Thursday, 21 August 2014

Death is like Giving Birth!

 At the beginning of my practicum for pastoral counselling, I was assigned two residents to visit regularly – once a week on Thursdays in a private Long Term Care facility.  I would spend the morning with one and the afternoon with the other.  My morning was spent with Fern, an 80 year-old amputee.  She had in mid-life, worked as an executive assistant to a professor at a university and had, while there taken the opportunity to study things that interested her – such as Chinese civilization. 

Her husband, with whom she shared her room, had been an aeronautical engineer.  Before entering the Home, they had spent the winters of their retirement years in Phoenix Arizona, where they took an interest in the indigenous aboriginal culture and customs.  Her husband had taken up making jewelry from local gemstones.  Sadly, he now had severe dementia and was bedridden much of the time.  Fern cared for him faithfully.

Fern had prosthetics which she would wear sometimes.  Otherwise, she would pull herself from the bed to a wheelchair and navigate the halls quite well by herself.  She had a great sense of humour and a wisdom developed from life experience which often led me to believe that we could switch roles – I was learning from her more than she was gaining from me.  We developed a relationship that was warm, interesting and mutually enriching.  I dug deep to find out as much as I could about her to help nurture her interests.  She had been fond of writing poetry – something she had stopped doing for a long time – but which re-emerged when it was encouraged.  I brought art supplies and we spent time in the sunroom, drawing, painting and chatting.  She ran by me many of her theological doubts and concerns, trying to reconcile her early upbringing in the Christian faith with what she had learned over a lifetime – learning about the Chinese civilization, the aboriginals in Arizona. 

In the third year of my visits with her, her husband’s health began to fail rapidly and was dying.  Fern sat vigil with him, staying by his bedside until she was no longer able to stay awake.  It was between visits that he died and the chaplain from the Home called me to tell me that there was a viewing at the funeral home, if I wanted to pay my respects.  Concerned about how Fern might be feeling, I sought her out as soon as I entered the funeral parlour.  Surrounded by friends and family, she seemed well, even radiant.  When I approached her to offer my condolences, she said “You should have been there! It was amazing!  The whole experience felt like he was giving birth – I felt like I was giving birth!  I haven’t felt like this since I gave birth to my children!” The awe with which she expressed this was so palpable that I realized it was I who was more emotionally distraught than she was.  She embraced the experience as a process of birth.  This was not an intellectual metaphor for her but a genuine living encounter.  I have since then, been able to still my own emotional response to death and dying to be open to the sense of awe and wonder during this most significant passage – the transition of the spirit from its bodily imprisonment  to its new birth. From the B’hai writings, translated from the Persian:

In the time of sleep, this body is as though dead;
it does not see nor hear;  it does not feel;
it has no consciousness, no perception –
that is to say, the powers of man have become inactive, but the spirit lives and subsists. 
Nay, its penetration is increased, its flight is higher, and its intelligence is greater. 
To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes
 is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken,
though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage.
 Our body is like the cage and the spirit is like the bird. 
We see that without the cage this bird flies in the world of sleep;
 therefore if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue and exist.
Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased.
In truth, from hell it reaches a paradise of delights
because for the thankful birds
there is no paradise greater than freedom from the cage.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi`s Wisdom Keepers

One of the things I ask people who are getting older is, "Are you saved?" Most of them haven’t done any mentoring or journal writing, so when the plug gets pulled, all that memory in (biological) RAM is gone. So we need to upload it!
You know, crazy as it may seem, if you’ve been reincarnated a couple of times and you haven’t graduated, it may be because you have incompletes in your eldering!
Spiritual eldering carries with it special opportunities; it means acting as guide, mentor, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, nation, tribe, clan, and family. We become wisdom keepers.

—Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older

Some of the wisest writings I have read on aging are Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi`s vision of saging.  My favourite expression he uses is ``harvesting`` our lives.  He is realistic about the challenges of aging but idealistic at the same time about what we can do in this stage of life.  To harvest our lives, he advises that we do `life repair.`` That is about letting go of the past, forgiving, attending to inter-generational relationships.  He encourages us to face our mortality honestly.  At the same time, he holds up a model for us that gives us purpose and meaning in our old age.  He writes:

“The model that I'm proposing does more than restore the elder to a position of honor and dignity based on age and long life experience. It envisions the elder as an agent of evolution, attracted as much by the future of humanity's expanded brain-mind potential as by the wisdom of the past. With an increased life span and the psychotechnologies to expand the mind's frontiers, the spiritual elder heralds the next phase of human and global development. 

"I hope you sense what a glorious future awaits you in old age. No longer will you dread the evening of life as a time of unremitting suffering and futility, but as an opportunity for continued growth in consciousness and service to humanity. What a vista, what a wonderful adventure, what a miraculous window of opportunity awaits us in old age!"

 Isn`t that amazing!

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

On Death in the Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita, translates as The Song of God and is a classic spiritual text of India.  It is embedded in the epic The Mahabharat which tells of the story of the Avatar Lord Krishna. Translations used here for the Bhagavad Gita is that of Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, published by Signet Classics.  Original copyright of The Vedanta Society of Southern California.

The greatest transition we make is from life to death.  In this post, I am examining what this particular spiritual text offers us in the way of knowledge of this most crucial passage.

Chapter 2 The Yoga of Knowledge (P. 44)

Death is certain for the born.  Rebirth is certain for the dead.  You should not grieve for what is unavoidable.
Before birth, beings are not manifest to our human senses.  In the interim between birth and death, they are manifest.  At death they return to the unmanifest again.  What is there in all this to grieve over?

Chapter 7 Knowledge and Experience (P. 85)

Men take refuge in me, to escape from the fear of old age and death.  Thus they come to know Brahman, and the entire nature of the Atman, and the creative energy which is Brahman. Knowing me, they understand the nature of the relative world and the individual man, and of God who presides over all action.  Even at the hour of death, they continue to know me thus.  In that hour, their whole consciousness is made one with mine.

Chapter 8 The Way to Eternal Brahman


At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in me.  Then he will be united with me.  Be certain of that.  Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving the body will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on, during this life.

(P. 89)
When man leaves his body and departs, he must close all the doors of the senses.  Let him hold the mind firmly within the shrine of the heart, and fix the life-force between the eye-brows.  Then let him take refuge in steady concentration, uttering the sacred syllable OM and meditating upon me.  Such a man reaches the highest goal.  When a yogi has meditated upon me unceasingly for many years, with an undistracted mind, I am easy access to him, because he is always absorbed in me. Great souls who find me have found the highest perfection.  They are no longer reborn into this condition of transience and pain. All the worlds, and even the heavenly realm of Brahma, are subject to the laws of rebirth.  But, for the man who comes to me, there is no returning.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Love and Death

. . .from Chapter 4 Love and Death, in Love and Will by Rollo May

The confrontation with death - and the reprieve from it - makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful that I feel more strongly than ever, the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it. My river has never looked so beautiful . . .Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we'd never die.
from a letter by Abraham Maslow, written while recuperating from a heart attack...        

. . . To love is to open ourselves to the negative as well as the positive  ---to grief, sorrow and disappointment as well as to joy, fulfillment, and an intensity of consciousness we did not know was possible before. . . .

When we "fall" in love, as the expressive verb puts it, the world shakes and changes us, not only in the way it looks but in our whole experience of what we are doing in the world.  Generally, the shaking is consciously felt in its positive aspects--as the wonderful new heaven and earth which love with its miracle and mystery has suddenly produced.  Love is the answer, we sing. Aside from the banality of such reassurances, our Western culture seems to be engaged in a romantic--albeit desperate--conspiracy to enforce the illusion that that is all there is to eros.  The very strength of the effort to support that illusion betrays the presence of the repressed, opposing pole.

This opposing element is the consciousness of death.  For death is always the shadow of the delight of love.  In faint adumbration there is present the dread, haunting question, Will this new relationship destroy us? When we love, we give up the centre of ourselves.We are thrown from our previous state of existence into a void; and though we hope to attain a new world, a new existence, we can never be sure.  Nothing looks the same, and may well never look the same again. The world is annihilated; how can we ever know whether it will be built up again? We give, and give up, our own centre; how shall we know that we will get it back? We wake up to find the whole world shaking: where or when will it come to rest?

The  most excruciating joy is accompanied by the consciousness of the imminence of death--and with the same intensity. And it seems that one is not possible without the other.

. . . Sex and death have in common the fact that they are two biological aspects of the mysterium tremendum.  Mystery--defined here as a situation in which the data impinge on the problem--has its ultimate meaning in these two human experiences. Both are related to creation and destruction; and it is therefore, scarcely surprising that in human experience, they are interwoven in such complex ways. In both, we are taken over by an event; we cannot stand outside either love or death--and, if we try to, we destroy whatever value the experience can have.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

On Impermanence

... from Chapter 3 Reflection and Change of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rimpoche

Usually we assume we must grasp in order to have that something
that will ensure our happiness. We ask ourselves: How
can we possibly enjoy anything if we cannot own it? How
often attachment is mistaken for love! Even when the relationship
is a good one, love is spoiled by attachment, with its
insecurity, possessiveness, and pride; and then when love is
gone, all you have left to show for it are the "souvenirs" of
love, the scars of attachment.

How, then, can we work to overcome attachment? Only by
realizing its impermanent nature; this realization slowly releases
us from its grip. We come to glimpse what the masters say the
true attitude toward change can be: as if we were the sky looking
at the clouds passing by, or as free as mercury. When mercury
is dropped on the ground, its very nature is to remain
intact; it never mixes with the dust. As we try to follow the
masters' advice and are slowly released from attachment, a great
compassion is released in us. The clouds of grasping part and
disperse, and the sun of our true compassionate heart shines
out. It is then that we begin, in our deepest self, to taste the
elating truth of these words of William Blake:

He who binds to himself a Joy,
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.

Friday, 13 April 2012


The more I reflect, the more I realize how many perspectives there are in a dialogue about maturing, aging, dying, and making meaning out of our lives in the sunset of our years.  Truly, it is our perspective on what is happening that shapes our experiences rather than the events themselves.  So I have been looking at more worldviews than I  originally started to explore.  I have also recently begun to focus more deeply on the worldview that we create our own reality. While there do seem to be limitations posed by nature, how we position ourselves within nature makes a difference in how creatively we work with our consciousness and whether we identify with nature's limited templates or whether we identify with the Spirit and God and the many possibilities inherent in spiritual consciousness.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Greetings from the foothills of the Himalayas

I have come to Haridwar- the city name literally translates as gateway(dwar = door) to God (Hari=God), to attend to some important matters. I am suffering from insomnia.  At first, I thought my bodily rhythms were disturbed due to jet lag but the body has had enough time to adjust. I use my sleepless hours to write.  Despite some pretty difficult circumstances, I am getting time to reflect on the contributions the Indian culture has to make to psychology and spirituality.  I am especially keen on remodeling the four ashramas for modern life as ways of living more naturally and consciously in keeping with the patterns of the psyche from birth through death.  I see myself as being in the Vanaprastha stage of life - see my page on this blog explaining what that entails.