On Loss and Death
January 2015 Graduate Meeting

Videos for this meeting:
Catapulted into Presence by Tara Brach [7 min]
Awakening Through Change & Loss by Tara Brach [16 min]
Darkness of the Womb: 4 Steps in Transforming Suffering by Tara Brach [47 min]

    When you lose someone you love, your life becomes strange. The ground beneath you becomes fragile. Your thoughts make your eyes unsure; and some dead echo drags your voice down where words have no confidence. Your heart has grown heavy with loss; and though this loss has wounded others too, no one knows what has been taken from you when the silence of absence deepens.
    Flickers of guilt kindle regret for all that was left unsaid or undone.
    There are days when you wake up happy; again inside the fullness of life. Until the moment breaks and you are thrown back onto the black tide of loss. Days when you have your heart back, you are able to function well, until in the middle of work or encounter, suddenly with no warning, you are ambushed by grief.
    It becomes hard to trust yourself. All you can depend on now is that sorrow will remain faithful to itself. More than you, it knows its way and will find the right time to pull and pull the rope of grief until that coiled hill of tears has reduced to its last drop.
    Gradually, you will learn acquaintance with the invisible form of your departed; and when the work of grief is done, the wound of loss will heal and you will have learned to wean your eyes from that gap in the air and be able to enter the hearth in your soul where your loved one has awaited your return. All the time.
           - John O'Donohue from To Bless the Space Between Us

    Grief is neither a disorder nor a healing process; it is a sign of health itself, a whole and natural gesture of love. Nor must we see grief as a step towards something better. No matter how much it hurts - and it may be the greatest pain in life - grief can be an end in itself, a pure expression of love.
           - Gerald May, M.D.

    Those that have been left behind by the dying are often broken apart by the knowledge that they cannot bring back that which has been lost. The irrevocability of it all often leaves them helpless and sad. And then there is the taste of grief in Western culture which is conditioned to possess and not let go... We all face loss, and perhaps can accept it as a gift, albeit for most of us, a terrible one. Maybe we can let loss work us. To deny grief is to rob ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion. Grief is often not addressed in contemporary Buddhism. Perhaps it is looked on as a weakness of character or as a failure of practice. But from the point of view of this practitioner, it is a vital part of our very human life, an experience that can open compassion, and an important phase of maturation, giving our lives and practice depth and humility.
           - from A Buddhist Perspective on Grieving by Joan Halifax

    Compassion is not just a feeling; it is a response to pain that is deeply rooted in wisdom. It is a commitment to alleviating suffering and the cause of suffering in all its forms. The human story is both personal and universal. Our personal experiences of pain and joy, grief and despair, may be unique to each of us in the forms they take, yet our capacity to feel grief, fear, loneliness, and rage, as well as delight, intimacy, joy, and ease, are our common bonds as human beings. They are the language of the heart that crosses the borders of "I" and "you". In the midst of despair or pain, you may be convinced that no one has ever felt this way before. Yet there is no pain you can experience that has not been experienced before by another in a different time or place. Our emotional world is universal.
           - from Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World by Christina Feldman

In a private letter to a sangha member grieving the death of a loved one, Zen teacher Zuiko Redding reflects on the generosity of passing away with grace and an open heart:
    Our death is the gift we make for the life we have enjoyed. The fact that it is a required gift doesn't mean that we can't give it with graciousness and an open heart for all beings who will benefit from it. It is a gift to our children and grandchildren and to rocks and trees that need the passing of life in order to live and grow themselves. Without the change resulting in our death, there would be no new beings coming into the world - no joy of holding a newborn, seeing the smile of a child or the leaves of a young tree facing the sun. We would have never grown up, helped others, learned new things, known the joy of spring. Death is our gift to the universe, the dues we pay for the joy of our lives.
    This does not mean it's not hard to let go of this life. Dag Harnmarskjold wrote in Markings that when he was in his twenties, death was one of the crowd. But now, in his later years, death sits beside him at the dinner table. Sometimes death is a good companion and tells us wise things. Sometimes we look at death and are grief-stricken and angry. It's normal to grieve for our lives and be angry at their being taken - saying we shouldn't is only putting a layer of suffering on our pain. None of us wants to go.
    We know, in the last analysis, that there's nothing for us to do but let go of life and trust the universe to do something good, something useful, something we would have liked with it.
    Death is not an end. It is a change. The elements that made us up are still there, just as yarn is still there in a finished hat. It is itself, but it's something else, also. Even though we're in a sense still here, "self" as we know it is gone. That "self" won't be appreciating the sunrise tomorrow. But, still, we are here in the places where our elements alight - a tree, a bird, a rock. Remember that things had to die so we could be born - stars, rocks, dinosaurs, plants. As we give up this life, we can thank them for sharing it with us so we could be here for a while.
           - from Buddhadharma, Winter 2014 issue

    By taking a few moments to "die on purpose" to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By "dying" now in this way, you actually become more alive now. This is what stopping can do. There is nothing passive about it. And when you decide to go, it's a different kind of going because you stopped. The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured. It helps keep all the things we worry about and feel inadequate about in perspective. It gives us guidance.
           - from Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

    After breakfasting on the collected food, we were ushered into an audience with Ajahn Chah. A severe-looking man with a kindly twinkle in his eyes, he sat patiently waiting for us to articulate the question that had brought us to him from such a distance. Finally, we made an attempt: "What are you really talking about? What do you mean by 'eradicating craving'?" Ajahn Chah looked down and smiled faintly. He picked up the glass of drinking water to his left. Holding it up to us, he spoke in the chirpy Lao dialect that was his native tongue: "You see this goblet? For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, 'Of course.' But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious." Ajahn Chah was not just talking about the glass, of course, nor was he speaking merely of the phenomenal world, the forest monastery, the body, or the inevitability of death. He was also speaking to each of us about the self. This self that you take to be so real, he was saying, is already broken.
           - from Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein

    If you have the privilege of being with a person who is conscious at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple, "Did I love well?" "Did I live fully?" "Did I learn to let go?"
    These simple questions go to the very center of spiritual life. When we consider loving well and living fully, we can see the ways our attachments and fears have limited us, and we can see the many opportunities for our hearts to open. Have we let ourselves love the people around us, our family, our community, the earth upon which we live? And, did we also learn to let go? Did we learn to live through the changes of life with grace, wisdom, and compassion? Have we learned to shift from the clinging mind to the joy of freedom?
           - from A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield

Closing Thoughts

A Haiku: Absence - A Special Presence
by Lauren Fins
[ Read by Lauren in response to tragic shooting that happened in our community 5 days before this meeting ]

Some people are so
Very present. Their absence -
A special presence

Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver
[ Read by Gerri Sayler ]

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.