This is my charnel ground

Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be,
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty potency.¹

from the Visudimagga

Charnel Ground on the border between Kathmandu and Paton.

“[W]hen one is actually dying it is a bit late to begin thinking seriously about death. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought long before we hope it will happen! And besides, even for the young and strong, it can still come with unexpected suddenness. Mors certa — hora incerta, ‘Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.’ To bear this in mind is for the Buddhist an important aspect of Right Understanding. And therefore the Buddhist practice of Meditation on Death — not very popular in the West — should be encouraged.”²

Death is on the mind. It surrounds me. Something shifted. Before, there was a sense of detachment. I thought it was due to equanimity. Now, when I look into the face of my patient and see her life retreating, I see my own face. I cannot help but identify with this body that is so soon going to be a corpse. When the woman who talks like a machine gun, nonsensically, shuffles her wheel chair towards me, I cannot help but face my own confusion, the busyness of my mind. When the woman with no short-term memory grabs me and asks me to help her because no one there knows who she is, I face my own feelings of worthlessness and groundlessness. When I stroke the hair of my 98 year-old uncle, who lies in the hospital bed, victimized by pneumonia, and hear his sighs of pleasure in between coughing bouts, I melt; reminded just how important it is to touch and be touched, how we need each other.

The nursing home and its residents are my teachers. They provide an active reflection on what it means to live and die. I cannot do anything but face my fear in this environment. This is my charnel ground.

1. “Buddhist Reflections on Death”, by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

2. “Buddhism and Death”, by M. O’C. Walshe. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

See also:

“In the Dead of Night” a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah

Death & Dying at DharmaNet International Learning Center

The gift of presence

As a hospice volunteer, it is common to hear from others, “what difficult work, how do you manage?” Or “how sad it must be”. Patient’s families, say “thank you, it takes a special person to do this kind of work”. What’s amazing is that it’s really not so extraordinary and, rather than saddening, there’s something uplifting about it. There’s beauty in sharing gratitude, generosity, love and compassion with others at any stage of life. Really, it just takes being present for another person, being present for sadness, for whatever is being experienced.

I think this is also one of the reasons there’s such enormous value in sitting together in community, in silence. As we sit together confronting the complex network of feelings, emotions, and thoughts, all sorts of difficult emotions emerge; and to be together in that process of life unfolding is extremely powerful.

This week I sat with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in 12 years, in a Japanese garden that had deep significance for each of us in different ways.  After some dialogue, a pregnant silence emerged. The heat was oppressive, sweat dripped down my chest. The body was uncomfortable. There was an awkwardness and then a settling in to being together in that new way. Yesterday I spent my last hours with a patient, knowing I would not see him again. His wife, full of nervous energy, not yet opening to her grief, felt it too difficult to stay – so unused to being with him without words.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.) via The Atlantic | The Daily Dish

Being in silence together is one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being.

I offer this story, I do not know who to attribute it to other than a hospice volunteer.

“If You Do Not Understand My Silence, You Will Not Understand My Words”

Alice opened the door and led me into her comfortable living room. She did not turn on a lamp to scatter the dusk, nor did she offer coffee. We sat down in opposite chairs. I was already thinking of comforting phrases, but I began by asking what I could do to help. She told me, “I’d just like you to quietly sit here. Be with me, not talking or anything, just be here.” I was a little deflated, having marshaled a string of uplifting phrases to help her through her sadness. “What? Sit here? Anyone could do that.”

Alice closed her eyes and rocked gently in her chair. I watcher her for a few minutes. Then, embarrassed by staring into a face that seemed so private, I began looking around the room at the paintings, the polished furniture, the ornate rug. I felt tense and uncomfortable in the heavy silence.

Alice continued to rock gently, her head against the back of the chair, her eyes closed. I gazed out the window where the brightly colored flowers paled, subdued by soft twilight. I shifted in my chair, feeling increasingly awkward in the enveloping silence. I wanted to reassure her that I understood her pain; I wanted to reaffirm her courage and strength; I wanted to dissipate this silence with a shower of words.

Still she rocked, eyes closed. And then, in the soft shadows, I began to let go of my own anxiety, surrendering to the silence which settled over us like a benign mist. My proud preoccupation with my own eagerness to talk ebbed as I slowly began to connect with Alice’s needs. As I relaxed, began to feel at one with her, began to understand the immensity of what I’d been asked to give her: MY PRESENCE. No lecture, no pep talk, no insightful platitudes, no recital of understanding. Just my presence.

Calmness filled the darkening room as we sat together in silence. It was an hour, although it did not seem that long, before Alice operned her eyes and said simply, “Thank you for coming, I’m all right now.”

I smiled, rose, took her hands into mine and said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” It was only later that I realized the powerful communication in that silence and the closeness that I’d felt to her sorrow. I reflected on how often I had rushed in with words, fearful that if I did not fill the empty air with them I would not give proper comfort. I don’t know what Alice was thinking in that hour we sat together, nor is it important that I know. Whatever her thoughts or prayers or memories, I did not interrupt or violate them, or cut them short with my own imposition of talk. For I realized that unless I could understand her silence, I would never understand her words.

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