We are all dying

JizoI have been pushing myself to finish transcribing the notes I took during the Contemplative Practice and Rituals in Service to the Dying retreat with Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, which I attended in early August at Upaya Zen Center. I didn’t used to bother transcribing notes I’d taking during Dharma teachings but then I read Dying with Confidence by Anyen Rinpoche. As I wrote in a previous blog, that book inspired me to type up my notes afterwards so that I can better internalize the teachings I’ve received. I wanted to record my impressions of the Upaya retreat while my memories were still strong and I had a better chance of interpreting my notoriously poor handwriting. I’m also leaving soon on another trip, which will bring many new experiences.

Before my trip, I wanted to write at least one more blog inspired by the retreat. I have enough material in my notes to write many more blogs; this one I wanted to be about the actual focus of the retreat – being with death and dying. I knew I would accompany the blog with the photo I took of the Upaya garden statue of Jizo, one of my favorite bodhisattvas and the one most closely associated with the deceased. I’ll have to devote some future blog to Jizo.

Writing about the death and dying teachings I received at the retreat has been very difficult, mainly because I’ve struggled to extract the teachings from the incredibly intimate environment in which they were given. Through the process of transcribing my notes, this blog emerged.

We are all dying.

That was one of the very first things Roshi Joan told our retreat group. The message was clear: this is not an arm’s length topic about something that happens to other people. This is something that happens to us. We are all in this together. When it comes to being with dying, Frank and Roshi Joan said, we are reminding each other of what we already know.

Frank said, “When I go into a room where someone is dying, I don’t know what to do – but I know the person who is dying knows.” He told us that we shouldn’t try to figure out what to do; we should find the stable place within ourselves that can be with whatever comes. We can find that place in practice.

Roshi Joan and Frank said: dying is an unpredictable, uncontrollable process that is totally trustworthy. Death is a mystery. Can you live with not knowing? Can you bear witness to whatever is? Can you become an ally of radical uncertainty?

Dying is the final phase of the art of a lifetime in a body, said Roshi Joan. It is a developmental stage, the sum of a life. It may be characterized by joy, or the opposite. We must be careful not to project our needs onto a dying person, such as our need for calm or our fear about what might happen when the dying person’s repressed unconscious begins to break through to the surface. Telling a dying person that they should exhibit dignity in death is manipulative and coercive – a way to try to control what we perceive as chaos. The most important thing we can do in the room of a dying person is to be with things as they are. That’s our dignity. As for the dying person, if they’re raging, if they’re crying – that’s okay, that’s how is. The truth is harsh sometimes, Roshi Joan said. You have to be available to whatever actually is. Death is not a clean, neat process. It doesn’t always lead to surrender. That’s ok. Just be with whatever is. Bear witness.

How do we be with dying people who are in a state of chaos or rage? By remembering that the only problem with chaos is that we’re afraid of it. Be calm, Frank said; something else is always there and you can speak to that. Have a willingness to be fearless in the face of chaos. You may have fear, but fear is not the only thing in the room. Don’t intervene to manage the chaos. Have the courage to stay with it. Stay in the room when the going gets rough.

Accompanying death engenders kindness, they told us. At the same time, Roshi Joan said, this work is not romantic. It can be unbelievably boring. It’s messy and very biological. It tries the patience. It’s also an incredible place to practice. The richest assignments are the toughest ones, Roshi Joan told us. Stay interested instead of shutting down.

Our final exercise was done as a group, performing a ritual that Frank and Roshi Joan explained and then left to us to arrange in silence and carry out per their instructions. This was exactly in accordance with what they had told us on an earlier day in the retreat: when you start a ritual, you’d better be able to get out of the way. Ritual brings forward, makes explicit, the truth of what’s already in the room. It makes the invisible visible. It has to have personal relevance. The ritual that they gave us met all of those criteria and then some.

We self-organized into three groups, each consisting of an outer circle of chairs spaced so that each chair faced towards another that was part of a smaller inner circle. We sat as pairs of people facing each other, each of us holding a copy of the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.

My actions are the ground on which I stand.

All together we started. Simultaneously around the room, first one member of each pair read the Five Remembrances while the other listened, then the other member of the pair read while the first reader listened. Once every pair in a group had finished, everyone sitting in the outer circle of chairs stood up and moved one place to the right, and the recitations began anew with the new pairs. This continued, reading and listening and listening and reading, until every person in every outer circle had gone all the way around their group.

It was amazingly powerful. The room rang out with the heartfelt recitation of these solemn words, each of us meeting the eyes of the person across from us as we read and then as we received. Each experience of the reading was different, while also part of what seemed like an endless continuum. I was in the inner, stationary, circle of chairs. I remember distinctly feeling like I was part of a live performance art piece, sitting still at a focal point as person after person sat down in front of me just long enough to share these awesome truths and to receive them from me in return.

By the time the second person sat down in front of me, I was in tears. By the fourth person, I was filled with a great joy of certainty: this is truth; this is how things really are. I’ve written about working with the Five Remembrances before; I knew the words well. And yet sitting there while what felt like the whole world passed before me, the words entered into my heart in a way they had never done before. Each person read the same ancient lines; it was their own unique voices that made old truths brand new:

We are all dying.

We are all in this together.


There is no going back

No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.

~ Wendell Berry ~


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