We Have Death Backwards

It’s a busy morning at my local coffee shop, a place I come to write. I manage to stake out a claim on a table in the corner, amidst the chattering rollicking kids clambering around their chairs. Kids seem to live in a perpetual jungle gym, an endless obstacle course of their own creation, climbing up and over and under and around their chairs in never-ending motion. We humans seem designed to be in motion. Not quite like sharks, who suffocate if they stop, but still we must be in some sort of motion much of the time to remain healthy – both physically and spiritually. Growth and expansion – life is motion through this physical and energetic space. Even as we sleep, contrary to popular notion, our bodies are a constant flurry of activity – breathing transforms oxygen into metabolic energy, bionanite molecules run around repairing our muscles, cells divide and grow constantly – the level of activity and motion is astounding.

In the past few days I have had a strong felt sense that I am dying. As I go through the process of shedding almost every physical thing I own, continually now for several months, and as I say goodbye to people and animals significant in my life, one by one, it seems to have reached a critical point where it is deeply impacting lower levels of ego, of identity. As familiar aspects of the physical environment are stripped away – my bed, my clothing, my furniture, the body and ego can’t help but be thrust into ever increasing levels of groundlessness.

We have the notion of dying backwards. Last year I trained as a hospice volunteer, with the Zen Hospice Project, an amazing organization that provides bedside care to those imminently dying, bringing presence and bearing witness to the person’s experience before and after death. One of the most important things I learned during the intense and valuable training experience I was fortunate to go through was this – dying is not dying, it’s living. When we see as person that we label as “they are dying”, they are actually living. At Zen Hospice we approach the guest in this fashion, that they are still very much living. They are going through a particular life experience, that we will too at some point. We don’t reverse course at some moment – before this point we were living, now after this point we turn around and start dying. Dying is not the opposite of living, it is the next experience in this amazing sequence of experiences we call life.

I realize the impact of a human’s transition into whatever comes after body death is greater than my current experience of privileged choice I’m making. Nonetheless this current felt experience of death I am having is a powerful reminder. One of the reasons I went through hospice training was to stay close to death, as that is perhaps the most powerful way to directly experience the preciousness and joy of our own life.

I remember one particular night at the hospice. The experience went straight through my heart like slicing through flank steak. When you pick up a scalpel and place it on flesh, it’s astounding how easily it penetrates the tissue. The edges just fall away from the knife as if they had never been bound in place just a second before. That was my experience when I sat with this woman that night.

Feeling this beautiful woman grasp my hand, digging her nails deep into my hand until it hurt, and immediately starting to cry, and say bye bye to me. Bye bye. Bye bye. Over and over again. Tears welling up in her eyes. I don’t know what she meant, besides the obvious. There was little for me to do but keep holding her hand. And place my other hand over hers. In the moment, I am helpless, other than my practice in staying. She needed to touch someone so badly it seemed. The acrid dank smell rose from her whole body into my nostrils as I looked down at her face, her eyes locked closed. Her teeth completely rotten. This beautiful woman.

There was a photograph beside her bed of her and her daughter, and you could see the power rising from her so clearly. This woman was 93, and later I read of her massive accomplishments, her activism for women, the many books she has written, her work for the United Nations, an incredibly huge life. Now she could not move any of her body except a hand and one lip a small amount, enough to catch a spoon of pureed potato and carrot mixed together that the other volunteer feeds her. The tiny meal took about an hour to consume, quarter spoonful by quarter spoonful. Emotion washed over me, a depth of feeling. I ran out to the parking lot and hid for a while in my car, waves and waves of such deep emotion flowing through and over me. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, but after feeling it for the next few hours I recognized it as a sense of deep awe for the majesty of the human experience.

This experience we live is so full, a not-quite-endless series of moments, always in motion from one to the next to the next. In each moment all the seeds of the next one are contained within. We can choose how we will experience the next moment – accept and embrace it, or struggle and reject it. It is however always in motion forward, and attempting to stop, to freeze, to atrophy or to change this does not work well. Today I returned from bringing my beloved cat Cookie to his new home. My grief in this is deep. He cannot come with me on this next part of my journey, and the universe reached out and gave him a wonderful new loving home that I can go visit, but this is hard. He has been my constant companion for the past ten years, with me through so much, after originally taking him in as a one month foster. Today I reach for my practice, at my edge, to sit with these feelings, and to train in fearlessness. It is my job to feel this, but it is also my job to stay connected to the joy that I know there also is in this experience – it is always within arm’s reach if we remember to look for it. And I revel in our capacity as humans, having this majestic experience, to feel – to feel it all, and then to choose nonetheless to MOVE.

Wishing you peace, love, magic, joy, and play in your journey.

If you think I may be able to help you, please reach out.