Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Living and Dying

I seem to have reached the stage of life where people dear to me are starting to die. This is part of the natural cycle of life, yet knowing that does not make it any easier. My childhood friend is dying of cancer. She is forty-three years old. I have spent many weeks thinking about her, our history together and about losing her. I have also wondered how I would handle such a death-sentence myself.
Two years ago, both my father and my aunt were dying of cancer. They had radically different approaches to dying. My father spent his final days in denial and my aunt spent her final days partying. I distinctly remember feeling grateful for the experience of watching these two different ways of dealing with death. I hoped that if ever I faced a similar situation, I would have the courage to live out my final days as well as my aunt did.
Cancer can be seen as cruel, a long, drawn-out death sentence that forces us to think about our own death daily for weeks or months. Or it can be a gift: I remember reading a post-mortem account of a woman who had written at the end of her life that the best days of her life were her last days. She did not miss a minute of her final weeks and months, choosing to stay present and enjoy family and friends to the very end.
I spoke to my friend's sister the other day to find out how things were going and she said to me, "She's really not handling this well at all. But then again, how can she be expected to handle it? How would we handle it?" The question has been on my mind ever since. How can we be expected to make the most of our last days, knowing they are indeed our last days?
Reading Physics of the Soul by Amit Goswami I am attempting to familiarize myself with the physics of dying as well as the spiritual aspect. This book is no light read, but it is fascinating nonetheless. The author speak of the Creativity of Dying and that in order to make dying a less frightening experience we must prepare ourselves for the process of both struggle and surrender. If you have ever witnessed the dying process you will immediately know this process: from denial to anger to management to surrender. For even those who struggle the most mentally, the body slowly gives up the struggle to survive and the mind soon follows by disconnecting from the vital body. An individual can continue to live for several days to weeks in this state, but it is a state of mentally withdrawing from the action of life and the busyness of the mind. It is generally a very peaceful and even enlightened state. The yogis refer to it as the highest samadhi. But as in any other state of samadhi, it is going to require abandonment of the ego. This is where preparation comes in handy. We generally cannot reach a state of samadhi without first preparing: working the limbs, so to speak. So the creativity of dying requires a similar inquiry, examination, and the eventual work of detaching from the ego-centered form of existence.
What I come away from this reading with is that the more we live our lives consciously, with greater and greater awareness, the more prepared we will be for the process of dying creatively. In other words, the fear of death is lessened when our lives are lived with awareness. We've all heard the phrase, "Live Each Day as if it Were Your Last". This is the First Limb of Dying Creatively.