This fall, I visited a young friend who was approaching her death. She was concerned about what her next step should be in the process, which would ultimately determine how fast she passed. I sat beside her and unlike any moment in my past did the meditation and mindfulness instructions I have learned become more relevant, more urgent, more applicable. I cannot know what it is like to be sick and facing death. Even when we are well, it is hard, if not impossible, to recall the sensations of extreme physical pain and discomfort which we once experienced. Our brains don’t allow us to call it up the way we can an emotional pain. To imagine dying and needing to make a choice that dictates the end of this physical body and life as we know it is equally impossible. I’d like to think that I would handle it with courage and elegance, but of course I know that might not be how it will go. Just like planning for the birth of a child…we can prepare the way we want to and have ideas of how we want it to go, but in the end, so many factors will dictate its course, not us alone. I know when the time comes I could be irritable, foggy, or in too much discomfort to respond to what is happening with grace. As I sat at my brave friend’s bedside, what did feel clear to me is that we can be empowered in our dying if we practice while we are living. We can practice letting go now, so that our ultimate letting go is less ridden with strife.
Every now and then I offer two different meditations on dying to my groups. I find them liberating. They help me to remember what matters in this life, that we don’t get to hold onto anything, and that our actions here are “our only true belongings.” Though our body goes, our actions are what live on. What I do here sends ripples out into the universe. These meditations help me get clarity on what I want to spend my time doing, who I want to be around, and what I want to cultivate while I am here. The reactions to the meditations I share are often mixed. Some people get annoyed or struggle with it and wonder what the point is. Others get sad. Still others, like me, take comfort in the reflection. I am often wary of offering this meditation because I don’t want to be the cause of upset. But, being with my friend in her final days, I understood its value even more and know it is worth working with. As she lie there unable to eat or drink, suffering with thirst, she felt the pressure to make a decision. I let her know that she didn’t have to worry about the decision. She could stay in the moment and let the next best action arise. If she was okay in that moment having her mouth sponged with water, feeling the relief of that small trickle of moisture on her lips and in her mouth and seeing the eyes of the ones she loved around her, then that could be enough for that moment. And when that became not enough, she would know, and could take the next best action. She could let go of controlling. She could stop fighting, as she had been for the past few years, and just be. The words “just be” so often used in my meditation groups again felt more real, more urgent to understand. What is it like when we let ourselves just be, not leaning ahead into the future, or going back over the past, not worrying, not dictating, not wishing things were different than they are, but simply taking in this breath, these sounds, these colors and movements, these smells and sensations. Just be. We can practice it right now. We can stop reading or I can stop writing and just be, feeling this breath and this breath…this is what we have. This is the moment we are alive.
We don’t know how death is going to greet us. It may be sudden and no decisions need to be made or it may come slowly with sickness. Either way, it will serve us well to remember to live every day with full presence and gratitude for the experiences each moment brings. We can be empowered in our dying by living each day as if it was our last. It was an honor to be with my friend in her final days. To be with the dying is a gift. To live is a gift. Every time we practice returning to the present moment is to remember this very thing…this life right here, right now, is a moment to savor. My friend’s husband described her passing as her “graduating” from this life. I do believe she graduated from this life. With honors. The work she did here carries on. In the busyness of our everyday lives, we can repeatedly return to the questions: what do we want to have carried on? What ripples do we want to send out? If we practice living with intention, awareness and clarity now, when the times comes, we can feel empowered and let go, trusting that we continue on because our actions are still out there rippling away, making more ripples, never ending. Even more empowering is to know that we can choose right now to make those vibrations arise out of kindness, peace, compassion and joy.