Thoughts on living and dying

It is easy to forget, in the rain and the routine, the aches and pains of each day, what a tremendous privilege it is to be alive.  

Proximity to death brings a kind of urgency about life that one can quickly lose in the humdrum of work, commuting and making dinner.  Having just witnessed the passing of my beloved grandmother, I am feeling a range of emotions from sadness to gratitude to emptiness.  But, within the grief, there is also an overwhelming urge to live.  To stop worrying, stop complaining, stop being fearful, stop clinging onto things not meant for me…  to simply live, passionately, with gratitude and presence.  

Of course, with all of the ways a person is programmed to behave and respond to triggers, the above is not necessarily as easy as a split second decision to “stop worrying”.  It takes work.  But I know it is possible.

I happened upon a short Netflix documentary last night that moved me and reaffirmed the privilege and importance of life.  It was called ‘Cristina’ and it observed a 37-year-old woman during her short battle with cancer.  It was terribly moving and tragic, but it also showed her beauty, her courage and her humour in the face of pain and death.  Her final quote contained the passionate and almost-yelled words: “Wake up.”  Her desperation was poignant and the air, even on video, throbbed with tension and the guilt of people like me who know that they could and should be more awake. 

Writing this, I am reminded of the Jackson Browne song, ‘Late for the Sky’, which contains the line “How long have I been sleeping?”  I know that I feel that way at times.  That I am only half-awake, drifting through life and only working and sleeping, haunting the same places, spending time with the same fairweather friends.  Practicing presence is the only way to ensure that one does not sleepwalk through life.  But it is an ongoing process, with constant refocusing to the present moment. 

Since beginning to write this post early yesterday morning (I had a busy day at work and got sidetracked…), I have found out that my beloved cat, Maisie, is very sick and is unlikely to have much time left, and also that a dear friend of mine from the States passed away suddenly in hospital last night.  These past two weeks have certainly been a rollercoaster and I am reminded in times like these just how precarious and how precious life is.  Sometimes, all you can do is breathe, listen, pray (whatever that means for you) and just feel those sensations in your body, however hot or cold, however raw.  And notice the effect that emotions have upon our physical bodies–the muscular aches, the tightness in the stomach, the deep breaths and sighs that take us by surprise, the dizziness and the nausea.  

I have felt, and am feeling, all of these symptoms at times.  And, if I hadn’t become somewhat familiar with certain elements of spirituality, with focusing on the breath, with meditation, with the Buddhist knowledge that all things have a time and all things must pass, I would find those symptoms much more scary than I do.  Are they unpleasant?  Yes.  Do I know that they will pass?  Yes.  

In a way, that’s what this is all about.  Knowing, even when you are in the depths, that you will get through this.  It’s not about not crying.  It’s about, even when you are sobbing and you feel that you won’t ever stop, that this is okay, this is natural and this is normal.  It’s about not feeling guilty or ashamed of any emotion, but of observing each one and granting it some respect, even if it is not particularly comfortable or pleasant.

I keep coming back to Pema Chodron’s idea of shaky ground–that we are always on shaky ground and that, when life circumstances and events seem to tear us apart and strip everything that we know away, that is the opportunity for true spiritual growth.  

Only by fully accepting where we are and honouring our experience, however painful, can we begin to live with presence and have the courage to do the things we want to do, to love the people we love and to feel that, upon dying, that we have truly lived.  

I know this post has meandered a lot… but such is the human heart and the human mind.  It’s where I am personally right now, and I’m trying to honour it. 

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