All Aboard!

Image by Les Chatfield
Image by Les Chatfield

My life has been filled with what seems like a simultaneous wild and weirdly calming ride. I’ve experienced so many gifts, and I guess some might say hardships. But for me, when I look back on my life, I don’t consider the challenges as hardships. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of difficulties dealing with what arises both externally and internally. Yet through it all, I’ve managed to stay committed to growth. Growth brings healing. Healing brings transformation, and for me, that brings peace and equanimity.

I recently spent most of my summer and early fall helping my sister die. Up until four months prior to her death, my sister and those around her had no idea that she had such a short time left in this lifetime. A nagging cough quickly got diagnosed as Stage 4 Melanoma that had already spread throughout her entire body. I immediately got the sense that she had less than six months to live. As someone who worked for Hospice as a counselor, I also understood the gravity that dying comfortably would require – from herself and her caregivers. Consequently, over the course of those brief months, my life revolved around offering as much support, compassion, and equanimity as possible. It’s an interesting process to watch the body slowly shutdown. It can seem too fast, yet not quick enough when bearing witness to pain. Thanks to Hospice, my sister was able to die in the comfort of her own home and the presence of her husband and myself.

reclining buddha
Image by A.Davey

To be honest, helping people die is something I’m comfortable with. Grieving is a very personalized experience, but the process of dying can be an intimate dance that extends well beyond one’s self. Sometimes the intimacy starts off with strangers as is usually the case with nurses, health aides, and all the wonderful people who assist with providing care such as a Hospice team. Other times, we may be surprised by those that help create peace and serenity. At the same time, it’s not unusual for those that are closest to be the most challenged.

So, my year ended with the loss of my sister and the gift of being part of her transition. I’m happy to say that my time with my sister and her family was of value, and I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the experience. It’s far from my first experience with loss, and it most certainly won’t be my last. The Buddhist in me understands that aging, illness, and death are natural and unavoidable. So much so, that I’ve actively challenged myself to work with existential issues as an ongoing aspect of my practice for many years. Death and loss served as a significant spark that ignited me on this path over 30 years ago.

When it comes to personal growth, I prefer to work on my own. Independence is a quality that I can be fairly attached to. Group process is something that I appreciate as a therapist, but not so much as a participant. I tend to be more productive on my own. However, in more recent times, I have the unexpected gift of friends who share in my quest for awareness and healing, aka: liberation from suffering. So when a couple of friends mentioned that they were starting A Year to Live group for 2015, I and my husband agreed to join. Sometimes it’s useful to commit in a group environment. The ego wants to save face, so it can be added motivation.

There’s a book titled A Year to Live by Stephen Levine. It’s a relatively short book, but it lays out a course to approach spending the next 12 months as if it were your last. Odd thing is that I’ve had that book on my shelf unread for over 10 years. I’m pretty sure I even moved it across the country. Given my tendency to struggle with issues that center around how I move in the world – or more accurately, don’t move – it seems like a good idea. Maybe that will motivate, heal, and help me transcend my lack of motivation to do more and be more. And here comes my companion delusion: There’s the magic key to my procrastination, being more mindful, letting go of attachments, and transcending clinging and aversion, live as if it were my last year! I can almost taste liberation! The problem is that I don’t believe in that kind of magic. Still it could be useful. So, I bought a ticket, and I am about to board and take a ride on the A Year to Live train.

We’ll see how the adventure unfolds. As Ajahn Chah said, everything is uncertain. I’ve been warned that it’s challenging, can be “dark”, and so on. I’m ok with that. I’m confident the Buddha didn’t say it was easy to wake up. All I can ask for is the grace that I’ve known to continue and to be as centered and grounded as possible. If I make it to the end of the ride, hopefully I will disembark one step closer to the end of suffering. If you’re interested in my experiment, stay tuned. I hope to post here each month as the year unfolds.

May you find peace and well-being in the year ahead!

Sallie Odenthal © 2015

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