Practicing With Dying

Lecture by Josho Pat Phelan

In Zen monasteries and training temples in Japan and the United States, itís traditional to begin hitting the han fifteen minutes before zazen or Zen meditation begins. The han is a thick piece of wood, that is hit with a wooden mallet used to call monks to the meditation hall for zazen. A traditional verse is written on the han which has been translated into English many ways. But the translation we use here is:

Great is the Matter of Birth and Death,
Quickly Passing, Gone, Gone,
Awake, Each One Awaken,
Donít Waste this Life.

Impermanence is an important theme in Buddhism and in Zen, it is often referred to as the "Great Matter." In Japanese Zen both birth and death are included in the meaning of the word "life." So, great is the matter of this life. Nishiari Bokusan, a 19th century Japanese Zen teacher taught that when we are alive, just be 100% alive; and when dying, just engage in the activity of dying completely. He said that thinking about death wonít help you at all. In whatever way we may speculate about death or conceptualize the after-life, it is limited by our conceptualization process. Our thinking or worrying donít help us have a better death. Of course, itís natural to think about dying and what happens afterward. Most of us feel at least some fear or anxiety about death and the idea of losing everything we have and everyone we love. But in contrast to this, Iíve never heard anyone talk about being worried about what it might have been like for them before they were born or before they were conceived. What we were or what we might have been doing before we were born just doesnít bring the same kind of anxiety that the idea of death and dying do. As we trust whatever was happening with us before birth, I think we can trust whatever will happen to us after life.

One way to make use of the idea of impermanence is to remind ourselves that we are going to die. For me, I have to keep reminding myself that I am going to die, because I have such a strong habit of thinking about the future and constantly projecting my thoughts into a future time. So, it is hard to "think" about there not being a future for me Ė actually itís pretty hard to think about the "thinker" not being here. So, pay attention, be alive and present right now for this moment, this precious moment of life. One of my teachers said, "this moment is your palace."

Another way I practice with the idea of impermanence is to look at the question, if I knew that I was going to die in six months or in a year, how would I live my life right now Ė what are my priorities? What is most important? And how would I like to die? By this I mean, what state of mind would I like to have when I am dying? How do I want to engage with dying? And can my practice now be a support for doing that?

Buddha didnít say what happens after death. Although people have had near death experiences, I think they are pretty short, so I donít think anyone really knows. I think death is beyond our ability to conceptualize. I also think life, our living experience, is beyond our ability to conceive, that our thinking about and memories of an experience are several steps removed from the actual experience.

Now, at my age, more and more people I know are dying or being diagnosed with serious conditions. So, death, the process of dying, and how to support someone who is near the end of their life have been on my mind. When I was a child, I assumed that death was painful or frightening, so I thought that the best thing would be to die suddenly in my sleep, just slipping away without really knowing what was happening. But as I got older and began practicing zazen, I began to think about how the process of aging, of becoming weaker and sick before dying, provided the possibility of coming to terms with oneís life and of being able to tie up loose ends Ė giving the opportunity to apologize, to express gratitude and love, and say good-by to those I care about. I also think that when people experience some pain and deterioration as they approach death, that it might make it easier to accept the inevitability and not resist the process of letting go and dying.

Suzuki Roshi said, "Sooner or later we die, and we will go to the same place we go to when we sit zazen." For a long time Iíve felt that the practice of zazen is fundamentally a way to prepare for dying. When we just sit and breathe, we have the opportunity to study and embrace breathing by being present with the whole breath, getting to know the myriad qualities that breathing can have. The breath can be high in our chest, refusing to go any lower; it can be tense or relaxed and effortless; it can be held or get stuck and not want to move much at all; it can be deep, slow, fast, restricted; or when we are exercising, it can seem as if the lungs and breath have a life of their own and the rest of our body is just accompanying them. The practice of letting go of the exhalation, breath after breath, completely letting go with no expectation that anything will follow, is one way to practice letting go and to prepare for taking the last breath, for allowing our breathing to come to its own end. This practice, like practice in general, is characterized by letting go and opening our hearts, entering the next moment with no expectation.

During zazen, when I realize that I am thinking, I try to let go of the thought, to let go of my story-line, as I exhale. Throughout our daily activity, when we are paying attention, we can study the inner feelings and sensations of letting go and the opposite, of resisting or contracting. We resist and let go in many ways: physically Ė in our muscles, emotionally and psychologically as well as through our breathing. Being aware of resistance or of letting go in any of these ways, at any time, is an entrance to becoming more conscious of what we are feeling and what we fear.

If you are with someone who is dying, I think one of the important things is to support calmness and do whatever helps alleviate fear and resistance to dying. I just donít see how fear can be helpful. Although I think it is comforting to express love and support, it is important to do it in such a way that doesnít lead to clinging or attachment, or impede letting go in any way. My own intention is to try to encourage the one who is dying to continue their path, not to get stuck in attachment or regret, but to go in the direction of freedom. There are a lot of words and ideas about calmness and developing a feeling of peace, but the challenge is how to communicate it, verbally or nonverbally, in a way that is appropriate and relevant to the individual. Sometimes just being a calm presence in the room is what we can offer. In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche emphasized the importance of listening, of allowing the person who is approaching death to talk, to express their concerns and regrets; he emphasized the importance of being a supportive presence as well as never imposing our own beliefs, but allowing and enabling the dying person to find these within himself.

When someone who is dying begins turning inward, away from the external world, and stops eating, speaking less, and sleeping most of the time, I think that their consciousness becomes less discursive and less conceptual. I have heard the process of dying referred to as "the deep work of dying." At this stage I try not to touch the person unnecessarily or to try to talk to them in the usual discursive way, which I think can have the effect of pulling them back out to the surface of things. The Lankavatara Sutra talks about language, saying that words arise in conjunction with discriminatory consciousness, or words come into being with discriminating or discursive consciousness as their basis. Once a person who is dying is no longer speaking, it is easier for me just to sit and breathe with them, letting the deep calm of simply being present be a support. Although from time-to-time, I might read aloud short passages that have meaning or give comfort, such as the Twenty-third Psalm or the Buddhist Refuges. But since it seems like there is less conceptualizing going on, I donít try to have conversations as I do in everyday life. Most of our conversation is driven by habit energy. So, the absence of speaking can be a support in the letting go of conceptualization and turning more deeply inward. And just sitting with a dying person, attending to your own breath and presence, or simply the breath and presence in the room, I find creates a unified, concentrated experience very much like my experience during sesshin or a meditation retreat.

In the book, Preparing to Die, Andrew Holecek wrote about dying from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. The book describes eight stages of dying that correlate with stages of physical death and the withdrawal of consciousness, with detailed instructions about what to do in each stage. But at the end of these descriptions, he wrote, "My final pith instruction for what to do during [your own] death: release everything that will hold you back, look forward, let go Ė and relax.

For me, the concentration that develops during sesshin, after sitting period after period of zazen has a kind of momentum that carries over from one period to the next. And this more collected and settled focus reminds me of the concentration I feel when I sit with someone, or sit with an animal, who is dying. Both of these practices, sitting sesshin and sitting with dying, involve silence and a focus on the breath. During the time I practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center several people came there to die. The custom was for practitioners to take turns sitting zazen or just sitting quietly being present with the dying person until they died, and then to continue sitting zazen in the room with the deceased for 24-72 hours after their death, ideally for three days. The idea, as I understood it, was that by connecting with our own clarity and calmness of mind, that this supports clarity and calmness in the being making the transition from this life, both as they are dying and as the transition continues. Hopefully, the attitude of non-clinging and letting go, just being present, will support disengaging from this life and disentangling from this karmic identity.

When I was at the San Francisco Zen Center, I took a class about dying where we were taught a practice called conscious breathing or co-meditation. This might be done with someone who is dying, as they are resting or sleeping, or in the non-verbal state of actively dying. The practice is to join your breath to the dying personís breath. After your breath is coordinated with theirs, then add the sound of ahhh, softly, on the exhalation. So, you are just breathing with them, following their cycle of breath.

In being with someone who is dying, I find an intensity that displaces the usual trivia and comparative thinking that is in my ordinary mental landscape. The intensity is the fullness and completeness of each breath and each moment, that replaces the usual gaps of inattentiveness in ordinary life where the mind wanders looking for something interesting to latch onto.

To be able to engage in the present, hinges on an unconditional acceptance of just this person, this situation, as it is. In being a support for someoneís dying, there is a feeling of how little can really be done to help or adjust the situation. The help to be given is to accept it with as little squirming and avoidance as possible. To be able to open to our own pain and the pain around us, I believe, makes it easier for the dying person to deal with his pain and, I think, helps alleviate fear. Fear and resistance are forms of suffering that only intensify pain. This whole-hearted acceptance of the full condition we find ourselves in, again reminds me of sesshin practice. In my daily zazen, there is too much room to squirm physically and emotionally, to continue thinking and comparing Ė to continue filling the gaps with whatever the mind can find to grab onto. My mental habits are too fixed to be able to set them aside during meditation for 40 minutes once or twice a day. Unfortunately, for me it takes 40 minutes repeated 10 or 12 times a day for a couple of days to really change the momentum of my mental activity.

To accept the fullness of each breath, of each moment, even when it is characterized by failing patience and discomfort, takes a lot of practice and reinforcement. To be present with anotherís death takes the same unconditional acceptance needed to be fully present in zazen. Unconditional acceptance is outside the capacity of thinking, outside judgement, outside our comparing mind, and outside verbal consciousness.

I think a lot of the fear that we, human beings, have about death is based on conceptualizing what death is, standing outside it and thinking about it. I believe that the actual process of dying is much different from what we imagine. In Zen, there is not a lot of teaching about death or the after-life. In Dogenís text "Birth and Death," or Shoji, he wrote, "In birth there is nothing but birth and in death there is nothing but death. Accordingly when birth comes, face and actualize birth, and when death comes face and actualize death." Suzuki Roshi said, "For the religious mind there is no fear of death. The fear of death exists in the realm of thinking or emotions." He also said, " When you attach to something, that is the beginning of being afraid of death."

Physically we come into the world with an inhalation and leave it on an exhalation, and this may be true in our moment-by-moment rebirth as well. Practicing awareness of our breath is itself a meditation on impermanence because our breath is always changing, always moving, we are either inhaling, exhaling, or about to. Cultivating the attitude of completely letting go on the exhalation, without anticipating anything else, just exhaling and letting go with the whole body and mind, is a kind of renunciation where we renounce our expectations, which frees us just to be.

Sitting zazen and sitting with someone who is dying have the commonality of attention to the breath and silence, and hopefully letting go. The more we can trust this non-discursive space, the more we can trust the unknown, and the more we will be able to trust our life.

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2017

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