I’ve never sat at someone’s death bed, until Saturday night.
My family has been blessed with longevity. As a child, I had the privilege to know three of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents lived into my adulthood.
The elders of my family have also been fortunate in terms of being healthy. My paternal grandmother volunteered at the nursing home helping “the elders”, many of whom were older than she, until the week before she simply fell asleep in a chair and didn’t wake up at age 85. My maternal grandfather used to go to the gym get on the treadmill and bench press things. With acute lymphoma, he was only ill for three weeks until his death at age 88. My maternal grandmother outlasted them all. She turned 93 last October.
Her name was Barbara – I am her namesake. Grandma lived in an independent living condominium near my parents and played bridge with her friends every week. She went down to the common room each evening to have a glass of wine with her friends. She had her special place on the right end of our love seat when she came to our house for family gatherings. She had more than most of us can hope for.
Nonetheless, Grandma was having trouble remembering things. She needed someone to organize her medications. A few times, she fell asleep and woke confused in the middle of the night. She had to take up a walker and was having troubles with various forms of incontinence. She still missed my grandfather terribly. She admitted to being depressed and she became prone to panic attacks. She was still enjoying life, but things were becoming difficult.
Grandma ended up in the hospital with heart and kidney trouble approximately two weeks ago. The hospital stabilized her and she went to sub-acute rehab, where she appeared to be doing well, but then she became lethargic. Suddenly on Saturday, she became largely non-responsive and she was transferred back to the acute care hospital.
There was a period of time when we all thought she would be stabilized again. Then within a matter of minutes things turned a sharp corner and the doctor was telling us there was nothing more that could be done. I’ll probably end up with a whole separate post on the process of ordering Do Not Resuscitate.
I stayed as long as I was able to that night, which was until about 1:15am. Family started gathering in the room. Despite the number of people, there was a period of time, when we were all quiet lost in our own thoughts. As I was sitting in a chair on one side holding her hand watching her breathe, I slipped into a meditative state.
In one chapter in The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I mention the difficulties I have with sitting meditation. While this has been improving with practice, I continue to find focusing on my breath to be particularly vexing. My theory of this has to do with the amount of time I spend teaching others how to use the breath for voice and recovery breathing from laryngospasm and such that my relationship to breathing is mmmmm…messed up.
During this period of time, however, surrounded by my (non-Buddhist) family I felt a deeper connection to the breath than I have ever experienced. Grandma was wearing an oxygen mask that was set to 10 litres (really high). Every inhalation was a struggle. Every breath was a tiny gasp. But it was there. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Through meditating on my grandmother’s breathing, as her body was shutting down my awareness of breath as the connection to life in the now was magnified to the point that it filled my entire consciousness. If I could have breathed for her, I would have.
My father called me at 7:00 am to let me know she had just passed. After I hung up the phone, I had this strange idea that I should have felt something when she left. What I shared with her in those minutes at her bedside were meaningful beyond what I can express. I know that in her thankfully brief suffering, she offered me a gift I can keep in my practice for many years to come.
“When you are caught up in a destructive emotion, you have lost one of your greatest assets; your independence.” (page 1)
Some days, it is difficult to accept the teaching that compassion and clarity is our true nature, while affliction and suffering (dukkha) are in fact the add ons. On one of those days, I found How to be Compassionate by the Dalai Lama. The most important lesson this book has to teach is the impracticality and futility of anger. Yet, His Holiness is nonjudgmental in terms of his arguments for letting go of afflictive emotions.
“Actions stemming solely from anger of of no use at all; realizing this can strengthen your determination to resist them.” (page 57)
He lays the blame on our attachment to the idea that we are completely independent, individuated beings. From the Dalai Lama’s perspective this is the core illusion from which all dukkha arises. The solution therefore lies in recognizing and cultivating our awareness of the fact that we are in fact interconnected with all beings. He advocates working on this daily and beginning children’s education in this reality by preschool.
“Giving anger the weapons of words and actions is like giving an unruly child a pile of straw and a box of matches.” (page 55)
As a part of this awareness, His Holiness urges us to consider that emotions we consider to be positive can be equally as capable of causing dukkha as negative ones. He outlines what he calls the eight worldly concerns: like/dislike, gain/loss, praise/blame, fame/disgrace and reminds us that even these labels represent attachment to positive and negative thinking, they are the bases for all lust and aversion and explains why most people will only feel compassion for those they are close to and who they love.
“Ordinary love and compassion are intertwined with attachment because their motivations are selfish: you care about certain people because they help you or your friends.” (page 100)
How to Be Compassionate is such a lovingly expressed book. It contains not only teachings, but suggestions for practice. These suggestions are restated in compact form at the end in a section called “Review of the Exercises”. It is a book that I know I will keep for a long time and refer back to frequently. Hopefully in time I can better absorb the core concepts and apply them when truly challenged. After all:
“Afflictive Emotions Are Based on a Mistake” (page 69)
I have a habit of wandering graveyards when I’m upset. It calms me and helps put problems in perspective. Life is short and ends too soon for most of our liking. The worries and anger that consume us now will be wiped away in the decay of time.
Far from being upsetting to me, graveyards are serene. When it comes to its residents, the struggle is over. Depending on your belief, dukkha has either ceased or transitioned to another form. In either case it has become divorced from the person who used to be, whose body now decays underground. Theirs is a past history and many more will join them in the ground in the future. So, humbled I can better focus on the present moment.
When there is some kind of problem, a graveyard also represents the collective wisdom of the life experiences of those who are interred there – kind of like a collective ancestral shrine. I can turn to any random headstone and say, “Okay, T CRANE, what would you do?” Perhaps I’ll receive insight as an answer.
Usually, it’s just silence, though. T CRANE comes back with, “Darned if I know. Figure it out for yourself.” Thanks, Dude. They put fresh flowers on your grave for that gem?
When I first learned about Tibetan charnel ground practice, I thought ewwwww! Then I thought, hmmmm… For those who don’t know, the charnel ground is a place high in the mountains where the dead are brought to be offered to the vultures. I am told they can be messy places where scattered human remains can be found randomly lying around with a smell that is less than daisy fresh. This practice came about largely because of the frozen temperatures in the highest communities in Tibet. Digging holes in the ground for burials is not an option most of the year.
There is a wonderful pictorial review of a “sky burial” here (Warning: parents review pictures before showing to your children)
The more I thought about it, I recognized that practicing in a charnel ground is really only an extension of my current practice in graveyards. The single addition is the potentially jarring presence of a disarticulated hand or eyeball to bring one back to the present moment like a visual gong. Living in America, of course, the opportunity for charnel ground practice is limited.
I’ve written previously about my reflections of A Day in Pompeii (as of this writing in Cincinnati). In one corner of the exhibit, I was brought to a startled standstill. There were two large sections of street strewn with skeletons piled on one another. This composition of human carnage was not from Pompeii, but from its nearby neighbor Herculaneum.
According to the descriptions of the artifacts, Herculaneum was somewhat closer to Mount Vesuvius and the first pyroclastic flows reached Herculaneum before reaching Pompeii. Apparently, great blasts of accelerated hot air rushed through Herculaneum, incinerating the flesh from the bodies of all in their path. The result was a sobering tableau of instant annihilation.
Flash of Bodhiccita. I think this is the closest I have come to charnel ground practice. In it resides the reflection of every human catastrophe that has been and each that is to come. Meditation on this simple fact of our fragility individually and even as a group commands me to stop my moaning and just get on with life in the present moment.
Now buy the Book!