Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. -- Psalm 90:12
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I started reading "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," by Sogyal Rinpoche, again. I know it was, on the surface, a strange choice to take with me on our annual, extended-family-and-friends, get-together at Sahuaro Lake Ranch. And I did feel a little odd reading about death and dying during a time of fellowship and thanksgiving, eventhough these ideas are not completely unconnected.
After all, we have all heard how facing our own death can make us appreciate life so much more. We are often advised to "live like we are dying" by people who have been there, because when we do so, we tune into all that is most important and precious in our lives. Keeping our death in mind teaches us to live more deeply and gratefully the life we have been given. I understand the inherent truth in this advice. Unfortunately, I just can't seem to live this way for long.
However, I didn't seek out this book for that reason. I wanted to get back into reading it because I was looking for a more specific understanding about death. You see, a beloved uncle has an inoperable brain tumor. And a friend's beloved aunt had just had a heart-attack and was dying. My friend said to me, in the midst of her heartache, that, "It's a fact of life." Well, yes, I thought, death is a fact of life. But it's a fact of life that makes me uncomfortable, unsure of myself, and really, really out of my depth. I recognize this about myself, and I don't particularly like it.
I should be better at this than I am. Many of my closest family members have died. I was with my mother during her last days of life. Yet, I still don't know what to do for people who are dying, or for people who are grieving the death of a loved one. My usual response is to ignore the obvious, to change the subject, or if it must be spoken about, assure the person that, "All will be well." However, I know that while this attitude helps me cope, it doesn't help the other person very much. I know deep down that it would be better if I could get more in touch
with the fears and sadness and pain of the dying person, or the ones who love them. That, however, scares the heck out of me.
Why is that? I wonder what I am afraid of. Do I fear that their sadness
or fear or anger will transfer over to me, and I will become overwhelmed with emotion? That, unfortunately, rings true. I'd like to be able to help someone who is dying. Or help a friend whose loved one is dying. But how do I do this without feeling like I am dying?
Well, it turns out, I can't. It is that very part of me the clings to self-protection, to my own well-being, security, and happiness that is the problem. I have to be willing to let all of that go, to let it die, essentially, if I am going to be able to truly help someone who is in pain, angry, afraid, depressed or grieving. I cannot keep a protective wall around my heart and at the same time open my heart to the emotions of the other person. In fact, the more I cling to my self, the less I will be able to help someone else.
Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." And "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
Sogyal Rinpoche writes, "Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom." (pg 35-36)
In order to really help someone who is dying, Rinpoche advises us to first think of the person as no different from you, with the same desires, needs, and fears, as you. Second, imagine that you are the dying person, facing your death, in pain, alone. He writes, "Then really ask yourself: What would you most need? What would you most like? What would you really wish from the friend in front of you?... what the dying person most wants is what you would most want: to be really loved and accepted." (pg. 179) Unconditional love is what a dying person wants.
Isn't that what everyone wants? It dawned on me that every person who is suffering, angry, fearful, depressed, etc., could be helped, if we have the courage to put ourselves in the place of that person, to face all the fear, pain, anger, and sadness that that entails, and really try to understand them.
Rinpoche writes. "As you grow to confront and accept your own fears, you will become increasingly sensitive to those of the person before you, and you will find you develop the intelligence and insight to help that person to bring his or her fears out into the open, deal with them, and begin skillfully to dispel them. ...To learn really to help those who are dying is to begin to become fearless and responsible about our own dying, and to find in ourselves the beginnings of an unbounded compassion that we may never have suspected....and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings." (pgs. 184, 191)
That is what I would like to have: a limitless compassion for all beings. And so, I must learn to release my walls of self-protection, and let go of my heart.
Dear God, thank you for these teachings about the heart of things. Help me to learn to grow in compassion, as I learn to grow in your love. Love always, Pam