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Lions Roar : May 2009
63 SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2009 You Are Already Dying The most profound meditation, says joan halifax in her new book, Being with dying, is contem- plating the certainty of your own death. hoW ManY PeoPle who will die today even know that this will be the last days of their lives? i think of friends who have died without completing projects, without having had the opportunity to say words of goodbye to a spouse or a child, without having forgiven a friend. again, we still don’t believe it can happen to us. We may take care of a dying friend and make the natural mistake of thinking ourselves separate from her experience. in our minds, we may divide ourselves from her: “She is dying; i’m the caregiver.” But in reality, we’re joined by the bonds of impermanence. Maybe it’s too disturbing to say to yourself, i am dying, too. But the truth is, you are already dying. So am i. We’re all linked by the inevitability of loss and death, even if we seem to be easily meandering down the road of living. every one of us has had to give up something we loved. We’ve sacrificed cherished plans or dreams, felt grief and loss. already, all of us have expe- rienced impermanence, which is just another form of dying. What hasn’t changed in one way or another? everything is always changing. even the Sun, a symbol of immortality, is a star that will someday be extinguished. if we start training ourselves to observe the changing nature of our every- day situations, we can be on our way to freedom from suffering. accepting impermanence and our shared mortality requires loos- ening the story knot: letting go of our concepts, ideas, and expecta- tions around how we think dying ought to be. it also calls us to “prac- tice dying”—that is, to let go, surrender, and give away, in the best of worlds, to practice generosity. We can do this now; at any time, we can start practicing dying. and if we do, we might also start to perceive the interdependence of suffering and joy—that life and death are not separate but intertwined like roots deep in the earth. When i am sitting with a dying person, i sometimes hear the fol- lowing words inside me: “Whatever suffering this person is experi- encing, it will change.” Maybe for better, maybe for worse. Change is inevitable—that’s impermanence. and at the same time, it is neces- sary to be fully there for the often overwhelming and raw truth of moment-to-moment suffering. The awareness of impermanence can serve to deepen our commitment to living a life of value and mean- ing. Many traditions teach the inevitability of death as the bedrock for the entire spiritual path. Plato told his students, “Practice dying.” The Christian monks of medieval europe ritually whispered to one another, “Memento mori” (“remember death”). and one Buddhist sutra tells us, “of all footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. of all meditations, that on death is supreme.” ♦ From Being with dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of death, by joan halifax. © 2008 by joan halifax. reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. roshi joan has hiked all over the world and circumnavigated Tibet’s Mount Kailash five times. gesturing to the hills outside the win- dow, she says, “From this distance the moun- tains are a beautiful artifact. i don’t know if i’ll be able to walk as i used to. now every day is an everest.” Since her accident, community members have volunteered their help in small ways—carrying her glass of water or serving her at mealtimes— and in larger ways, by taking on new responsi- bilities. “Many people have stepped forward in a brilliant way to take over things that i couldn’t do, and they’re doing it better than i could,” she says. She is delegating more to others with an eye toward retiring from her position as abbot, “the sooner the better, so that i can enjoy more teaching.” She recently promoted Beate Seishin Stolte from vice abbot to co-abbot, and will give dharma transmission to Stolte in november. “i’m very happy Beate is there,” says roshi joan. “She’s so motherly—kind, but also very solid.” earth to roshi’s fire, a combination that works. Peale notes that today upaya is a strong cen- ter for women, with several women in leadership roles. But, she says, “We’re all realizing that some- day, and it might be twenty years from now, we’ll have to go on without roshi. We are thinking about how to keep her legacy alive. no one of us can do what she has done. it will take a team.” aS roShi joan told me in our interview at Prajna, most suffering is rooted in fear, but part of her life’s work is to try to be “a kind of role model of what it’s like to be free of fear.” When asked whether she feels fragile, roshi explains, “at times i do feel rather fragile. no surprise—my life has been challenging in many ways. and, for the most part, the difficulties have strengthened my back and tenderized me. as we say at upaya, ‘Strong back, soft front.’ and yet, most of us suffer from bouts of ‘strong front, soft back.’ That includes me, when i am tired or feel as though i have not been quite right in my speech or actions.” as natalie goldberg puts it, “She’s fearless, yes, but i also know her underbelly. She’s vul- nerable and tender and also scared like every- body else. That’s what makes her fearless. She’s not fearless like a brick; hers is a fearlessness that comes out of tenderness for the world.” ♦