One of the texts I’ve been working my way through this past month (and am committed to completing this Lent) is this
As you can imagine, it’s super uplifting stuff.
It’s one of those books you plan to read sooner or later, but somehow never get around to. Instead it sits on your bookshelf for years, pages yellowing in the afternoon sunlight… That probably sounds oddly specific, but that’s what happens to the books I feel like I should read, but don’t actually want to. However, a few months ago I finally wanted to and pulled it off the shelf. While visiting us from Montana, my eighty-one-year-old mother-in-law was rushed to the hospital in respiratory failure. There is nothing like the chaos of a near-death experience (even if not your own) to make you seek out “a Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation.”
Whatever the title led me to believe I was getting, it’s not what I’ve gotten out of this book. I’d heard the author described as a hospice worker, author and public speaker, but cracking open the first page, I was immediately struck by her other qualities, namely a PhD, with an expertise in transpersonal psychology, Sufi cartography, integral theory, and the evolution of human consciousness. Reading this text on death and dying is no Chicken Soup for the Soul, no pabulum to ease the bitterness of death; it’s hard work, but I’m grinding my way through it. And not only is it helping me understand what my mother-in-law may be experiencing, but what we will all experience at some point – the death, not only of our body, which is painful enough, but of our ego, our individuality and our ability to control anything at all, which is excruciating. We know how to medicate and manage physical trauma; it’s often the psychological and spiritual pain that is our undoing. Despite that hard truth, or perhaps because of it, I’ve found some good news in here. She says we can actually start taking some preventative measures now to reduce the psychic pain later.
Here’s one. Our life is full of opportunities to die to some parts of our “selves” we’ve (over)identified with. Every disappointment, every failure, every injury and illness, every break-up with a friend, or partner, every stumble along the way offers us the chance to ask the critical question, “Who am I?”
The best way to prepare for our eventual death is a “perpetual stance of exploration… the continual asking of the question, ‘Who am I?’… At first the answers to the question are the easy and automatic responses memorized during the decades of the mental ego’s identity project.” For example, for the last two decades and more, I have been able to say I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, freckle-faced cis-gender, heterosexual woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, reader, writer, student, teacher, runner, swimmer, walker, weightlifter, surfer, snowboarder, baker, seeker, volunteer. Sorry for rambling, but you get the point. I can identify as a lot of things. We all can!
But here’s the kicker. I have failed at virtually each and every one of those things. I have been found lacking and had to die to who I thought I was, or more specifically, who I dreamed I could be in my lifetime in that role. My “self” sometimes really sucks. But in that space of confusion and disappointment in myself and the situation, am I courageous enough to ask myself: “Who am I if I am no longer this?” and the even more piercing and existential question: “Will they love who am I now enough to stay with me?”
When we don’t know the answer to those questions, we get confused and anxious, but in fact, according to the book, “not knowing is good. Not knowing is ‘beginner’s mind.’ Not knowing allows openness to the possibilities inherent in each moment. It is the only space in which wisdom can arise, because it has no preconceptions,” no pre-judgments about what could or should happen. In those moments when we are pierced by the sword of reality that “Reality shines through the holes left by the piercing.” In that crisis of self, a deeper and truer Self can fill in the gaps, preparing us for the final moment when the Self is all we have left. With any luck, and a lot of grace, it just might make the transition a little easier on us and those we love.
A final thought –
It is because you believe that you are born that you fear death.
Who is it that was born?
Who is it that dies?
What was your face before you were born?
Who you are, in reality, was never born and never dies.
Let go of who you think you are and become who you have always been.
– Stephen Levine
The quotes from The Grace in Dying are taken from a section called “Self-Inquiry,” pages 160-165.
On a personal note –
My mother-in-law has steadily improved over the last ten weeks. She has worked hard to be well again, with a kindness and determination that is much commented on by the staff everywhere she’s been. And while this situation has been difficult, it has also allowed her family to come together with love and mutual support. She will be released on Monday to her daughter’s home in Northern California for a few more months of recovery before she returns to her own home in the early summer. This is her hand in Molly’s last week as we visited over dinner.