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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