Fear of Death and Dying…then Living

My whole life long I’ve only ever had the present moment. The future is not guaranteed, so at whatever age I’ve ever been, I only had the present moment in which to live and love. It turns out that when I was a child I did have a future that manifested itself one present moment at a time. But even from 7 to 17, with all my wistful desires for my life becoming more of what I wanted it to be and less what others demand it be; I was only ever alive in the present moment.

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This thought rose to the surface on a drive with my dog, Daisy, today. It isn’t a spectacular thought. Many others have had it before me. I’ve read the same kind of thing many times. It’s something I know intellectually. But today it came to me and landed in that sweet spot where real knowledge and wisdom meet; which is probably the place it arose from as well.

To give it meaning and context, this “ah-ha” is important to me because of my recent preoccupation with the fear of death and dying. We moved six months ago. Do you know that moving is found on lists of events that contribute to the shortening of your life span? It’s true! About half the moves I’ve undertaken in my life have been beneficial, and that was true of this one. Nevertheless, moving is a beast because of the stress it imposes and the stress it unlocks. This move unlocked my own fears of death and dying. I remember some years ago blithely telling a friend, “Death doesn’t frighten me – only the variety of ways one can die.” I’m fairly confident that even with that statement I was resting secure in the idea I’d die asleep in my bed someday far, far away in the future. Well, I’ve been eating humble pie with that memory for a half a year or more.

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This fear of death and dying, like a box wrapped up in the comics section of a newspaper and tied with string, got placed before me  a couple of years ago. I don’t know why but our current move ripped the lid off that box. I go to bed fretting about how I’m aging, what’s going on with my body and mind, how much of it can I improve and if, how, and when it will all get worse. Amazingly, I fall asleep. Then somewhere near day break fear slaps me awake with dreams that don’t make sense but fill my gut with dread of my own demise.

While I imagine that if I took one of those quizzes that determine the “real” age you are, separate from your chronological age, it would say I’m older than my chronological age; nevertheless, I am only 55. Though the future is not guaranteed, I could have a lot of years left ahead of me. I do not want to spend them wrestling with the dread of death and dying – at all – and certainly not every night and morning.

And so the idea that I’ve only ever had the present moment, whether in my childhood, youth, adulthood, or middle years, landing in that sweet spot where real knowledge and wisdom meet, makes an impression. I believe that if I will attend to the present moment rather than fretting about the future, I can deal with how things are right now – what hurts, what works, what I need to be cautious about, what’s pleasurable, what causes concern and fear, what there is to be grateful for, etc. – and live, right here right now, with whatever limitations or improvements are present and available.

In my experience being present is a spiritual discipline. Just like in meditation where, with gentleness and no judgment, we come back to the mantra or the breath when our thoughts and attention wander, this is the way to return to the present moment – again and again.

DragonIf the fear of death and dying is a dragon toying with me, then continuing to return to the present moment may be the way to pull myself out of his talons, make direct eye contact, and soothe us both. Bring us both back to love and the only place where life and love happen – in the now. I can’t help but think of the famous Rainer Maria Rilke quote about fear and dragons:

How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Actually, Rilke reminds me that this dread that wrestles me is a gift. I don’t have to feed it or sacrifice myself to it! But I can accept it as a gift and see what it has to teach me. That, too, best happens in the present moment with open palms rather than clinched fists and jaw.

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Life Showing Up via Highest Aspirations

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There is such great good fortune in being able to pursue one’s highest aspiration. Mine has been for God and the spiritual side of life. For 49 of my 55 years it has been the most compelling aspect of my life.

Except for rare occasions, I’ve had a sense of God’s presence since I was 6-years old. This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. Among people who make God, religion, and/or spirituality their life’s work, enough have written about their first mystical experience occurring at six or seven that I’ve decided there’s something in the maturation process of the human brain that makes this experience available then. As I came into my late teens, moving toward young adulthood, I assumed I needed to take this experience of the presence of God and my keen interest in spirituality and turn it into a career. That didn’t work out – not in my twenties when the desire felt like a calling and not in my forties when I revisited the notion.

Old enough to have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me, I’ve wondered what it’s been about, this aspiration to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind – to have the luck and gift of that relationship. Wasn’t I meant to do something big and grand with it?!

 

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Mulling it over once again, today I consider the possibility that one’s highest aspiration doesn’t have to be turned into a career. Instead, it can be what tucks you in at night, what casts your dreams, what greets you at the start of the day and carries you through each week.

It can play a part in making you a mensch – supporting you to be the kind of person who is available to help others in times of crisis or the smallest need.

A highest aspiration doesn’t have to be a self-defining thing. It doesn’t have to have goals or boundaries, expectations or agendas, a to-do list or a white board. Rather, it can be a place where essence is illuminated and where terms like success and failure are not a topic of thought or conversation. Instead of being turned into a measuring stick, it can be an expression of one’s essence, one’s heart, one’s being.

When I pull the “I should’ve done something grand with it” out of there and consider the words written above, it feels like a free gift I can freely receive, trusting that being receptive to it is enough. And that I am…enough.

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Life after a Spiritual Seminar

After nearly twenty years of personal growth and spiritual workshops, seminars, and retreats, it’s gotten to where I can hardly stand all the sitting, listening, meditating, and being present that is required. Those group experiences make me want to crawl out of my skin to escape the irritation that fills my body.

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Currently, I have completely sworn off any workshop or seminar that requires cognitive or emotional processing from its participants. Those workshops serve a purpose. But if a person is growing, they’ll one day outgrow the need for them. At least I have. This past spring I attended a retreat anticipating lots of profound teaching and meditation. Instead it was an intense, emotional processing group. Made me wonder why they called it a “retreat.” I spent most of the first day of the four-day “retreat” journaling my pros and cons for leaving and not going back. The pros list won and I suddenly had a free weekend.

These days I attend a bi-monthly satsang and have joined a mentoring group that meets in workshop style every few months. Both of these stretch my physiology as I struggle with getting antsy and irritated during the meetings. Though I’ve asked myself why I put me through it, I never fully explore why I keep attending satsang and why I signed up for the mentoring. Whenever I ask the question it naturally drops away and I turn my attention elsewhere. It’s a subtle distinction but I recognize the difference between the get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge response to the misnamed retreat in contrast with the irritation that comes with satsang and the mentoring group. With the latter two, the irritation is a sign that there’s something there for me that’s very rich on a personal level, and very threatening to the ego.

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I spend a lot of time in these settings arguing with myself, trying to get me to an internally settled place. I often wonder what I’m getting out of it because I use up more time internally fighting with me than listening and absorbing the teachings and meditations. However, there are always golden moments where magic happens, I do get still, and experience something profound to take away.

The real magic, though, happens in the days that follow satsang and the mentoring group. Because it’s then that I see the fruits of having shown up and done my best to be present. In the days that follow there is a deeper level of honesty in my observations about life, myself, and others. I find that certain of my routine judgments have softened or fallen away, perhaps completely. The love inside is richer, deeper, fuller.

My satsang teacher says that if the mind is active and the body restless then show up to that. Be present with that because that is what is happening in the present moment. Of this I am becoming a master.

I also get regular practice at living in mystery and trusting the unknown. Because though I know to trust the situation in spite of the irritation, logic berates me for hanging in there and I have no answer for the logic when it asks, “Wouldn’t you rather do things that make you comfortable?”

I know that my experience isn’t unique. Every single human who includes the practice of stillness, meditation, and presence in their spiritual work struggles with the body and mind preferring activity, distraction, and comfort.

Something that gives me fortitude is this. On that ledge of trusting the discomfort – getting comfortable with the uncomfortable – there are Christian mystics who say the kingdom of God is found there. That is where the deepest magic of all happens. When the growth that occurs as a result of one of these settings brings me closer to the mind and heart of God – where stillness abides. On that note, I’ll close with these words from one of those Christian mystics:

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope. ~ Thomas Merton 

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Grief is the Cost of Loving

I’ll think I’m done writing about grief and then something unexpected stirs it up. This week my step-daughter and granddaughter are visiting. My son-in-law is graciously sharing them with us as he needs to stay home and work. It’s a nice full week of family, though, because my step-son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting their first baby, live in town as does my sister-in-law and niece. My step-daughter coming to visit has created lots of extra family time for us locals. And it’s the craziest thing: during my alone time, like taking a shower or out running errands, I miss my parents like crazy!

1-1-Kenzie at 3 coloring on patio

It’s been almost two years since we said our final good-bye on this side of eternity and so the list of things that would trip me up in regard to grieving their physical absence is much shorter than in the beginning. And when I do get tripped up I feel sad, not overwhelmed. This week though I keep creating a puddle of tears to splash around in! Last night in the shower for one, and then today while driving alone and listening to Celtic music in the car, I just bubbled over in tears as I drove. Admittedly, songs from the British Isles stir something primeval inside so it quickening grief today isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is the depth of it.

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I know that my grief over the loss of my parents is tied up with me confronting my own mortality. Early on in today’s “grief ride” I was stopped by a school bus and watched a parade of elementary school children get off and climb their hill home. I always enjoy being stopped by that school bus because the children coming off it are colorful and full of energy. It’s like being surprised by a parade. Today, with “The Water is Wide” filling the car, I experienced the felt sense that one day life will most certainly continue on without me. I was filled with a surprising mix of hope and deep sadness as I admired the children who will outlive me climbing the hillside.

3-bee on purple rhododendron flower

It seems to me that I’ve been tripped up grief-wise by having multiple generations of family with us this week. Never having had children of my own I don’t have a sense of “my line continuing in my absence.” Though I could tell you about the summer I became a bona fide step-mother, who will worry about her step-children’s welfare and rejoice in their successes till the day she dies, I have never laid claim to them. They don’t belong to me the way they belong to their father and mother. Having a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren helps me come closer to claiming them all as mine because those step lines blur as more family members are added by marriage. This week, having everyone together for the first time in many years, I believe the experience that these are my immediate family and they are the ones whose lives I’ve invested in with my love, energy, and talents who will outlive me has made an impression and made me confront my mortality and grieve the loss of my parents in a new way.

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One thing I know for sure and for certain: for me grief is an expression of love. I’m used to expressing love between my parents and me with laughter and good times. But if wishing they were here and missing them so badly I puddle up in tears is the price I pay for loving and being loved by them, then love it is and that’s OK. Besides, with most passing days I remember them young, vital, and healthy – and I still hear their encouragement and advice in my imagination – and those kinds of nurturing, validating exchanges tend to precede and follow waves of grief.

Grief is the cost of loving. I’ll take it.

What’s Aging Got to Do with Spiritual and Emotional Growth?

A hell of a lot, it seems!

When I was a child, my Mom taught me what it meant to age gracefully. She came from a family of many aunts. Between her mother and all the aunts, she grew up with examples of aging gracefully as well as examples of aging in disgrace. Aging disgracefully meant resenting the aging process so much that others had to deal with that resentment poured out on them. Aging disgracefully meant being generally angry most of the time. Aging disgracefully meant one was obsessive about one’s looks. Aging gracefully, on the other hand, meant one was pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Aging gracefully meant always looking one’s best but with a humble attitude. With all the women in the family, Mom found examples of both kinds of aging and it really captured her attention. I understood that she intended to age gracefully and she expected me to do so too.

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Several things about this jump out at me. Most of the aunts were born in the 19th Century. My grandmothers were born during the first decade of the 20th Century. Mom was a teenager in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. I was a child of the 1960’s, becoming a teen in 1973. These were not eras when psychology was well respected or counseling readily available. Rather, psychology was suspect and women, rather than being encouraged to explore their psyches, motives, and desires, were expected to be pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Mom’s basic thesis was that women who aged gracefully continued to keep their anger and resentment repressed, making them pleasant, agreeable, and available. And in regard to physical beauty, at least in our family, the elders who were able to remain pleasant aged more beautifully than the ones who were victims of their own anger and resentment.

My cameo

I grew up thinking my Mom and I held the secret to aging, but I was wrong. Volunteering and working in nursing homes from the age of sixteen, I learned to be comfortable in the presence of the elderly. Spending several hours each week for years listening to nursing home bound elders share their life stories with me helped me become even more comfortable with folks my grandparents age and older. Mom was proud of me and she herself was always comfortable with all ages of people. But it turns out there is more to struggling with the aging process than dealing with anger and resentment. Even surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends, there are feelings like fear, terror, desperation, loneliness, and hopelessness associated with the aging process long before the possibility of residing in a nursing home becomes a possibility. These are feelings that lead to anger and resentment when they can’t be felt and processed.

empty chairs in garden everything covered in pink cherry blossoms

Something caught me by surprise with my own aging.  After spending years slowing down my pace to match the pace of the elderly, I hadn’t fully appreciated the fact that they walked slowly because everything hurt. It wasn’t until my own extensive osteoarthritis at mid-life and other chronic pain and inflammation made me go slow, giving me a humble ah-ha moment, that I understood. The aging process can bring a person to their knees with the vulnerability it forces one to confront and unwillingly share when it is on display in public places.

In regard to my self-esteem and sense of attraction, that aspect of aging has been a journey. At thirty I gave up wearing makeup except for a little blush because my eyes and skin are sensitive and I was tired of feeling uncomfortable. I always admired natural beauties and, since I’d previously tended to overcompensate for a lack of self-esteem with lots of mascara and eye shadow, at thirty I decided to take the plunge and live life with my natural face out there. I managed to handle that transition successfully. And I remember thinking this would also help me one day when I was older…it didn’t.

Me holding Faith

Thinning skin, age spots, wrinkles, and curly red hair that was already dry becoming dryer and gray with age challenge my notions of natural beauty. And then there is post-menopause with a thick middle getting larger and thicker and nothing I can do about it. I can lose weight but the body proportions will still be out of whack. I know there’s plastic surgery available but, like Barbra Streisand, I’m too afraid of the knife to give that a go. Besides, older women who have “had work done” seem to experience an alternative way of growing old.  No matter how tight or high you pull the skin and muscles, and no matter how you tackle the face with color and shading, the shine, sparkle, and elasticity of youth are gone. I want to make peace with it.

And that’s where spiritual and emotional growth come in ~ making peace with all of it.

The word in my spiritual journey that keeps presenting itself to me as vital is the word “grace.” Today I read this from Thomas Merton in his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, “The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.” Now Thomas discovered grace as the answer to what he considered to be an ill-spent youth. I’m finding it to be the answer to the “problem” of aging – a problem that can be answered but not solved.

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My default in regard to what’s happening to and inside my body as I age is to fret about it and dread all of it getting worse. At 54 I often feel much older than I am and that is genuinely frightening. It puts me in touch with the fear of death and dying – especially at bedtime. It isn’t the healthiest frame of mind with which to go to bed when getting enough quality sleep is also a challenge of these latter years.  In addition to the bodily concerns, there’s the reality of no longer being relevant to younger adults. In the last four years I’ve gotten used to more people than ever before in my life looking through me as if I don’t exist, being surprised when I speak up because they hadn’t really taken in my presence, and not caring about my opinion or experience.

All of it is enough to make a person feel broken, humbled, even humiliated over something they cannot control. However, that is a direct line to spiritual and emotional growth!

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I’ve heard it from so many spiritual and religious leaders and learned it for myself as well. If we allow it, our suffering gives us the opportunity to become spiritually and emotionally mature adults. When we give up resisting what makes us suffer, when we’re willing to accept life as it is, grace – the underlying grace that is always present – shows up in our conscious awareness, helping us treat ourselves, our situation, and others with more loving kindness. Though sometimes such surrender can lead to breakthroughs and real changes, more often than not the surrender helps us live more peacefully with our situation as it is.

Suffering is a matter of the individual’s interpretation. When I consider it as an opportunity to surrender to the suffering while being open to the possibility of change, the suffering goes away – even if sadness and hurt remain.  That is grace. It is the bedrock of growing emotional and spiritual maturity. And with aging, rather than change being about looking and feeling young again, robust and profound changes come through personal growth. Growth that helps me be a blessing to others because it gets me out of my head with its worry and fear and plants me back in Life with a new freedom to exist in a new way with others, myself, and my limitations.

It seems I am still learning to age gracefully. And that the learning curve may last until I reach the grave – or the mountain side where my ashes will be scattered. That’s fine. There is genuine comfort for me in continuing to grow and in continuing to grow up! It is a very real, concrete fact that I cannot turn back the clock. But I can continue to grow. That is also real. It is grace, and I agree to it.  

Blue & Ivory young hygrangea hidden in leaves lit by sun