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A couple of years ago I blogged regularly about my Year to Live project.   The 365 day experiment profoundly changed the way I think about life, even to this day.

Every once in a while, something fantastic and year-to-live-y grabs my attention and makes me want to jump up and share it with you.

I promise this video about 17-year-old Zach Sobiech’s last days will be worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it.  Truly – grab someone you love and a box of tissues and just do it.  Because, as Zach says:

You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.

Zach died peacefully yesterday at 18, surrounded by his loved ones at home.

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The amazing baby shower!

Hello, dear readers of Last Year to Live.

This month marks a year since my one year to live project came to an end.  And a year since my close childhood friend Marisa died of metastatic breast cancer.

I continue to be grateful for everyone who came along with me on this writing journey and for all of the comments – some on the blog, but many more off-line – that kept me inspired throughout that year.  The number one lesson I learned is that engaging in the topic of death unequivocally made me live life more fully.

I have some good news to share!  I’ve just come back from Marisa’s brother & sister-in-law’s baby shower.  Marisa would have been an amazing aunt to this little one, and I like to imagine her smiling at all of us.   The holidays will be a little easier this year.

On my end, because I’ve been missing the brightness of life lived through the lens of writing, I’ve launched a new blog called Beyond Siri’s Grasp.  I hope you’ll sign up for new posts by email or RSS on the top left side of the new blog.  (Unfortunately I can’t transfer your email over automatically, but if you’d prefer, send me an okay and I’ll enter it by hand for you.)

I look forward to seeing you there!

(If you are coming to this Year to Live blog for the first time, consider reading through it in chronological order, starting with the post on February 10, 2010.)

Thank you for reading!

All my best,

Barbara

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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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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The Good Samaritan in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

204 days remain

Years ago, 20 students at The Princeton Theological Seminary were given a copy of the parable of the Good Samaritan and were told they must deliver a sermon about it.

(Quick refresher:   A Jewish traveler is beaten, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  Two religious men pass by without helping.  Then a Samaritan — belonging to  group that was in conflict with the Jews — stops to help and even pays for the man’s recovery.)

A control group of students was also told they would deliver a sermon, but their topics were other passages from the Bible.  Some of the total group of 40 were led to believe that they had only a few minutes before they were to speak; others thought they had more time.

The researchers then orchestrated a situation in which the students had to walk outside to another building to deliver their remarks, passing by someone on the door step who was moaning in pain.

What happened?

Sixty percent of the seminarians walked on without offering help. A seminarian thinking about the parable was no more likely to stop than one given a less lofty topic, and on several occasions a seminarian going to talk on the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the man. Only 10 percent of those who were told to rush to the test site offered help, while 63 percent of those who thought they had a few minutes to spare offered aid. In examining psychological tests given to their subjects, [researchers] found no personality characteristics that predicted helping behavior; the only factor that seemed to predict helping behavior was degree of hurry. (Source)

I have to tell you, I got pretty down when I heard about this study, which was conducted in 1970.  If we could walk right by people in pain in the pre-cell phone/BlackBerry/iPod hurry, hurry, hurry days, what would we do now?

Well, a week ago I had a chance to hear Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, speak about meditation and neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experiences.

Goleman says that we don’t have to be stuck running the same neural connections for the rest of our lives just because that’s what we’ve always done.  It turns out that we can become better people by reprogramming ourselves — even when time crunch and life pressures have conditioned us to sometimes turn a blind eye.

And how to do that?

Well-documented study after study, he said, shows that meditators (even people who have meditated as little as 10 minutes a day for 8 weeks) can literally transform their brains by taming their minds.  The great news for all of us is that the part of the brain that shows the most activity through meditation is the region that monitors our emotions and generates positive feelings such as happiness.  No wonder the Dalai Lama giggles all the time.

It also seems that the more time you’ve spent in meditation, the more likely these changes to the brain will be dramatic and enduring.

Simple “mindfulness meditation” will do just fine for decreasing anxiety and stress, boosting your immune system and helping reverse heart disease.  And meditation in compassion,  in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings, seems to be particularly effective at lighting up the part of the brain associated with positive and altruistic feelings.

So the take-away is that being a good Samaritan doesn’t happen through sermonizing, philosophizing, reading, talking or writing about kindness but through consistently working with your mind.  To prevent bullying, aggression and violence, researchers are teaching compassion meditation to young people nearing adolescence.   Relationships throughout the life-span could clearly benefit from this as well.

I’m willing to bet there are many ways to achieve this same effect, from different religious traditions.  If you’ll allow me, here’s a thoroughly unscientific anecdote: my mom sits quietly in a chair by the window for nearly an hour a day with a “prayer chain” — a list of people who could use some form of assistance in their lives — offering up prayers for each one of them.  She also spends enormous amounts of her free time helping others and volunteering in the Alzheimer’s ward at the local nursing home.  To her, the prayer and the action are inextricably linked.)

All of this brings to mind a beautiful saying by Shantideva, the 8th-century Indian scholar, on how to find happiness in our lives.

Whatever joy there is in this world

All comes from desiring others to be happy,

And whatever suffering there is in this world

All comes from desiring myself to be happy.


Have a great week, everyone!

Learn more:

Sitting Quietly, Do Something New York Times, Daniel Goleman

How Thinking Can Change the Brain Wall Street Journal, Sharon Begley

Compassion Meditation Changes the Brain, Science Daily


Try this at home:

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has pioneered work in the health benefits of meditation, speaks at Google about mindfulness meditation.  Meditation instruction starts at about 23 minutes in:

Mindfulness meditation instructions

Sit in a comfortable position that embodies dignity, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes.

Meditation in Compassion (sometimes also called “Metta” or “Loving-Kindness” Meditation)

Click here for instructions

Facets of Metta, Sharon Salzberg

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230 days remain

Many years ago I worked in a drab office full of cubicles where there were no secrets.  One morning my colleague poked her head over the divider to tell me that she was having a visitor later that day — her best friend from college who, she confided, had inoperable brain cancer.

This friend was traveling around the country with her boyfriend to spend time with loved ones while she still could.  She was all of 24 or 25.  When I caught a glimpse of her that day, I couldn’t believe how happy she seemed.

I’ve thought about that young woman many times during my year to live project.  While I, admittedly, knew precious little about her state-of-mind, her trip struck me as a beautiful, courageous way to approach her remaining time.  An act of graceful acceptance, fully honoring the primacy of her web of interconnectedness.

In that spirit, I’ve vowed to venture out this year to be with people I care about.  By dint of the career I chose (loosely defined as international social justice) and the time I’ve spent on the road, many of my close friends are far away.  I wish that time and frequent flyer credits would allow me to visit every single one of them this year, but I’ve decided that small steps towards that vision are better than merely paying it lip-service.

This weekend you’ll find me at the annual sheep shearing party on the farm next to my brother’s in New Jersey, surrounded by three generations of family.  Then I’ll fly to London to see a friend who I’ve been promising to visit for the past 8 years, which happily coincides with the travels of two other friends — one from Spain and one from Angola — who will also be there.  Then, volcano gods willing, I’ll make my way to Ohio to be with my freshman roommates.  There’s a lot of catching up to be done.

I know.  It’s an odd assortment of places to be in one week’s time.  And it’s a totally privileged thing to be able to do (I carry around a healthy dose of guilt about these things).  But the window of opportunity can slam shut quickly, and life is too short to make excuses.

I’ve always loved this Irish blessing, and it’s my hope for you no matter how near or far you roam this summer:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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