Few of us are encouraged to actively contemplate the inevitability of our death, or that it could happen at any time. This 2023 I actively sought out the opportunity to do just that. A class presented itself on my e-mail feed from Spirit Rock titled “A Year to Live.” Spirit Rock is a meditation center nestled in the hills of Woodacre California. These classes had been there for me, as an online gift during Covid. Since then, the opportunity to take classes from a collective of over sixty-four insight teachers provided valuable life tools. This offering expected a different level of engagement. “A Year to Live” required a year-long online commitment in forgiveness, gratitude, and letting go. Through guided meditations, inquiry, and small group discussions, we would be guided, with support of community, through a process of living 2023 as if it were our last.
“A Year to Live” is now in the first quarter of learning and exploration. During the first meeting our lead instructor welcomed six hundred participants from across the globe. In the second meeting we were organizationally dispersed into smaller groups of 9. These smaller groups are expected to meet monthly in between larger meetings. Upon meeting my new group of wisdom seekers investigating living and conscious dying, I was fascinated as to who showed up. Our group welcomed two emergency-room doctors who wish to be more connected to patient care. Another group member is a clinical psychologist who works in palliative care, yet realizes her own work with grief needs support and practice. Some of the others in the collective have loved ones experiencing terminal illness. I round out the group sharing my fear in denying that my “in-good-health” 89 year-old mother will pass and believing she is immortal.
Homework or lifework is the most substantial part of the journey. We are asked to journal daily, meditate daily (even if it is short), and recite the five Buddhist remembrances in the morning and in the evening. These are the five truths that the Buddha believed we should contemplate and accept. These remembrances are as follows:
- I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill-health. I cannot escape ill-health.
- I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. I cannot escape separation from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
In addition to this daily practice we read a small book called “A Year to Live” written by Stephen Levine. For over 34 years Stephen counselled concentration camp survivors and their children, as well as Vietnam War Veterans. A primary theme is to explore grief when dying yet also the more subtle incarnations of grief. Our everyday grief accumulates as a response to burdens of disappointments and the loss of trust and confidence that follows the less satisfactory arch of our lives. In order to avoid feeling grief we “armor our hearts” leading to a gradual deadening of our experience of the world. When a loved one dies we are rendered on many occasions incapable of dealing with grief and we are swept up in all of our emotions.
My moment-to-moment intention since taking this class has centered around opening my heart and examining all my actions with a deeper meaning. My teacher started this class with a simple story of a man in hospice with a terminal life sentence greeted by a stranger. The stranger asked the man “What does it feel like to die?” the man asked the stranger “What does it feel like to pretend you are not?” When we spend our life in flight from death we find ourselves in flight from life. The work we do before the end of life to trust the process we all succumb to is directly proportionate to our trust in life.