It was Friday night, and Dan Jones was on his deathbed. In his 70's, riddled with pancreatic cancer, the five of us paid our respects with a 15 minute silent meditation.
Dan had been a skillful guide to my men's group one Saturday in a straw bail house out past the Y in Oak Hill. Seared in my mind is the memory of his haunting clear eyes and my hands gripping his outstretched index and middle fingers. Intuitively, he asked, "Who betrayed you?" He held space, allowed me to squeeze as hard as I could while a deeply buried volcano of rage erupted from within me into the still Hill Country air. I am grateful for that day and his steady presence.
Now, here I was in a vigil with this long-time Austin psychotherapist and pioneer of men's groups. I decided to keep my eyes open, resting them on him as I sat on the floor. He was on his side in this hospice bed, breathing through his mouth, laboring to take in air.
All of a sudden, we switched places in my mind. I was him and he was me. I was old and dying, swimming in an opiate fog, cancer consuming my organs, breathing like a fish out of water. I was horrified. All of a sudden, I painfully understood that I will die!
I struggled to keep my eyes open and continue to visually take him in, but the stronger force of fear prevailed. It felt as if an invisible finger was forcing my eyes closed. My inner "hero" fought for awhile, but eventually the kindest thing I found for myself was to let the eyes close. That evening, I clearly witnessed in me the One Who Is Afraid to Look.
We're all in the same boat. A boat of flesh and bone. And these boats are destined to sink. They always have and always will. So what is your relationship to this sinking ship? How do you face the Inevitable End?
Practice Dying Every Day
Chinese Medicine offers both an invitation to investigate this relationship and a map that can cultivate greater harmony with the relationship to death and dying.
The first pillar of Chinese Medicine is Meditation. In this context, it's the simple steps of:
- Pause during any "ending" in your life.
- Reflect on the question, "How do I do endings?"
- Notice how the energy is moving (the sum impression of the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that are occurring)
Pausing and inquiring into the question "How do I do endings?" is the start to discovering how you will do the Big Death. And by "endings," I mean things like a divorce, a move, a change in job, quitting a habit, going to sleep at night, or simply ending a hangout session with a friend. These are the "little deaths" of regular life.
The next step is to bring mindful awareness (the simple act of witnessing) to how you respond to all the "little deaths" of daily experience. At these moments, do you find yourself getting busy or anxious? Do you turn on sitcoms and space out? Do you slow down, get quiet and reflective? Do you plummet into the abyss of despair and loss? Each person will have their own unique "ending" style.
Your unique "ending" style is the habit that will be in place when you die. The approach towards the Big Death is simply another transition (from this body into whatever comes next) in the stream of a lifetime of transitional moments. It's the Big Transition. And it's the most mysterious one. In Death, our deepest habit patterns of the mind surge forward with great force. These deep habits are the accumulation of the billions of responses to everyday living you have done thus far.
"We get good at what we practice." (Joko Beck) If you are practicing avoiding endings, then you will be avoiding Death till the very end. If you practice calm bravery in the face of unknown transitional moments, you will bring calm bravery to the Big Mystery. Practice dying every day. If we get "good" at the little Deaths, perhaps we will able to bring grace and wisdom to the most challenging transitional moment of them all, the big Death.
the Roadmap to Death & Dying
The third step is noticing how the energy moves. The Five Phases of Chinese medicine is a map for how energy moves in a process of transformation. By process, I mean any life event that has a beginning and end. It could be the act of reading this article, driving to the grocery store, or the life cycle of a human being. In addition to describing how energy moves, the Five Phases describe the resources available during each phase of the journey through a life process.
Each Phase describes a quality of energy. The season and the stage of human development associated with each Phase helps illuminate the quality of energy. Let's start with Water and move through each Phase.
Water relates to the season of Winter. The energy is more still, contracted, laying in wait before the stirrings of spring. In terms of human life, it is associated with pre-conception, conception, the time in the womb and early infancy. It is the energy of potential before structure. It is pure Being. Think of a newborn with wide wondrous eyes not knowing the boundary between herself and the world. In terms of a process, it is before the next process takes form.
Wood relates to the Spring. The energy goes upward. The earth begins to surge and throb. The sprout elbows its way out of the seed. Vibrant green leaves speak of new life and the ambition to reach the sun. In human life, it relates to energy moving from the unconscious to the conscious. It is the driving force of ego development and personality during childhood. It is the time in a process of envisioning, making plans and decisions. It is the stage when an idea strives to manifest into the world.