2020 Living/Dying Project Newsletter
Challenging times – pandemic, politics, fires and smoke and floods, racial inequality, social unrest, financial uncertainty. The list could be much longer. It feels like there is more to be anxious about and to grieve than ever before. Many are sinking under the weight of the imbalances that have been revealed in our world recently. Many of us feel profoundly disconnected from others, from ourselves, from God.
For years I’ve been exploring and teaching practices to heal our grief and anxiety, our fear and anger. This gradual approach works directly with what blocks the individual from moment-to-moment aliveness. The coming together at this moment of so many personal challenges can be the inspiration for lifting our practice to another level. If ever there were a time to cultivate an unshakable hardcore love, this is it.
Here are two practices that directly take us beyond self concern. The first is cultivating universal compassion, taking attention off our own problems, realizing the boundless nature of our hearts. One of the defining qualities of compassion is connectedness. It’s compassion with, not compassion for. Trusting the loving, spacious heart even when connected with suffering. Can we feel compassion for all those facing financial insecurity because of the pandemic, for all those grieving, for those whose politics we disagree with, opening our hearts to something much bigger than our own concerns? Aren’t we much vaster than we think? We desperately need these feelings of connection not just with our own tribe, but with those we have been seeing as the other.
Whenever I do a “big compassion” practice I feel full, joyful, beyond concern. Here we are not denying our own grief and anxiety, but at least temporarily acting from the truth of our fundamental interdependence, our essential oneness. Grief dares us to connect and love again. Compassion is the connectedness beyond our grief. As Rumi so beautifully wrote, “Grief is the garden of compassion.”
Compassion doesn’t necessarily alleviate suffering in the moment, but an open heart makes the pain bearable, workable and creates the doorway to healing. In the boundless heart is a joy that transcends happiness and sadness, wellness and illness, life and death.
Secondly, we can learn to love the fierce, the wild, the difficult faces of God. The difficult is much easier to embrace if we don’t relate to it as an imposition, as an obstacle to being present. Can divisiveness and chaos and uncertainty also be seen as manifestations of the Divine? We stay awake by going beyond the struggle, devouring rather than being devoured by our experience, by loving what was previously unlovable.
The Hindu dark goddess Kali appears ugly and terrifying at first glance, but She reveals her inner beauty when loved. To find this beauty within the messy and the distressing, we are called upon to love the wildness within ourselves. We invoke a Presence vaster than our fear. We open to deep bodily sensation that underlies our background agitation and anxiety and thus manifest the inherent gifts in our lives. Rather than just surviving the pervasive chaos, can we use our challenges as an opportunity for deep awakening? Can this new life so different from the “time before” be not merely fearful reacting, but inspiration to do the big practice of hardcore love? Can we create a life based on this love? We need connection now more than ever. What is the most important thing? The most important thing is remembering the Beloved can only be everyone and everything.
~ Dale Borglum
The Dakini* Speaks
My friends, let’s grow up.
Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple – how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like human ripe beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed,
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life’s only promise to us,
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.
To a child, she seems cruel, but she is only wild,
And her compassion exquisitely precise.
Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
This is the true ride – let’s give ourselves to it!
Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage –
There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children anymore.
The true human adult gives everything
for what cannot be lost.
Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope.
© Jennifer Welwood
* A dakini (Sanskrit: “sky dancer”) is a Tantric priestess of
ancient India who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky”
and acts as a muse for spiritual practice.
Something has been calling
For longer than you can
Calling you to step out
into the light, into your life.
It doesn’t matter whether
you think you’re ready or not
The time has come.
Roll away the stone!
Roll away the stone!
Where Do We Go From Here
What has happened in California with regard to end of life decisions will likely be explored elsewhere in this country. Oregon was the first state to allow men and women contending with illnesses that have no effective treatment to make the decision to end their lives with assistance of their doctors. California passed its End of Life Option Act in 2016. It was challenged in court and the law put on hold until 2017. It was in January of 2019 that one of our dear friends and clients, Eileen Rossman, availed herself of that option and took the prescribed medicine in the presence of her two adult children. Her daughter Joey has written the piece that follows telling of her experience sharing the journey with her mother.
For the Living/Dying Project, passage of this law represents a change in how some of our clients approach the end of their lives. When we met with clients in the past it was with the understanding we were on a journey whose length was a mystery and that was completely beyond our control. Our volunteer’s task was to support the client as they came to terms with the effects of the disease ravaging their body, and as they reflected on the life challenges they were leaving behind. In most cases there were farewells to be made with loved ones, friends and family alike. That, of course, doesn’t change, but now the entire process carries with it the decision whether to utilize the end of life protocol and if that route is taken, when the person will chose to end their life by their own initiative.
As I’m writing this piece a dear friend who shared a bit of his journey in the newsletter last year is working through these questions. Dan is married with two college-age sons. His oldest son graduated earlier this year and is at home while he prepares to enter the workforce. With the arrival of the coronavirus all such life decisions have become more complicated. His younger son is also home and completing an internship before he returns to college.
As Dan contends with his diminishing capacity to engage with life he is surrounded with loved ones, supporting them as best as he can, while assessing whether it is time to stop treating his stage four colon cancer and seek comfort care. When he choses that path, it will include making arrangements to satisfy the requirements imposed on those wishing to avail themselves of the End of Life Law.
Dan met virtually with a doctor from the University of California San Francisco medical center who specializes in palliative care. She will likely be in contact shortly with Dan’s oncologist to get a more precise reading of his prognosis. In Dan’s initial conversation with his oncologist regarding end of life questions he felt the doctor was not prepared to sign onto any plan that would terminate treatment… despite the fact treatment has been going on for eight years. No one expects his stage four cancer will be cured through these efforts.
Dan’s wife asked him following his conversation with the palliative care doctor whether he is ready to take the pills that would end his life. He said, “I don’t know.” On good days life is bearable, if not fulfilling, and the thought of no life seems impossible to entertain. He knows this life, even with its limitations. What comes next is entirely unknown. At the moment there are more questions than answers, but this is the conversation we’re having when we talk each week. I want to support him in making the best decision he can, a decision that may mean he won’t wait for death to take him. He will make the choice.
~ Curtis Grindahl, Client Services Coordinator
It always comes back
to the same necessity:
go deep enough and
there is a bedrock of
truth, however hard.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply
an irrevocable condition.
Saying Goodbye to Mom
My mama died last year on January 10th. She was just shy of 75 when she died peacefully at home. Her death was beautiful. Her death was a gift. It was also a heartbreak.
It was a gift because it showed me and my brother what death can look like when someone puts thought, energy and intention into how they want to transition out of their body when their time has come. It is a very special space to hold for someone, sitting with them on their death bed.
My mom, in many ways made this easy for my brother and me as she showed us the way. For this I am so grateful. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer just before her 70th birthday. She was already a cancer survivor, having beaten a melanoma diagnosis in her early 30s when my brother and I were 8 and 6 years old. She beat it with a combination of western medicine and alternative treatments in Mexico which, at that time, was quite radical. She was a pioneer.
In many ways that initial diagnosis would shape the way she lived her adult life. She said she had been preparing for her death ever since. Not in a morbid way. It certainly informed how she actively prepared for her death and how she died.
My mom grew up in a Jewish home in Brooklyn and described herself as being spiritually inclined from a young age. So when she was diagnosed with cancer in her thirties it was natural for her to tap into that spiritual nature. She was part of the first death and dying retreats in the 70s lead by Ram Dass, Stephen Levine and Dale Borglum. They had a profound impact on her life.
My mom lived a simple life. She loved her family deeply, was silly like no other, had a wicked sense of humor, was brutally honest to a fault. She was one of the most generous people I knew. Our relationship, like many mother-daughter relationships was complicated and not always easy. In many ways we were like oil and water. That being said, she was my best friend and it’s been a very lonely year without her.
When my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, she wasn’t sure she wanted to fight it. The idea of chemo was daunting, holistic options were confusing and beyond her reach financially. She consulted with a well known acupuncturist who specializes in breast and ovarian cancer who, to her surprise, urged her to seek treatment with western medicine. This gave her pause.
Ultimately, it was the love of her grandson and not wanting to leave him that served as her inspiration to undergo chemo and a radical hysterectomy. Thankfully she did. To witness her approach to her treatment was a lesson in grace. Many people refer to chemo as poison. She welcomed it into her body as healing juice. This is where she excelled. Her spiritual anchor was her strength. It gave her peace and she really was fearless (she also acknowledged that facing cancer later in life was very different than when she was a mom of young children).
She responded amazingly to treatment, went into remission and we got another 4+ wonderful years with her. She made her life about her grandchildren (now 3 of them) and her children. And then she went out of remission. This time, she was clear. No more treatment. She chose quality of life and started preparing for her death. She was still so full of life. I know I lived most of those last months in denial of how soon she would be gone.
In the state of California, we have what is called The End of Life Option Act, often referred to as Death with Dignity. She was able to get the required two doctors to sign off on her behalf. She was doing this as much for the political statement – to let her opinion be known (she was big on having her opinion known!) as this law was and still is making its way through the courts. She felt strongly in this right. She was also doing it for peace of mind. In those last months of her life, knowing she had the prescribed drugs on hand provided her with much comfort which was priceless.
It became clear last January 1st that she wasn’t doing well. By the 5th it was clear she was dying. My brother and I knew neither one of us was leaving her side.
She had Ram Dass’s book Walking Each Other Home at her bedside along with Jai Uttal’s Loveland: Music For Dreaming And Awakening on her iPad. I picked up reading where she had left off in Walking Each Other Home. It seemed fitting that it hadn’t been read to completion. It became our guide and teacher on how to sit with presence for our dying mother. There were lots of silent tears as our hearts broke open. As she lost her ability to talk, we played Jai’s music which had a visible calming impact and also put her in a blissful state. These two things along with our love for each other seemed to help her transition from this world.
During these precious five days, my brother and I did much healing in our strained relationship. That gave her peace and it was our last gift to her. She gave us the gift of showing us what a conscious and peaceful death could look like and what pure love feels like. In the end, about four days after stopping food and water, she decided to take the end of life medication and passed about 24 hours later.
This past year has been one of growth and grief. It has been a lonely year not being able to speak to her. There are things only a mother can hear and hold the space for. We spoke more times a day than I care to admit… for better or worse!
Thank you for reading a little about my mom’s end of life and in a small way being witness to her courage. She would love that I am sharing with you the story of her death
~ Joey Anderson
Leave behind your cleverness,
O lover of God:
go crazy instead
Become a moth: enter the flame!