― Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
After accepting the constraints of the backyard fence for years, our beloved bundle of canine energy had learned how to climb the fence and escape. For the past couple of days, whenever he and his sidekick Pedra were released into the backyard, Chico would immediately run to the corner of the yard and inelegantly, but effectively, hoist his chihuahua/terrier frame over the man-made barrier to run freely through the fields and forests surrounding the house. Although with his newfound wildness he had uncharacteristically ignored my calls and commands to "come", I had always been able to coax him back -- eventually.
Unfortunately, Betsy and I hadn't fully appreciated what his new found wildness meant. The other night, we let Chico and Pedra out to do their business in the evening and Chico didn't return. Although we didn't realize it until the next morning, our newly reincarnated creature of the wild had shed the fetters of his domestication. A Free Being, his senses fully alive in the crisp air of the night, our precious Chico was off to meet his Destiny
To Every Thing There is a Season
Betsy spied his lifeless body a couple hundred yards away from the cottage the next morning and asked me to retrieve it. With a heavy heart I walked down the hill. It appeared Chico had encountered another creature of the wild during the night. Within the wildness, it was simply a matter of Life -- and Death.
As I returned with his body, Betsy had already begun digging his grave amidst the flowers in the garden behind the house. I sobbed as I completed the task of burying his body. For us humanoids, Life and Death is not such a simple matter -- especially in our society, where we are conditioned to assiduously avoid facing the inevitability our demise.
The stark truth is that none of us are going to get out of here alive. Death is an unavoidable tragedy. The greater tragedy is that the opportunity to truly open our hearts to ourselves, one another and to the miracle of life itself through an deep and honest exploration of death and dying is generally not taken.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Conscious Living. Conscious Dying
I had the good fortune to attend "Conscious Living. Conscious Dying", a retreat offered by Steven and Ondrea Levine years ago. With incredible grace and skill, these two masters of openheartedness created a meditative and caring community over the course of five days among the nearly 300 people gathered at Mt. Madonna Center in Northern California. Although about a third of the participants were, like myself, caregivers exploring tools useful in hospice work, this was not just a stock "professional" workshop on the theory of confronting the issues surrounding death and dying. Two thirds of the participants were already face to face with the reality of the final frontier. They were either terminally ill themselves or with loved ones who were.
This wasn't just theory. This was Practice.
Through periods of silent meditation, guided meditations and exercises, talks and conversation, each person there had the opportunity to explore the armoring around their heart, the frozen grief and fear we each accumulate through the years of our lives in a society that generally doesn't support the honest and skillful exploration of our emotions and our ideas about either life or death. For me, the experience of progressively accessing that armoring to feel it fully and release it in the Shared Heartspace that was created through a sequence of guided Grief and Forgiveness Meditations was profoundly healing. It didn't seem that I was alone in that. during the closing exercise on the fifth day, it felt like I was dancing to Pachebel's Canon with a room full of open-hearted angels .
Being There Together
Perhaps the most deeply inspiring moments came for me during the final moments of a guided two person meditation that the Levine's had adapted from a Tibetan Practice used by monks gathered at the bedside of a dying person. My partner was a man named Eddie who had entered the final stages of his encounter with AIDS.
Under Stephen's instruction, each of us in turn took the position of laying down on our back and focusing our attention on our breath as the other person sat meditatively to carefully observe the rising and falling of our chests/bellies. The seated person was instructed to synchronize his breathing with the that of the person laying down and then entone the syllable "AHHHHHHH" during each shared outbreath. In the 40 minutes that ensued (20 minutes each), each of us became aware of the deep, deep calm and clarity of a vast and spacious mind.
That, in itself, would have been enough, right? It gets better.
During the final segment of the exercise the participants were given the opportunity to share what had come up for them during the periods of synchronized breathing. Within a few moments Eddie and I were in each other's arms crying our eyes out.
Two strangers, now intimately on the same page through the alchemy of this two person meditation exercise, we spent time sharing how difficult our relationships with our "old school" fathers had been, tearfully expressing how deeply we loved them --and how fully we forgave them -- for the harsh treatment of our upbringing. In those moments we shared the process of what Levine calls "settling our accounts" with our fathers -- beyond the grave. Sorrow, pain, gratitude, love and forgiveness flowed within the gracious spaciousness of those moments of a our shared open hearts.
It was Magical.
In the rarefied pool of Awareness that had been created, there had been a Resonance in the Heart/Mind that Eddie and I had shared for forty minutes that defies the conventional understanding of the nature of human consciousness. It was as obvious as it is mysterious. In being Present for one another that deeply, Eddie and I had "intersected". Being there for one another, with one another, in boundaries of our "conventional" mode of consciousness had dissolved. We could engage in a shared healing.
Although I had experienced the telepathic nature of awareness in a number of experiences before, this experience was a reaffirmation of how amazing this Universe actually is. In precious moments, we can experience the Essential Oneness we share beyond the limits of what Alan Watt's called our "skin encapsulated egos. It becomes palpable. (This is why I love Sitting Still in Silence with other people and do so as often as I can.)
Having had these experiences doesn't make the sense of loss and deep sadness at the death of a loved one disappear, though. I've cried my eyes out a number of times on and off the zafu these past couple of days. I fully expect to do it more as images of Chico's unique and playful antics or the feeling of his warm contented body held against my chest play through my mind. More tears may flow as I again rue the oversight that allowed him to slip out of our lives. (I could have taken the time to immediately rework the fence or made it a point to accompany him outside each and every time he went into the back yard. I didn't.) Yet, with those tears the armoring melts, the heart opens.
Opening my heart to the fragile majesty of our existence, I feel a deep gratitude for having been graced with Chico's Presence in my life, for having been blessed by his Precious and Special Being. In opening my heart fully to the remorse I feel about not having acted to better protect him, I also open to the merciful clear space of Forgiveness that exists in the Boundless Heart of Awareness -- and to the fathomless wonder of the One Love that embraces Life and Death as it is.
May all beings heal into their True Nature.
May all beings live and love fully.
May all beings rest in peace.
(An extensive array of the Levine's talks and guided meditations is available at http://levinetalks.com/ )