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To the degree we can embrace our mortality rather than deny it, we can live that much more completely and joyfully.

– Dean Ornish, MD

Some time has passed since my Year to Live project came to an end, but my interest in reflecting on death as a way of truly living continues on.  I’m happy to recommend a book called Enjoy Every Sandwich to anyone else who isn’t afraid of the conversation!

A quick read, Enjoy Every Sandwich is a spiritual memoir written by Lee Lipsenthal, a young physician who learns he is dying of esophageal cancer.  It reads a lot like Tuesdays With Morrie, flowing with insight and the beauty of human connection.

Here are my main take-aways:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Angel Orensanz Synagogue, Lower East Side

Dearest Friends,

For nearly two months now, I’ve completely neglected my Year to Live project.  Dead silence on my part.  I got so out of the habit of writing this blog that I had to root through piles of paper to even find the password to log in.

I feel like I owe you an explanation. . .  I was just out there in the world, living ferociously.

In that time  I indulged my wanderlust and set off for the mountains and any body of water I could find.  I hiked in an old growth forest in Oregon with one of my closest friends, her daughter and my littlest guy.  We rafted down a river in the high desert and slipped our bodies into soothing natural hot springs.    I skipped rocks on a glass-surfaced lake in Maine with my husband, ate wild blueberries on a trail in the White Mountains, was chased by a flock of migrating shorebirds on a protected island off Massachusetts, and strained to see a whale (a whale!) off the coast of New Jersey.

I think the complete surrender into what I value most in life was exactly what I needed after thinking about mortality so deeply month after month.

But here’s the thing:  there came a time when I longed to be grounded once again in the reality of my everyday life.  The familiar messiness. These very piles of paper.  My work.  The cacophony of street noises on my New York block.  The personalities that drive me to distraction.

I came to remember that there truly is a season for everything.  That it was time to bid farewell to a memorable summer and to greet whatever life has in store for me this fall.

Which brings me to Yom Kippur.  Today is the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar.  For twenty years, I’ve been observing this holiday in solidarity with my husband.  What I didn’t recognize until someone in my Year to Live class pointed it out, is that one interpretation of the day is that it is a “rehearsal for death.”  My classmate  Diane said – crediting Rabbi Shefa Gold also:

Yom Kippur is a day when Jews fast from food and drink, from sex, from anointing themselves, from washing, and wearing leather – all as a way to detach ourselves from the physical body and to have the experience of the nakedness of our existence.  Many Jews wear a “kittel” a full length, white garment which is the dress (shroud) that many Jews are buried in.

During the entire period, we act as if this day were our last, “our only day to face the Truth, forgive ourselves and each other, remember who we are and why we were born.  Yom Kippur reminds us that we are all dying.  There is no time for regret, worry, fear, no time to put off facing the truth, or to delay thanking our beloveds.”  Each moment takes on an urgency, and like each encounter with death we are urged into the fullness of living.

It is not morbid however because it is predicated on the hope of the New Year and the opportunity to live life to its fullest.  It is a day of death so that there can be a new life.

Last night, as a single violin resonated Kol Nidre throughout our historic synagogue, candles flickering from every hanging chandelier and – improbably – a striking long-haired cat wandering around the altar, I gave thanks to the universe for the life I’ve been so lucky to lead and vowed to try not to take it for granted.  I silently rededicated myself to bringing awareness to my deeds and to living with compassion for others and for myself.

An important part of this past year has been writing to all of you, and I do hope you’ll continue to join me in this journey.  Echoing the words of my classmate, I wish you all a good and sweet year and a year of insight,  loving-kindness and peace.

All my very best,

Barbara

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

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240 days remain

There should be a rule against writing about meditation retreats immediately after they’re over.

In those first hours and days post-retreat, it’s as if I’m experiencing the world through a fresh set of eyes.  The cosmos have aligned.  Nothing could be a problem.  It also smacks of a certain smugness.

Take my first retreat.   Right after it was over, I went to the parking lot with the kindly woman who offered to drive me to Albany.  One of her tires was completely flat and her battery was dead.  It took a couple hours to work that out. Then, worried about her flimsy spare, she proceeded to drive 40 mph on the interstate for 4 hours.  After that, we went the wrong way and ended up yet another hour behind my designated rendezvous with Dave.  All the while we smiled knowingly.  “Life as it is, not as you want it to be,” we kept quoting our teacher.

Ever since I returned from my latest retreat, I’ve been keeping a list of  great things I wanted to tell you.  Like how I went for walks in the woods behind the retreat center each morning and discovered a forest full of pink Lady’s Slippers – wild orchids so vulnerable that I’d only ever seen one once before in my life.  I was going to draw parallels to life and tell you how wonderful it all is.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are so many beautiful things to say about the time I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge.  But one week post-retreat, the story looks different.

I’ve been reminded of the truly hard stuff over and over again in the past few days.   A 24 year old man who had once worked at Dave’s office was shot to death in the middle of the afternoon on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant.   Someone dear to me is struggling to control Lupus.  A young mom in the neighborhood has been diagnosed with an advanced stage breast cancer.  A photo of our 5th grade class posted on Facebook caused an avalanche of childhood friends writing with memories of our classmate who died of a brain aneurysm, and of the friend’s parents who were killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver.

As if these things weren’t enough of a reminder of death, I used my date night with Dave on Friday to explore a new exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures”at one of my favorite places in NY, the Rubin Museum of Art.   We spent an hour looking at ancient ritual objects made out of human bones and haunting depictions of charnel grounds.  The only thing I could think at the end was, “My god, my husband is really a trooper for agreeing to this macabre idea of a night out.

I’m doing all I can this week to soak it all in and watch the ever-changing flow of accompanying emotions without following any one of them down a fantastical Rabbit Hole.

To do this, I’ve blocked out a chunk of time – 45 minutes or so – each day to sit down on a cushion and just watch.  It’s so much harder at home than it is on retreat.  But this is the heart of mindfulness, the “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” kind of stuff as Jack Kornfield so aptly calls it.  He wrote in his book of that name:

We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom, not the sure heart’s release.

Ordinary cycles of opening and closing are necessary medicine for our heart’s integration. In some cases, though, there are not just cycles, there is a crash. As far as we ascend, so far can we fall. This too needs to be included in our maps of spiritual life, honored as one more part of the great cycle.

If it’s the one thing I gleaned from the past two weeks, I’d say it’s a decent start.

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The Forest Refuge in Barre, MA

The Forest Refuge in Barre, MA

259 days remain

Finding time for quiet contemplation.

When I sat down to write a priority list for my last year to live project, I quickly scribbled “make time for silent reflection” right near the top.

Call it the No-Atheists-in-Foxholes Theory.  Or blame it on my being a Pisces.  But whatever the reason, I feel so strongly about the power of contemplative practices that I’ve rearranged heaven and earth to clear my work schedule and recruit friends/family/babysitters to watch the kids while I head out of town for a 10-day silent meditation retreat.  As of Friday afternoon, I’ll be meditating in the hall pictured here.

The truth is that I first came to meditation several years back, feeling weary to the core.  While seemingly everyone around me was starting a family of their own, difficulties with pregnancy and heartbreaking miscarriages had left me feeling battered and limp, like all the joy had been sucked out of living.  Nothing in my life had prepared me for feeling that low.

Then one day I saw a flyer for a program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine called “Universal Meditation Masters:  A Conference on Meditation from Five Faith Perspectives.” It must have been the word “universal” that caught my eye.  For as long as I can remember, I had rebelled against the idea of there being one chosen faith.   (“How could millions of people tell billions of others that what they believe is wrong?” I remember indignantly  – and quite tactlessly – questioning my poor mother from the back seat of our Buick wagon as we drove home from church one morning.)  If there was something that all major faith traditions could agree on, I needed to hear about it.

The 3-day program blew my mind.  Here was the Benedictine monk Father Laurence Freeman; the head of the Sufi Order of Islam in the west Pir Vilayat; the Buddhist nun Sister Annabel Laity; Reconstructionist Rabbi Marcia Prager; and the founder of Integral Yoga, Sri Swami Satchidananda.

I recently found my aging notebook from that restorative weekend.  They had spoken about kindness, forgiveness, equality, calm, simplicity, presence, compassion.  About how our very wounds can be the gateway to new beginnings if we choose to see them as such.  Most of all, they had all agreed that time spent in quiet reflection can be utterly transformative.

Fortunately for me, New York City is a very easy place to learn to meditate.  In the midst of all the hustle, there are meditation centers of all stripes.  I pretty much tried them all, finally alighting on the non-sectarian vipassana meditation as the one most in sync with my disposition.

All these years later, what do I get out of meditation?

I think one of the most important things I take from it is a keen awareness that there are no hierarchies of moments.  Being outside with the kids on a beautiful beach day when we’re all happy is totally equal to the moment when I’m rushing frantically through the driving rain on my way to the subway so I can get to a meeting on time.  Hard to explain.  But if I can remember that, life seems so much more vibrant a lot of the time.

I also feel that meditation helps me remember that there’s a vast, calm reservoir right below the surface that I can get in touch with at any point, as long as I remember to check in.  Mainly, meditation reminds me that everything is workable.  Every stressful situation, every difficult person.

That’s not to say that I now have it “all figured out” — far, far from it!  But meditation feels like the key to something.  I have no idea yet what it unlocks, but I found a tool that works for me, and I’m continuously humbled by it.

Before I go silent on you for 10 days, I thought I’d share this wonderful poem by Wes Nisker.  Be well, everyone!!


Why I Meditate (After Allen Ginsberg)

I meditate because I suffer. I suffer, therefore I am. I am, therefore I meditate.

I meditate because there are so many other things to do.

I meditate because when I was younger it was all the rage.

I meditate because Siddhartha Gautama, Bodhidharma, Marco Polo, the British Raj, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Alfred E Neuman, et al.

I meditate because I have all the information I need.

I meditate because the largest colonies of living beings, the coral reefs, are dying.

I meditate because I want to touch into deep time, where the history of humanity can be seen as just an evolutionary adjustment period.

I meditate because evolution gave me a big brain, but it didn’t come with an instruction manual.

I meditate because life is too short and sitting slows it down.

I meditate because life is too long and I need an occasional break.

I meditate because I want to experience the world as Rumi did, or Walt Whitman, or as Mary Oliver does.

I meditate because now I know that enlightenment doesn’t exist, so I can relax.

I meditate because of the Dalai Lama’s laugh.

I meditate because there are too many advertisements in my head, and I’m erasing all but the very best of them.

I meditate because the physicists say there may be eleven dimensions to reality, and I want to get a peek into a few more of them.

I meditate because I’ve discovered that my mind is a great toy and I like to play with it.

I meditate because I want to remember that I’m perfectly human.

Sometimes I meditate because my heart is breaking.

Sometimes I meditate so that my heart will break.

I meditate because a Vedanta master once told me that in Hindi my name, Nis-ker, means “non-doer.”

I meditate because I’m growing old and want to become more comfortable with emptiness.

I meditate because Robert Thurman called it an “evolutionary sport,” and I want to be on the home team.

I meditate because I’m composed of 100 trillion cells, and from time to time, I need to reassure them that we’re all in this together.

I meditate because it’s such a relief to spend time ignoring myself.

I meditate because my country spends more money on weapons than on all other nations in the world combined.  If I had more courage, I’d probably immolate myself.

I meditate because I want to discover the fifth Brahma-vihara, the Divine Abode of Awe, and then I’ll go down in history as a great spiritual adept.

I meditate because I’m building myself a bigger and better perspective, and occasionally I need a new window.

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This week I bring you two heads-up pennies that I gathered along my way.

  • The first is a letter about an encounter with a woman who was “too mean to die”  from my friend Kathleen,  a volunteer hospice worker.    It’s a great reminder to begin again when life gets the better of us.
  • Second, a poem by Mary Oliver that we read  in our Year to Live class .  I’m told that Mary Oliver lives on the tip of Cape Cod and draws inspiration from long walks along the beaches and salt ponds.

Wishing you time to muse this week as you stroll along under the open sky!

Letter from Kathleen

Your recent hitting the restart button post and the premise of one year left to live reminded me of a hospice patient I once had.

When the volunteer coordinator called me, she said she had a woman who was “too mean to die” and that she trusted that I was the right person for her.  (They used to send me all the “hardest” and “most unusual” cases!)

With that introduction, I left with an open heart and open mind, intending not to judge, but send loving energy to her.

She was the most miserable, unlikable, complaining, woman I have met!  She was staying with her granddaughter, who had escaped to Florida for a break, leaving behind her husband who needed to study for an exam.  She made his life pure hell!

She complained that the hangers in her closet were not hers and that other people had taken hers.  She wanted me to rearrange the furniture in her bedroom. When I told her that I was the volunteer and didn’t move furniture around, she demanded to know why I had come if I was going to be worthless!

When the nurse came, the woman went into the bathroom and wouldn’t come out.  When she finally did, the nurse examined her, changed the bandages on her legs, with the woman telling her how to do it all along the way.

When the nurse left, she cut off the bandages and called for the grandson to re-do them another way.  She complained about how he did it to!

This kind of thing went on and on all day… but I kept to my plan of open heart/open mind.

At the end of the day, I was putting her into her bed, and she looked up at me and told me this:  

Every day I go into the bathroom and look in the mirror and promise myself that I will be nice to everyone today, and I try very hard….but I find myself not being nice…..so I go back into the bathroom and look again into the mirror and start again! and again, and again…

My eyes filled with tears and I embraced her and told her that God knew what was in her heart and that was all that counted.

She was not too mean to die, she was refusing to die until she could be nice for one full day.

Talk about restarting!

When Death Comes

Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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279 Days Remain

I used to have a neighbor who would yell at her young children a lot.

I would listen to her voice reverberating through the thin walls of our building and vow that if I ever had kids, I would never do that.  Plain and simple.

Fast forward a decade plus and  – well, you can guess where this is going!

I’m the first to admit that even the thought of this being my last year does not exempt me from getting hot under the collar more than I’d like.

I’ve been reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying lately, and Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings resonate with me when he says:

Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die.  And everything, absolutely everything, counts.

In other words, I don’t get a pass for being an overtired/overworked mom.

Because resigning myself to my habits and the parade of excuses that go along with them is a giant cop-out, I’m trying really hard to look precisely at how my mind works these days.

Meditation is very helpful for this.  As is noticing when I’m headed off-kilter and saying to myself, “Begin again.”

My husband calls this hitting the restart button.  Which basically means that at any point in time — whether you are about to lose it or have already made some kind of mistake as a parent or a person — you get to notice it and have a new start in the next moment.

We talk about our restart buttons frequently in our family.  It’s a way of showing the kids that we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be better.  And it teaches them the meaning of resilience and the importance of making new choices when things aren’t going right.

The hope born out of having a fresh start at any moment – no matter how big the failing – holds all kinds of possibility for me.  It can be done over and over again ad infinitum.  It reminds me that whatever you do with your mind repeatedly becomes your mind’s habit, and it will rediscover its own original calm nature.

Of course, it helps to approach the restart button with some compassion towards yourself, as Sharon Salzberg says of meditation in this article in the Shambhala Sun:

Even if I’m teaching people just to be with the breath, my emphasis is that the critical moment in the practice is the moment we realize we’ve been distracted. We have a phenomenal ability to begin again—when we’ve gone off somewhere, we can begin again. And in that moment of beginning again, we can be practicing loving-kindness and forgiveness and patience and letting go.

This week I wanted to share a short piece of inspiration by Portia Nelson, who funnily enough, was most famous for playing the role of Sister Berthe in “The Sound of Music”…

AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN FIVE SHORT CHAPTERS

Chapter I

I walk down the street.  There is a hole in the sidewalk.  I fall in.  I am lost.  I am helpless.  It isn’t my fault.  It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I pretend I don’t see it.  I fall in again.  I can’t believe I am in the same place.  But it isn’t my fault.  It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I see it is there.  I still fall in.  It’s a habit.  My eyes are open.  I know where I am.  It is my fault.  I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.  There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.  I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

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If you can spare 10 minutes, take a look at this beautiful video about the organization co-founded by one of my Year to Live teachers, Robert Chodo Campbell.  (He and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara of the Village Zendo facilitate our monthly sessions.)

To Rose, the woman who allowed the filmmakers to capture her final days, three bows.

Simply click on this link:

NEW YORK ZEN CENTER FOR CONTEMPLATIVE CARE

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My friend Ibrahima does not know which day or year he was born.

He came into this world in Guinea, West Africa, where his native language Mandinko had no written form until very recently.  To obtain a passport, he had to approximate how old he was and select a day that felt right to him.  (Ibrahima’s amazing account is here.)

I find his story so refreshing.  When he first told me, we were sitting in the playground on a warm afternoon watching our children run and climb.  It got me wondering how artificial dates can be and how much we allow them to rule our lives, right from the start.

Try as we may, it’s hard not to attach meaning to holidays like New Years Eve and Mother’s Day.  The list goes on:  the year we lost our first tooth, the year we graduated from college, the year we will retire.   We even vaguely anticipate how long we’ll live judging from the life expectancy statistics of men and women in our country.

All of these dates contribute to a feeling that we’re almost entitled to something, to the idea that life will work out just so, in an organized manner and time-frame.

Today is my birthday and I’m feeling a sense of rawness.  I’m amazed by the avocado plant flourishing in our window which we have tended since it was a pit.   I’m in awe of the parent in my son’s first grade class who taught the kids how to bind little hard cover books, complete with pop ups and secret compartments.  I’m grateful that a little bird picked our ledge on which to build her nest, of all the ledges in New York City that she had to choose from.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing special about being awakened by my three serenading guys dressed in crazy birthday hats.  Or that I’m not looking forward to a birthday date with Dave.

But I’m pretty convinced that there’s a simple beauty in every day.  And it’s ours for the noticing.

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317 Days Remain

These are the words that we have printed out, hung by our desks, posted on sticky notes on our fridges.

Thanks to everyone who sent me quotes, poems and sayings that keep them going and provide inspiration in their lives.

If you have another one, please add it to the comment area!

Success by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.

– Meister Eckhart

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

– Eleanor Roosevelt

The secret to life is to die before you die and find there’s nothing to be afraid of.

– Eckhart Tolle

For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.

– William Penn

Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy? Of what relevance to an individual is such a statistic? Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised? Must I check off each day of my life as if I am subtracting from this imaginary hoard? No, on the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived. And with each day, my treasure will grow, not diminish.

– Robert Brault

The fear of death follows from the fear of life.  A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time

– Mark Twain

I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

– Walt Whitman

There are only two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.

–  Albert Einstein

If you judge people, you have no time to love.

– Mother Teresa

Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  And today?  Today is a gift.  That’s why we call it the present.

– Babatunde Olatunji

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.

– Anna Quindlen

Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.

-Louis Hector Berlioz

Do something that nobody else has done, something that will dazzle the world.  Show that God’s creative principle works in you.

-Yogananda

Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.

– Abraham Heschel

There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.

– Buddha

A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.

– Hugh Downs

How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?
– Henry David Thoreau

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321 Days Remain

Like unexpected money found in last season’s coat pocket, I discovered a scrap of paper in my wallet this morning.

It’s a quote I must have torn out of a magazine and tucked away for a rainy day, by Charlotte Joko Beck.

On this gray day that’s neither winter nor spring, when my mood seems to match the weather, I’m glad to have found it.

Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment.

This includes

every mosquito,

every misfortune,

every red light,

every traffic jam,

every obnoxious supervisor (or employee),

every illness,

every loss,

every moment of joy or depression,

every addiction,

every piece of garbage,

every breath.

This gets me thinking of my wise friend Dana.  When I start complaining about various and sundry things/situations/people in life, she likes to say, “What’s the gift in this?

The question always takes me by surprise, followed quickly by irritation at the seeming Pollyanna-ness of articulating an answer.

But sometimes I can catch the shadow of a teacher and a vague feeling of hopefulness.

The big question for the Last Year to Live is, of course, can I learn to accept even mortality itself as a teacher?

And how to do that?

Only by parceling down situations into minuscule moments, and then even further.  Breath by breath.  Atom by atom.

By the way, if you don’t know Charlotte Joko Beck, I’m very pleased to be making the introduction!   It was only around age 40 that this mom of four — newly separated from her husband and working as a teacher and a secretary — began meditating.

She went on to write  one of the most engaging books I’ve read about living fully in the face of the pesky challenges of daily living — relationships, work, fear, ambition, and suffering.

I love the interaction she had with an interviewer for this article:

Donna Rockwell: I read your books.

Charlotte Joko Beck: Oh you read. Well, give up reading, O.K.?

Donna Rockwell: Give up reading your books?

Charlotte Joko Beck: Well, they’re all right. Read them once and that’s enough. Books are useful. But some people read for fifty years, you know. And they haven’t begun their practice.

That said, I’m signing off to get on with it.  Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!



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