Sunday, June 14, 2020

Being Fully Alive

     Many Buddhists recite the Five Recollections every morning:
     1. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
     2. I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.
     3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.
     4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
     5. My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.

     Many today would find, at least 1-4 disturbing or depressing. After all, we work so hard from early childhood on, to gain agency - as much control as possible over our external environment. We work constantly striving to make our immediate environment - our body, family, friends, home, car, office - as safe, healthy, pleasant & comfortable as possible. We want to hang onto the good stuff forever; we want to keep the bad stuff away forever. 

     “Everyone who is being overtaken by death
 asks for more time,
     while everyone who still has time
makes excuses for procrastination.”
       Cleary T (trans): "Living and Dying with Grace. Counsels of Hadrat Ali." Shambhala, 1996.

     At the same time, deep down we know that our ability to control most things is very limited & temporary. Everyone & everything is constantly changing, aging, getting sick & dying. It takes a higher-than-average level of maturity to let go of our "illusion of control," face reality squarely, and live our life with existential reality front & center. Psychologists have long recognized that a subconscious fear of death has a corrosive effect. 

     “Psychologists have conducted a great deal of research on our ability to consciously suppress unwanted thoughts & emotions. Their findings are clear: we have no such ability. Paradoxically, any attempt to consciously suppress unwanted thoughts & emotions appears to only make them stronger.
     Research shows that people with higher levels of self-compassion are significantly less likely to suppress unwanted thoughts & emotions than those who lack self-compassion. They’re more willing to experience their difficult feelings and to acknowledge that their emotions are valid and important. This is because of the safety provided by self-compassion. It’s not as scary to confront emotional pain when you know that you will be supported throughout the process. Just as it feels easier to open up to a close friend whom you can rely on to be caring and understanding, it’s easier to open up to yourself when you can trust that your pain will be held in compassionate awareness.
     The beauty of self-compassion is that instead of replacing negative feelings with positive ones, new positive emotions are generated by embracing the negative ones. The positive emotions of care and connectedness are felt alongside our painful feelings. When we have compassion for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously. This is important – ensuring that the fuel of resistance isn’t added to the fire of negativity. It also allows us to celebrate the entire range of human experience, so that we can become whole. As Marcel Proust said, ‘We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.’ ” 
        Kristin Neff. “Self-Compassion. The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” HarperCollins, 2011.

     “Age is opportunity no less
than youth itself, though in another dress,
     And as the evening twilight fades away
the sky is filled with stars invisible by day.” Longfellow

     Meditation practice has been described as practicing dying. 
     “You can develop centered awareness through daily practice. Going inside daily – in meditation, in contemplative prayer, in solitude, in communion with nature – brings clarity to your purpose, your gifts, and your passion. It also brings you face-to-face with your fears and vulnerabilities as, in quiet awareness, you incrementally engage the light side and the shadow side, subtly preparing not just for vital living, but also for your eventual death.
     When your final breaths come, you can accept the Mystery graciously, knowing the impermanence of the body and the eternal nature of consciousness. When the great darkness blocks out the sun, centered awareness will provide the calm courage to embrace the Mystery. And if you are blessed with another sunrise, your choosing to connect daily with the mystery will enlighten everything – a cup of tea, a stand of trees, a simple hello.”
        Crum TF. “Journey to Center. Lessons in Unifying Body, Mind, and Spirit.” Fireside, 1997. 

     ANY of us might be surprised to find that we only have a very short time to live. This has the potential to vastly accelerate our process of maturation. Like the more common, protracted aging process (see:, the accelerated process also offers two main choices: remaining traumatized, bitter, angry etc by impending death - OR - impending death acting as a catalyst, resulting in flourishing & thriving (post-traumatic growth)!!!

     "some have asserted that cancer may be one of the most challenging diseases to treat because of the various levels of human experience that it penetrates, from the physical, to the psychological, and spiritual. However, psychological reactions to a cancer diagnosis are not exclusively negative. For example, a diagnosis may actually provoke patients to begin an internal search for greater awareness and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. ... A psychosocial transition is a major life event that causes a process whereby individuals gradually change their worldview, expectations, and plans. ... people may make sense of their diagnosis by finding positive benefit(s) in their situation.
     Related processes have been studied under various names, including post-traumatic growth (PTG), stress-related growth, benefit finding, adversarial growth, positive change, thriving, personal growth, positive adjustment, and transformation.
     ... PTG is comprised of three broad categories: perceived changes in self, a changed sense of relationship with others, and a changed philosophy of life. The mechanisms by which an intervention may facilitate the development of PTG may be through taking advantage of the trauma-induced disruption in the person’s life to introduce a transition towards new beneficial organization compared to one’s beliefs before the trauma."
       Garland SN et al. A non-randomized comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and healing arts programs for facilitating post-traumatic growth and spirituality in cancer outpatients. Support Care Cancer 2007; 15(8): 949-61.

     “We suffer to the exact degree that we resist having our eyes and hearts opened.” Adyashanti

     “In our society, we put a lot of emphasis on doing. So it can be frustrating to be in a situation in which there is often not all that much to do, as in relating with the sick or dying. But fundamentally it is our being that matters, who we really are and how that manifests in whatever we do.”
       Lief JL. “Making Friends with Death. A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.” Shambhala, 2001.

     "Dying people usually ask two questions: 'Am I loved?' and 'Did I love well?' This is where people find the meaning and value in their life as they come to the end."
       Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice project in San Francisco, California


  1. John, thank you. You must be done your retreat (Sandra said you were on one) or perhaps you allow yourself to do a blog in the midst of it. This reflection speaks quite powerfully to the topic we said we might write on a while ago...reflections on having lived a good long time. The word good, for you and I, has a double entendre, doesn't it. As you developed the theme in this blog so interestingly, and spoke about post traumatic growth and be able to realize that we live with a lot of love, two things came to mind. One is the book of Ecclesiastes (Old Testament), especially the 12th chapter, a beautiful poem about the realities of aging. The other is a memory of my own mid-life crisis in which I came to grips with life being half over, meaning that the end of what we now experience was crystaling on my horizon. As I reflect on the concept of post traumatic growth, I realize that is a good description of a gradual process that developed slowly after that and has intensified through retirement activities which include health maintenance. In sum, the joy of having experienced life and love, which I suppose blossomed in the flower of life, is a tasty fruit to bite into.

    1. You're most welcome Jim. I suspect that we tend to experience a whole series of crises or 'shipwrecks' in our lifetime, when, if we're fortunate enough, our worldview & self-concept completely collapse AND we successfully fabricate a more mature, more inclusive worldview & self-concept - much as successive scientific experiments tend to be increasingly more accurate approximations of reality. How sudden, dramatic & successful the shipwrecks & rebuilds are vary greatly. A wonderful book on the subject: Lesser E. “Broken open. How difficult times can help us grow.” Villard, 2005.

  2. HI, John. Thank you for this message. I will be sharing it with my sangha! Geri

    1. You're most welcome Geri. Thank YOU for sharing!