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Last month my year to live journey came to an end.

For nearly one year, a small group of us met each month at the Village Zendo in New York to discuss mortality and to think constructively about how we might go about living our lives if we truly had just one year to live.

I documented my thoughts throughout the year in this blog.  What I did not write about was the all-too-real end-of-life journey of my earliest childhood friend Marisa, who was courageously facing metastatic cancer while I went about my hypothetical journey.

On the night of November 17, our class did a “dissolution of the body” meditation — a guided exercise used by Tibetan lamas to prepare people for the journey of death and beyond.   I’d be pretty hard-pressed to tell you what it was like because right at the point when our teacher said, “Resist the temptation to fall asleep,” I fell promptly asleep.

But that’s not the important thing.  Five days later, Marisa passed away.

In my grayest moments, I’ve dismissed my own year to live process as frivolous because I am, as much as any of us can claim, healthy.

Then I remember the last time I visited Marisa.  We laughed about the silly details of our childhoods together, like how we let our brothers con us into racing their dirt bikes off a ramp, flying through the air over us (a la Evel Knievel) while we lay completely flat on the asphalt.  And the great trips our families took together involving rented beach shacks and RV trailers.

“It’s hard to come up with a memory from childhood that doesn’t include you guys,” she smiled.

With a lot of hard-earned wisdom under her belt, Marisa posted on Facebook in June: “9 years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I’ve seen my share of ups and downs over the years but I seem to only really remember the ups.  The downs will come and go – no reason to get stuck on them.  But the ups, those are the memories you keep forever.”

Of course, “forever” is a relative term.  Marisa’s ups are now my ups.  And maybe someday my own children will remember parts of the stories and her ups will be theirs.  But eventually it all fades into some ethereal mystery.

Still, I like her view of things — if we can put the things we’re grateful for into some kind of internal treasure box to look back upon sometimes (all things in moderation, of course), we’d probably be doing ourselves a world of good.

I can imagine that burying a child of any age has to be the most painful act of all.  I’ve heard many people question faith and god in these circumstances.  Allow me to share a passage from one of the best books on dying I read all year (and believe me, I read my fair share of them!).

“Here If You Need Me” by Kate Braestrup is the autobiography of the chaplain for the Maine game warden who herself was widowed with four young children when her husband – a state trooper – was killed in a car accident.  I’ve read and re-read this passage many times:

My children asked me, “Why did Dad die?”

I told them, “It was an accident.  There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table.  And there are large accidents, like the one your dad was in.  No one meant it to happen.  It just happened.  And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it anymore, and so he died.

“God does not spill milk.  God did not bash the truck into your father’s car.  Nowhere in the scripture does it say, ‘God is car accident’ or ‘God is death.’  God is justice and kindness, mercy, and always – always – love.  So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love.”

I’ve been looking for love everywhere.  I saw it in my fellow classmates and our teachers at the Zendo this year.  I saw it in heartfelt comments on this blog.   I saw it played out in my own family.  I saw it in the acts of complete strangers on our trip overseas.  I saw it in the hugs and stories shared at Marisa’s funeral.

I’ve got a year’s worth of learnings, sayings and little nuggets I could end with.  I think, though, I’m going to leave it with this.  If you find wisdom in it, please use it to inform your own journey.  And please keep me posted!

Every day in Zen temples around the world, the following verse marks the close of the day’s ceremonies:

Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.  Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.  Each of us must strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take heed, do not squander your lives.

May our paths cross again soon,

Barbara

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photo by D Sharon Pruitt

Friends,

Unbelievably, I’ve arrived at the end of the Year to Live project.  While I had originally thought our final class would take place in January 2011 – 364 days from when we started — it will draw to a close this Wednesday evening instead.

(Our teachers harbored no secret agenda in ending the class early.  No not-too-subtle message about the unpredictability of it all.  It was truly just a scheduling issue.)

I’ve learned from others that the “dissolution of the body” meditation which symbolically ends the class is a powerful one.  Frankly, I’m scared of it.  One person I know who experienced it said that this exercise is so visceral that he actually lost control of some, ah, bodily function when he did it.  So – yes – there are many reasons to be resisting all of this!

Someone asked our teacher, a hospice chaplain, about the main regrets people share on their death beds.  Number one, our teacher answered, is that they wish they’d said “I love you” more often.  Number two is that they wish they’d taken more vacation.  That’s it.  We’re pretty simple creatures when it comes right down to it.

In homage to love and appreciation of the journey, I’d like to share a passage I’ve been thinking about over and over again for the past several weeks.  It’s from the book “About Alice” by Calvin Trillin honoring his late wife:

Once, for the program at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp [a camp for children with cancer and blood diseases] gala, some volunteer counselors contributed short passages about their experiences at camp, and Alice wrote about one of the campers, a sunny little girl she called L.

At camp, Alice had a tendency to gravitate toward the child who needed the most help, and L. was one of those.

“Last summer, the camper I got closest to, L., was a magical child who was severely disabled,” Alice wrote.  “She had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food.  She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart a lot.  We both liked that.”

“One day, when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind her and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle.  It took her a while to make the circuit, and I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom.  Then I did something truly awful, which I’m reluctant now to reveal.  I decided to read the note.  I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.”

“I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on the sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L., we would only have chosen you.'”

“Before L. got back to her place in the circle, I showed the note to Bud, who was sitting next to me. ‘ Quick. Read this,’ I whispered.  ‘It’s the secret of life.'”

Let me thank you all, once again, for sticking with me throughout!

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By now, 20 years after first meeting him, my husband Dave has come to accept the out-of-the-ordinary plans I make for our occasional nights on the town.

Last month, for instance, he didn’t raise an eyebrow when I asked him to come with me to an exhibit called “Remember That You Will Die:  Death Across Cultures.”

Nor did he make a fuss when I told him that I wanted to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary yesterday by waiting in a long line on a steamy New York City evening to get a hug from Amma.

“Ok,” he agreed.  (I love this man.)  “But who is Amma?”

Amma, otherwise known as the “Hugging Saint,” is an Indian woman — a divine spirit by some accounts — who is said to have the power to transmit a spark of unconditional love and compassion through her embrace (darshan). She receives thousands of people on her trips around the world, sometimes going for 22 hours without interruption until each and every person who has come to see her has been hugged.  In over 36 years, she has hugged 30 million people.  When Amma was last in New York, people I know and respect for their healthy cynicism of mass spiritualism claimed to have felt an indescribable sense of peace and transcendence after receiving darshan.

Amma is also a highly regarded humanitarian, setting up charitable hospitals, hospices, disaster relief programs, orphanages and schools around the world.  This year, she received an honorary doctorate for her work from the State University of New York (SUNY).

Since I’m in the middle of my Year to Live project and spirituality has emerged as a major theme, I felt that getting a little extra hug along this path couldn’t hurt.  People came from all around the country to stand in line to see her; surely I could travel 40 blocks.

Here’s what happened:

3pm – I finish up work, turn off the computer and head outside for the subway.  “God damn, it’s hot!” a shirtless teen howls on the street as he exits the Burger King on Delancey.  It’s 102 degrees – an all time record for this day.

5pm – I’ve been standing on line at 34th Street for over an hour and a half.  There are about 100 people in front of me, and hundreds more behind me on a line that stretches nearly a full city avenue.  Sweat streams from the back of my neck to my sandaled feet.  Volunteers dressed in white with red sashes hand out cups of water.  Mainly, the crowd seems excited.

Then I hear the news – you cannot pick up a token for a hug for someone who is not now on line.  This means that Dave will not be able to get into the event, which doesn’t bode well for our anniversary night.

I reach him at the office.  “”Listen,” he says.  “You’ve wanted to do this since you first heard about it.  I’d be upset if you didn’t do it.  Go for it.  I love you, and we’ll pick another night to celebrate.  Honestly, it’s OK.”  With Dave, I know he doesn’t say something like that unless he means it, so I tell him I love him too and stay put where I am on line.  (Did I mention that I love this man?)

7:00pm – I’m in the main hall of the Manhattan Center.  There are probably 500 of us seated on the carpeted floor in front of the stage.   Well over a thousand fill the balconies behind us.

The man seated next to me introduces himself as Uncle Charlie.  He’s here because he is in some sort of legal dispute with his landlord and needs a blessing for his court appearance on Friday.

A woman to my left is a former interior designer to the rich and famous.  When she first met Amma, she had the realization that she needed to quit her job and do charitable work instead.  Now she’s helping design a hospital for the poor.

If I read People magazine more, I’d be able to name  the actress seated on a chair off to the side.

7:30pm – Suddenly, and without much fanfare, Amma enters the stage.  She is throwing rose petals in front of her as she walks.  Devotees clean her feet.

Now she is sitting on a small riser, a translator at her side.  She is a fantastic storyteller.  She tells us about a professor who invites all of his students to his home for coffee.  On the coffee table are cups of fine china and plastic mugs.  The students help themselves.  When the professor looks around, he sees that all of them have chosen the fine china for themselves instead of the plastic.  The lesson?  Life is the coffee, the cup is your circumstances.  Don’t be concerned about whether your circumstances are china or plastic.  Worry only about what goes inside.

There are other tales of Olympic runners, fashionable sunglasses, airplane flights.  The messages are always:

1) Don’t waste a single second of this precious life

2) Meditate and be concerned first and foremost about your spiritual life

3) Do good deeds and speak kind words

4) Be grateful for all of the blessings in your life, large and small

5) Love begins in the family.  When you return home after work, drop the work role.  At home you are coming back to real life, and you should move from your head into your heart.

We’re all given little plastic containers of water that has been blessed by Amma and are told it has healing properties.  I save it for later.

10:30pm – I’ve passed the hours since Amma’s talk eating an incredible vegetarian meal of dhal, chapatis, rice and curry served by her followers in the basement of the Manhattan Center.  There’s also a  group of musicians playing devotional music, and a market in the back of the main hall where devotees sell photos of Amma and t-shirts that say OM.

Finally, my token section is called to the front to wait for our darshan.  Everything starts moving quickly.  We take off our shoes, leave our bags behind, and climb onto the Persian rug adorned stage.  Amma’s helpers hand us tissues to wipe our foreheads and temples.

Uncle Charlie, who has just had his hug, is sobbing.  Others walk away beaming.  One woman looks disoriented and shaky.

And then, all of the sudden, Amma in front of me.  I’m told to kneel.  Amma looks at me, smiles and pulls me into her chest.  She puts her lips right to my ear and says, “My Dola, My Dola, My Dola, My Dola.”  It takes me a while to understand that she’s really saying, “My Daughter, My Daughter…”  I find it vaguely pleasant.

Seconds later, one of the people in white pulls me away.  Amma hands me a Hershey’s Kiss wrapped in a rose petal, and I’m directed off the stage.

10:45 pm As I leave the building, I eat my chocolate and drink my little container of water (being careful to save some for Dave), reflecting on what has happened.  The sky hasn’t opened for me, though I don’t doubt that others were feeling it.  But I admire what Amma stands for in this broken world.  And intimate connection with others – through a smile, a hug and comforting words whispered right up close – is something we all could use more of.

There’s still a long line outside waiting for their turn in Amma’s arm.  As for me, I’m headed home to hug the person who is most dear to me on this special day.

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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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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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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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This essay was written by a 17-year old in 1938.  It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 6.    It’s a passionate look at the 5 things the young man wants from life before he dies …

  1. Doing something truly great
  2. Friendship
  3. Travel
  4. Love
  5. And – yes – even sorrow

Before I Die

By Edmund N. Carpenter, II

The following essay was written by Edmund N. Carpenter, age 17, in June 1938 while he was a student in Lawrenceville, N.J. Carpenter would go on to win the Bronze Star for his service in World War II and to a civilian career as an attorney. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he became president of Richards, Layton & Finger, a law firm. He died on Dec. 19, 2008 at age 87 and is survived by six children and 15 grandchildren:

It may seem very strange to the reader that one of my tender age should already be thinking about that inevitable end to which even the paths of glory lead. However, this essay is not really concerned with death, but rather with life, my future life. I have set down here the things which I, at this age, believe essential to happiness and complete enjoyment of life. Some of them will doubtless seem very odd to the reader; others will perhaps be completely in accord with his own wishes. At any rate, they compose a synopsis of the things which I sincerely desire to have done before I leave this world and pass on to the life hereafter or to oblivion.

Before I die I want to know that I have done something truly great, that I have accomplished some glorious achievement the credit for which belongs solely to me. I do not aspire to become as famous as a Napoleon and conquer many nations; but I do want, almost above all else, to feel that I have been an addition to this world of ours. I should like the world, or at least my native land, to be proud of me and to sit up and take notice when my name is pronounced and say, “There is a man who has done a great thing.” I do not want to have passed through life as just another speck of humanity, just another cog in a tremendous machine. I want to be something greater, far greater than that. My desire is not so much for immortality as for distinction while I am alive. When I leave this world, I want to know that my life has not been in vain, but that I have, in the course of my existence, done something of which I am rightfully very proud.

Before I die I want to know that during my life I have brought great happiness to others. Friendship, we all agree, is one of the best things in the world, and I want to have many friends. But I could never die fully contented unless I knew that those with whom I had been intimate had gained real happiness from their friendship with me. Moreover, I feel there is a really sincere pleasure to be found in pleasing others, a kind of pleasure that can not be gained from anything else. We all want much happiness in our lives, and giving it to others is one of the surest ways to achieve it for ourselves.

Before I die I want to have visited a large portion of the globe and to have actually lived with several foreign races in their own environment. By traveling in countries other than my own I hope to broaden and improve my outlook on life so that I can get a deeper, and more complete satisfaction from living. By mixing the weighty philosophy of China with the hard practicalism of America, I hope to make my life fuller. By blending the rigid discipline of Germany with the great liberty in our own nation I hope to more completely enjoy my years on this earth. These are but two examples of the many things which I expect to achieve by traveling and thus have a greater appreciation of life.

Before I die there is another great desire I must fulfill, and that is to have felt a truly great love. At my young age I know that love, other than some filial affection, is probably far beyond my ken. Yet, young as I may be, I believe I have had enough inkling of the subject to know that he who has not loved has not really lived. Nor will I feel my life is complete until I have actually experienced that burning flame and know that I am at last in love, truly in love. I want to feel that my whole heart and soul are set on one girl whom I wish to be a perfect angel in my eyes. I want to feel a love that will far surpass any other emotion that I have ever felt. I know that when I am at last really in love then I will start living a different, better life, filled with new pleasures that I never knew existed.

Before I die I want to feel a great sorrow. This, perhaps, of all my wishes will seem the strangest to the reader. Yet, is it unusual that I should wish to have had a complete life? I want to have lived fully, and certainly sorrow is a part of life. It is my belief that, as in the case of love, no man has lived until he has felt sorrow. It molds us and teaches us that there is a far deeper significance to life than might be supposed if one passed through this world forever happy and carefree. Moreover, once the pangs of sorrow have slackened, for I do not believe it to be a permanent emotion, its dregs often leave us a better knowledge of this world of ours and a better understanding of humanity. Yes, strange as it may seem, I really want to feel a great sorrow.

With this last wish I complete the synopsis of the things I want to do before I die. Irrational as they may seem to the reader, nevertheless they comprise a sincere summary of what I truthfully now believe to be the things most essential to a fully satisfactory and happy life. As I stand here on the threshold of my future, these are the things which to me seem the most valuable. Perhaps in fifty years I will think that they are extremely silly. Perhaps I will wonder, for instance, why I did not include a wish for continued happiness. Yet, right now, I do not desire my life to be a bed of roses. I want it to be something much more than that. I want it to be a truly great adventure, never dull, always exciting and engrossing; not sickly sweet, yet not unhappy. And I believe it will be all I wish if I do these things before I die.

As for death itself, I do not believe that it will be such a disagreeable thing providing my life has been successful. I have always considered life and death as two cups of wine. Of the first cup, containing the wine of life, we can learn a little from literature and from those who have drunk it, but only a little. In order to get the full flavor we must drink deeply of it for ourselves. I believe that after I have quaffed the cup containing the wine of life, emptied it to its last dregs, then I will not fear to turn to that other cup, the one whose contents can be designated only by X, an unknown, and a thing about which we can gain no knowledge at all until we drink for ourselves. Will it be sweet, or sour, or tasteless? Who can tell? Surely none of us like to think of death as the end of everything. Yet is it? That is a question that for all of us will one day be answered when we, having witnessed the drama of life, come to the final curtain. Probably we will all regret to leave this world, yet I believe that after I have drained the first cup, and have possibly grown a bit weary of its flavor, I will then turn not unwillingly to the second cup and to the new and thrilling experience of exploring the unknown.

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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