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Contemplating Death, Dying, and All the Living in Between July 8, 2020

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“If we could raise one generation with unconditional love, there would be no Hitlers. We need to teach the next generation of children from Day One that they are responsible for their lives. Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.”

– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D.

“I cannot leave out the problem of life and death. Many young people and others have come out to serve others and to labor for peace, through their love for all who are suffering. They are always mindful of the fact that the most important question is the question of life and death, but often not realizing that life and death are but two faces of one reality. Once we realize that we will have the courage to encounter both of them….

Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live—because death is a part of life.”

 

– quoted from The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation by Thích Nhất Hạnh

Today’s post and class will be tricky for some. Today’s theme is always tricky for some. Although, I would assert that it shouldn’t be. After all, death is part of life. That can come off glib and easy to say – specifically because it is a little glib, or shallow, because it denies belies the fact that loss is hard and that most of us haven’t/don’t really face the concept of death until someone we (or someone we love) is dying. The statement “death is part of life” is also shallow because it belies the fact that even if we meditate on and prepare for death, loss is still hard. Yes, death and dying are something that we all have to deal with, but to just leave it at that is what makes the subject tricky. We have to, as Thích Nhất Hạnh instructs in The Miracle of Mindfulness, go deeper.

“The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one[s] we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”

– quoted from On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler

 

Born in Zürich, Switzerland today in 1926, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the oldest triplet in a family of Protestant Christians. Despite her father’s wishes, she would grow up to be a psychiatrist known for her work on death and dying, life and death, and the five stages of grief. Her ultimate work was in part inspired by her work in refugees in Zürich during World War II. After the war, she participated in relief efforts in Poland and, at some point, visited the Maidanek concentration camp in Poland. As a young woman, standing in a place of destruction, she was struck by the compassion and human resilience that would inspire someone to carve hundreds of butterflies into the walls of the death camp.

Dr. Kübler-Ross originally planned on being a pediatrician; however, she married a fellow medical student (in New York in 1958) and became pregnant. The pregnancy resulted in the loss of her pediatrics residency so she switched to psychiatry. Unfortunately, she would also suffer two miscarriages before giving birth to two children. The miscarriages were not her first (or last) experiences with loss. Her marriage would end in divorce and, when she attempted to build a Virginia hospice for infants and children with HIV/AIDS, someone set fire to her home (in 1994). The house and all of the belongings inside were lost to arson.

One of the things that stuck Dr. Kübler-Ross when she started her psychiatry residency was the hospitals treatment of patients who were dying in the United States. She began to host lectures where medical students were forced to meet and listen to dying people outside of a clinical setting. Her intention was to get medical students to “[react] like human beings instead of scientists…and be able to treat [terminal patients] with compassion the same compassion that you would want for yourself.” As she moved through her career, she continued hosting the series of seminars which used interviews with terminally ill patients. Her work was met with both praise and criticism – most of the latter because she was so obviously questioning the traditional practices of psychiatry. In 1969, she released her seminal book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families, which provided a grief model for people who were dying as well as for those they were leaving behind.

“Those who have the strength and the love to sit with a dying patient in the silence that goes beyond words will know that this moment is neither frightening nor painful, but a peaceful cessation of the functioning of the body.”

– quoted from On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Dr. Kübler-Ross explained from the beginning that her outline was not intended to be linear and yet, people wanted to be able to step through the stages with grace and ease. The problem with that mindset is…life is messy and so is grieving. A perfect example of the messiness of life and death can be found in Dr. Kübler-Ross’s own life… and death. In 1995, after a series of strokes which left her partially paralyzed on her left side, she found herself confronted with the reality of her own death. Added to her grief was the closing of Shanti Nilaya (“Final Home of Peace”), a healing and growth center which she had established in the later 1970’s (shortly before her divorce) after convincing her husband to buy 40-acres of land in Escondido, California. Despite a 2002 interview with The Arizona Republic, where she stated that she was ready to die, Dr, Kübler-Ross struggled with the fact that she could not choose her own time of death. He son Ken, Founder and President of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, served as her caregiver for the last decade of her life. In a 2019 interview with the hosts of ABC Radio’s Life Matters, Ken said, “A few weeks before she passed she said to me, ‘Kenneth, I don’t want to die’”

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

– quoted from Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

Ken Ross admits he was taken aback by his mother’s statement that she did not want to die. It turned out, Dr. Kübler-Ross was not only physically paralyzed; she was also stuck in the anger stage of her own grief model. She caught flak in the media – as if she were somehow above being human simply because she had studied, taught, and spoken so openly and so frequently on the subject of death and dying. She did not stay there (in the anger stage), however, as her family and friends encouraged her to keep living and to keep processing the experience of dying. Her son even admits that he literally pushed her out of her comfort zone by assisting her in wheelchair marathons and in visiting her sisters in Europe.

“[She] let herself be loved and taken care of, then that was her final lesson — and then she was allowed to graduate. For years I thought about this and what I realized was that’s exactly what she teaches. [When] you learn your lessons you’re allowed to graduate.”

– Ken Ross in a 2019 “Life Matters” interview on ABC Radio National

 

“In Switzerland I was educated in line with the basic premise: work, work, work. You are only a valuable human being if you work. This is utterly wrong. Half working, half dancing – that is the right mixture. I myself have danced and played too little.”

– Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. in an interview

Please join me today (Wednesday, July 8th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom, where there will be work, dance, and play. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

 

 

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

“Strange though it may seem to you, one of the most productive avenues for growth is found through the study and experience of death. Perhaps death reminds us that our time is limited and that we’d better accomplish our purpose here on earth before our time runs out. Whatever the reason….Those who have been immersed in the tragedy of massive death during wartime, and who have faced it squarely, never allowing their senses and feelings to become numbed and indifferent, have emerged from their experiences with growth and humanness greater than that achieved through almost any other means.”

– quoted from Death: The Final Stage of Growth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

 

### “People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” EKR ###

Threads, Instructions, Truth, Practice, To Contemplate May 12, 2020

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(“Ramadan Mubarak, Blessed Ramadan!” to anyone who is observing Ramadan. I typically talk about Ramadan at the end of the season, so keep your eyes open.)

SŪTRA [Sanskrit; also, “sutta” in Pali] – Thread or String, refers to a statement or collection of statements which make up sacred text and scripture in Indian philosophy and religions.

TALMUD [Hebrew] – Instruction or Learning, refers to collection of work which makes up the central text in Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish law and tradition. It is part of the “Torah,” which can also mean “instruction” – as well as “teaching” and “law” – so that it is “instruction on the teaching.”

GOSPEL [Latin > Old English] – a portmanteau meaning Good Narrative, Story, Sermon, or Speech (also, Good News), refers to accounts of Jesus’ life as told by his disciples in the Christian New Testament – often translated as “Truth.”

SUNNAH [Arabic; also “sunna” and “sunnat”] – Habit or Practice, refers to a collection of traditional social and legal practices and customs within Islam. It is written in the “Hadith” – which means “speech,” “narrative,” “talk,” and “discourse” – and is one of the primary sources of Islamic belief, theology, and law.

MEDITATE [Latin > Old French > English] – To Think, Contemplate, Devise, Ponder, refers to the act, habit, and practice used by religious mystics and contemplatives, philosophers, and non-religious people dating back Before the Common Era.

 

Maya Angelou starts off her poem “Human Family,” by stating, “I note the obvious differences / in the human family.” She then goes on to explore the world and a myriad of people in various situations and relationships (including a literal myriad of “women/ called Jane and Mary Jane”) who are all different. Yet, she states at the end, “I note the obvious differences / between each sort and type, /
but we are more alike, my friends, / than we are unalike.”

“We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.”

 

– last lines repeated at the end of “Human Family” by Maya Angelou

As compelling as it is to notice how different we are, those differences can be a distraction that make us forget we are all part of the same human family and, also, that we are more alike than different. Forgetting really basic things like the fact that we all breathe; we all have a heart pumping blood through veins and arteries; we all experience some form of suffering and desire (and deserve) to be free of suffering; we all love something (“even if,” as Chögyam Trungpa famously said, “it’s only tortillas.”) leads to polarization and more suffering. Forgetting becomes a vicious cycle of separation, isolation, pain, and suffering. And here too, unfortunately, we are alike in that our suffering as a result of separation and isolation can lead us to inflict pain and suffering on others.

 

The funny thing is, lashing out at others becomes a source of what we desire most: connection, union, (dare I say it) yoga. It’s really messed up, co-dependent, and abusive connection, but it’s still connection. Like in the movie (and the song) “Crash,” sometimes the only time people who perceive themselves as different from each other connect is through pain, trauma, tragedy, and loss. Here’s the thing though, what brings us together is not nearly as important as how we choose to come together. What I mean by that is, when we crash into each other, our interaction can result in more pain or an alleviation of pain, maybe even joy. When we come together, for any reason, we can do so in a way that creates further separation and isolation (in other words, more pain and suffering) or in a way that reinforces our connections (sometimes on a much deeper level).

 

“Where do we go from here, where do we go?
And is it real or just something we think we know?
Where are we going now, where do we go?
‘Cause if it’s the same as yesterday, you know I’m out
Just so you know

Because, because our paths they cross
Yesterday was hard on all of us
On all of us”

 

– “Yesterday Was Hard On All of Us” by Fink

 

I could honestly copy the entire Fink song “Yesterday Was Hard On All of Us” to make my point, but I feel like the pandemic and social isolation that we are all experiencing also makes the point. Even introverts are craving a little social interaction. And those people you see on the news or social media, who are doing things you think are crazy, nonsensical, and selfish (or even independently thinking and patriotic) want the same things you and I want: to be safe, to be peaceful, to be happy, to be at ease, to experience joy and freedom from suffering.

 

We may have different ways of understanding what we desire, but ultimate what we want (and what we need) are the same all around the world. So, how do we get on the same page? Well, I’m going to ask you to consider – just for a moment – that maybe we don’t get on the same page, per se. Maybe, each of us turns towards the book(s) that make the most sense to us and notice what we find. I mean, sure, you could do the whole “choose your own ending” / fortune telling shtick, but I’m being serious. Pick up your sacred text or bible and you will find the truth of Maya Angelou’s words.

 

“Furthermore, Subhūti, in the practice of compassion and charity a disciple should be detached. That is to say, he should practice compassion and charity without regard to appearances, without regard to form, without regard to sound, smell, taste, touch, or any quality of any kind. Subhūti, this is how the disciple should practice compassion and charity. Why? Because practicing compassion and charity without attachment is the way to reaching the Highest Perfect Wisdom, it is the way to becoming a living Buddha.”

 

The Diamond Sutra (4)

 

 

“Undisturbed calmness of mind comes by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, joy or happiness towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil (non-virtuous).

 

 

Yoga Sutra (1.33)

 

“You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

 

Vayikra – Leviticus (19:18)

 

“One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”

 

The Gospel According to Matthew (22:35 – 40, NIV), this speech also appears in Mark (12:28 – 31) and Luke (10:17)

 

“On the authority of Abu Hamzah Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) — the servant of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) — that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:

None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself. [Al-Bukhari]”

 

– 40 Hadith Nawawi 13

 

 

“Accept the things and occurrences to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so truly, sincerely.”

 

– from Meditations (Book 6) by Marcus Aurelius

 

Yes, yes, just because it’s there doesn’t mean anyone has to listen, pay attention, or practice what they preach. This too, we have in common: the ability to stare what we need right in the face… and not see it. The fact that it’s there, however, is an invitation to practice. So, today, we will practice variations on a theme.

Please join me today (Tuesday, May 12th) at 12 Noon or 7:15 PM, if you are interested (to paraphrase Metallica) in opening yourself up in a different way. (This practice is also Martha Graham inspired.) Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

Since I couldn’t cover every practice, tradition, and belief in my little window, feel free to comment below with a “love offering” of your own.

Kiss My Asana, the yogathon that benefits Mind Body Solutions and their adaptive yoga program is officially over. But, I still owe you two posts and you can still do yoga, share yoga, help others by donating to my KMA campaign through May 15th.

You can also check out the all-humanity, Kick-Off gathering featuring insights from MBS founder Matthew Sanford, conversation with MBS students, and a mind-body practice for all. This practice is all themes mentioned above and includes a focus on spinal breathing that would make Martha Graham dance. If you’re not familiar with MBS, this will give you a glimpse into the work, the people, and the humanity of the adaptive yoga program which I am helping to raise $50K of essential support.

 

### WHERE IS THE LOVE? ###

It’s Bach’s Day Too! March 21, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Faith, Fitness, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Karma, Life, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Tragedy, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Wisdom.
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“[Music] should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul, where this is not kept in mind, there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685)

According to the Old Style / Julian calendar, March 21st, is the anniversary of the birth of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685, Bach’s statement about music also works as a statement for yoga: [Philosophically speaking, yoga] should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul, where this is not kept in mind, there is no true [yoga], but only an infernal clamour and ranting. People who think of yoga only as a form of exercise are often surprised that there’s more. One can only imagine their surprise if the walk into one of my classes – especially on My March 21st, when the playlist starts with Bach and then becomes a soundtrack for other events that correspond to this date in history. Imagine their further surprise when all of that is just the background to a deeper practice.

On Saturdays I typically teach a 90-minute practice at that is primarily attended by a dedicated group who are interested in the yoga philosophy as well as asana and asana philosophy. For the past few years, we start in January and “build a practice from the ground up” physically as well as philosophically. Physically, we start with the beginning of a specific practice or sequence and either explore it for about 30-weeks before continuing to a new practice built on the original or, as we did this year, we start with a basic set of poses and start building around it. Philosophically, in years past, we have explored the 8-limbs of yoga, as well as how the 7 chakras correspond with 7 yoga paths (hatha, tantra, karma, bhakti, mantra, yantra, and jnana). Last year, we started moving through the Yoga Sutras – which worked perfectly as there are 51 sutras in the first chapter.

This year, we started physically moving through the warm-up and asanas that Ram Dass illustrated in Be Here Now, and just recently started using that sequence as a “finishing sequence.” (If you’ve been attending the Saturday practices and/or are familiar with the sequence, that’s your practice today.)

Philosophically, we decided to continue last years work and make our way through the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras. Today, March 21st, is the 12th Saturday of 2020. I am including a bit of background for those who are just now joining this journey and a bit of last week’s commentary since so many had to miss the class. For more on the sutras, you can check out Swami J’s website or purchase the series of books by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD – both associated with the traditions of the Himalayan Masters.

Yoga Sutra 1.1:  atha yogānuśānam

– “Right here, right now (in this auspicious moment), yoga (or union) instruction begins”

Yoga Sutra 1.2: yogaścittavŗttinirodaha

– “Yoga (or union) ceases the fluctuations of the mind”

The first chapter of the Yoga Sutras is the “Chapter (or, more literally, Foundation) on Concentration” and Patanjali begins by explaining how the mind works; atha, right here, right now. In this present moment each of our minds is processing multi-bazillion bits of information/sensation – which results in a constant fluctuation of the mind (cittavŗtti). This restlessness and agitation of the mind, in turn becomes restlessness and agitation in the body – and this becomes obstacles to the practice (or to our goals). At the same time, he explains that our thoughts fall into two (2) categories: afflicted thoughts (i.e., thoughts which cause pain) and not afflicted thoughts (which may ease pain, or at least not cause pain). Finally, Patanjali explains how to work the mind – using the mind’s own ability to concentration/meditate – in order to rest the mind and, therefore, the body.

This is why, I often say, “What happens in the mind happens in the body. What happens in the body happens in the mind. And both affect the breath.” If you take a deep breath in (right here, right now) and a deeper breath out (right here, right now). You not only bring your awareness to the present moment (right here, right now; every time you consciously inhale and every time you consciously exhale) – you also, affect the body and the mind. In fact, that is one of ten practices Patanjali describes in the first chapter: focus on your breath.

Yoga Sutra 2.11: dhyānaheyāstadvŗttayah

– “Meditation destroys the mental tendencies (associated with affliction/pain)”

The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras is (the “Chapter (or, more literally, Foundation) on Practice. It is basically Patanjali – way back in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th BCE – recognizing and acknowledging that everyone on the planet can’t just drop into a deep-seated meditative state. So he starts explaining the elements of kriya yoga (“yoga in action”) and how the practice of training the senses, exploring within, and letting go of aversions and attractions attenuates the effect of afflicted/pain-producing thoughts. To do this, however, he first gives us a deeper understanding of how afflicted thoughts produce pain.

“Samskaras – the drivers of our mental tendencies – manifest in the form of memory. We are able to remember something because the subtle impressions related to the object have been store in or mind. Because they are hidden beneath thick layers of the forces of time, the mind is not aware of their existence. But like a seed that lies dormant until spring brings moisture and warmth, samskaras awaken when the conditions inside and outside the mind are conducive.”

– Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s commentary on sutra 2.11

 

Using seeds as a metaphor or a simile for our thoughts, words, and deeds is a very common teaching tool. In previous weeks, the metaphor I used was a backpack containing a still soft, but sculpted, piece of clay. Let’s say you’ve molded a little figurine (whatever comes to mind) or a tiny cup; but, something causes you to place the molded clay into your backpack. For some reason, the clay stays in your backpack, getting tossed around, even a little mushed, as you go about your days. Every once in awhile you brush your finger across it when you’re looking for something and you think, “What’s that? Oh, yeah….” And whatever emotions you were feeling in relation to making the piece, or having to toss it in your bag before it was finished, flash up.

Later, you might even pull the piece of clay out, notice that it’s smashed and decide to completely smash it and start again or restore it to some close proximity of what you did before. Someone else could feel it or see it or see you remolding it and have a completely different experience, but this is your experience – and now this new layer of experience is attached to the clay, just like the oils from your skin. Even if you “buy a new backpack,” a piece of the clay finds its way inside. (YS 2.10) Unless, of course, you have “trained your senses, explored within, and given up your aversions and attractions – in which case you can discard the clay when you switch backpacks or you can recognize what it was and decide to treat it as a fresh piece of clay ready for a new project. (YS 2.11)

 

Yoga Sutra 2.12: kleśamūlah karmāśayo dŗşţādŗşţjanmavedanīyah

– “The reservoir of our actions is rooted in affliction/pain that is experienced in seen and unseen lives”

For anyone wondering: Nope, I had no idea this week’s sutra was going to keep us firmly grounded in the “seen and unseen.” Previous translations I’ve used for comparative analysis talk about “current life and future life,” “this life and the lives to come,” and “at the time of the action or (another time).” The bottom line, though, is still the same.

All of our experiences, thoughts, words, and deeds have consequences. Some consequences occur “immediately” and we easily see the connection between cause and effect. Other times, there is the distance of time, space, memory, and/or ignorance (or lack of awareness), which causes the connection to be “unseen” by us. Yet, cause and effect is still there, and so it becomes even more important to recognize that, as Pandit Tigunait points out, “Impure karmic impressions cloud our mind with desire, greed, confusion, and anger, and become the drivers of negative, destructive actions. Pure karmic impressions create a positive mental atmosphere, awakening virtues such as love, compassion, kindness, and selflessness, which then become drivers of positive, constructive actions…. Causing intense pain to someone who is fearful, diseased, or stingy engenders a highly, negatively charged karmic reality. Betraying someone who trusts you or harming a high-caliber soul committed to intense austerity also engenders a highly potent negative karmic reality. This potent negative karma ripens quickly.”

We don’t always have control over our circumstances, but we always have control over our actions (thoughts, words, and deed). We don’t, however, make decisions in a vacuum. Part of the practice is recognizing that are current actions are informed by our previous experiences, thoughts, words, and deeds – and what we do in this moment, is going to inform what happens to us (and what we do) in our next moments… even if that moments are years away.

 

### BE KIND TO YOURSELF & TO OTHERS ###