The last few months have been a time of quiet, inner reflection, and transition. I have appreciated being away from the computer and from writing but it now feels like it is time to reengage again. In this newsletter I’m happy to be sharing some reflections as well as to announce a number of upcoming events for November. Some of you may recall that last November I had an exceptional Buddhist nun, Ayya Medhanandi, share her wisdom at Heart Space. We are very fortunate that she has agreed to do so again this year. With 30 years in the monastic robes doing intensive meditation and mindfulness practices, her embodied wisdom is tremendous. This year she will be speaking to us about Death and Dying. It is a subject very close to her heart having spent many years working in palliative care settings assisting those who are in the process of dying physically. Beyond working with those who are physically dying, Ayya has assisted countless meditation practitioners “die” to the ideas and concepts of self that have created suffering in their lives.
Death is a topic I too reflect on regularly as it is so ever present in our living. Although our society conditions us to approach life as if it will last forever and tries to hide and deny aging and death, death always finds a way to catch up with us eventually. Who in this world has not experienced a death or significant loss? It is simply impossible to avoid. Whether it is the loss of a family member, loved one, or pet, or whether it comes in the form of the end of a relationship, the loss of a business or creative project, a change in community, a loss in physical health or abilities, a move, immigration, a hurricane, or simply the ending of one version of how we perceive ourself, – everything at some point, comes to an end.
Really opening to the constant reality of impermanence, change, and loss is not easy. Most of us live in a state of perpetual unconscious anxiety about the possibility of loss as our conscious mind tries to control life and create a false sense of security, certainty, and predictability. It feels superficially comforting to think that our current relationships with our loved ones, partners, children, parents and friends, will always be there. It feels comforting to think that life will follow a predictable trajectory in which we will find a perfect partner, have children and find meaningful, well-paying work that will lead us to a picture-perfect retirement filled with good health that will last in perpetuity (Oh boy! That was a run on sentence… a bit like run on thoughts!!). Inevitably, and thankfully, life does not conform to these plans.
I am very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to spend time in conflict zones where the vulnerability and unpredictability of life are so easily apparent. Years ago I remember finding a kind of inner peace and joy as I traveled in the conflict-ridden Middle East. I could see that in the midst of so much suffering and loss, that life continued and that people could still find meaning and even live a more vibrant life knowing that at any moment everything could be lost. Navigating roads in the Palestinian territories that were constantly being blockaded led me to see how people creatively adapted day in and day out so that they could put food on the table. Similarly, I saw how Israelis living with the daily possibility of bombings were able to continue to thrive. It has been much the same when I’ve spent time in other challenged environments including Afghanistan, Nigeria and India. When death, loss and pain are a hairbreadth away, humans have the capacity to wake up and truly live right now. When we are trapped in the trance of false security, predictability, and control (which we so often are in the West), we are actually living a life of denial. Beneath the surface of our perceived security is a state of constant tension and fear of loss.
I am also grateful that in my life in North America, I have had a number of significant losses that remind me repeatedly to appreciate and meet each moment, to open to change, and to see the creative joy that emerges as I let go. In the moments when this knowing is embodied, it is so clear that with each breath, something old has died and something new is born. This is eternally true and available in every moment including this one…..
Loss has been a gift that has broken down the defensive barriers hiding the fears of a personal sense of fragility. When things are “going well” in life, our vulnerability can be well concealed or only show up obliquely in the form of emotions like anger, jealousy or just numbness. But when a big loss arrives, suddenly these fears can no longer be hidden and the aching reality of the pain created by the unmet expectations of life can no longer be denied. Anyone who has suffered a major loss will encounter this. Suddenly, the world as we saw it is turned upside down and all the ideas we cherished about how life should go are no longer valid. Perhaps for a time we may stubbornly cling to our expectations of life and a false sense of control but when we do this we suffer. Eventually we realize that if we open to the freshness of the next moment, even if it brings sorrow, we can start to reconnect with life in its full vitality. Slowly, there may even come a recognition that as we let go of our expectations of life over and over again, that we can exist in a way that is far more expansive and beautiful than the tightly held personal stories we were once trapped in. And in this way, death and dying become powerful gateways to a life well lived.
Reflecting on death is a good daily practice. It keeps things real. It helps us to live life well, to let go of clinging, and to let go of our attempts at control. Knowing that everyone and everything is going to pass away from our lives sooner or later (or that we will pass from theirs) helps us to cherish every moment gifted to us and to make good use of the time we have. There is so much we have to be grateful for.
With much love,