Aging and Death
"...I began to [wonder] ...whether or not I could transform this process [of aging], with all the fears, losses, and uncertainties, from a necessary evil into an opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth."
Ram Das, Still Here
The answer, of course, is that he could and did. And so can we, if we chose to. A good place to begin this inquiry is the realization that we are not our bodies. This helps us understand that it is the body that is aging, not ourselves. In fact, aside from my body, I feel younger than I have for many years. Ask any engaged person in their 70's or 80's how old they feel, and the answer you are likely to get is, "Hard to tell, somewhere in my 30's maybe (or 20's or 40's) but without all the doubt and heartache." In short, the part of us that is us, our conscious awareness, does not age; it is the body we have been given and that allows us to play on this wonderful planet that ages and will, in time, die.
Next, realize that we are not our minds. These certainly age, as our memory falters and mental acuity declines. What does not decline, though, is the wisdom that grows within us each year, the wisdom of our hearts that emerges from all the experiences, challenges, failures, and successes of our long lifetimes.
Realizing that we are other than our bodies and our minds is the teaching of all the great religious and spiritual masters. There is a wonderful four part series of talks on aging that explores this teaching and aging as a spiritual practice that was given by Ram Das when he was in his 60's. For the first talk in the series, click here.
It is not easy for most of us, however, to both realize and experience this at first, embedded as we are in a Western materialistic secular worldview that believes only in the material world we can touch, feel, and measure. It urges us to find our happiness and fulfillment in the world around us, in acquiring things, in making sure our bodies are well taken care of and are kept as young as possible for as long as possible. This is a sure recipe for suffering, as anything and everything that is material, that is created or born, dies and disappears.
So as our bodies and minds slow down, rather than fighting this inevitable and natural process of change, as we are often advised to do, we can use the slowing to find time for quiet, to turn inside where the richness of true happiness lies. This is a practice that takes time, persistence, and patience to develop, which is why the earlier in life we begin, the more prepared we will be to take advantage of the opportunities of aging for personal and spiritual growth.
This is a practice I am actively engaged in now that I'm in my 70's, and I would welcome the opportunity to work with you, whatever your physical age, to support the development of their own practice, along the path of your own choosing. It you would like to explore how we might work together in ways that are mutually supportive, please feel free to contact me.
“I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen
Death is one of our two greatest transitions, the other being birth. It is a natural part of life, one that all of us, and all living beings, pass through. Unfortunately, however, we live in a death-phobic culture and, as a result, most of us, like Woody, try to turn our attention away from death and dying as much as possible.
The result is that many of us approach death, whether that of someone close or our own, caught off guard, as if it were an annoying and frightening intrusion into our daily lives. There may be no way to avoid the fears and anxieties we experience around death, but we can talk them with other people. Doing so we find we are not alone in these fears, and exploring them can ease our sense of fear and vulnerability. A good place to have conversations about death is at Death Cafes, which are now organized in many communities around the country. The conversations I have had at these have been poignant and eased much of the tension I have felt around the subject of death, especially my own.
Talking with others also allows us to think about how we would want to die if we have a chance to control or affect the circumstances. Our culture considers death a medical problem, not a spiritual event, and for a medical profession dedicated to keeping us alive at all costs, death is often seen as a defeat or a failure. Modern medicine is now so powerful that doctors almost always have yet another, often heroic, intervention that may extend life for weeks, months or even years. These end-of-life interventions, however, frequently extend life at the cost of severely impairing the quality of the dying person’s final days. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, is an important discussion of this problem and what can be done about it by the medical profession and by us, if we are prepared.
Death is an integral part of most non-Western spiritual paths, however, and spiritual practice is, at its core, preparation for dying. For instance, Buddhist monks in Asia sometimes meditate in charnel grounds in order to experience the impermanence of the human form. There are no charnel grounds here in the U.S., but I have found it a powerful experience to meditate in graveyards. There are other practices available to open us to the experience of our own death, such as allowing people to cover you with a sheet and act around you as if you had died. Or you can, on your own, lie down, close your eyes and cover them, and imagine yourself dying.
The experience of what is often called “ego death” is familiar to many who have taken psychedelics; it can be frightening, yet once you survive it there is a sense of release, and confidence that while it is necessary to have an ego to operate while alive, death is not the end of who we are. Some, when in altered states, have even experienced their own physical death.
There are many other ways to help us face our own mortality. The point is that the more open we are to thinking and talking about death and dying, the more prepared we can be, and the more helpful we can be to those around us when death comes to others. And whether or not we have a spiritual practice, living with and facing the reality of death brings us deeper into the experience of being alive now, of gratitude for the time we do have and what we have been given.
Death also presents an opportunity to leave a legacy. The way in which we die makes a difference not just to us but also to all those around us. To be able to die with courage and an open acceptance, to accept death with grace, offers a powerful example to others in how to face their own deaths. This point is made in a beautiful novel, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. It may not be easy to achieve such grace and courage, but the more we face the reality of death while we are alive, the better the likelihood is that in the end we will come to terms with our death in ways that leave a final gift to others.
There are many other good books about death and dying worth reading. The classic, of course, is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is actually a book about how to live in order to prepare for the experience of death and what follows. Two other classics to consider are The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, and On Death and Dying by Dr. Kubler Ross.
There are numerous videos on death and dying; among these are:
Stephen Jenkinson on “The Skill of Brokenheartedness: Euthanasia, Palliative Care and Power”
Ram Dass on Facing Death
There are also questions you can explore on your own, preferably in writing, that can help demystify the experience of death and how we think about it. For instance:
What is your view of death? Is it final, or does it lead to the next phase of awareness, or to another world?
If it is not final, what is your sense of this other world or worlds?
What might make it easier for you to face your own death?
Is there work you need to do, things you need to attend to if you can, before you die? This is not just a “Bucket List” of places to go, but rather what unfinished business is there in your life? Are there people in your life with whom you have unfinished business, people to forgive, or to tell that you love them, or questions about your family you wish to explore while you can?
What is your legacy now? What would you like it to be when you die? What do you wish to tell about your life to the next generations?
Exploring these and similar questions in writing can be deeply helpful. Some people write their own obituary as a way of having a better understanding of their legacy, and there are many people who write down just how they want their funeral or memorial service to be run.
All of these are ways of becoming more present with our mortality. If you wish, I would be pleased to discuss these kinds of questions with you and review with you what you have written. Facing mortality is hard, and it is far harder to do it alone. So please feel free to contact me if you wish to work together in this area, remembering that my role is to be present with you and to hold a safe space within which it is possible for you to look more deeply at what is a challenging subject.
When someone in your family or a close friend is dying, it is important to bring together all the people involved in order to have an open and frank conversation about how best to support the dying person and each other. The ways those around the dying person hold death and dying, and how they support the dying person, make a critical difference to the experience of the dying person. These conversations are often very emotional and sometimes even full of controversy. For this reason, it can be important to have a mentor to be present at these conversations and to create and hold a safe space for all involved. If you are facing this situation, please feel free to contact me to talk about working together.
Or if you simply wish to talk about death, or if you or someone close to you is facing death, please feel free to contact me. I am available to talk with you about ways I might be of service to you, your family, or the person who is dying.
Finally, no matter how you chose to approach them, death and dying are one of the most powerful teachers available to us, and opening to them, challenging as it can be, has the potential for deep inner growth. All of us must face these teachers one way or another, and the more consciously we do so, the less we are driven by our unconscious, and often unnecessary, fears and emotions. Despite living in a culture that turns away from death, we each have the inner strength to face death openly, though doing it together is a far richer and more comforting experience. I wish you strength and courage in your own experiences with death, and pray that you may find ease of mind and heart for your sake and those around you.