Living and Dying
According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death. We do not have to wait for the painful death of someone close to us or the shock of terminal illness to force us into looking at our lives. Nor are we condemned to go out empty- handed at death to meet the unknown. We can begin, here and now, to find meaning in our lives. We can make every moment an opportunity to change and prepare- wholeheartedly, precisely, and with peace of mind- for death and eternity.
In the Buddha approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected… Sogyal Rinpoche
Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance. It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations and jealousies will finally disappear. So too, your hopes, ambitions, plans and to do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away. It won't matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won't matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant. Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
Before I got ill, I thought that unless my life is extraordinary, that I have not achieved my life purpose. Like many others I thought that my job and what I do is my life purpose. Having faced my own mortality, I can say this is far from the truth. It was only then that I realised that my life was full of purpose, that I have had and still have an extraordinary beautiful ordinary life. Most people are called to live what I would call an “ordinary life”, rearing a loving family, doing a routine job well, being there for friends and family, helping their neighbours, engaging in voluntary jobs to support others. Most people’s life purpose is to live this so-called “ordinary” life well and to the full. There is no such thing as an insignificant life and every life is unique.
"When the nights were long and I couldn’t sleep my mind wandered often in different directions. It dwelt on beautiful moments and various incidents in my life that had been of great significance. But now what lay ahead? That was the question that kept coming back to me over and over again. There was so much that I still wanted to do. There was so much that I still wanted to see. So many things whizzed past my mind. Things I had not accomplished but had always wanted to. Some of them were simple things and I knew I could accomplish them. Some were big dreams that I wanted to bring to fulfillment and I decided that I wouldn’t let cancer destroy them.
These nights have been often a quiet time of refection for me, while I certainly concentrated my thoughts on living, I also had a brush with my mortality. While I had previously a near death experience, I had stood on the doorstep of death, pushed open the door and peeked inside the other world. I do not think I had, before my illness, taken into my own consciousness the reality of how close to the end of my life might be and how precious and rich my life has been and still is.
I faced the possibility that my life will be shorter then I wanted it to be, that I might would die. I don't know if it's possible ever really to accept that you die. I thought that I had accepted it, and then all of a sudden something sneaked up from behind, and I realised that I hadn't accepted it at all.
The threat of death often renewed my appreciation of the importance of life, love, friendship and all there is to enjoy. I opened up to new possibilities and began taking risks I didn't had the courage to take before. Many patients say that facing the uncertainties of living with an illness makes life more meaningful. The smallest pleasures are intensified and much of the hypocrisy in life is eliminated. When bitterness and anger begin to dissipate, there is still a capacity for joy.
If the future seems limited, you can achieve the satisfaction of knowing that you have done the very best to heal yourself. By doing so you can achieve peace of mind, which will also help strengthen your will to live, which it did for me. I learned from my own experience that our time in this world is much too short to be apprehensive about living life to its utmost extent. Knowing that the sun sets, and the ocean's waves recede, I also kept in the back of my mind that my life is also just temporary, so I put all my energy into making it as beautiful and meaningful while I still have the chance.
In the face of death all external expectation, all fear of failure and embarrassment, had just fallen away. Death as my teacher thought me that I had nothing to loose; there was no reason for not following my heart or to dare to be different. Not to stay focused on the negative, my journey has been, and continues to be, filled with many experiences of great joy, deep peace, and real hope. These things go hand in hand with the otherwise "afflictive" emotions that together form the complex emotional climate of my heart and soul. I find that I can be more authentic in my experiences of the many good things in life when I am also honest and authentic with my very real grief.
Having lived through the shadow of death I can say to you that death became a very powerful agent for my life. It cleared the closets out from the old to make place for the new. Death became the messenger for life. You don't have to wait until you have a serious illness to implement this message into your life. People who have healed from cancer, like myself, often refer to this opportunity as the "gift of cancer" - a perspective that depends entirely upon one's choice. But in the beginning of ones journey through cancer, just when you are diagnosed, this aspect does not comes into your mind. If the future seems limited, you can achieve the satisfaction of knowing that you have done the very best to heal yourself. By doing so you can achieve peace of mind, which will also help strengthen your will to live, which it did for me.
If there is one thing I've learned from all the survivors I've talked with over the years - survivors of many types of cancer - it's that many of them are healthy because they became their own best advocates and learned everything they could about all treatment options. Many were told they'd be 'lucky' to be alive in a few years. Others simply refused to accept the next recommended treatment and searched for different options. They talked with other survivors and got second or third or fourth opinions. I have noticed how many survivors of cancer have undergone personal transformations in line with these principles. The result is lives lived with a renewed sense of purpose and a richer appreciation for what is important. Many survivors speak of a deeper authenticity and honesty in their relationships and of a gentler pace of life, with more time spent “smelling the roses.
Life is not just about work, hurrying and deadlines.
We need to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and actually feel the air going into our lungs. We need to stop for a moment and see the beauty in people around us and allow the goodness of people to penetrate our lives. We need time to sit down and have relaxed conversation with family and friends, with people who we may not know well and sometimes with complete strangers. We need to take the time to realise how lucky we are to be alive".
We need to take the time to become more human again, to try and have a little more compassion for ourselves and for everything around us, to reconnect with our feelings.
Many survivors who have faced their own mortality face to face with death acknowledge that life isn't about who your family is or how much money they have. Or what kind of car you drive. Or where you're sent to school.
It's not about how beautiful you are. Or what clothes you wear, what shoes you have on, or what kind of music you listen to. It's not about if your hair is blond, red, black, brown, or green. Or if your skin is too light or too dark.
It's not about what grades you get, how smart you are, how smart everyone else thinks you are, or how smart standardized tests say you are. Or what clubs you're in, or how good you are at "your" sport. It's not about representing your whole being on a piece of paper and seeing who will "accept the written you.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage or sacrifice that enriched, empowered or encouraged others to emulate your example. What will matter is not your competence, but your character. What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you're gone. What will matter is not your memories that live in those who love you. What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom and for what.
Embracing death allows people to engage life more fully. Inquiring into living invites insights about who we are, who we are not, who we are with, where we are going, our meaning and purpose, joy, and much more.
Life isn't about keeping score
Life is about who you love and who you hurt. It's about who you make happy or unhappy purposefully. It's about keeping or betraying trust. It's about friendship, used as sanctity, or as a weapon. It's about what you say and mean, maybe hurtful, maybe heartening. About starting rumors and contributing to petty gossip. It's about what judgments you pass and why. And who your judgments are spread to.
It's about who you've ignored with full control and intention. It's about jealousy, fear, pain, ignorance, and revenge. It's about carrying inner hate and love, letting it grow and spreading it.
But most of all, it's about using your life to touch or poison other people's hearts in such a way that could never occurred alone. Only you choose the way these hearts are affected and those choices are what life is all about.
Choose to live a life that matters.
Open your heart and know you are ever - changing circumstances, but abiding stillness within chaos.
Love is like a candle in the darkness that lights your way. Love is the healing balm that comforts the heart, soothes the soul and frees the spirit to fly beyond unimaginable horizons. Love makes everything endurable. Love is the only real power and it can heal suffering and transform any situation. Love has never ending patience - love is always the answer.
Open every chamber of your heart, even those that have been closed for a long time.
Clear all barriers to love and remember that you came here to experience love, to give love, to understand love and to fall in love with life. Love is universal and it is not to be reserved just for a few people who are dear and close to you. Love is such a powerful, transformative force that it does not want to be restricted in any way. Love asks you to stay open and to allow it to flow freely through you. Let love be free to inspire and elevate your every thought, word and action.
Life is a terminal condition.
We all die. Western culture, does not acknowledge and even denies death as a natural part of living. The fact that death is inherent to life is infrequently discussed and explored. Conversations about death and encounters with people confronting mortality due to cancer and any cause can be uncomfortable for many individuals.
When we die and how we die are major factors in how people relate to mortality. We can think life should be a certain way.
We are often attached to living. We are often afraid of dying. Only through exploring and embracing death can we liberate ourselves through releasing our fears to embody life more fully. This truth applies to people affected by cancer and every other human being.
Human nature often involves fearing the unknown. By inquiring into your views about death, some of what feels unknown about death will become known to you. As a result, your fears around death will diminish. This will allow more of your energy to be used for healing and living instead of being consumed in fear and anxiety around illness and dying.
The following questions may help you explore and recognize your attitudes and beliefs, including fears, about death and dying. This list combines questions developed by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, Joan Halifax, and O. Carl Simonton, MD.
- What is your personal definition of death?
- What do you wonder about regarding death?
- What are your beliefs about death?
- What beliefs about death are unhealthy? How would you language healthier beliefs?
- What is the best-case scenario for your death, including how, when, and with who you will die?
- What is the worst-case scenario for your death?
- What do you have to release so that the best-case scenario can happen?
- What do you need to create in your life now to support the type of death you want?
- If you could ask someone who died some questions, what would those questions be?
- If you could ask the person only one question, what would it be?
- What do you imagine the person would answer?
"The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life's joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life."
-Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth
Death and dying is an inevitable and pervasive feature of life, and yet we tend to shy away from the prospect of our own demise.
For obvious reasons, the topic is emotion-laden, confusing, and frightening and for many a taboo topic.
At the same time, facing death can also be a meaningful and transformative process. In some cultures, one's death is considered to be the will of a supreme deity or the passage to a better world, and thus not a tragedy. But for many in the West, the traditional rituals and discourses around dying have gone the way of our other lost rites of passage.
We want to know the truth about reincarnation, we want proof of the survival of the soul, we listen to the assertion of clairvoyants and to the conclusions of psychical research, but we rarely ask, how to live - to live with delight, with enchantment, with beauty every day. We have accepted life as it is with all its agony and despair and have got used to it, and think of death as something to be carefully avoided. But death is extraordinarily like the life we know how to live. You cannot live without dying.
Western people referrer to Death with expressions like this:
Passing away, Dark Night of the Soul, Passing over or Crossing the Abyss. Ego death has been considered an important milestone on the seeker's path in some spiritual traditions. Indigenous ritual use of sacred plants and sometimes features a figurative death and subsequent rebirth as a shaman or as an adult member of the community. Visits to the spirit realms and communication with deceased ancestors are also common. The topic of death and dying has gained more attention in the last few years in the western world. Thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying, death education courses, and the Hospice Movement are all signs of this changing awareness, and point toward the growing desire to integrate the inevitable.
Fear of Pain and Suffering.
Many people fear that they will meet death with excruciating pain and suffering. This fear is common in many healthy people and is seen often in patients dying of cancer or other painful diseases.
Fear of the Unknown
Death is the ultimate unknown - no one has survived it to tell us what happens afterward. It's in our human nature to want to understand and make sense of the world around us but death can never be fully understood while we are still alive.
Fear of Non-Existence
Many people fear that they will cease existing after death. This fear isn't confined only to the non-religious or atheists. Many people of faith worry that their belief in an afterlife isn't real after all.
Fear of Eternal Punishment
This belief isn't only for the most devout of faith. People from every religious sect and even those with no religion at all may fear that they will be punished for what they did - or did not do - here on earth.
Fear of Loss of Control
Our human nature seeks control over situations. Death is something that is out of our realm of control, which is very scary for many of us. Some people will attempt hold some control over death with extremely careful behavior and rigorous health checks.
Fear and Concerns about Loved Ones
This probably the most common fear of death among new parents, single parents, and caregivers is the fear of what will happen to those entrusted to our care if we die.
Unhealthy Fear of Death
The fear of death can be so severe that it interferes with daily life. It can consume one's thoughts and affect the decisions they make. If this is true for you, you might have a true phobia called thanatophobia or necrophobia. This is an unhealthy fear and should be addressed by a trained mental health professional.
Healthy Fear of Death
It's possible for the fear of death to actually be healthy. When we fear dying, we are more careful and take appropriate precautions like wearing seat belts and bike helmets. A healthy fear of death also reminds us to make the most of our time here and not to take our relationships for granted. It can push us to work to leave a lasting legacy and to stay current with those we love. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live."
O. Carl Simonton, MD taught that work on death is the same as work on life. Living more fully prepares people for a rich death. Deeper engagement with life includes focusing on three areas to become more comfortable with life and change.
1. Learn to grieve more effectively the smaller losses in life so that you can become more comfortable with change in general.
2. Resolve old issues in life where healing needs to occur. Ask yourself the question: "If I were to die tonight, who do I need to communicate with to feel more okay before I die?"
3. Live life today with joy and pleasure. Many people who have a lot of difficulty around thinking about their deaths are people who have been holding back on really enjoying their lives.
You might would like to answer the following questions and reflect on your life
- What activities and experiences in your daily life are joyful and provide deep fulfillment?
- Are you engaging joyful, fulfilling activities and experiences now? Where does your sense of what to do come from?
- What gives your life meaning?
- What is your clearest sense of the meaning of your life at this time?
- What is your purpose? Where does that sense of purpose come from?
- Does your life reflect these beliefs and values? How can you embody your meaning and purpose more?
- What people do you have meaningful connections with?
- What characteristics give those connections their meaning?
- How do you engage those connections and relationships?
- What are your most significant accomplishments and successes?
- What are you most proud of about yourself and life?
- What are your greatest hopes and dreams? What encourages your hopes and dreams?
- Where do you live your life fully? Where do you hold back?
- What can you do to come more fully into yourself and life?
- What will be your legacy?