I have a sizeable death library. In it are several books by people who wrote about the death of others. CS Lewis and Ken Wilber wrote about their wives, Joan Didion about her husband, Simone de Beauvoir about her mother.
What’s less common is for someone to write about their own process of dying. Observer readers of a certain age may remember Ruth Picardie’s articles which were turned into a posthumous book ‘Before I Say Goodbye’ in 1998. When she died aged 34 Ruth Picardie was mourned by thousands who had never even met her.
Now there’s blogging. And a mistress of that art, a dearly loved member of the Buddhist community I belong to, Suvarnaprabha, has made a similar impact with her extraordinary blog of words and images. I’m not going to try to summarise her blog or her dear ‘self’ (though the phrase ‘larger than life’ does come to mind).
You can read it for yourself here www.crapivegotcancer.blogspot.co.uk
She died, age 50, in San Francisco on 24 September. With love and solidarity Suvanna…
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Every November, for the last 25 years, Will Aid solicitors give up their time to write wills for people in return for a voluntary donation to charity.
It’s a really wonderful idea and I salute everyone involved – especially all the solicitors! So many of us put off writing – or updating – a will. So many of us resent paying solicitors! So this is a great incentive, as we plunge towards the winter of the year, to get the deed done, by a professional – and give some money to a charity at the same time. That’s what I call a win-win.
Nine of the biggest British charities help make this happen, and are obviously hoping you’ll both donate and remember them in your will. You’re invited to donate (and go oon, do it) and you can give to any charity you like, it’s not restricted to the Will Aid charities.
A will Aid poll last year showed – as other polls have done in the past – how many people haven’t made a will, even when they have property and dependents. Often this is based on assumptions that don’t necessarily hold true, for example, that their estate will automatically go to their partner when they die. The only way to guarantee what you want to happen to your money and possessions is to have an up-to-date will. It’s as simple as that.
Go to www.willaid.org.uk to find a solicitor.
There’s also a Will Planner on their site you can use to help prepare for meeting a solicitor.
Or for more information e mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0300 0300 013.
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I was delighted to recently discover The Center for Conscious Eldering. based in Colarado, whose work is in the same ball park as my ‘second half of life’ events, in particular by offering rites of passage retreats and an emphasis on ‘using’ the power of the natural world to support this time of transition, growth and power. Its website www.centerforconsciouseldering.com has some great articles by its founder, Ron Pevny, including ‘What is Conscious Eldering?’
Even better, is that the Center for Conscious Eldering has joined together in mutual support with several other (American) organisations who are making a positive contribution to a new vision of aging and formed the Conscious Aging Alliance. These include:
Fierce with Age – an online digest of Boomer Wisdom
Gray is Green who focus on a response to unrecendented ecological challenges
The Legacy of Wisdom project, making wisdom the central theme of aging, which focuses of five key areas, and involves Ram Dass, Roshi Joan Halifax
The Life Planning Network helping people navigate the second half of life.
The Elder Body of the Mankind Project, a worldwide body of men over fifty.
Memorial Brainworks whose philosophy and services focus on brain health and mind function as the single most determining factor in how we live.
Recognition Rites – a blend of ancient and contemporary knowledge based on Dr Tom Pinkson’s work.
Sage-ing International‘s mission is to help change our society’s current belief system from aging to sage-ing.
Second Journey focuses on publications, workshops and rich resources on their website.
Wow! You can access all these via the link above. I’ve been looking for what’s going on here in the UK…not much luck so far!
There’s a Conscious Ageing Trust/charity whose website has been under construction for a looooong time, so no idea if that’s going to happen.
Last October 29th, 2012, the Second Half Centre in London W10, opened its doors to the over 50′s community. I’m sorry to say I’m a little puzzled by this initiative. It’s come about via the Second Half of Your Life Foundation set up in May 2011 by the american Jill Shaw Ruddock who published a book of the same name in February 2011. The Center is based in the NHS Hospital of St Charles and whilst I laud its aim of tackling lonliness and isolation, its programme bears a striking resemblance to yer usual (UK) adult education center with classes in coking, IT skills, the arts, exercise, and so on. Mmmmm, a striking contrast (ironically) to what’s going on in America.
Do please get in touch if you find more… there must be someone else doing this stuff in the UK!
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I’ve learnt that there’s little point running ‘death and the only beauty that lasts’ events in the summertime. People simply don’t want to ‘go there’. So that’s how it is. People carry on dying all through the year (at risk of stating the obvious) but even those ‘death warriors’ who are interested and prepared to turn towards death and explore it, don’t want to do it in the summertime.
I keep Sogyal Rimpoche’s ‘Glimpse after Glimpse: Daily Reflections on Living and Dying’ by my loo. (A book that’s inspired by his best-selling ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’.) We’re in the midst of a heatwave in the UK at the moment. I’m having a wonderful summer – I hope you are too – and wanted to share his 6th June entry with you.
“Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed, and comfortable, lying in bed, or on vacation, or listening to music that particularly delights you? Why not reflect on it when you are happy, in good health, confident, and full of well being? Don’t you notice that there are particular moments when you are naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience, and your whole worldview can change quickly. These are the moments when former beliefs crumble on their own, and you can find yourself being transformed.”
I always have a session of reflecting on death at my workshops, more than one session on a retreat, when there’s more time to try a variety of reflections and different ways of doing them. I talk a little about how to approach reflection in general, and reflection on death in particular. And I always begin a session with a reminder of why we’re doing it, by quoting this opening verse of a tonglen written for the time of death by Lama Shenpen Hookham:
do not fear it,
but learn to trust what is not touched by it.”
So there’s a few words to bear in mind, should you choose to take Sogyal Rimpoche’s advice during the rest of the summertime. Enjoy!
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The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed, by Kathleen Willis Morton
The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed is the tragic story of Kathleen Willis Morton and her husband, Chris having a longed for baby boy who dies seven weeks later. The story is extraordinarily difficult to read sometimes because it’s so painful. It’s also a very tender book, so you don’t want to rush it.
It’s hard to write about grief well. In writing The Blue Poppy, Morton joins a canon of grief and bereavement literature that has some real heavyweights in it — and she can hold her head up. In the 1960′s Simone de Beauvoir wrote about her mother’s death (A Very Easy Death) and CS Lewis penned a Christian classic, A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife. Another spiritual classic, Grace and Grit, written by Ken Wilber in 1991, courses his five year journey with his wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer within weeks of their marriage. More recently Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking won critical acclaim and became a one woman show on Broadway and in London’s West End. Her husband dropped dead at the dinner table. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”
Just occasionally Morton overdoes the description. And occasionally she tells, rather than shows –- which must be very tempting with a book like this. But mostly she’s PDG (pretty damn good). If you want to know, or remember, how raw grief is, or can be, or if you need to have your current terrifying/chaotic/deadening/etc experience of grief articulated, read this.
It’s such a new life and tiny body dying. It’s so poignant. We grieve in relation to how we’ve loved. And they say the death of a child is the worst. “I had books on my shelf that were heavier than he was in the end.” When Liam dies they quit their jobs and book a trip around the world. “I wanted to walk away forever going nowhere, and lie down and die at the same time.” The travel stuff is interesting, but the basic material is the same. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
Anyway, she pulls through, of course. It takes her nine years to feel kind of OK at his death anniversary, and to wake up one morning feeling happy. Morton began practicing Tibetan Buddhism when she was 17 and had Liam when she was 27. She had ten years of practice under her belt by the time of his death, then. Practice helps, it definitely helps. “In the darkness I had the stars to look up to.” But it’s not a magic wand: “wave this and avoid suffering.”
I would have liked more about the “end” of her process. It’s too short and “wrapped-up” a bit too soon for me. Maybe she hasn’t had enough distance from the end yet? I dunno. There’s a sense of a publicist wanting to write on the back-cover that this is an “uplifting memoir about enduring world-shattering pain and coming out whole.” That is part of the story, of course, and I’m glad Morton feels like that.
But sentences like “I had to die in my mind to wake up to my life. In letting go, samsara is nirvana” don’t do her justice somehow. I wish she’d done a little more work there, but maybe that way of expression is not her forte. It doesn’t feel like her voice. The very last sentence of the book is more her voice, and is much more interesting. “Sometimes powerful reasons to hold on are not yet known to us.” Given the age old ping pong in Buddhism between attachment and renunciation, and the manifold ways we rationalize, opine and actually behave, I wish she had explored this apparent contradiction more. In a sense, she’s writing about that all the time, not knowing how to go on living without Liam, yet somehow keeping going, fumbling. It’s a paradox and a koan this bereavement business. What do we hold on to and what do we let go of? There’s the whole of the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) in that question. And what exactly is it we are doing when we do hold on and/or let go? I look forward to seeing other Buddhist writers keep Kathleen Willis Morton company in this genre. She’s made a fabulous contribution, from the experience of a practicing Buddhist as well as a mother – and there’s still plenty left to say.
Kathleen Willis Morton can be found online at www.TheBluePoppyAndTheMustardSeed.com. She encourages readers to visit and share their experiences on the online forum.
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In my energy medicine classes and workshops I teach a daily energy routine that takes five to ten minutes to do. I do this most days now and it’s changed my life! Doing the energy routine is like pressing a reset button, helping restore our body’s natural energy flows. I love sharing this work and it’s so easy to do.
what are the K27′s?
The routine starts with thumping your K27′s which can also be used as a stand alone exercise whenever you need it. The K27′s are the paired 27th acupressure points on the right and left side of the kidney meridian. And they’re the juncture points that affect all the other meridians. Meridians are energy pathways – this is from TCM, traditional Chinese medicine. And acupuncture or acupressure points are tiny energy centers arranged along the meridians.
where are the K27′s and what do I do?
Place your first two or three fingers on the knobbly bits of your collarbone (it’s about the place where you’d tie a know in a tie). Move your fingers down about an inch. Then move your fingers out horizontally to the side about an inch. For most people there’s a soft spot or indentation there. Bingo! That’s the place. Don’t worry about being super accurate on a tiny spot, we are not doing acupuncture here and using needles.
Breathe slowly and deeply as you firmly tap, or massage, your K27′s with two or three fingers. Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. And tap for 30 seconds.
what does this do exactly?
This simple exercise energises you if you’re feeling tired or drowsy. It ‘flips’ your energies around if they’ve started flowing backwards. If that’s happening it can feel like you’re going one way, and your energies are going the other way. Most of us know what that feels like, and it can be a major part of what’s going on in chronic fatigue syndrome. Some days I thump my K27′s lots of times. I find it especially helpful on long car journeys – though I only take one hand off the steering wheel to do it, of course! People vary with being able to feel the effect of this, though 99 times out of 100 it will be having an effect whether you can obviously feel it or not. If you are very tired and feel no immediate effect, your body probably isn’t going to let you override exhaustion. So, for example, if you’re driving, pull over and have a rest! This is not about being an aid to living in a driven way (pun not intended). I’m a big fan of rest and relaxation, as well as energy!
Thumping your K27′s not only wakes you up, it can also help you focus when you’re having difficulty concentrating. Our energy circuitry can get disrupted by a lot of up and down eye movement and this exercise helps the energy circuitry hold strong. So it’s great for any situation where your eyes are rapidly shifting from one spot to another, reading, computer work and, oh, it’s Wimbledon tennis championships end of the month – look out for K27 thumpers in the stalls? It also helps with dyslexia and other learning disablitites.
finally, being a closet thumper
Personally I like to thump my K27′s. But as massaging them firmly is just as effective, it means it’s possible to employ this wonderful exercise without people having the slightest idea what you’re doing. Like when you’re flagging in a long, tedious meeting with important clients or your boss, for example. Be grateful the K27′s are near your collarbone and not your pubic bone.
Throw away those chocolate bars and cans of coca cola to pick you up. Join the thumping K27′s community.
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There’s a lot that could be said about how best to organise and conduct a funeral in general. And an awful lot of what’s written about buddhist funerals falls into the category of general information. Fair enough. I do it myself in the handout I produced for when I run a workshop oh how to plan your funeral. I’ve organised and conducted a few funerals myself and you do need to think about an awful lot of things, especially if you don’t use conventional services. Aside from dealing with transport, flowers, venue, decoration etc etc what is it exactly that makes a funeral Buddhist?
Google ‘buddhist funerals’ and a plethora of information pops up. Some of it is helpful such as the Network of Buddhist Organisations guidelines (www.nbo.org) though much of that is also in the ‘general info’ category. There are other sites that are specific to various Buddhist and/or cultural traditions, Chinese, Thai, Tibetan, that didn’t speak to me or really answer my question. Some of the information offered strays into broader issues around death such as how to be with a dying person.
Other sites that came up were from funeral director’s doing their best to offer a multi faith service. One tells me that “there are very few traditional methods of funerals as they are seen as non-religious events.” Another funeral director’s site writes that “among Buddhists death is regarded as an occasion of major religious significance”. Both these statements are true.
When I cut to the chase these are some of the pointers that I offer.
The Buddha made no rules or guidelines on proper rites of passage. Neither did he prohibit people from expressing their respect and gratitude.
To press the first of these points a little further, the third of the ten fetters (that “bind us to the Wheel of Life” and are an obstacle to spiritual progress) is the fetter of attachment to religious observances as ends in themselves.
The definition of death that tends to rule in the West is the medical one. The point at which the heart stops is not the moment of death from a Buddhist perspective. It’s the beginning of the inner dissolution. In an ideal Buddhist world it’s thought best to leave a body undisturbed during the period in which the consciousness is losing its connection with the body for several hours, and optimally for three days.
This is why some of the information and advice on funerals goes into issues to do with dying and stress the importance of a quiet and calm atmosphere. This is why continuing to relate to the ‘body’ can help, by saying prayers, or readings, by chanting, by reminding the person of all the good they did in their life, and encouraging them to let go and move on. Some feel that this principle and these practices are still relevant at the time of the funeral and should shape its programme ie that the funeral is primarily for the dead person.
In practice, of course, it’s very difficult for most ‘corpses’ to lie undisturbed for three days, or even three hours. And many teachers advise not to worry about this too much at all and that most people are ‘out of here’ in a moment, though some may take up to twenty minutes. The exceptions are adept meditators who can remain stable in the Clear Light for a looonng time, and people who have a very strong attachment to their body. It seems most of us are well designed to die.
So where does this leave us in terms of the funeral, and defining a buddhist funeral?
Perhaps it’s worth making the point that there’s no legal requirement to have a funeral in Britain. I had this experience for the first time recently when I took an elderly neighbour to another elderly neighbours…well, what to call it? It was like a reception after a funeral but there’d been no funeral. It felt strangely empty and lost, to me. Most of the food remained uneaten.
Ceremony, ritual, is important to me. I value it highly and experiment with it form. It plays a regular part in my life, both alone and with others. Ceremonies are helpful at times of transition. They help acknowledge what’s happening. They lend meaning and direction to the process that everyone is in, those who’ve died and those who remain.
The growing trend is for funerals to be a celebration of the deceased’s life (rather than an occasion for mourning). The most powerful, uniting, honest and joyous part of some funerals I’ve attended has been the ‘open mike’ section, when people speak, often spontaneously, from the floor and share their memories and appreciation. For me, there’s a balance to be struck between involvement and informality, and a dignified sense of occasion that feels ‘held’.
A Buddhist funeral has no need of any inappropriate or alienating rites or rituals, there’s no liturgical text demanding its place. It can take a wide range of needs into account in terms of who’s attending. Indeed this is congruent with its values of tolerance and generosity. All that’s really needed is for there to somehow be acknowledged that the person was committed to and practised a buddhist way of life. A reading on the Buddhist understanding of life and death may be enough. A light touch and beauty are also congruent. I’ve witnessed non-Buddhists enjoying making an offering of fresh (not for long) rose petals on the coffin and the shrine, during a period of chanting at a funeral. It’s powerful to live on a path and in a tradition that is over 2,500 years old – most people will appreciate the sense of depth and connection with that.
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A short article in saturday’s Guardian (13 april) reported on a new service from Google – the Inactive Account Manager – that administers your online life after death. All sorts of options are possible and covers e mails, blogs and comments, contacts, Circles members, files, profiles, photos, phone voice data and YouTube viewing. Makes me feel tired just reading the list, technically I’m on a steep learning curve at the moment. Something else to add to my workshop session on writing a will. It gives a whole new meaning to logging off.
The move from Google follows increasing concern about problems encountered by families who have tried to access or shut down accounts on sites such as Facebook after the sudden death of a relative. Other services already exist to handle the aftermath of a ‘digital death’ such as Entrustet. It arrives amid controversy over the proposed ‘right to be forgotten’ that the European Union is trying to introduce over digital info. I’ve not come across that phrase before and find it an interesting ‘right’ to ponder on that runs counter to the usual emphasis on the importance of remembering and leaving a legacy. Any thoughts?
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Do you ever think about death? Your own death, or someone else’s. How it’ll happen. Where. And when. How do you respond – in the moment and in an ongoing way – when someone tells you a significant person in their life has died? Have you got to grips with all the practicals that need dealing with in relation to your own death? Are you one of the vast majority who haven’t!? Do you realise what the consequences of that will be….? Have you got any idea why you don’t want to go there? And do you have any sense of how that could be affecting the quality of your life, now, and from day to day?
Denial of death runs rampant through our culture. We’re all affected by this and it can leave us woefully unprepared when it’s our time to die – or our time to help others die. Some people rise magnificantly to this occasion. Sadly, we often aren’t available for those who need us, paralysed as we are by anxiety and resistance – nor are we ‘available’, able to be present, for ourselves and the opportunities of our own dying and death process.
It doesn’t have to be like this and there are signs that things are, slowly, changing for the better. In 2009 the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) set up Dying Matters to change public knowledge, attitudes and behaviour and promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement. It’s a broad based and inclusive national (British) coalition. This year it’s Awareness Week is 13-19 May and the theme is ‘Be Ready for it’. The five crucial actions it’s encouraging us all to do are:
1. make a will
2. record your funeral wishes
3. plan your future care and support
4. register as an organ donor and
5. tell your loved ones your wishes.
There’s a huge variety of ways you can get involved in this week from simply tweeting to running an event. And Dying Matters produces lots of resources to support this involvement, from postcards to banners. There are currently 30,000 members, counting, and it’s free to join. Simply visiting their website may help you, and others, start those conversations… it’s www.dyingmatters.org
I’ve been a member of Dying Matters since it started in 2009. Seven years before that, in Australia 2002, I started running workshops and retreats about death. Since then I’ve run events ranging from one day workshops to ten day retreats in Britain and Ireland. I began this work after a barrage of personal bereavements during my 30′s (in the 90′s). Around the same time I began practising in the Buddhist tradition – teachings which have much to offer the area of change, impermanence and death – and then trained as a bereavement counsellor in 2000.
I call my events ‘death and the only beauty that lasts’ after a line from the Sufi poet Rumi – “the only beauty that lasts is the beauty of the human heart.” Though often still resistant to turning towards this topic, I nevertheless always find it rich, moving, rewarding and fall back in love with life all over again. It’s no mistake the greatest literature is about love and death. They’re not so different really. Except perhaps we can fear love even more than we fear death….
The five crucial actions (listed above) that this year’s Dying Matters awareness week urges us to take is a big ask. Sometimes dealing with the practical stuff is simply a matter of getting down to it, making decisions, doing the paperwork. Just as often it can open a can of worms. And, to continue from my opening paragraph, begs more questions.
What about the emotional stuff too, life’s ‘baggage’, that most of us have? What tools do we use to deal with that? Death is a vast ‘subject’. Many issues can arise under its heading. What do you think death is, do you know where your ideas about it come from, and do your views accord with your experience? How do you relate to time? How do you relate to the unknown and the uncertainty of not knowing? Though undoubtedly a painful time, bereavement may also reveal the beauty and tenderness in sadness and open us to opportunites and insights. That’s certainly been my experience.
Ideally, given that we’re all going to die, everybody would benefit from getting to grips with the basic practicals. I’d say the bottom line is writing a will, making a funeral plan, and communicating about that with the relevant people. I cover that ground in all my courses and that can be a stand alone one day workshop. Invite me. Looking deeper into this topic isn’t for everybody. If it is for you and you’d like to explore your relationship with death on an experiential journey, with a (usually small) group of kindred spirits, in beautiful surroundings, check out one of my longer workshops. Sadly, there’s no events in north wales to mark the Dying Matters week in May (I’m leading a retreat in Suffolk 12-17 May which you’re welcome to travel over to!) There’s always next year, assuming we’re still around…. Thank you for reading this. In solidarity and peace.
For more info, to book, and to keep in touch with my future events by signing up for my monthly newsletter, visit www.janparker.co.uk or 01766 771801 – 07909 643221.
dates for courses in north wales:
18-20 Oct, Llanbedr,
4-8 Nov, Anglesey beach house
tbc 31 Oct, Halloween for grown-ups: day workshop, eve film screening and taking circle, Tremadog
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