Everfresh in the Changing

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Turning Toward the Unthinkable

Life is movement. As the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “The river where you set your foot just now is gone — those waters giving way to this, now this.” (Fragment 41); and: “The sun is new again, all day” (fragment 32). – Heraclitus. Fragments. Translated by Brooks Haxton.

Japanese Zen artist, Sengai (1750 – 1837): “Even before I can say it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop, it is no more.”

It seems counter-intuitive, to find more life through being in touch with life’s evanescence and the certainty of death; by turning toward the unknown. Nevertheless, rather than become dispirited by the thought of death, by practising A Year to Live – for nearly two decades, renewing it yearly – I have increased my commitment to life, and not distorted it. My energy has turned toward more meaningful activities, relinquishing energy-draining pursuits, while there’s more love of life – and all this through the seeming irony of doing daily practices which remind me of the certainty of death.

I have been inspired all along, in my contemplation of death, by Guenther’s statement: “…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…”

What kind if meaning of life is there to find in the face of death? Is life meaningful, in itself – without the filter or buffer of belief systems? That’s a question I address experientially in this project.

Certainly, as a severely abused child, by the age of sixteen I tended toward the conclusion that there was no meaning to life. My companions all thought this. I became nihilistic; and, I often wished for death. Then, via the Beatles’ encounter with Indian meditation practice – which came at the very same time in which I found Socrates – I discovered the possibility of a more wholesome line of inquiry. The task became to find out for myself, the truth of consciousness.

Was there an uncharted land, I wondered, in my own mind? One which could confirm meaningfulness from within – not through the stressful activities of my outer world, with its prevailing industrial values, cut-throat competition, its genocides and wars? It seemed to me as a teenager that contemplation of life as it is in itself might be possible? Socrates, with his courage in the face of death, and his commitment to selfless values, was inspirational. And then, at seventeen, meditation presented itself, as a support for the actualization of this free, independent way of life.

Next, my encounter with Zen Buddhism at nineteen confirmed what Socrates had asserted, that a conscious practice of facing death is far from a wish for death; it is an affirmation of a reality greater than death. The Zen Buddhists speak of ‘the great matter,’ which is the inescapable presence of ‘birth and death.’ My reading of Zen suggested that, skilfully conducted, facing death brings an attunement to life. Zen writers suggested that one’s own wholeness was discoverable through facing death.

Such freedom is not to be found by merely believing some religious blather. There is no freedom in believing in some ideal fantasy of a heaven after death. For me, this freedom must be right here in this very difficult life of sickness, old age and death. We die. So, can we live creatively – not in immature defiance of death – but with open-hearted inclusion of death.  The ‘historical’ Buddha (I’ll explain the apostrophes, later) suggested that we face these five things:
1. I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age.
2. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness.
3. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death.
4. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.
The Five Remembrances, Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Then, at some stage, during an instance of my A Year to Live practice I decided that this matter of being one hundred percent for death in life (while being one hundred percent for the life in death) was something worth unpacking slowly with others. So, I began a blog to share the enquiry into this irony that life is ephemeral, yet intrinsically meaningful. This series which you are now reading is an edited version of that sharing.

Some Surprising Inspirations

Biological life doesn’t stand still. Our bodily health changes through illness and accident. The healthy may easily have a conceit of good health, unaware of how close death can be. I suffered three special corrections to such a trance, all in 2014. Two accidents, then cancer. My long-standing practice of including death in my daily awareness turned these occasions into gifts.

The gift in these occasions was the confirmation of traditional wisdom that peace of mind is our greatest treasure. During this time the forms – such as reminding myself with rituals that this could be my last day – were far less important than actually living in mental ease. I found I was naturally more present in each breath. The formal ‘practice’ came into alignment with my everyday life.

In April of 2014 (four months before the cancer diagnosis), in the dark pre-dawn and in the rain, I fell down the steep stairs at the front of our house. I was alone that weekend, and so I guided my bruised body around without support from my family. It was a lesson in the humanising quality of vulnerability. It turned out that I had broken a rib in the fall – something I didn’t find out until we were doing a bone scan for cancer months later.

Next, in the beginning of June, I am coming back from an ultrasound (checking for the possible cancer), and – bang! – a head-on collision with a ute, on the highway in my hometown. The incident was instructive: it told me how my practice was going. My calm during and after the collision and my kindness toward others were notable.

The car was written off, though, and I could see how, without warning, in a brief and unexpected moment, your life could be finished. One doesn’t know one’s lifespan.

The results of that ultrasound showed that there was a suspicious shadow, so soon after I spent a night in hospital for a biopsy, which gave the unambiguous diagnosis. I am glad that I had been meeting the fact of death via the Third Remembrance for many years. Now, too, all those years of practising Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live (introduced by Stephen in his book of the same name) bore striking fruit.

I was less shocked about the diagnosis than I was of the car crash. (I had much more conceit around my driving!) In relation to the cancer I said, “Of course.” I said, “Biology means vulnerability. Biology means old age, sickness and death – and accident!” There was no, ‘Why me?’ The absence of which makes action much easier and wiser.

And, so, even though my ‘A Year to Live’ practice felt (for the rest of 2014) somewhat less formal, it felt like the most powerful year of practice yet – so much aliveness in the midst of ‘misfortune.’

But, isn’t our condition always one of vulnerability? That is exactly what this ‘A Year to Live’ practice is for – to wake us up, to show the bleeding obvious; that vulnerability is in every moment of human life. And the development of constant mindfulness is at its core.

As Stephen writes: “You have to remember one life, one death – this one! To enter fully the day, the hour, the moment whether it appears as life or death, whether we catch it on the inbreath or outbreath, requires only a moment, this moment. And along with it all the mindfulness we can muster, at each stage of our ongoing birth, and the confident joy of our inherent luminosity.”
― Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last, (p. 24)

(Here’s a good interview with Stephen, by the late Michael Toms, called Learning to Die in Order to Live. I recommend you browse the wonderful interviews from the New Dimensions site. Stephen himself died during the year I was writing this project. More of that soon.)


The biggest reason to do this practice, though, comes in health as much as in sickness. It is about meaning. Herbert Guenther writes, in his introduction to Book I, chapter two, of the fourteenth-century Tibetan meditation master Longchenpa Rabjampa’s Kindly Bent to Ease Us:

“…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me. It is in the light of death that I am prompted to act in such a way that, should death strike, my life may have had some total significance. The thought of death prevents me from losing myself in the fictions with which I tend to surround myself in order to escape from Being…”

In this spirit, for more than fifteen years, I’ve used ‘A Year to Live’ practice to turn toward the certainty of my death, as a means of growth and deepening into life; and especially, as an inspiration to keep in touch with the luminous mind, the mirror of the ground of Being. The practice enhances connection to who we really are.

What ‘practice’ means in actuality changes from year to year (and I will share the kinds of experiments in living which one can do), but in general what the practice means, for me, is: daily reminding myself that this is possibly my last year, living more fully in the present, and practising all kinds of exercises that confront me with the both the certainty of, and the process of, death. In general it means plumbing the depths of aliveness – to be open to, and appreciative of, the inexplicable wonder that anything is going on at all.

Knowing I am alive is the same as knowing that death is present: there’s no difference between living fully in the present, and living in the light of death. You can come at the miracle of existence through either door. However, the doors are the same door. They are both perspectives on reality, which imply each other.

So, a normal healthy life can benefit from this practice. We live differently – more consciously and kindly in the light of death.

Some Thoughts on Everyday Narcissism

A few decades ago, I had a friend who died of cancer. Let’s call her Milly. From the first, we had a basic kind of respect for each other; though we would clash occasionally. I didn’t understand it, then, but now I know that my arrogance triggered her. As a result, though we learnt to accept our differences, for some years we weren’t very close. Then, when she got cancer and she was dying, the relationship changed. Our conversation became real and beautiful. The presence of death brought out honesty and vulnerability in both of us.

I am reminded of her, because I’ve been reading a account of a mother screaming at her daughter during an argument, “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!” The narcissism of that attack is so obvious that I’d like to think that it’s a caricature. But, no – it really did happen.

So, what of Milly? On a summer day, months before she died, we were walking along a bushland track, reflecting. She shared that she had recently told her mother that she was dying; and through her tears she said that her mother had exclaimed: “How can you do this to me?!” I was shocked. No doubt her mother thought that she spoke from love; but I couldn’t see it. I still don’t. Why do we mistake narcissism for love?

A related instance is given by author Jeanette Winterson. Jeanette was sixteen, and her Pentacostal adoptive mother was evicting her – throwing her out for taking up with her second lesbian girlfriend. During the argument, Jeanette declared her wish for happiness – she wanted to be with her beloved, a female, because she wanted to be happy. Her adoptive mother’s response was, “Why be happy, when you could be normal?”

When I read that, I laughed. But, then I thought something like: “Hey. Hang on. That actually happened. A person was actually in such a condition of mind that could say such utterly ill-fitting words, and think them right.” Right where his youth Janet deserved understanding and care from her adoptive mother – right when she needed to be listened to – she got narcissism.

It might seem that these three vignettes are extreme; but what of less obvious reactivity in the face of the unwanted facts of life? We all have some level of narcissism. Milly’s other friends didn’t say out loud, “How can you do this to me?” No, instead, she told me: “They dropped away. They disappeared.” Without a word of explanation.

Milly was dismayed at the loss. Their reactions were a reflection of a self-absorbed mindset; and it wasn’t what she needed, right then. It would seem that they avoided her because of cancer and death. Sure, they didn’t say, “Why are you doing this to me?!’ but they may as well have. (Several years before, someone very close to me, when dying from cancer, told me: “Cancer tells you who your real friends are.”)

All these instances are on a continuum which reveals narcissism to be terribly normal. By normal, I mean statistically so. A glance at any newspaper, any day of the week, alerts one to the ubiquity of deluded self-centred views – narcissistic read-outs on life – which capture people and lead them to harmful behaviour. Look at our politicians’ grubby self-interest, their blatant fabrications and their grandiosity. The parliament is filled with selfish individuals, who can only read things through their biases.

The Buddhist analysis of this problem says that the problem is much bigger than a small class of ‘crazy’ people: it’s a species problem. A direct, contemplative investigation of ‘mind’ reveals everyday forms of narcissism; and, it has its roots in a lack of direct awareness of our organism. Due to this ignorance, we misperceive the nature of the mind. Hence, we live our normal lives on the basis of delusions about the organism’s reality. We see through filters, through a ‘glass darkly,’ and our relationships suffer concurrently. “How could you love a man who doesn’t love me?!”

Was it mentally ill for Milly’s friends to abandon her? Not conventionally so, of course. It’s merely fear; misshapen perceptions formed their fickleness. But we could ask, why aren’t such fears (with their attendant mental structures) considered, in this society, a form of mental affliction? That’s how the Buddhists see it. These distortions – aversion to a friend who has cancer, for instance – are not intrinsic to the mind. Why aren’t we addressing this at the national level? Well, simply because the delusions are statistically normal.

If a whole community has such delusions, one loses perspective; you find it hard to identify fear as mental concocted. Your perceptions present as real, and your fear and your hatred appear justified. Racism and homophobia are two areas where this analysis is powerful.

What what kind of sickness can it be then, when you are scared of people who have different skin colour, or a significantly different culture? Or, what kind of a sickness is it, when you are afraid of a person who has cancer? The answer that Buddhist is that we are sick with greed, hatred, and ignorance.

Without a culture of mindfulness and compassion, we can imperceptibly slide into mass delusions. Then, destructive attitudes become so widespread that they passes as normal. Nazi Germany is a case in point; and, Trump’s ‘America.’ (Notice, even the name ‘America,’ as a designation for the U.S.A, is a narcissistic insult to all the other nations of the Americas, north and south.)

So, where do we go with such a widespread problem? A significant portion of people throughout the world are currently under the sway of xenophobic afflictions. These attitudes are the stuff of minds – we have to investigate what it means to have good mental health. Why aren’t the policies of far-right’s (such as One Nation, in Australia) being discussed as a matter of our community’s mental health? Is it because we might have to begin at home? It is far harder to look at one’s own mind, than to blame other’s for our dissatisfaction.

I thought Milly was a hero, given the brave way she approached her death. Moreover, she spoke without ill-feeling, when addressing the reactions of others to her disease and impending death. A warrior; and one of my teachers.

Though one conquers in battle
a thousand times a thousand men,
one is the greatest war-hero
who conquers just one’s self.
Dhammapada, verse 103. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

The Curious Question

I can’t remember when I first realized that there was the event which we call death. When I was a child, I had to walk to school alone each day, and to cross the highway which ran through our town. There were no traffic lights. I vividly remember, a few occasions when I came to the highway, that there – with dried blood around its mouth and covered in flies – would be the corpse of a dog.

It bewildered me, that this stiff, foul-smelling, thing had been a warm animal earlier. Now it was this. It bothered me. How does a living thing become a not living thing? I couldn’t get my mind around not being.

When I was ten, I saw a little three-year-old killed at the local shops, not far from that same highway. I had seen him alive, playing in the dirt with his toy front-end loader. My friend and I had stopped and said hello to him; and then we walked on, to the general store (to collect the deposits on the bottles we’d scavenged along the side of the highway).

As we were leaving the store, there was a loud screech of tires, and a bang; and when I looked, there he was lying dead under a car. In this case, along with everything else, it was the suddenness that shocked me. ‘Out of the blue,’ as we say. The contrast between life and death was there in the time it took for a blink. And, it seemed to me at the time, that we didn’t know when any of us would die. The whole thing was incomprehensible, to me.

Why do we die, at all? The fact that, during the year before, I’d been taught that there was a God in the sky who would judge me some day, this only intensified the questions. So, there were some big incomprehensibles around, as I grew up – big impenetrable doubts looming over my world, .

As a even smaller child I asked questions like that. I asked at five years old, “Who am I?” and got no helpful answer. I wanted it to all make some sense, somehow. And, as my teenage years proceeded, relentlessly heading toward that frightening domain called adulthood, I became depressed by the big questions. “What is death? What’s the point of achieving anything, when you only die?” I didn’t realize that I was resisting this world, this life, that had death in it.

The resolution, though, is not in the direction of trying to answer the ‘What happens after death?’ question. So many of those kind of questions only lead to beliefs, and not to transformative insights.

Then, when I was nineteen I read in a book on Buddhism that such insights do occur; such insights as end the anguish of the search. I began to appreciate that the more important question is: “What happens before death?”

One day a student called Malunkyaputta confronts the Nikāya Buddha, and demands to be told the answers to several commonly debated philosophical questions of the time. They are questions like: What happens after death? Is there a permanent soul? And so on. He demands answers, and says he will leave the community, if he doesn’t get answers.

The Nikāya Buddha isn’t impressed. He says that he doesn’t answer such questions, because such questions are not beneficial – they don’t lead to the ending of dukkha. They don’t lead to peace, to nibbāna. On other occasions he says that these unanswerable questions inevitably lead to what he calls ‘a thicket of views.’

There is nothing more valuable in this work than an inexhaustible curiosity. We learn to foster questions in the right spirit, which lead deeper into present-moment experiencing. We ask questions which are forward-leading; for the change that curiosity itself brings, not for the accumulation of concepts, ideas, views, opinions.

“Answers are not the purpose of our questioning. When we learn how to ask fundamental questions in ways that are fresh and alive, we conduct into our lives an intelligence that applies directly to our own immediate circumstances. In activating this kind of inquiry, we can rely on the great masters and thinkers of the past for inspiration and guidance, but their answers cannot be our answers. We must each individually take up the challenge of knowledge for ourselves.”
– Tarthang Tulku. Visions of Knowledge: Liberation of Modern Mind

Attuning to Felt Awareness

Those who thoroughly engage
in mindfulness of the body,
who don’t practice what shouldn’t be done,
and regularly practice what should be done,
conscious and clearly comprehending,
their toxic impulses fade away.

Dhammapada, Verse 293. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

After my stay in hospital for the removal of my cancer, in 2014, when I returned home, a friend wanted to know how I had practised mindfulness during my stay in hospital. I replied by detailing a number of methods by which I had stayed in my body continuously, so as not to dissociate from present-moment experience.

I told her of methods I was able to call on, learnt over decades. After talking with my friend, I reflected to myself that all of them awakened space. I had used every means possible to be in spacious awareness in a loving way. Inviting the experience of space was a core thing, because with space comes enhanced sensitivity.

(And vice-versa, of course. Opening to the senses as they are, and to one’s whole-body sensing, brings space.)

Where am I going with this? I have been asking: what do we need to cultivate, to ask the big questions; and to hold the big terrors that can come with illness, death and dying? The broad answer is: mindfulness of the body, with specific attention to the feel of being.

When I was in hospital, most of the time, mindfulness of the body was in union with simple resting in Being. The experience of the body was rarely pleasant, with all the pains; but there was, nevertheless, a pleasant abiding in the heart of being alive. Resting in unsupported awareness, in union with mindfulness of the body, these each supported the other.

To be conscious of what I was experiencing – needles entering my skin, sending love and gratitude to my condemned prostate (for its years of healthy functioning), being wheeled on the gurney, receiving the anæsthetic mask (while hearing Mozart in the theatre), waking up in the recovery room, being woken in the dead of night, swallowing pills, painful trips to the toilet carrying the catheter, receiving the care of the attentive nurses – to be conscious and to clearly comprehend my situation with a positive heart, all I needed to do was be present without any desire for another world (of experience) than the one that I was experienceing.

This gave rise to the experience of space aware of space. It was all space. The needle and the flesh – space to space. It felt, most of the time, like a blessing, to be so present, and clear that I was present. And so peaceful. There was nothing for me to do, but to be there.

However, let me be clear about being there. Despite what I say about space – or, perhaps because of it – being present is a feeling thing. It’s a knowing from the inside of the body, in a felt way. It’s the aliveness, the warmth, the felt presence of a bodily existence. This kind of space is not dissociation.

One can be mindful of, and clearly comprehend, any experiencing –  the body, the feeling-tones (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), the states of mind or attitudes, and the dynamics of your experience – if you welcome the whole felt world (loka), without possessing any of it.

Comprehension can occur, then, in different ways: about your being in the situation, about others being a part of your situation, and of what there is to learn about the functioning of your mental habits in the situation, and so on. This is the field of your responsibility – the clear comprehension which is present in Buddhist mindfulness. But this comprehension – in its more obvious and its subtle forms – is inseparable from unlimited space.

How does such comprehension happen? By some imposition of a rule, or conformity to a pattern made by others? No, by the felt bodily knowledge of one’s situation. Clear comprehension is not a dry ‘thinking.’ It’s knowing from inside the known.

And, sometimes – and this is, for me, the most precious experience – sometimes you are just effortlessly present, and you comprehend presence itself for the miracle it is. Mindful in the sense of being awake without effort or purpose; and, intimate with wakefulness itself. You are completely resting in a pure, total, warm presence whose light leaves nothing out. Conscious and clearly comprehending by being conscious awareness, without separation.

So, for the growth of our capacity to be intimate with living process as it occurs – for our ignorance to fade away – we need to cultivate spaciousness, which is a bodily-felt space. To do this, it helps to awaken mindfulness of the body – whole-body awareness –  and, specifically, attunement to that band of experience called bodily-felt meaning.




The Wherefrom of Wise Attention

“Practitioners, one does not enjoy the deathless who doesn’t enjoy mindfulness directed to the body. One enjoys the deathless who enjoys mindfulness directed to the body. The deathless has been enjoyed, by those who have enjoyed mindfulness directed to the body.” – the Nikāya Buddha, from the Anguttara Nikāya; from the Book of the Ones, Translated by Christopher J.Ash.

Yoniso manasikāra” is an important term in the early Buddhist texts (the Nikāyas). It indicates an important quality of attention. Nevertheless, when I first encountered the term decades ago, it didn’t catch me, and on reflection, I believe that is because it wasn’t an obviously experience-near term. I was always looking for terms I could apply to my actual experience. If I am going to think about death, I want a way to think freshly, openly; a way of discovery.

The conventional translation of the term yoniso manasikāra is: skilful attention. Other translations are ‘proper,’ ‘appropriate,’ or ‘wise’ attention. (All of which should be understood as having liberation as the background. That is, it’s attention that is methodical for that purpose.) ‘But, what exactly did ‘skilful’ mean?’ I wondered.

Furthermore, over the years I felt a little disquiet, at one time or another, at the very flat, prosaic sound of these translations. They made the principle sound too logical, too methodical; as though one were imposing a system onto one’s experience, from the outside (which is a not uncommon use of the Buddhadharma, of course).

‘Manasikāra’ is attention, or pondering. The Pāli-English Dictionary (PED) entry suggests to me that it is guided thought, of a kind. But, what do we base our pondering upon, or guide it by? Upon already received categories? Upon prejudices? And, where does the direction forward come from? Mere belief in other people’s priorities, however noble?

In other words, when we enquire, are we only re-jigging the old thinking, making new arrangements of previously learned knowledge? And, applying old categories to present-moment experiences? If so, ‘manasikāra’ could be a name for a procedure guided, at best, by logic (re-arranging language units according to conventions or rules); and, at worst, by untested opinion.

Then, for me, there is the matter of how our thinking is guided after awakening. Traditional approaches may help awaken us to non-conceptuality. A certain kind of freedom arises – a liberation based on the deathless may be realised. However, we don’t usually learn to think from the liberation; or, to see the relationship between the non-conceptual and our need for on-going concept formation.

Indeed, to a large degree, awakened traditional teachers usually go on thinking about life in their culture’s old terms. They often interpret their new-found non-conceptual experience from the old cultural point of view. These old concepts don’t work to think freshly, radiantly from the no-mind experience. They tend to express the liberation experience in terms of the old frameworks, and not attribute the arising of thinking to the non-conceptual.

(Of course, there are exceptions. Dzogchen thinkers  – Nyingma and Bön – have taken steps in the direction of articulating an organic relationship between language and the deathless element; where language is the creative communication of the deathless element.)

Then, there is ‘yoni.’ According to the PED, ‘yoni,’ in the word ‘yoniso,’ is a feminine noun of Vedic origin, which means: ‘womb.’ And, it’s also: ‘origin,’ way of birth, place of birth, realm of existence; nature, and matrix. It seemed to me that this hinted at something much more than imposing already-formed systems of thought, with their reason and logic. (Do we have, here, another patriarchal distortion of the meaning of a term?)

Even after learning Pāli, I didn’t twig to a deeper way to see this facet of the way of enquiry; until I read Linda S. Blanchard’s perspicacious study Dependent Arising in Context: The Buddha’s Core Lesson in the Context of His Time, and Ours. I was moved, then, to discover the relevance of the phrase to my bodily-felt life. Let’s look at this.

In a note, Blanchard quoted British Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich. He was in turn quoting someone else. In a note (What the Buddha Thought, p. 132), he quoted: “(L)iterally [yoniso manasikāra] means ‘making in the mind according to origin’

The penny dropped. The ‘womb’ meant, here, is bodily-felt experience. The body, in its present living, is the meeting place of everything – and here, the skilful attention of the four placements of mindfulness can bring the holistic felt sense of our situations into view, and with the right support for clear comprehension, can work to carry our lives forward (and therefore, to carry the big Dharma, the big life process, forward).

Saying “Yes” to the “No!” Without Opposing

Our fear of death leads to a diminished life. What do we do, to avoid taking death into account as an integral part of life? Avoid thinking about it? Avoid awareness that we will certainly part from our loved ones? Avoid contact with death, unless it’s fictionalised in movies or on TV? Avoid talking about it?

That takes a lot of energy, even if all this organisation of our behaviour does operate largely unobserved. In fact, remaining unaware of how we are organised emotionally is an important part of ignoring death. We cultivate the habit of inattention. For example, after my prostate cancer diagnosis, and before my operation, I took special care of my diet, my exercise, and healing meditations.  However, after the operation, I noticed that I wasn’t putting my usual energy into care for myself. I got curious as to what this was about.

I already knew, directly, that there was some bodily shock due to the operation, but I hadn’t sat myself down to specifically say ‘Hello’ in a Focusing kind of way to that ‘shocked part’ of me. So, I consciously made an opportunity to do that.

Underneath all the usual, familiar thought patterns, there was a part of me saying, in a distressed tone, “This wasn’t meant to happen.” That is, cancer wasn’t part of the deal, it said. It was a kind of refusal to believe in reality; kind of saying “No, I don’t want reality, if this is what it involves.” How could I be anything but compassionate with such a short-sighted one? I acknowledged it, so as not to judge it.

And, as I write this, I remember that a friend says, as spiritual advice: “Say ‘Yes’ to all offers!” It’s a good slogan. However, in this context, that doesn’t mean imposing a ‘Yes’ over the top of a pattern of “No.” The way to say “Yes,” to reality, in this instance was to empathise with this young part of me.

“Yes. You’re there. You feel like cancer wasn’t in the deal.” This was an implicit ‘Yes’ to the reality that I had just survived cancer; and, it was a ‘Yes’ acknowledging that a reactive “No” was in me. That way I was not identifying with my content, and so it didn’t take up much space in me. The reaction didn’t feel like it was all of me, and I was thereafter able to pick up the ball on my healthcare, again. Big ‘Yes’ is not opposed to the preferential ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’

Life’s interesting. We don’t get the life we plan, though parts of us try hard for that. The life we do live is made up of the interaction of our body, speech and mind in a dance with the big process – a big process which includes cells that do their own thing regardless of the greater whole. What I do, say, and think matters, but isn’t the whole story. I bow to that dance. Death, in all kinds of ways is, in actuality, a part of the dance.

Which reminds me of a helpful teaching from Atisha: The causes of birth are few, but the causes of death are many. Acknowledging this may help me feel the deep confusion, sorrow and anger of our resisting ‘selves,’ who want to dance solely on their terms.

So, this provides another instance of how we may experience a kind of death: in the humiliation that comes when reality meets my conceit that my life is ‘mine.’ It’s best not to waste one’s precious energy in fighting the delusions, here. For me it’s best to smile and call on a soft-bellied breath, because I’m bound to meet this again and again. The art of this practice is to be ready – including ready to say “Yes” to the already-arisen “No!”

Knowing the Breath and the Body Which Dies

“In breathing, oxygen enters the bloodstream-environment and goes all the way into the cells. The body is in the environment but the environment is also in the body, and is the body.” – Eugene T. Gendlin, A Process Model

Do we know well what dies? The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my feelings. My partner and I were talking, as she entered the freeway, going back home to the mountains. She asked me how I was with this, the fact that my life was in danger.

I checked inwardly, in the middle of my body, and a meaning crystalized out of the whole feel of the situation. It was this: my biospheric body – the very large natural body of planetary life which I participate in – was in a lot more trouble than my prostate was. On my part: yes, at that point there was cancer in my physical body, but my energy body was relatively peaceful.

However, I felt a big sorrow that this whole planet is going through dramatic changes, and species deaths are happening at a rate not previously known in human history. Perhaps my cancer was a simply symptom of that big change.

I live with my several bodies, three of which are: the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body. And, isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body?

For most people, death is usually associated with the gross body (that is, a physical body). The odd thing, though, is that we are divorced from our physical existence. Are we really putting our heart into living as bodies?

I realised even in my twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, I was living in the very tiny portion of it which was above my shoulders. In the story A Painful Case in the Dubliners, James Joyce wrote of Mr Duffy, who “lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses.” (I will later explore the inner sub-personality we could call the ‘by-stander’ self).

So, what is this body which I am – from the inside – that is knowable only in this moment’s experiencing? Can I know what death is, if I don’t know the many levels of this body’s life, intimately? That takes presence.

When twenty years after my discovery of mindfulness practice, I faced up to my mind’s tendency to ramble all over the place, lost in thought night and day; so, I decided to follow my breathing. This was in 1995.

Why did it take so long? One day in the early nineties a teacher said to me, “You know, sometimes I think we fool ourselves that we are aware – when actually, we are only thinking Dharma thoughts.” I realised he was right, at least where I was concerned. The fact that I was rambling all day was obscured by the nobility of the topics of my thought!

My thinking gave me the false impression that I was engaged with life, while in fact I had so much more depth to discover. So, from then, I began to keep in contact with my breathing. It led to being able to distinguish, in reality, the difference between being present and thinking I am present.

And, only this way, in contact with my body, can I learn about all the ways in which I set up my ego-centre and ego-boundaries. Knowing how we create boundaries is a powerful part of understanding how we obfuscate the meaning of ‘death.’ (That is, we deprive death of light or brightness.)

Meeting One’s Original Face at the Moment of Death


The kind of consciousness which we cultivate in preparation for the occasion of our death, depends on how you see the opportunities that dying and death can offer.

One of the benefits of ‘A Year to Live’ practice has to do, not just with a better life while living, and not just with a better dying process, but with awakening to a profound level of human consciousness right there in the process of dying.

And, there is a level of preparation that is possible for that. Of course, living a conscious, compassionate life is an excellent preparation; however, one specific practice that we can do is a Tibetan practice called the Dissolution of the Elements.

This practice involves simulating the inner process of death, in nine stages – gradually losing contact with succeeding levels of experience, from gross to subtle. When mastered, it culminates in a very peaceful state of inner freedom.

I have a story about how this has already helped me, before dying physically. One time when practising this, I discovered that, in all my previous meditations of this type, I had been harbouring an unconscious wish that this practice would help me have a non-painful (and, even a pleasurable) death, when death finally came. I was very surprised by my discovery. I was attached to the idea of a non-painful death. This was several years after I had begun Buddhist death and dying practices.

Many deaths are peaceful and painless. However, death can also be attended by considerable pain. We can’t know how we will die. There are no guarantees. The process of a natural death needn’t be pain-free, even if you have done all your preparations for years on end.

So, seeing directly that I had this longing, my motivation for doing the Dissolution of the Elements practice shifted. I began to simply accept whatever experience was presenting itself during the practice. I shifted to remaining peaceful in my attitude toward experience – a peaceful mind, though I might not necessarily have a peaceful body.

So, I knew, then, that being conscious during death means accepting anything that happens, and it means a vast mind of not-knowing; or, openness. The point is to be with what is happening, because it is happening – it is what is happening!

This approach was helped by the fact that, due to a chronic illness, I never have a body free of pain, anyway. It further deepened my open experience of my chronic pain. As it turned out, this shift was also very helpful, when I was diagnosed and treated for cancer in 2014. I had ample opportunity in that period to accept peacefully, and even gratefully, whatever I was experiencing during my treatment.

The mindful death isn’t for everyone, though. Many would prefer not to know what they are experiencing at the time of death – or, at any time, for that matter. I remember a friend saying to me, decades ago, that she’d rather not know what her mind was doing during everyday experiences, so she wasn’t interested in training to be mindful.

So, I study how death lives in me, as a way to keep my own mind aimed toward the certainty of that event – to be ready, and say “Yes” to death, when it arrives. That’s true. However, I also practice this to get to be familiar with everything about my own mental functioning, while I’m living. It simply enhances self-knowledge, which turns out to be liberating. It cleans up the mind!

But, a really marvellous fruit of this practice is that we can realise the subtle and luminous nature of the mind. Contemplating death makes this more likely, both now and at the moment of death. As we become familiar with death, we explore the deepest levels of the mind – what some call the fundamental mind.

This enriches our living, now, of course. But, then: at the moment of death we have an unfettered introduction to this level of awareness, because – as this practice can verify – all that we identify with during life drops away completely.

This is a difficult-to-talk-about territory, this luminous, boundless awareness, and the ‘deathless’ element. I will address this more, though, as we go along in this project.

Knowing the ground state has many benefits for oneself and others. And, yet, it is also just to be tasted, exactly because it has no benefit. It is just so. Personally, I want to be awake and aware of the changes during death, and taste the beauty of the pure ground state – just because it is what it is – not for any other reason than this: it is worth approaching with love. In this sense, death can be a sacrament.

Turning Toward the Deathless

“(A Year to Live) is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness. It is an opportunity to resolve our denial of death as well as our denial of life in a year-long experiment in healing, joy, and revitalization.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

This practice is to turn toward what we fear; to explore, feel, think, sense into, and know one’s actual relationship to death. We help others when we help ourselves in this way, too. There will always be people in our circle who will appreciate such reflections.

To reflect on death leads naturally to studying – directly, in our own experience – how we know ourselves. We can resolve the question of who or what dies by knowing ourselves. I have found that, for me, the enquiry naturally deepens into an understanding of human nature as being more about ‘process’ than ‘content’ – how we are in the world (how we interact), and not so much what we are. (Selfish or altruistic, for instance).

One thing that has slowly become clear to me, over close to fifty years of contemplative practice, is that an experience-near way to think of ‘selfhood’ naturally leads to a different understanding of death. When we able to see the death of our identifications with self-images as the basic death, then what we emphasise about being human changes. We then know what matters about living.

During the year of writing the blog, my strong focus on the Pāli mythos came as a surprise for me. (This is, broadly speaking, the earliest form of Buddhist culture). I thought I’d be talking about the things that have caught the attention of Western Buddhists, such as: the means of early preparation for physical death, involving forgiveness practice, gratitude practice, and life-review; and teachings about death from Tibetan Buddhist culture, such as after-death experiences; and so on.

Some of these topics you can find in Stephen Levine’s book. Going through such contemplations, and those in the book, certainly supports being able to approach death with a sense of completion or fulfilment.

Regarding the Tibetan or tantric approach, I do the Tibetan Dissolution of the Elements practice from time to time, and there are other aspects of tantric practice that I use – mandala practice, for instance – but, I nevertheless have found the early Buddhist meditations every bit as powerful as the Dissolution of the Elements meditation. There’s nothing more powerful, for me, than classical Ānāpānasati meditation (which I’ll explain in the course of the project).

So, what emerged in this year-long project was a clear picture of how the Buddha of the Nikāyas saw death and preparation to death. Because the Pali texts are my primary Buddhist texts, that is what I will concentrate on, in this writing. It turns out that the Buddha of these texts (which I hereafter refer to as the Nikāya Buddha) sees the practice of life as the preparation for death.

One thing that has deepened, due to the practice of A Year to Live, is my understanding of what the Buddha means when he talked about the ‘deathless.’ It came to me forcefully several years back, with a radical clarity, that “There is no death.” I then undertook a period of review, to be sure that I was seeing right, which has included checking with other Buddhist teachers. I hope to present this radical claim to you, during this project.

“Before we can leave the body effortlessly we have to inhabit it fully. A remarkable means of heightening life as well as preparing for death is to enter the body wholeheartedly, sensation by sensation.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

My understanding of the body is the other most radical shift in my thinking during my long Buddhist life, so that naturally arises in this project. To dwell in the body intimately and fully only happens after a thorough training; because, this ‘dwelling’ not just about being in contact with bodily sensations and actions. As I see it, the body is a local representative of true nature – it is the intelligence of the universe manifesting in specific ways.

While I glimpsed, forty years ago, that I could say rightly, “I am not my body,” on the other hand, I have also come to understand “I am only my body.” This is not the body of modern medicine – a constructed thing, or a machine. In this project, body and mind are perspectives on experiencing, and ultimately on Being (which resolves these contradictions).

There is the always present the profound presence of luminous Being, felt as the core of our very own bodily life. So, I’m confident that knowing the body thoroughly will allow its dissolution without any resistance, on the occasion of my death.

“Old age, sickness and death do not have to be equated with suffering: we can live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural rite of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate liberation.” – Joan Halifax, Being with Dying

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