The Shadow of Death

The dying long have been marginalized, even ignored, in our modern society. In response to this tragic enactment of our collective denial of death, the hospice movement and the conscious dying movement in recent years have emerged and flourished. Spiritual methodologies, particularly Buddhist, have informed these efforts to bring compassionate care to the dying. As well as serving the dying person, working with the dying increasingly has been perceived to be a deep inspiration and stimulus to spiritual development for the caregiver. To paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche, “Until one comes into intimate contact with death, spiritual practice is dilettantish.”

Certainly the dying deserve care that is as conscious as possible and certainly we can learn profound lessons from being in intimate contact with death that are almost impossible to come by elsewhere. Much has been written about consciously being with the dying. Very little has been said about the shadow of this work. Let me briefly recount the stories of two of my clients.

Robert had metastatic brain cancer. He had done Buddhist meditation practice for many years. Pictures of saints and spiritual books filled his room in Berkeley. His caregivers were also meditators. They had known Robert for years and cared about him deeply. At times the room was filled with a palpable peace. At other times Robert was angry, bitter, petty. For example, during one of my visits his longtime girl friend appeared and asked Robert for his forgiveness and love. She desperately wanted the painful rift in this relationship to be mended in its final days. Robert responded, “Isn’t the money I’m leaving you enough? Leave me alone.” Was this voice Robert’s personality, a manifestation of his fear of his imminent death, or “just” symptomology of organic brain disease? I had the advantage of not knowing Robert before his illness, the deeply creative and exuberant Robert others spoke of. His caregivers and loved ones compared this “dying person” both with who he was before his illness and with their ideal of someone who was dying consciously. They wanted him to die well. They were frustrated with the ways Robert continued to be a “difficult patient”, not spiritual enough.

Some months later I had the blessing of working with a couple whose baby was dying. Baby Brice was profoundly brain damaged during a traumatic birth. He could not see, hear, swallow, cough or use his higher brain. Only base brain functions remained. Brice lived a few days short of five months, most of the time at home with his parents. His mother was a Zen Buddhist and his father was a Christian. Their commitment to his loving care was profound. Brice required constant attention. Since he could not cough or swallow, he could suffocate on his own saliva in a matter of moments if left unattended. Every week of his life except one during which he retained fluids, Brice lost weight. His face was perfectly beautiful. His only contact with the outside world seemed to be through the sense of touch.

In individual human terms, the death of a baby is a tragic loss; joy and hope transformed into despair. Brice’s father said to me about the birth, “In a few short minutes the highest point of my life became the lowest point of my life.” The mind cannot comprehend such a sudden blow. I, too, was moved by Brice. His death saddened me deeply. But when I would hold Brice in my arms, I often felt expansive, joyful, sometimes ecstatic. My guess was that because he was distracted so little by contact with the outside world, he remained in that totally simple and innocent state of the newly born and that while holding him, I would empathetically float with him in some vast space that he seemed to inhabit.

When we examine our reactions to these two stories, most of us are probably drawn to and attracted by the story of Brice. “Positive” qualities such as heroism, compassion, purity, transcendence arise. On the other hand, the story of Robert most likely evokes aversion, disappointment, nonfulfillment. How automatic and unexamined are our responses to these two rather extreme stories? How is our shadow carried in not just one but both of the stories? Remember that the shadow is out of our awareness; that is why it is called the shadow.

The shadow manifests in many forms in the context of working with the dying. It may be easy to read the following examples thinking of them in either-or terms and feel that they don’t apply to you or that they are so obvious you would be clearly aware of them if they would ever manifest in your relationships with dying. The shadow can be very subtle as well as obvious. I would guess that all of the following forms of the shadow appear for all caregivers sometime, at least in subtle form. This precisely is why being intimate with death potentially can be such a rich spiritual practice.

Spiritual inflation: We have the impression that we are especially sensitive, open, positive and spiritual, so automatically we must have a gift for working with the dying. Then as caregivers we can feel we are so intimate with the mystery of death we become even more inflated. Intimacy with death can be intoxicating. We become lost in what we think we know. We become experts in helping the dying.

Laying a spiritual trip: As caregivers trying to help you die consciously, we feel there are certain attitudes and practices that you must use. For example, stay positive and hopeful. Transcend your body. Learn to mediate before it’s too late. It worked for us so it will work for you.

Expectation of a good death: In a possibly very attenuated way, there is a moment to moment expectation we have of your process that conforms to what we think you should be doing to achieve a “good” death.

Fear of drowning: You won’t be breathing much longer. What does this imply about our own mortality? Will we drown in the dark waters of this existential abyss?

Unresolved grief: Our unresolved grief compels us to distance ourselves unconsciously from the dying person, forcing him to carry universal illness.

Transference: The dying person is angry at us because she is dying and we are a convenient target or she sees us as a savior, as a lover, as the representative of death, as a hero. How do we respond to this?

Counter-transference: We fall in love with the radiant, transparent, beautiful one approaching death. We judge his lack of effort to “die well,” his wallowing in emotion, his fear. We become bored or impatient with the apparent lack of movement in the dying process.

Voyeurism: We want to create good spiritual feelings for ourselves, get some kind of “hit” from being close to the dying experience.

Idiot compassion: Since you are dying and we aren’t, we will always try to be nice, soothing and nonconfrontational with you. Telling the truth or expressing our own feelings might be too upsetting to you. (Idiot compassion is an extreme form of sympathy that doesn’t take into account the full range of compassionate action and actually blocks true compassion. Idiot compassion can be manifested in a much more exaggerated and destructive form than the above mentioned example suggests.)

Sentimentality: We become lost in our sweet, romanticized emotional response to the dying process rather than maintaining a clear awareness of what we are feeling.

Obviously many more examples could be mentioned. Just to name a few: wanting the person to live, wanting the person to die, hogging the patient for ourselves (especially at the moment of death), loss of healthy boundaries, burnout, seductiveness.

The shadow arises when we are not clearly aware of our motivations. The fear of looking at oneself is in direct proportion to one’s fear of death. An intimate relationship with death is guaranteed to uncover our shadow material, to shove into our faces any need we have to know, to be in control, to cling to any identity no matter how noble. Dying people have bodies, bodies that are often filled with pain, with drugs, with nausea, with fear. The great danger in bringing a meditative approach to working with the dying is that the practitioner becomes subtly or not so subtly attached to certain mind/body states. Transcendence, pleasant sensations, calm mind are desired for the patient and then the shadow in its many forms appears.

Thinking we know well the entire intricate form of the shadow is itself the shadow. Writing or reading articles about the shadow with the need to help, to provide answers, to find answers, even to understand, also casts the shadow. Please read the following paragraphs about “what has worked for me” knowing that there are no solid and definite answers to the issue of the shadow.

In my own work I have found two powerful tools for approaching and getting acquainted with the shadow. The first is compassion, the clear heart meeting suffering. In the context of working with the dying, we usually think of having compassion for the patient. But compassion cannot be confined to a one-directional process. The entire situation must be included. The caregiver, the shadow of the caregiver, the finite embodied nature of the dying person, these all cry out for compassion. “Compassion” literally meaning “with passion.” There is so much suffering in and around us, so much suffering that is exposed by death, that to stay open and connected to life, all of our passion is demanded. “There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily,” says Thomas Merton. Compassion is a desert because true compassion springs from emptiness, from selflessness, rather than from sentiment. This desert flourishes because our true nature is compassion. Conversely, cultivating compassion as a practice purifies the mind that clings fearfully to the notion of a separate self, the clinging that is at the root of the shadow. Without compassion, releasing this clinging while in intimate contact with death is unbearable. As Ernest Becker says “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we…shrink from being fully alive.” Rather than hoping to transcend our shadow, can we bring an embodied compassion to the very fear and anxiety which generates this shadow?

When compassion deepens, it naturally leads us to a second approach for working with the shadow–the view that we can rest in the true nature of mind itself without the need to try to suppress, cultivate or improve anything, the view of dzogchen. The dying person is being drawn inexorably into this nondual state. No matter how skillful our support of this person, to the extent this support arises from a mind caught in the dualities of me/you, life/death, spiritual/mundane, good death/bad death and so forth, to this very extent the shadow of death arises and the message to the dying person is problematic. The view is to see directly the essence of mind which is empty, spacious, pure like the sky, undefiled by death.

How can this view be put into practice when working with the dying? Rather than plunging directly into the “helping encounter,” I pause and in a living way invoke “that which I trust the most.” We all trust something. (Some have argued with this last statement, but I truly believe we do. And if someone trusts nothing, can she actually be open and present in the face of death.) Invoke the Sacred, the Nature of Mind, a deity, in whatever form or non-form touches you most directly. Feel the devotion that naturally arises when experiencing this Presence. And then simply rest here. A deep sense of trust and confidence. The dying person, me, both of our shadows, all of it unfolding within this Presence, within the body of Christ.

“We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a Reality. We are that Reality.When we understand this, we will see that we are nothing. And being nothing, we are everything. That is all.”

–Kalu Rinpoche

– Dale Borglum,