. Why should I give in to this terror by searching for palliatives? Death is death; let's have courage enough to face our finiteness. If I have made a small, but significance during my lifetime, that should be enough; it IS enough for all but my ego. I refuse to succumb to the dictatorship of ego. It drives out all humility, rationality and serenity. On death, let the lake be still...

a last walk
just as it is
Spring Lake

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's all together chic to be green in 2010--going paperless, bringing your own bag to the grocery store, tooling around in the tiniest electric car--and it's all good for the planet. I have no argument with any of this, really.

Others are starting to think about green burials, doing away with the pomp and circumstance of elegant and endangered hardwood coffins, brass hardware and the like. It's all about reducing one's carbon footprint. But don't the ants, worms and maggots still do their part, anymore, or have they relocated to planets northeast of us? I really shouldn't be cynical about the green movement when it comes to the topic of death; it's not polite or politically correct.

it's settled then
I'll be wearing
muslin underground
Yes, of course, John Donne got it perfectly right: The death of any other diminishes me. Please know that this was not the fruit of a narcissist's ruminations, but rather a sacred truth pointing to our interconnectedness. Donne was a sensitive soul who understood that not only the passing of those dear to us diminish our lives, but all loss does--the postal carrier, the sanitation worker, the toll collector, the high school math teacher who tutored dozens of kids over a 40 year career.

What is it that is lost when anyone dies? I'm not sure I dare to admit the truth to myself. If it is, indeed, true that each of us is interconnected by virtue of the fact that all living is relationship, then when another dies, I die too. What in me dies? It can't be love, it can't be innocence, as these, I have come to see, are indestructible. What is it then?

that bee
motionless on the sidewalk
had my buzz
At this stage of my life, I have only one link connecting me to my roots, and that is my mother. She is 84 years old. Mom appears to be in good health, and her mother died just shy of her 96th birthday, so I am counting on my mother living to at least that age. Of course, I also know that she may not.

I definitely feel on the periphery of being orphaned. (I cherish my two siblings, but they can reach no further into the past than I can; and did not give birth to me.) I know that "orphaned" is an odd word to use for someone who has past the half-century mark. Ordinarily, we only think of children as orphans. Still, I feel that the word applies to me, as well. To be an orphan is to wander alone in the world. Something irrecoverable will die when my mother does--my past, my roots. It is as it must be, but still the thought fills me with great sadness. Inasmuch as my mother and grandmother studiously avoided talking about our relatives who died in the Holocaust, I have little connection with my heritage, as it is. With my mother's death, it will be, as I have said, buried in the earth with her. That reality leaves me feeling orphaned and unmoored. But, so too, are clouds; maybe I should follow them, instead. They take no thought of the past or the morrow, and willingly disappear into the night air.

day of the dead
this strong urge to
call my mother

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

For more than ten years now, due to chronic health problems, I haven't felt well enough to travel. Fortunately, my mother and siblings have been willing to fly out to California, where I live, from New York to visit once a year or so.

Goodbyes have been very hard, very painful. My mother is now 84, so when we part I am acutely conscious that I may never see her alive again. There is a searing pain I experience whenever I say goodbye to her at the end of her trip. It's the same with my siblings and their families. I am filled with sadness and can hardly speak.

All of this is foreshadowing: There is an ending to every relationship, that is, in embodied form. We think when a loved one dies the relationship is over, severed forever, but I don't think this is true. The relationship continues in one's heart, in one's mind. But the embodied relationship does end; there is no denying that.

And, finally, we will say goodbye to whomever is still around when we take our last breath. The anguish of loss is unavoidable. It's woven into the fabric of our finite life. It turns our fleeting contacts into precious moments together--ones which I certainly have come to cherish.

Indian summer day
it too follows
the buffalo home

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's not that easy to ask for help. Here, in America, the illusion of self-reliance still holds sway. Of course, I know there is no such thing; we are all interdependent and, with time, we incline toward dependence on others... including the kindness of strangers. I recognize there is an irony in all this: At birth, we are nothing if not dependent, and spend the next eighty years or so asserting our so-called independence... only to be rendered dependent once again in our last years.

So, it helps to get used to asking for help, as this is more likely than not to be our reality at some stage in life. Rigid opposition to assistance of any kind will lead to a major shock to the system one day. What are you doing today to make room for a little reliance on others?

walk in the woods
this broken branch
offering itself
I wake up this morning a day older. I don't feel older. Well, my back's a little stiffer and my head feels a little woolier, but these are discomforts I can cope with.

What happens when I wake up only to discover that I wet the bed during the night? Or, I try to lift myself out of bed and realize that I have lost too much muscle tone and can't? These are disconcerting possibilities that could be realities one day. I choose not to fret about them this morning for it does me no good. The evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin once observed: "Those who are most likely to succeed are not the strongest nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

I have it in my head that I don't like change (not at all), so I am continually challenged by changes that happen all the time. I want to be responsive to major changes that happen in my body. After all, I don't really have a choice. We are all marching down a one way highway; there is no option of turning back.

just missing
the ants
swarming a downed bee

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Little by little, starting at age 18, I have lost my hair. Today, at 56, I am officially bald, though I still can't believe it. I continue to maintain that, one day, I am going to re-grow my hair or, rather, it will show up again on its own, and I will look into the mirror, utterly amazed by my own full head of glistening, healthy hair.

Aging is dying in slow motion, though we do our best not to think of it in these stark terms. I defer old age to a dot on the horizon in the distant future. Death itself is beyond the horizon, unseen. How the mind enthusiastically embraces self-deception. Yet, as my grandmother would say every so often, "the age is there," meaning it was inescapable, despite her diligent efforts to visit the beauty salon weekly in hopes of fighting back the ravages of time. Thirty years later, I understand, I empathize.

from a certain angle
my shadow casts
a full head of hair
Like it or not, we get lulled into trance during our everyday lives. It's an easy way to get through the day... or a life. Complacency is the offspring of trance: How good it feels to sit in front of the tv, shop for a new pair of pants or shoes, or play with the latest apps on the iPhone.

Death is the definitive antidote to trance and complacency. Some welcome the loud rap at the door of time, even though it wakes one up with a jolt. Oh, you mean my time here is limited? I forgot. Mindfulness teacher Joseph Goldstein said that being human is a precious incarnation. If you're awake, that is.

deathbed window
a white butterfly
wanders past
For those of us who insist on being buried, not cremated, there is the question of what to wear at the funeral. I think many prefer to show up in their Sunday best, or even expect a new suit or dress will be bought especially for the occasion.

As someone who has managed to avoid wearing suits for my entire work life, I don't know that I want to be stuffed into one for all of eternity. I cleave to the casual rather than the formal; I prefer comfort to the crisp and clean look. Not to mention the fact that I have always looked a bit odd wearing a suit (on rare occasions) with a pony tail.

Is all this much ado about nothing? Maybe so. After all, we end up stripped of everything except the bones we came into the world with. What's wrong with the way a skeleton looks? Many don such outfits on All Hollow's Eve.

bathrobe and slippers
reading the Sunday paper
six feet under
A number of years ago my mother asked if I had purchased a cemetery plot. I told her I hadn't, but planned to. Some more time passed, and I finally prompted myself to write a letter of inquiry to the cemetery where all of my elder relatives are buried in a small town in New Jersey, where I grew up. Months went by and I forgot that I had even sent the query, so I was surprised when a form letter finally arrived in the mail. There are times in our lives when we are homeless, or feel homeless.

cold summer wind
walking the streets of San Francisco
no vacancy
I almost never think about the process of being prepared for burial. My mind simply doesn't go there, thankfully. What's the point of dwelling on the details?

In contrast, Buddhist monks are directed to visit a cemetery where they are expected to sit at a gravesite and meditate for hours on the decaying corpse... in minute detail. This is supposed to free the mind from attachment to the self, to the body, to the illusion of permanence. What if you already have a vivid, if not overactive, imagination? For me, this "practice" is all together unnecessary.

rain off the gutters
I don't want to
be embalmed

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I was taken aback when I read the following quote by Norman O. Brown, who wrote LIFE AGAINST DEATH: "The war against death takes the form of a preoccupation with the past and with the future, and the present tense, the tense of life, is lost."

It never occurred to me that, unwittingly, we really do act as though we are at war with death, pursuing anything and everything in our power to conquer death. It matters not that any undertaking along these lines is inherently futile. Warring against death ironically results in a deadening or numbing. The truth, however, is that when it comes to death, there is no "winning." Gaining fame and fortune doesn't defeat death; it doesn't confer immortality. The body still dies even if a monument is erected or a play is read for hundreds of years in high school English classrooms.

Why should I be interested at all in what doesn't exist? What sense does that make, if I am trying to defeat death? Neither the past nor the future exists. If I cherish life, then I will turn my full attention to the present and stay right here. This is where all the action is. I said to a therapist who was anxious about not getting to all the issues her family was coming to her for help with: Everything that needs to happen is happening now. She told me afterward it helped ground her. I don't know where that came from, but it still rings true in this context too.

train whistle
please... just... hold... my... hand
This appears to be the universal lament: "Why was I born, if it wasn't forever?" (Ionesco).

Do I wish I had never been born because I know that I am going to die one day? I have no regrets at all. I am grateful to my mother and father for having given me the gift of life. Of course, there are some days when I am nearly overcome by life's hardships and adversities, but having crossed over the half-century mark, I console myself in knowing that I don't have to suffer interminably. As a youth, I never derived any comfort in knowing that my life is finite; now I do.

The wish to live forever reflects the greediness inherent in the ego; it is the residue of childhood wherein the child desires to live into perpetuity. The ego knows no boundaries or limits. Ah, then, could the ego be God as reflected in the prism of time? Time distorts everything that passes through it; but perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the ego's longing to live forever. We do live forever but not in the form we hope to. God is the deathless and, as part of God, we do live on, as spirit.

winter walk
now I see my breath
now I don't
Leave it to novelist Franz Kafka to throw things into sharpest relief: "The meaning of life is that it stops." The author of THE TRIAL and "Metamorphosis" must have been thinking that it is death that defines life. If life ceases, then that is its essential meaning.

Though he doesn't state this in so many words, Kafka implies that death renders life meaningless. But, meaning and meaninglessness don't exhaust all the possibilities. Transpersonal (meaning: beyond the personal) psychologist John Welwood proposed an alternative to these two: meaningfreeness. That is, beyond meaning and meaninglessness, there is the possibility of being free of the habit of constructing meaning. This takes us to what J. Krishnamurti called what is. that which exists beyond the thinking mind. Are we incapable of touching what is because of our habits of mind? Yes. Meditative awareness, which is bare attention, enables one to realize what is right in front of us without resorting to thought, imagery, memory, knowledge. To behold death with meditative awareness is to realize--make real--that it can only be understood with love.

What would it mean to love death? I am not singing the praises of suicide, nor have I taken a morbid turn here and gone off the deep end. Have you ever set aside all your associations of death and approached it quietly, gently, with love and passionate interest? To do so is to realize death itself is a great poem.

on the same branch
a blooming and dying rose
never touch


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I love encountering wisdom in those who have come before me. Here is what the existential theologian Soren Kierkegaard counsels: "To live in the face of death is to die unto death." He writes with the force of biblical authority. But whatever does he mean?

Living with consciousness of one's own mortality is to live with great courage. I choose life despite the fact that I know I am going to die one day--it could be in 50 years, it could be tonight. In facing one's death one transcends death; it no longer exercises a constricting influence on one's consciousness. Courage, for Kierkegaard, subdues, nullifies, death. The word "courage" comes from 'cor,' which means heart. In other words, by taking death to heart, by taking death into one's heart, love weds death. There is no more extraordinary union than this; it is a communion in the most sacred sense. The marriage of love and death transports one into eternity, which is beyond the field of the known.

summer rain
Spring Lake
The poet Rilke asserted: "Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death, at the same time magnifies life." It would be all too easy to dismiss Rilke as an oddball for even suggesting that one "celebrate" death, since death is the ending of everything that is dear to us, is it not? But, the word "celebrate" actually means "to frequent"; in other words, to approach death daily. The spiritual teacher, J. Krishnamurti, implored people to die, psychologically, to the past in order to be wholly, fully in the present. Krishnamurti and Rilke have a shared understanding of the importance of dying each moment and, in manifesting the courage to do so, living is magnified, that is, enlarged.

We do just the opposite; we shrink from death at every turn. No one wants the perfect summer day to end nor this moment of exquisite love-making. We cling to that which gives us great pleasure or joy, because the ego falsely believes that in the perpetuation of pleasure lies permanence and security. What a monumental illusion that is!

To die, over and over, is to live. One's heart breaks. . . open to encompasses all.

lying motionless
on the sidewalk
the sparrow I was
Self-appointed experts contend that the fear of death is rooted in a constricted life. If I live fully, the fear of death will disappear. Death anxiety is a kind of warning: Live fully or die terrified.

What if this is upside down? Could it be that the fear of death is not about living fully, but about dying fully? Generally speaking, life is way longer than death, which is gone in a flash. If I am not sharply attuned, I might very likely miss my death all together, which is what happens with so much of our life: By living in a trance state most of the time, we are not really aware of what's happening: the ladybug that alights on my arm for an instant; the butterfly iris that bloomed overnight; the old woman beside me, struggling with groceries as she endeavors to cross the street.

What then is a full death? To die completely; this is what it means to live one's death fully. Enter into the moment wholeheartedly, so one's self all together disappears. To burn completely such that there is nothing but ash left behind. Have you ever done this; that is, died completely to the moment? This is what awareness of death is calling each of us to do. Now, not in 30 or 40 years.

blink sunset blink...
There is a commonly held belief that we die as we have lived. Is this true?

The saying contains an assumption that there is continuity to our lives. I question this. Thought constructs the notion of continuity, but it may only be thought itself that believes there is such continuity. In actuality, life is beyond measure. Time is the means by which we measure life, but life is not broken up into units called yesterday, now, tomorrow. These terms are only for our convenience, but they are not facts. We mistake them for facts.

I'm not at all convinced that we invariably die as we have lived. If, on closer examination, discontinuity in fact characterizes life, then death is unpredictable. Someone may have lived a very cloistered existence, hold up in their house or apartment, rarely venturing out. When death arrives, he or she may embrace it with a wholehearted welcome, an outgoing warmth and cheerfulness. We simply don't know. Perhaps the saying, "we die as we live," originated in fear and was intended as a warning or admonition that turns out to be unnecessary. We live as we live; and we die as we die. . . as yet undetermined.

sudden wind
it changes
my last breath

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Every year, at one's birthday, friends and family gather around the birthday cake after dinner and look on fondly as the celebrant silently makes a wish, then draws in a deep breath to blow out the candles. Of course, past a certain age, the humane and practical thing to do is not overload the cake with candles, but consolidate decades of life into one candle per ten years. After all, we wouldn't want the birthday boy or girl to suffer cardiac arrest and fall face first into the cake. How uncouth would that be!

Is it too macabre to suggest that, as one's final days approach--or maybe even earlier--loved ones might gather around a cake again as the celebrant makes a death wish? Of course, by death wish, I don't mean the same thing as Freud did (see previous post #28); that is, a biological drive to die. Rather, a death wish is simply a mirror of the birthday wish. Is this incongruous with being with what is--something I've been advocating in other reflections on death awareness? Perhaps. I leave that for the reader to decide.

There is one caveat or qualification regarding the death wish. Wishes sometimes get entangled with hope, and I don't wish to encourage such entanglements. Impending death signifies the ending of hope, which need not plunge one into hopelessness or despair. Death is inevitable and hope isn't needed to obscure this existential fact. So, let's make a wish but not tie it to hope. In this respect, a death wish could be a new, and different, kind of wish for a new and different kind of landscape.

death wish
a lone candle flickers
then steadies again
In my book, those who work with the dying are unsung angels and saints. They are witness to all that is holy in the ending of life just as nurses and midwives are the guardian angels of birth.

One of my dearest friends has devoted her life to the dying for the past fifteen years. Again and again, she has offered comfort, caring and compassion in each moment to every patient she meets. I am in awe of the service she has extended, selflessly. There are countless others who do the same every day, year in and year out. I bow deeply to one and all.

I pray that I am graced with the assistance of a nurse or hospice worker whose life has also been guided by kindness and faith. I would be infinitely grateful if my circumstances were such that I might find myself in need of such help. I am unafraid of depending on the kindness of strangers. After all, despite superficial differences in skin color and cultural history, we are family in the end.

the time it takes
to say thank you
last breath
Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read: Out of sick days, called in dead. I laughed out loud. Who says that we can't have a sense of humor about death? What is gallows or black humor if not a thumbing of one's nose at our own mortality?

Death is not as grave as we make it out to be. Think about the free make-up one gets treated to. Or the fresh new suit or dress one gets to wear. And the testimonials filled with admiration, appreciation, maybe even a tear shed here or there. Who would want to miss out on all this?

Humor puts things in perspective; it even puts one's ego in its place. The world does not, as our ego believes, revolve around us. Death confirms this in spades. We would do well to remember that we are a speck of dust in the universal and unending cycle of birth and death. Knowing this doesn't mean we have to grovel; it simply means we can ease up a bit and enjoy the full breath we take in this very moment. It is a great gift.

pine or marble?
if possible, I'd like
one of each
Diane Shainberg, a Buddhist psychotherapist, liked to ask clients: "What is the prayer at the heart of. . .?" We could ask this question regarding one's fear of death: "What is the prayer at the heart of my fear of death?" and listen to what comes.

What is prayer? Prayer is one way I may talk to, or communicate with, God. I may pray for courage, strength to face something formidable or forbidding at the time. I don't tend to ask God to eliminate the challenge, because that is not within God's ability. Insofar as God granted us freedom, it is up to us to respond as best we can to whatever life offers up.

Through prayer, I remain connected with God. Perhaps that is the prayer within the prayer which is at the heart of whatever I am facing. It is a statement of intention to remain close to God. By the way, I have no trouble using the word God, because for me it is indefinable. I conceive of God as Loving Intelligence, not a hoary man with a flowing white beard, sitting on a throne in heaven.

The prayer at the heart of my fear of death is communion for one and all. No one is left outside the circle.

hanging low
through the night fog
our full moon
Some experts recommend guided visualizations to allay anxiety, and these could be used to allay the fear of death. One could visualize floating on a raft on the still waters of the ocean at Maui, soaking up the sun. He or she is lulled to sleep and never wakes up.

I have no objections to the use of hypnosis (another word for guided visualization), but hypnosis is not the same as meditation, which is really about being awake to what is. I prefer meditative awareness, but that's just me. I maintain that the seeds of peace are present in what is. If fear goes-with
death, then peace is possible within the fear of death--paradoxical as this sounds. You needn't take my word for it; investigate what is true for you.

along the beach
in that rock
my father's face
Woody Allen famously declared that he's not afraid of death, he just doesn't want to be there when it happens. It's a funny line, but true: We'd be free of fear if only we could detach ourselves and not be present at the moment of death. Of course, this is impossible, but it doesn't stop the mind from creating an abstraction. That abstraction--I or the "me"--enables one to believe that the so-called self is separate from the body or from experience. But, J. Krishnamurti pointed out what is invisible to most of us: "The observer is the observed." Body and mind are one... not detachable.

I want to be there when I die. I'm curious, if also frightened. I want to find the courage to face my fear and my death. What about you?

under the covers
trembling all the way
to nirvana

Monday, August 2, 2010

Death poems have also been referred to as farewell poems. Take a moment to reflect on what you have realized during your lifetime that you would want to include in your "goodbye" to life. What matters most to you?

Perhaps it would be helpful to make a list of everyone and everything you want to say farewell to. Your list might start with the word, "goodbye" or "farewell" and be followed by what you are leaving behind.

Goodbye, dear mate, goodbye dear siblings, goodbye dear body, goodbye car, goodbye Krishnamurti, goodbye Walden, goodbye Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, goodbye dear Nature, goodbye Tao te Ching, goodbye haiku I've read and written. . .

a heron lands
on the side of a mountain
unloosing another rock
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, postulated that human beings have a drive toward death as well as to survive. He called this drive or instinct "Thanatos." The devastation wrought by World War I only seemed to confirm his musings on this subject.

What are you thoughts about Freud's notion of a death instinct or drive? If you look inside, have you recognized an inexorable pull toward death?

Only on one occasion did I want to die. After twelve hours of unremitting pain due to a kidney stone, I wanted relief from the terrible pain. I didn't really want to die; I had only reached the limits of what I believed I could tolerate. I don't regard myself as a suicidal person, and I know with certainty that I don't want to die.

death poem
I haven't got
time for it

death poem
I'll get back to it
in 80 years

Friday, July 30, 2010

The great Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, surprised everyone when he said: "I don't want to die." Suzuki Roshi was dying of cancer. Not wanting to die is perfectly compatible with being a Zen master. I deeply appreciate his candor. Insofar as we value and appreciate our life, we want to live; and death also is a fact of life.

Katigiri Roshi, a longtime friend and co-teacher, was the person that Suzuki Roshi was speaking to at the time. Katigiri Roshi bowed to his mentor and said, "Thank you for your great effort." I can think of no higher compliment. This exchange brings tears to my eyes. It is a beautiful moment between two dear friends, fellow human beings.

Love is what enables us to bear the unbearable. Love is all that matters... in the beginning, in the middle, in the end.

another summer
without Corky

(Corky was our childhood dog)
What we know and think about death is old and threadbare. It is our own conditioning that comes between us and the raw fact of mortality. Is it possible to clear the past away such that we are face-to-face with our own finiteness here-and-now, immediately?

Maybe we will only encounter our own mortality for a minute or two (which would be a long time!). What is new--original--in regards to this up-close and impersonal fact of death? What happens? What do I see, notice?

Ah, death is invisible and so am I. I see myself turning into something akin to woodsmoke and disappearing into the ether. No trace of me remains, and I feel all together untroubled--much to my surprise.

August mist
the morning disappears
into it
Where does death come from? I know that this is an all together odd question to ask. My response is going to sound even more strange!

As human beings, we seem to crave security above all else. I'm not talking only about physical security--shelter from the elements. We humans seek psychological security--refuge from real or perceived criticism, shame, rejection. We need to know that we are loved and praised, admired, revered.

Death arises out of this pursuit of security. The insecure ego needs to know that it is safe from attacks both inward and outward. Only a permanence of one sort or another will cure the anxiety that accompanies insecurity.

The fact is life is inherently insecure. There is nothing permanent in life, except the fact that everything changes. To free oneself from the misguided pursuit of security is to free oneself from death.

deathbed window
moonlight through
trembling aspens

Thursday, July 29, 2010

My father had a heart-attack while undergoing back surgery in February, 2002. As soon as he recovered enough from that operation, he was determined to have surgery on his heart again--he had undergone a bypass operation years before--in hopes of extending his life again. I knew in my own heart that he would not survive this operation, and begged him not to, but he had made up his mind. Shortly before undergoing the procedure, my father proudly remarked: "I have been a risk-taker all my life." It was settled, and I think these may have been his last words to me.

Sure enough, the day after my father was released from the hospital during the Memorial Day weekend, 2002, he died as the nurse who came to the house was examining him. He simply fell back into the recliner he had been sitting in when the nurse arrived. It was congestive heart failure that killed my father.

My dad's death split me wide open. Never in all my life have I experienced such searing pain, and I have had many losses, including the death of my beloved grandmother.

But, my father died heroically--something I have only recently let in. Deep inside I realize: If my father could live and die with courage, I can too. At the very least, I have set this intention.

gathering storm
I select a rain cloud
to ride off on
It's an interesting exercise to write down the associations one has of death, but doing so without laboring. First thought, best thought.

Death... ending, annihilation, desolate, free, sad, lonely, love, peace, serenity, loss, pain, tears, longing, wishing, withering, emaciated, numb, choking, coffin, worms, embalming, gruesome, eternity, motionless, no worries, no stress, ice cold, gray skin, skull, protruding bones, emptiness, stillness.

Death is a mixture of "good and bad"--constructs my mind uses to evaluate everything. Death is a word that attaches to other words and images. Each adjective and noun elicited a sharp, though transient emotional reaction. Within thirty seconds time I was jolted from one association to another. I felt relieved when my mind stopped associating. Of course, I could go back for more, but the list I came up with was quite enough.

In actuality, death can't encompass all of the images and ideas that I associate with it. Death is bigger than all the pictures, memories, constructions I have stored up over a lifetime. Death is as vast as the sky; Allen Ginsberg understood its vastness, and pointed to just this in his death poem, which appears in DEATH AND FAME: LAST POEMS:

To see Void vast infinite
look out the window
in the blue sky.

sun-bleached sand
no beginning
no end
Not a few people are frightened by death because we are allegedly alone when we die. That is, we die alone: I die my own death. No one can accompany me on this final trip.

But is that so? Of course, no one knows the particular circumstances surrounding his or her death. It is possible that I could die in my sleep. Even if that were to happen, would I be alone?

I don't think we are ever alone. To the extent that each of us lives in the world, we are never alone: there are birds, trees, squirrels, rose bushes, daffodils, clouds, sun, moon, sky, ants, flies, spiders. To be alive is to be related. I take heart in knowing that I can depend on any number of living things--beings--to be present as I take my last breaths. The earth itself is a great being that makes all life possible. Why do you think it is called Mother Earth? If it has supported me during the whole of my life, I am confident it will continue to do so right up to--and beyond--my final moment here.

July nap
outstretched in a field
already home

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are we inching toward death, or is death moving toward us?

Almost everyone I encounter is astonished by how fast time flies. Months seem to pass like days. But, is there really any movement at all?

If life is not a movement, what is it then? This is not a question to be answered by the rational mind. It is an everyday zen koan or riddle. If our life doesn't move, then what does that imply about death? Doesn't death require the movement of life, if we are to reach the moment of death?

Only within the framework of time does movement take place. If time stops, then life and death do not move. Don't ask how to stop time; it is not an act of will. If you realize that time is a construction, an abstraction, then time disappears as the illusion it is. You do not have to shove time out of consciousness any more than you have to push out darkness to get at the light.

What happens to death when the mind sees through the fabrication of time? Don't answer! Don't move!

in the morning
the poppy opens
at night, it closes

morning glory
here today
gone today
Near the end of the work day, a younger colleague ambled to my office and, earnestly remarked, "I fear death a lot, always have." She went on to say that, from an early age, she witnessed the passing of several relatives. I was moved by the innocence with which she shared her fear of death with me. I felt a strong affinity with my colleague and let her know that I, too, have lived with death anxiety for many years.

She asked me what has helped to allay this anxiety. I told her about numerous retreats on "Conscious Living, Conscious Dying," that I attended for a number of years where I heard many people recall encounters with loved ones who had passed away. My colleague asked me if I believed in reincarnation. I said no, but I'm open to the possibility after hearing so many others recount experiences with deceased loved ones.

In the end, I realized there was nothing I could say that would dissolve my coworker's fear of death. For her, it is the unknown that she fears most. Perhaps we seek knowledge through the better part of our lives in hopes of stumbling upon the key that unlocks the secret of death and what becomes of us after we die. Or, could it be that the unknown itself is death's way of familiarizing us with it, wishing to be befriended by us?

still summer night
I lie in bed listening
to nothing