"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."
Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation
Friday, May 2, 2014
Knocking at Heaven's Door
"One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question:
death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain,
"On the day I die, when I'm being carried
toward the grave, don't weep. Don't say,He's gone! He's gone. Death has nothing
to do with going away. The sun sets and
the moon sets, but they're not gone..."
Hospitals have never been among my favorite places -- even as a visitor. I'm certainly grateful that the subject of Death has been a focal point of Practice, study, and conversation in my life recently, because yesterday I found myself in the emergency room of the local hospital with oxygen tubes at my nostrils, wired to a couple of machines listening to the someone crying down the hall. I hadn't recognized that sound as crying until the young woman who arrived to take blood samples said, "She's really having a hard time of it." I had just experienced the sound as another background sound among the whirrs, buzzes, clicks, and beeps of this busy small town medical center.
I had been laying there for close to an hour at that point, meditating whenever I wasn't being conscientiously poked and prodded (verbally or physically) by the staff. Earlier that day I had arrived at the clinic of my primary care physician to explore a nagging chest pain that I had been experiencing for awhile. Since I have a history of cardiac disease and live with two stents installed in my heart, she had concluded it was probably wise to get to the ER and run the standard tests to determine whether my ticker was firing on all cylinders or not.
Now, laying there in the ER, touched by the compassion of the young technicians voice, I had turned my attention to the sound down the hall. The distress of the person was apparent. As often happens these days when i notice an emotional discomfort, my first thought was to begin Tonglen practice. Already fairly adrift in a clear, relaxed and spacious awareness, I drew the sound and those feelings into my heart on the in-breath, then released with the out-breath into the caring spaciousness of my heartfelt wishes for that person to be at peace. The moment I began, I heard the blood technician's voice asking, "are you okay?"
Surprised, I answered that I was fine and she proceeded with her tasks, labeling the vials. I closed my eyes and relaxed into meditation again, being present to the sensations of my own body and breath, then resting in the vast spaciousness of open awareness. In a few moments I began Tonglen again.
Immediately, the young women asked "are you sure you're okay?" As I met her eyes I could feel her empathy. She was definitely "locked in" on what I was feeling. (It's possible, of course, that my facial expression had cued her -- although I was felt quite relaxed and still).
Trying not to sound certifiable, I briefly explained what I was doing. She listened. Obviously not overly-impressed by my presentation regarding Tonglen practice, she smiled quizzically -- and made a point to close the door to the hallway as she left, her attempt to shield me from the sound. (So much for my ego's lingering desire to be perceived as an advanced meditator. LOL)
For the most part, we've been conditioned in our society to avoid the topic of our inevitable demise. Although a concern about death is transmuted into a fascination with television violence, vampire movies and the like, it's not often a subject of conversation. Until the grim reaper makes some sort of appearance in our lives, at least knocking at the door to catch our attention, mostly we just scurry along, whistling in the dark. We let the clergy and the hospice professionals deal with it.
In most traditions of Buddhism, that isn't the case. The inevitability of death is one of the stated bottom lines of Life and Practice. In gruesome detail, one traditional Theravadan practice instructs monks to meditate on the rotting corpses at the charnel grounds. Perhaps a little less hard core, The Five Remembrances of Zen and the Four Reminders of Tibetan Practice include a deep and reoccurring call to contemplate of the inevitability of death. It seems to me that this is one of the wisest things we can do. As well as providing us an impetus to work on our exit strategy, it helps put the profoundly precious nature of each day, each moment into clear focus.
Interestingly, I had just read B. Alan Wallace's commentary on the Lojong instructions regarding the "transferring of consciousness" during the death transition in his book, Buddhism with an Attitude the night before the trip to the ER. In the Tibetan belief system death is characterized as transition that includes a period of time after our physical death, a sequence of experiences that ultimately leads to the "clear light of death" -- and then rebirth if we haven't quite settled our karmic accounts. As it turns out, the suggested preparation for that entire experience is just a reiteration of the same five principles of practice that we are called to cultivate in our lives. It's all about our commitment to do what is necessary to open our hearts and minds to the One Love we are immersed in. We approach Death as we approach Life. That seems to make sense, no?
A number of times yesterday, as I lay there at the ER, gratitude welled up in my chest and
leaked out of my eyes for a moment or two. For the most part, the human
beings who had chosen to work at this small, sometimes struggling, community hospital had been quite present, clear-eyed and caring. If I was, indeed, going down,
I was surrounded by folks who were sensitive, diligent and competent. More than anything, I was just open and curious about the mystery that I was immersed in, taking it one breath at a time.
Something else was quite noticeable. As I encountered those few staff who weren't "quite there", who seemed harried, perhaps unhappy and stressed, it just elicited a
feeling of compassion, a wish on my part to bring some humor and ease to their day. We're all knocking on heaven's door, after all. Why not be kind? What else is there
It just takes Practice.
(P.S. Oh yeah. The cardiac tests came back fine. The pain is still there, usually dull, but sometimes sharpening for a few moments. It is "probably" just an inflammation of the cartilage in my rib cage. Stay tuned. I am.)