Learning how to die
I am back from my retreat. It was so many things, but most assuredly, it was a deep experience for me.
In my book about retreating, I talk about the importance of mental and emotional expansion while you're retreating. What we ingest while in this quiet, dedicated, and contemplative time is important. Not just food (though this is impactful, too). But I'm talking about what we mentally take in.
This retreat, I read Pema Chodron's new book, How We Live is How We Die. I can't recommend it enough.
Furthermore, I believe our habitat informs our internal landscape. Do you live by cliffs? Mountains? Water? In a city? A neighborhood? Farmland? I love thinking about how the specific nature of our environment impacts our psyche.*
Reading Pema's book, in combination with living on land, with only fields and mountains in view, has put me in a state of raw and unobstructed openness.
This doesn't mean I am better or worse, just that I feel my heart to be beating at the surface. I notice myself to be more tender, exposed, and swayed by both the highs and the lows, less guarded overall.
Since being here, I've been overwhelmingly nostalgic about my kids growing up. I drop them off at school and feel weepy leaving them there. Not because anything is wrong. But because there is a sadness that comes with the passing of time. One I haven't regularly stayed with before right now.
I've been to so many seminars, taken so many classes, and read so many books about the importance of managing my state and mind. I love these tactical teachings. And also, there is an underlying aggression in the idea that we need to push ourselves into any state, bypassing the more somber emotions that make us human. It is these more very emotions that grant us perspective by reminding us of our ultimate fate.
Because the truth is, life is passing us by. Our children are growing. We are aging. Our bodies, minds, and conditions are changing. Our loved ones will die. We will die. And the world will keep going without us...
In all of Pema's book, she speaks about groundlessness and the Buddhist notion of impermanence -- how our transitory existence is the truest teaching of all. In this book, she expands on this idea, suggesting that how we handle change in our lives right now, however skillfully or not, is indicative of how we'll handle the biggest change of all -- our final departure.
I'm not sure what you believe about what happens after we die. For me, the idea that the energy and quality of mind we create in this lifetime is what carries on, resonates.
We can die in a state of peace and acceptance for what is. Or we can die, metaphorically kicking and screaming until the final moment, denying the inevitable because it didn't fit our timeline. If you've been lucky enough to be close to someone in their final moments, you can attest to how different dying experiences can be based on your beloved's quality of mind.
So may we use the experiences of this lifetime to train us for our final stages. To me, this means using the changes, especially the unwanted ones, as practice to soften my expectations about life, others, and myself. This means letting reality be my teacher as opposed to hopes and dreams of what should be happening.
Getting comfortable each day with the fundamental groundlessness of life will offer us great ease in the end. No one likes uncertainty, insecurity, feeling lost, sad or unsure. But getting comfortable with, and surrendering to the unpredictable flow our existence now can help us feel more relaxed. And if we can bring this relaxation to our deathbed, we'll be ready for whatever may happen next.
To your practice,
*For an excellent book on the influence of our external landscape on our internal one, check out If Women Rose Rooted, by Sharon Blackie.