Sunday, June 8, 2008

Why Dying Practice?

As I write this, (Sunday, June 8th of 2008), I am exactly 31 days shy of my 49th Birthday. Over the past year or two, I have seen many of my friends and family pass from this world. In many cases, the individuals had been ill, but, the loss still came unexpectedly.. In other cases, the death came as a complete shock and surprise to everyone.

In my professional life, as it has morphed and changed over the years, I had many occasions to be witness to death in its many guises; death due to violence, illness, injury, accident, self-inflicted, and death due to natural causes. While the methods and means were different, the end was always the same. Loss of life. In very many cases, death came as a great surprise to the individual who was dying, and, when all is said and done, they were caught quite unprepared! I imagine that this is most likely common.. nobody really believes that they are going die right now... but, sooner or later, the moment does come... we spend an entire lifetime ignoring this fact, turning our faces from it, putting off the inevitable reality... but, with every breath, our death inches inexorably closer. Since this is so, it occurs to me that perhaps this is an event that should be planned for, prepared for, considered with care. Accepted as an eventuality.

It doesn't seem fair to depart this world unprepared. Not fair to the me, if I am the one dying, to face the very moment of my death with regret and sadness.. leaving behind a list of things that I never quite got to... or a huge pile of regrets. Not fair to my loved ones to leave them with a confusing legal or financial mess to go along the the emotional issues that are part and parcel with the death of a loved one. All in all, it seems that simply allowing it to come, unexpectedly and unprepared for, is just a bad idea all the way 'round. It would be better, I think, to take a healthy view.. not a morbid view; but a healthy view. Prepare inwardly for the change that is to come... catch up to life, before death catches up to us! Prepare outwardly so that when we do depart, everything is in order, everything that must be said has been said, and everything that should be done... has been properly taken care of. No loose ends. No untidy knots and tangles. No words left unsaid. Everything just as it should be. Is this possible? Well.. I don't know... but I am going to give my all to finding out, and to setting right what is possible to set right.

At the end of my year of Dying Practice, I will wake up on the morning of July 9th, 2009 figuratively reborn! On that day, I hope to have all of the messes and loose ends of the past 50 years tidied up, my spirit clear, luminous, agile, and prepared to meet the day, and all of my affairs, both internal and external, in order. In this way, I will be fully ready to meet whatever the remaining half of my life may choose to place before me. No baggage. No regrets. This is not to say that my problems will be over... life is much too clever for that! Problems and pain are the means by which we learn and grow. But, I hope to be free to deal the problems that are, rather than the problems that I am creating due to faulty thinking, habits of the past, etc. And this makes a world of difference!

If I live to be 100 years old, I will be exactly at the half-way mark of my life on that date. Realistically, I have less time than that... 20 years maybe?? 10? 5? Less?! Who knows? The point being, I don't know, but, at the age of 48 going on 49, I have to face facts and admit that my lifetime is most likely more than half-way past. So.. It is time to begin to think of these things... and not only to think of them, but to embrace them! This is a gift, really....

I suppose that in the grand scheme of things, when we lament the untimely demise of a friend or loved one, we are actually just quibbling over time with an impersonal universe; because inevitably and unavoidably, death will claim each and every one of us at some point. That much is certain. The only uncertainty is the when of it. We are all cognizant that we will one day take our last breath, but we don’t have any idea of when this will take place. Do we have decades? Years? Months, weeks, hours, minutes… or seconds??

So. It can, by force, be agreed that we are all living under a death sentence of sorts… but; what if we were to come to know the ‘when’ of our passing? What if we received news that we had a finite period of time in which to live? How would we react to this news? How would we confront our imminent demise? How would our lives change??

I would like to share a poem with you. This is a very interesting poem which was written by a Japanese war criminal that shows the very mixed feelings of pessimism, optimism, and mysticism that are inherent in the state of human existence. The name of the man was Senri Uyeno. He was a medic in the Japanese army, or, perhaps, a doctor. His story is very tragic; He was accused of killing an American pilot, but the accusation was not true. After his execution, the truth of the matter was discovered. He had been unjustly accused, and took the blame for a crime that he had not committed… and was executed for it. He wrote this poem a week before his death. It was discovered in his diary.

The story behind this incident is that an American pilot had been shot down over Japan. He was injured in the fall as he parachuted from his disabled airplane and the author of the poem, Senri Uyeno, started operating on him. During the operation, he was ordered by a senior officer to kill the American, but he disobeyed and continued to operate. In the middle of the operation, the hospital was bombed, and the medical staff was forced to evacuate the area and seek shelter. When they returned, they discovered that the American pilot had been stabbed to death by an unknown person. Nobody knew who had done it, but they remembered that Senri Uyeno had been ordered to kill the man, so he took all the blame, as was executed.

This is his poem;

Thanks to lamenting over the pain in the world,
I am able to become laughter when my life is happy.
Due to being struck and trampled upon and biting
my lips to control my temper, I fully realize how
precious it is to be born. Even if I am intentionally
tired of an ugly world, look! What a blue sky!

Even if one laughs scornfully at my penniless life,
there is something much more beautiful,
true and worthy that everyone knows.
I don’t care so much about anything else,
except love and sincerity, the sun,
and a little amount of rain from time to time.
If I have a healthy body and a little piece of bread,
I want to walk with a smile in great spirits.

I will do my best to work without complaining
about anything at all.
I will always consider things by putting myself in another’s
place without flinching, no matter how hard and
heartrending it is to live.
If there is someone unfortunate, I will help
him out with anything.
If I can forget myself to help out,
that will surely delight me.

In the morning the sun rises. I greet it.
I will do my best to live today.
In the evening, the sun sets.
Staring at the evening glow, I want to sit still.

With a little dream in my heart, I sleep
as quietly as a little bird.
If I have my own time, I want to spend it
reading an old collection of poems, meditating
on them alone, quietly.

Let’s find happiness by ourselves.
Within silver tears like pearls and laughter like the sun,
let’s keep walking ahead each day.
Certainly some day, as I look back over my past,
I will quietly see my life with a smile.

[Translated by Dainin Katagiri – A Monk of the Soto Order of Zen Buddhism]

The first lines say, “Thanks to lamenting over the pain in the world,/ I am able to become laughter when my life is happy. / Due to being struck and trampled upon and biting / my lips to control my temper, I fully realize how / precious it is to be born.” By passing through pessimism and optimism, or affirmation and negation in his life, he found something more than them. He found something mystical – how sublime and precious human life is. He discovered that simply resting in the truth of his existence is something that is truly wondrous, like a glowing sunrise!

Next he says, “Even if I am intentionally / tired of an ugly world, look! What a blue sky!” Everyone, from time to time, is confronted with the sad truth of human relations, and must consider the human world is a horrifically ugly place filled with cruelty, greed, hatred, brutality, ignorance, apathy, and violence. But, still there is an optimistic world. It is neither a pessimistic world nor an optimistic world… it is simply a world.. and we are in it. It’s a mixed world. The two worlds of pessimism/negation and optimism/affirmation are working together.

As I confronted the deaths of my friends and family over these past few years, I naturally turned my thoughts towards my own inevitable passing. How much time can I reasonably count on?? Do I have regrets, angers, sadness, or some other unresolved issues that I would not want to take to my grave? Is there much that is left undone, that should most probably be faced and dealt with now, rather than later? I realized, during a particularly difficult night for me, when I had learned of the death of one of my best friends, with whom I had served in the military, that I had most likely reached an age where the death of friends was no longer a tragic anomaly, but that it was now something to be accepted, if not expected. I decided that the time had come for me to look closely at the questions that were bubbling up from the inner recesses of my heart.

I am a human being. I am of the nature to grow old, to eventually fall ill, to suffer, and to die. This is inevitable and unavoidable. There is nothing that I can do that will change this simple fact.

All of the people that I know and love are human beings. Like me, they too are of the nature to grow old, to eventually fall ill, to suffer, and to die. This is inevitable and unavoidable. There is nothing that I can do that will change this simple fact.

As my Zen Teacher and priest is fond of saying, “This is what it is to be human…. so what’re we gonna do with that?!”

We make fun of ostriches for avoiding their fears by hiding their heads in the sand… all the while doing precisely the same thing!

I have decided not to be an ostrich any longer. In the military, we were taught that we would perform exactly the way we trained. Sweat in training, or bleed in combat.

Well. I am no longer a soldier, I am a monk. Killing is (hopefully) no longer a focus in my world-view.. at least not on a personal basis. But, the truth and wisdom behind that simple statement has not diminished with time. We perform exactly the way that we train.

Monastic practice, it is said, is a practice that is, essentially learning how to die. As I approach my 49th birthday, I have my 50th year on this earth staring me in the face – I know that the year between my 49th and 50th birthdays will pass by quickly… like the wind. Each year they seem to pass more and more quickly.

As I sit in meditation, and look inward, I see that there is indeed much work that needs to be done. Much that is unfinished, much that has never come into being, and many issues involving myself and others that must be taken out, re-examined… no matter how painful they may be… and put to rest once and for all, if that is at all possible.

This ‘Dying Practice’ is not as morbid as one may assume at first glance, because learning to die is about facing one’s fears and putting them to rest. To fear dying is to fear living. To learn how to die without fear is to learn to live without fear!

To fully live… to embrace life, in the moment, completely and unreservedly! Preparing for death is one of the most profoundly healing acts of a lifetime. It is work that is extremely necessary, and which needs to be undertaken NOW from the deepest level available. We are all dying… we carry our death with us with each breath from the very instant that we are born. Unfortunately, we also carry our fears, and with them a host of other afflictive emotions. This is what I am attempting to address with this practice. Dying practice, then, is not so much a death-affirming practice… but a LIFE-affirming practice of learning to stay present even under difficult circumstances; to learn to embrace mental, physical, and spiritual pain using techniques suitable for each particular level of discomfort. I will draw chiefly upon techniques learned in my practice as a Zen Buddhist Monk for this purpose, but there are many other methods and techniques which stem from other religious traditions that are equally efficacious and which may be used to achieve the goals that have been set.

My Dying practice, then, is intended to offer a healing process that allows a gradual completion of all that lies behind, and a clear-eyed entrance into whatever may lie ahead. It is not a process of quitting, giving up, or shutting down… nor is it a practice of clinging to or averting from… it is, instead, a practice that is undertaken with both feet set squarely upon the ground; a process of clarity, insight, and closure.

It is my feeling that this may be the single most important practice of my life. As the first half of my life draws to a close, I find that I am prepared to ‘clean house’ face whatever must be faced, set my affairs in order, and go forth into whatever the second half of my life may have to offer!

It is said that if you are fully alive before death, you will probably be fully alive afterward! I don’t want to have to ‘cram’ for death… and the truth of the matter is that most people who actually do have only a year left to live don’t know it! - - and neither do their doctors! The simple fact is that in almost every case, nobody knows which day begins the last year of their life…. so I have decided not to wait. The present moment is the only moment that I have access to. I can look inward to find my past… outward to find my possible futures… but I must remain eternally here and now – between the past and future… in the moment. The present moment is the only moment in which I am capable of acting. So that is what I am doing!

So I have committed myself to living a year as though it were my last. To practice dying. To be fully alive. To investigate my dread of, and my resistance to, both life and death. To complete my birth before my life is over. I intend to investigate that part of myself that refuses to engage life fully, to hold back, to hide. I am placing both of my feet on the ground, and facing my imminent death honestly and squarely. I am committed to living with honesty, integrity, authenticity, mercy and awareness in the midst of the consequences of love, anger, regret, hope, sadness, joy, or the lack thereof. I further intend to explore this ground of being out of which this impermanent body and ever-changing mind originate in order to cut through a lifetime of confusion, forgetfulness, ingrained notions and habits, and habitual reactions. I want to teach myself to respond from rather than to react to the various afflictive and harmful emotions that arise during my daily life… or, for that matter, the positive and life-affirming emotions and mental formations that arise, for that matter!

It is my purpose and my hope to undertake a life review with gratitude and forgiveness, to follow a comprehensive meditation/introspection/contemplative daily practice, and to keep a journal here. I invite anyone who feels that this practice may be beneficial to join me, or to undertake their own practice. You have nothing to lose in so doing, and much to gain!

Commencing on July 8th, 2008, and ending on July 9th of 2009 (my 50th birthday), I intend to explore that within me which tends to hold on to suffering, and to cultivate a heart that cannot be distracted… even by death.

For those of you who wish to join me, I recommend that you read, to begin with, “A Year To Live” by Stephen Levine. I found this book extremely well written, easy to read, and very helpful in creating my own personal program of dying practice. I will draw heavily from the material in this book during the coming year.

Some other books that you may find useful for this practice are; “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and the “Christian Book of Hours”. Also, “Being Peace” by the Venerable Thich Naht Hahn. I will add other titles as they become relevant. Should anyone wish to contact me, my email address for the purpose of this practice is;

I will most likely post a few more times during the next month, as I prepare for the practice to formally begin. I welcome the thoughts and comments of any of my readers, if, in fact there happen to be any! Primarily, however, the stated purpose of this blog is to be a journal of my experiences during the coming year of this life-experiment.

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