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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:

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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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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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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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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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