“Denial of death runs rampant through our culture, leaving us woefully unprepared when it is our time to die, or our time to help others die. We often aren’t available for those who need us, paralyzed as we are by anxiety and resistance — nor are we available to ourselves.” page xvii
Joan Halifax is a Zen priest who has lived a life of interior exploration. She studied anthropology and worked with Joseph Campbell. She lived in Africa; became interested in Shamanism and sought out great Shamans from Mexico. She was once married to Stanislav Grof, the psychiatrist who studied psycho-tropic drugs and wrote lots of books about their effects — among other things. She had what seems like a typical “1960s” trip-while-coming-of-age story: University, LSD, and Buddhism. What sets her apart from most, though, is her absolute dedication to those who are dying. She began caring for people who were dying during the Aids crisis in the 80s, and ever since has dedicated her life to accompanying those who are dying.
Being with Dying is a unique book on dying as it offers, not only stories about Roshi Joan Halifax’s experiences with people who were dying, but also it provides meditations, and what are called ‘boundless abodes’ to guide either the dying person or caregiver or just anyone who wants to think out their relationship to death while they are actually living and healthy. It should be noted: accompanying the dying does not mean Roshi Halifax is a proponent of assisted suicide. In fact, she relates several stories of friends who wanted to have some control over their death and died by suicide, but states that she could not be involved in their choice. What she does in this book is offer her insight, not about the way one should die, because she insists that there is no one way to die, but about how we might face the death of a loved one and even our own with less fear and confusion. Her book is a gentle reminder that we are all going to die so we might begin to work out how we approach death.
I want to focus on the meditations and abodes because I think they are what sets this book apart from others.
The first set of meditation questions with which we are confronted begin with a fairly common one: “How Do You Want to Die?” I don’t think it is meant to be answered in detail, but in general, do you want to linger or die immediately? I find this to be a most important question. When I think of wanting to drop away in an instant I think about not wanting to feel pain or waste away. I think about the fear I have of being left in some run down nursing home having underpaid health aides take care of me. I worry about losing my mind and not being able to recognize the people who I love. I worry about not being able to read another book! I worry about losing things slowly and slowly decaying in front of those who once thought I was quite special. I worry about the smell and the sight of my body turning into a corpse. Dying all at once, however, freezes things so I don’t have to leave this world looking like a sunflower at the end of summer with its head drooping, its petals mostly gone, and things missing because squirrels and birds have feasted on it.
HAVING EXPRESSED MY FEARS, I will say, I visit a lot of elderly who are slowly dying. I see women who have lots of facial hair (and men with less, oddly); I see women and men with yellow teeth and no teeth; wasted or bloated; in a wheelchair or just a walker; I talk to men and women who have most of their mind intact and some with only a glimmer of thought; I see them bent over and unable to straighten up and I see them standing as tall as they can. What I always see, whenever I visit with someone who is homebound, in the hospital or dying, is an amazing beauty that is always present to everyone as the body unravels. I take this to be the unwrapping of their soul.
I agree with Roshi Joan Halifax when she states that over the years her answer to this question of “how would you like to die?” has changed (page 7)… yes, yes… so has mine.
Interestingly, right after Roshi Joan Halifax asks us this most powerful question about how we would like to die, she goes on to the next chapter where we begin with her thoughts on a spiritual practice. She is a Zen priest so it is not surprising that she embraces a spiritual path and practice. What stands out, however, is that she gets us to think about death and then follows with a spiritual practice. This is, I’m sure, not a coincidence. How does one die without practicing anything and never thinking about death? How does one live? Roshi Halifax writes about a spiritual practice:
“A spiritual practice can give us refuge, a shelter in which to develop insight about what is happening both outside us and within our minds and hearts. It can provide stability, which is just as important for caregivers as it is for those of us actively dying. It can cultivate wholesome mental qualities, such as compassion, joy and non attachment — qualities that give us the resilience to face and possibly transform suffering.” (page 9)
Notice Joan Halifax does not say we need religion; rather she writes we need a “spiritual practice”. The emphasis is on practice; it must be practiced each day in order for it to work when we need it most. For this reason we are guided through meditations and offered “boundless abodes,” which are phrases that can be used to lift us and hold us when we are facing the darkness.
Examples of boundless abode phrases:
“May loving kindness flow boundlessly.
May loving kindness fill and heal your body.
May the power of loving kindness sustain you.”
Boundless abodes are powerful to say for yourself or as a blessing to someone else. They have a soothing and healing quality just by being expressed aloud.
We can surely intellectualize about death, and even say we agree that death can be ugly and that is all right, but still, there is resistance, and Joan Halifax points out the resistance revealed in our desires when we express our wish to have a “good death” or to “die with dignity.”
“The concept of a good death can put unbearable pressure on dying people and caregivers, and can take us away from death’s mystery and the richness of not knowing. Our expectations of how someone should die can give rise to subtle or direct coerciveness. And no one wants to be judged for how well he dies!
“‘Death with dignity’ is another concept that can become an obstacle to what is really happening. Dying can be very undignified. Often, it’s not dignified at all, with soiled bedclothes and sheets, bodily fluids and flailing, nudity and strange sexuality, confusion and rough language — all common enough in the course of dying. These stories we tell ourselves — good death, death with dignity — can be unfortunate fabrications that we use to try to protect ourselves against the sometimes raw and sometimes wondrous truth of dying.”
Roshi Joan Halifax is skillful at bringing forth the fears heard within our desires:
“When I visit with someone who is dying, I want to do whatever I can to relieve her pain and suffering. Sometimes, I find I can do something to help: kind words, meditation, physical touch, support for the right medical intervention, or simply bearing witness and being present. But maybe there is nothing that helps. The physical and mental misery are so great that they overwhelm all options. I need to respect the truth of this experience, accept it, be penetrated by it, be present to my own responses, and then remember that suffering and pain are transitory. If I look deeply enough, beneath the misery is an unconditional realm where the sufferer is free of her misery. In doing this, I model the inclusive and patient qualities of heart and mind that I hope will be nurtured in this person who is suffering. Fleeing from her suffering sends the opposite message, and sadly, this is too often what happens. Fear takes over and compassion withers.”
Why do we turn away from suffering? I think about this often. Intellectually I can be compassionate, but if I am not present; if I leave the scene, what is going on within me? most of the turning away comes from being tired of the suffering; I want it to go away. I often understand no suffering as being free, but paradoxically it is only through suffering — and not necessarily its ending — that we become free:
“Suffering can give birth to a bigger perspective and greater resilience, and strangely enough, suffering is the mother of kindness and compassion if we turn toward it with openness, making a friend of it. Suffering wrings us out, leaving the weave of our life more open. In this openness, we often can be with suffering in a bigger, kinder, and more tender way. Suffering is also the kindling that ignites compassion. This all might unfold as slowly as geological time or be like a flash of lightening. However, compassion, kindness, altruistic joy, and equanimity are already within us.”
Freedom, then, being free, can only be realized through compassion and kindness. But, it is not easy to let go of our expectations of a ‘good death’ or an easy and short experience of suffering. Joan Halifax writes:
“I sat once with a woman who felt completely defeated by her critical dying mother. From her mother’s point of view, she could do nothing right. The heaviness of failure shrank her body until it seemed small and defended. I shared with her how much effort it took to let go of my own expectations. This woman wanted her mother’s death to be ‘good’ and her work to be easy. But in the end, her practice was to let go, again and again, of her expectations, her desire to flee, and her sense of despair. This required diligence, perseverance, and a pretty good sense of humor. But before she could start to let go of her own suffering, she also had to accept that it was completely real.
Ultimately, to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own rage, helplessness, and frustration, our doubt, bitterness, and fear. We must get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through accepting our own suffering, we can begin to be with others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. We learn not to reject difficult situations or people. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are.”
When we are giving care to those who have an illness or are dying, we are tending to both the one who is in need of care and ourselves. We are accompanying them and working out our own relationship to them and to dying or illness. We are completely in it, but most of the time, we try to remain on the outside of it passively, or not so passively, waiting for it to end. After reading Roshi Joan Halifax, it appears, the only way we can truly accompany anyone and care for ourselves is by having absolutely no expectations.