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For a recent Year to Live class, we were asked to bring five objects that represent the most meaningful aspects of our lives.  The task was to place these 5 things on a small altar in the classroom, where we could then explain them to our classmates.  (There’s a powerful twist to this exercise, but I’ll get to that later.)

In the days before our class, I found myself going through all of my possessions, clutching photos of friends and places, wishing the teacher had asked for 10 things instead of 5.  But being the ever-dutiful student, here’s what I came up with:

  • A photograph of my family — including my children, my parents, an aunt who is like a second mother to me, and my nieces and nephews.  It had been a perfect evening by the bay.  Everyone was healthy, and we were almost giddy about being together.
  • A photograph taken by my father-in-law of a lone apple tree which stands on their windswept property in upstate NY.  I love this gnarled tree.  The trunk is absolutely hollow, yet it supports the most incredible foliage and fruit season after season.  The photo represents a profound appreciation of nature, as well as resilience and abundance.
  • A piece of drift wood taken from the enormous message Dave left for me on the beach one morning years ago in drift wood, sea shells and pine cones:  “Barbara, will you marry me?”
  • A small clay Buddha made by one of my sons while we were on a family retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.  It symbolizes the gifts of contemplation, compassion and community that I’ve found through studying mindfulness.
  • A necklace made by desert women in North Africa.  It was given to me by a human rights activist I worked with who became a true friend.  A year ago she nearly died on a hunger strike, and I learned much about what it means to take a stand for what you believe in.  The necklace represents my work, which is fulfilling and gratifying (most of the time!) because of people like her.

On the evening of our class, we set up our small altars side by side.  I was blown away by the power of what everyone brought:  photos, baby clothing, journals, sheets of music, cherished jewelry, an onion, a note from a lover before she died.  All of it symbolizing the significance of our lives and the broader web that links us with the people and places around us.

Then came the twist. . . we were going to do a walking meditation around all of the altars, and each time we walked around we were to take one of someone else’s objects and put it under a cloth on the adjacent table.

Wait – did I hear that right?  We were going to take one of these life treasures away from someone?  And others were going to take away mine?  Yes – that was the exercise.

I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through.  The objects themselves I can live without.  But what they represent, I cannot.  If the very idea of the exercise was that painful to me, how could I inflict it on others by gathering up their things?

So we began the walking.  And the taking.  And the being taken from.  First the photograph of the apple tree vanished.  On the next rotation, the drift wood was gone, then the necklace, then the Buddha.  I also picked up objects from others and placed them as carefully as I could under the cloth.  I could hear some of my classmates quieting tears.  Mainly, I was focused on the photo of my family.  I nearly pleaded, “OK – I get the point.  Let’s just stop the whole thing here.”  In the next rotation, the picture of my family was gone.  Then the very cloth that represented the altar was gone.  I was gone.

There may be an element of  ‘you just had to be there’ to this.  But I can tell you that the experience felt like death itself.  It shook me to my core, revealed all of my attachments, and demonstrated viscerally the lesson of impermanence.  Up until that moment, I thought I was handling all of this study of death pretty well.  Now I see that I had been holding it at arm’s length, dealing with it intellectually and in words.

There’s been much for me to reflect on as a result of that class, and the lessons don’t come easily to conclusion.  But in the meditation that immediately followed the disappearance of our altars, I felt inexplicably hopeful and light.  It was as if a source of great worry had been lifted.   I wasn’t at all sure what it meant, but it seemed like a net good and I’m going to go with that.

I’d love to hear what 5 objects are most meaningful to you…

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Banksy's Beat Up Buddha

211 days remain

On my recent trip to London, I was strolling in an outdoor market with friends when one of them pulled us into a stall featuring the work of her favorite artist, Banksy.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Banksy is a graffiti artist who makes high art out of the political.  His work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the military division between Palestine and Israel.  With Banksy, there’s always at least one subversive message to be discovered.

In that market stall, so many of the 9×12 canvas reproductions of his work jumped out at me:

Ok – maybe it’s not the kind of thing you’d want hanging on your wall.  Or is it?

I picked up a canvas with Banksy’s beat up Buddha, complete with black eye, bloodied nose, neck brace and bandaged hand.  I wondered what the kids would make of this.

So I plunked down 25 pounds and bought it.

The first thing I did when I got home was to pound a nail into the empty wall behind the toilet in the bathroom and hang it.   It’s a prime piece of art real estate for the male gender, who probably spend more time staring at that space than any other, I reasoned.

And then I waited.

Evan noticed it first.  He came running out of the bathroom, “I love it,”  he shouted.

“What does it mean?”  I asked.

“Buddha picked a fight,” he said.  “It means he’s not all that you think he his.”

“Great!  Keep going,” I encouraged.

Two weeks later, I have a collection of potential meanings from our family and friends.  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, racking our brains, rolling our eyes at some interpretations, applauding others:

  • It’s a representation of the famous Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
  • A calm mind can handle the worst of human nature.
  • It’s a statement about the Chinese government invading Tibet and killing the monks.
  • It’s a statement about the Burmese government attacking monks.
  • It’s not possible to be perfect.
  • Organized religion can be a giant deception.
  • Since the original was spray painted on a wall in London and was already painted over, it shows that everything is an illusion.

I’m sure there’s a lot more that can be said (please feel free to add your interpretation), but I learned a lot from our little exercise in art appreciation.

Life can be taken sitting down, observing.  That can be a good thing.  But it can also be grabbed, interpreted, discussed, debated,  found wanting, enjoyed.  And when we take it to this level, it’s all the richer.  Life is art.

Banksy-inspired art

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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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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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331 Days Remain

The nine contemplations on death come from the 11th century Buddhist scholar, Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana.

When reviewed regularly, they are meant to help us:  a) explore the inevitability of death, and b) practice what is important in light of this mortality.

This week, I’m trying an experiment in which I read the 9 contemplations to myself before I sit for ten minutes of quiet reflection.

(“Hey,” I try to persuade myself when the going gets rough,  “It sure beats sitting in the charnel grounds.”)

1     Death is inevitable.  No one is exempt.

Holding this thought in mind, I abide in the breath.

2     Our life span is ever-decreasing.  Each breath brings us closer to death.

Holding this thought in mind, I delve deeply into its truth.

3     Death will indeed come, whether or not we are prepared.

Holding this thought in mind, I enter fully into the body of life.

4     Human life expectancy is uncertain.  Death can come at any time.

Holding this thought in mind, I am attentive to each moment.

5     There are many causes of death – even habits, desires and accidents are precipitants.

Holding this thought in mind, I consider the endless possibilities.

6     The human body is fragile and vulnerable.  Our life hangs by a breath.

Holding this thought in mind, I attend to my inhale and exhale.

7     At the time of death, material resources are of no use to us.

Holding this thought in mind, I invest wholeheartedly in practice.

8     Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.  There is no delaying its advent.

Holding this thought in mind, I exercise non-grasping.

9     Our body cannot help us at the time of death.  It too will be lost at that moment.

Holding this thought in mind, I learn to let go.

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365 Days Remain

Tonight begins my “Year to Live” journey.  Twenty-five of us are assembled in an open loft space in SoHo, sitting on black plastic folding chairs, facing the front of the room.

Robert “Chodo” Campbell, the co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, asks us to close our eyes.

In his sonorous British baritone, he instructs us to visualize ourselves going to the doctor’s office.

“Really feel yourself in that space,” he instructs.  Gravely, he begins:

“We’ve got the results of your blood work and the scan, and I’m afraid it’s worse than we thought.  You have, at most, 12 months to live.  Go home and put all of your affairs in order.  The nurse can call someone to come and pick you up.  You can stay here as long as you need and collect your thoughts.”

I feel my palms getting moist.  Would my doctor really say, “Go home and put all of your affairs in order,” I wonder.  I’d like to think he’s got more soul than that.

What would he say?  “Go home and be with Dave and the boys.”  That’s better.  Dave and the boys are a hell of a lot more comforting than my “affairs.”

Chodo rings the large gong at his feet, and we slowly open our eyes.  Then he asks us to think about a couple of things.

  • Who will you tell?

Dave.  I’d have the nurse call Dave right away.

My mom and dad?  I wonder.  My dad recently turned 80, and my mom is in her late 70s.  They’d need to know, but not right away.

The boys?  This is unimaginable.  How do you break such news to a 9 and a 6-year old?

My brothers and sisters-in-law.  Yes, I can do that.  I need their support.

Susan, Deb, Joy, the Lisa’s…  My list of friends grows and starts arranging itself neatly in my mind.  I feel a bit of relief.

  • What does this change for you?

Wow.  It’s immediately apparent.  “I’ve got to get off FaceBook and email,” I say to myself with certainty.  Superficial, I know.  But it’s a start.

It’s clear that I’ll need all of my remaining days to think about these things.  I’m grateful that the Year to Live program gives me that chance.  Judging by the reaction of my friends, most people would rather re-do the SATs before putting themselves through a course like this.

As the evening winds to a close, seven of us jam ourselves silently into the tiny elevator.  Before we hit the lobby, we stop at the 3rd floor where a woman moves to get in.  Seeing that it’s full, she backs away with a start.

“I guess she doesn’t want to be with 6 dying people,” I quip as the doors close.

A classmate behind me says softly, “But there are 7 of us.”

“I wasn’t counting myself,” I respond.  Full denial has already set in.

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