Countdown to dead

I came across Kevin Kelly’s post on his “countdown to dead” and found it intriguing to have a daily reminder of my impermanence. Contemplating one’s own death is part of the Buddhist tradition (among others), and seeks to heighten one’s awareness of the present moment and (one hopes) leads you to make the best use of the time you have left.

I added this to my computer’s dashboard a few days ago, and glance at it every once in a while. Today it struck me that when I started the last digit was a 6, and now it’s a 1, and in just two days, the “61” on the end will turn into a 59. And the number decreases every day no matter what. 12761 looks like a big number, but the relentless and unstoppable subtraction is much more provoking than I thought it would be.

What did I do with the last 5 days? Did I do anything of lasting importance? Enhance friendships? Give to others to enhance their lives? Create something that will outlast me?

This counter has really just been a reminder of The Buddha’s Five Remembrances (via Thich Nhat Hanh):

  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Remembering those things makes all the little things that sometimes bother me appear inconsequential, and makes the truly important things loom large.

Try it …

Walt Whitman

I came across this excerpt from a poem by Walt Whitman. This is the way to live.

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me;
I can repeat over to men and women, You have done such good to me,
I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go;
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go;
I will toss the new gladness and roughness among them;
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.

— Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

On Worry

One of my favorite quotes is from the movie “The Spanish Prisoner”: “Worry is interest paid on a debt that never comes due.”

A wonderful illustration of this happened to me over the weekend. I got an automated phone call that said “This is not a sales call. it is very important you call … during regular business hours.” It sounded like a sales call to me! So I googled the company, and it turned out to be a collection agency. My first thought was, “Oh no, what if one of the doctor bills I’m contesting got sent to a collection agency? How dare they! My credit will be ruined!” But then I took a deep breath or two, and realized that I had no idea what the call was about. And that there was nothing to do but call on Tuesday. The next day or two my mind would every once in a while wonder what it was about, but I was careful not to worry, but just to let the thoughts go.

Today, Tuesday, I called, and it was for someone who used to have my number, not for me at all! So if I had worried all weekend, it would have been for nothing. I’m so glad I didn’t waste more than a couple of minutes on it.

What are you worrying about?

Being open to spirit

How open are you? How open are you to spirit? the universe? God? People? Yourself?

Most people are so full of “things” that there’s no room for being open.

Here’s another enlightening passage from a book I recently read, The Curse of Chalion (which I mentioned in a previous post)

“The gods love their great-souled men and women as an artist loves fine marble, but the issue isn’t virtue. It is will. Which is chisel and hammer. Has anyone ever quoted you Ordol’s classic sermon of the cups?”

“That thing where the divine pours water all over everything? I first heard it when I was ten. I thought it was pretty entertaining when he got his shoes wet, but then, I was ten. I’m afraid our temple divine at Cazaril tended to drone on.”

“Attend now and you shall not be bored.” Umegat inverted his clay cup upon the cloth. “Men’s will is free. The gods may not invade it, any more than I may pour wine into this cup through its bottom.”

“But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods may not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act. They can seep in through the minds of animals, sometimes with effort. Plants … require much foresight. Or” – Umegat turned his cup upright again, and lifted the jug — “sometimes, a man may open himself to them, and let them pour through him into the world.” He filled his cup. “A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He –or she– freely gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible.”

This is reminiscent of the Zen story:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”


“The Curse of Chalion” (Lois McMaster Bujold)

World Tai Chi & Qigong day

Saturday, April 29th is World Tai Chi and Qigong day.

These are gentle martial arts designed to get the energy in your body flowing properly. And whether you believe in “chi” or not, mindfully doing these light stretches and exercises produces and undeniable feeling of well being. The daily workout I do is part Qigong.

I’ll share with you one of the most centering Qigong exercises that I’ve encountered. I learned it as “Standing like a mountain.”

  • Stand with your legs about shoulder width apart
  • Bend your knees slightly
  • Straighten your arms so that they are pointing at an angle into the ground
  • Be aware of your breath
  • Visualize yourself as the tip of a great mountain extending downward into the earth. Your head is the tip, and your arms are the sides of the mountain
  • Feel yourself as a part of the great earth. Realize that your body is a part of the whole of the earth. Everything that your body is made up of came from the earth and thus you are the earth.
  • Being the earth, you have a sense of calm solidity.

Check out Ken Cohen’s course on qigong for an introduction:


“The Essential Qigong Training Course: 100 Days to Increase Energy, Physical Health & Spiritual Well-Being” (Ken Cohen)

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Death

My wife died almost 2 weeks ago, which is why I haven’t written an entry in a while.

Dealing with her long term illness, and ultimately the death of my spouse has bestowed upon me distilled life experience. It has been quite an honor to go through this with her, as I learned so much about life and about myself. But if I had to sum up everything I learned about death, it would be the same advice I’d give about anything else: “Be Present.”

To be present is to fully face what you’re dealing with, to not shy away from it, to not try to lay blame elsewhere, to not regret, or wish, or even hope, but instead to accept what is, to look deeply at it so as to learn what it is and why it might be there.

As the one who is dying, being present is to not “fight” death, but to enjoy life. My wife’s decline was somewhat slow, and her ability to do things left her over some weeks. With each loss of something that was once part of life (walking outside, eating, standing, drinking, etc.) each of the remaining abilities became more precious. As her ability to drink lessened, I remember how each sip of juice or water was ecstasy to her. Perhaps it’s subtle, but she never cursed the fact that she couldn’t drink much anymore, but instead she enjoyed the few sips she could drink. Or when she couldn’t stand on her own anymore, she was filled with pleasure when I would hold her in a standing position. Again, not “I wish I could stand,” but instead, “I’m glad I can be held up.” Instead of regrets for what we should have done differently in our marriage, we looked forward and missed the time we’d not be together.

As the caregiver of a dying person, being present meant to not have anger at death, but to do what I could to assist the life that was left. Hospice facilitated her caregiving at home (which was a blessing!) and their focus is on comfort and reduction of unwanted symptoms. This is being present. They are not trying to cure the disease, but just to remove the pain. Not fighting, but facilitating.

After her death, we did a three day vigil. Friends came to sit with her body. Some read, some meditated, some prayed, everyone said goodbye in his or her own way. It was not a “celebration of life”, which will come at the funeral, but instead it was an acknowledgment of the transformation she underwent, the wishing of “bon voyage,” the celebration of her continuation in other ways. And it was a time to ponder one’s own impending death, and thus how you live your life. It really underscored for me how important it is to live a worthwhile life. I highly recommend having an after-death vigil; it was one of the most moving and spiritually fulfilling events I’ve experienced.

One effect of having the vigil for three days was that by the end, her body had started to change. It was dehydrating, and while not gross, you could very clearly see it was just a shell. A chrysalis. Everyone who visited got to witness, first hand, that the body isn’t the person, but just a place for the person to reside for a time.

So it goes…

Travel daydreaming

This is a big planet we live on. I’ve only seen a little bit of it. These maps make that pretty obvious.

When I sat down and wrote down the big themes of my life, travel is one of them. I love seeing new places, meeting interesting people, eating unusual foods, etc.

Then why haven’t I been traveling? It’s because I don’t always focus on those big themes. Daily life intercedes. I focus on what seems to be urgent, what’s right in front of me, not far away. It’s not so much making excuses, but just forgetting … “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” So it’s good every once in a while to review your list of themes to see what important things you have been missing.

But I’ll blog about creating that list later. Right now, you can get your travel daydreams going by making your own visited country maps at World66.

Worldmap

Statemap

Countrymap

[via MMIMMJONES]

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Ten steps aid keeping your cool

I saw this in the local paper today and thought it was worth “clipping” to the blog.

For me, meditation has given me more space between thought and action. That is, it seems like I have time to watch my thoughts and then make a good decision about how to act, or (most often) just let the thought go. No need to act on everything you think!

Ten steps aid keeping your cool
By Barton Goldsmith, Scripps Howard News Service
March 18, 2006

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”

Keeping your wits about you when the kids are acting up, your boss is getting down on you, and your mate is all over the map can be a challenge.

Here are 10 tools to help you manage your mood and maintain your balance:

1. Think before you act.

Putting your brain in gear before engaging in an assault of any kind will help you prevent any escalation and keep the situation under control.

2. Think before you speak.

Saying to yourself what you might say to another, and imagining how he or she will take it, is a great way to prevent downward spirals from occurring.

3. If someone hurts you, let him or her know it.

Don’t hold it in or act it out. Simply say, “What you said hurt my feelings. Please don’t do that again.”

4. Learn about your triggers and avoid them.

For example, if traffic makes you crazy, take the scenic route. If you absolutely hate the checkout lines at the market, most places now deliver if you order online. It may take a little inventiveness, but eliminating the stress is worth it.

5. The old trick of “counting to 10” works.

If you’ve never tried it, I suggest you give it a shot. The next time something or someone frosts your cookies, just slowly count, and with each number remind yourself that by getting upset you are only hurting yourself.

6. Pretend you’re above it all.

Being truly gracious means that when the limo driver is late, or you have to go through security before your private jet takes off, you can keep things in perspective. After all, you have a great life and these minor inconveniences are just a part of the real world that we all have to live in.

7. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Birth and death are the only two biggies in life. Everything else is not worth getting your knickers in a twist. Learning to let go will help you to live longer.

8. Take a few deep breaths.

It’s amazing how many people hold their breath when they get upset. Forcing fresh air into your lungs sends oxygen to your heart and brain, and acts as a calming agent. Breathe slowly and be sure not to hyperventilate. If you get really upset, breathe into a paper bag.

9. Check in with your heart.

Asking yourself if this is truly where you want to be, and how you want to feel or act toward another person (or in front of strangers), can be a great reminder to hold your tongue.

10. Ask yourself, “Am I a positive person or a negative person?”

This question has inspired many people (adults and children) to keep their attitudes in check. Keeping a positive attitude is not just a cliche; it makes your world a better place to be.

Barton Goldsmith, Ph.D., is the author of “Emotional Fitness for Couples.” Contact him at Barton@EmotionalFitness.net.

This Body is Not Me

(As you might know, my wife is dying of cancer, that’s why you’ll see a bunch of death related posts on my blog for a bit.)

I first heard this poem sung as a song by Sister Chang Kong at a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. She talked about how she had sung it at the bed of a dying friend, and how it comforted him. It comforts me too.

This body is not me; I am not caught in this body
I am life without boundaries,
I have never been born and I have never died.
Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies
All manifests from the basis of consciousness
Since beginningless time I have always been free.
Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out.
Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek.
So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye.
Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before.
We shall always be meeting again at the true source,
Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

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So it goes

From “Slaughterhouse-Five” (Kurt Vonnegut):

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”