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Breathe Like Your Life Depends On It

When the breath is unsteady, all is unsteady. When the breath is still, all is still. Control the breath carefully. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; exhalation purifies body and spirit. – Goraksasathalam

The sixth of Atisha’s contemplations on death, Your Body is Fragile and Vulnerable, is all about the breath. Breathing in, my life depends on this inhalation. Breathing out, my life depends on this exhalation. Human life relies on the process of breathing.

Being a yogini, I’m regularly practicing breath work and breath awareness and there are lots of benefits to this, including but not limited to:

• Improves immunity

• Calms down anxiety

• Increases sleep quality

• Improves digestion

• Reduces inflammation in the body

• Improves concentration

• Keeps you alive

It literally keeps you alive. If you’re not accustomed to noticing your breath, consider taking just a moment to take a deep breath in and think to yourself “my life depends on this inhale”, let it out and think “my life depends on this exhale”.

Our bodies are so fragile and vulnerable. It’s really simple. Just breathe and love.

The Suspense Is Killing Me

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone,” – Pablo Picasso

The 4th of Atisha’s Nine Contemplations, Your Life Span, Like That of All Living Beings, Is Not Fixed has taken me for.ev.er to write about. Not because it’s a particularly difficult one but just, you know, life. The main idea is that death could come at any moment. Most of us will not know when. The way I approached this as a meditation was to sit and think through the actions I would take throughout the morning and day, and attach “I could die (doing) ___________,” Here’s a sample:

I could die doing the dishes.

I could die in the shower.

I could die on the way to the grocery store.

I could die at the grocery store.

I could die tonight in my sleep.

And so on. Anyone who knows me, knows I had way too much fun with this. And for weeks, I thought “what am I getting out of this???” I already know this. We’ve covered this. I am very creative. What is wrong with me? We don’t know when we’re going to die. I know. We don’t know when we’re going to die. I get it. We don’t know when we’re going to d….wait a minute! If we have no idea when it is going to happen, then there is no sense in worrying about when it will happen. Like, at all. Big exhale. Freedom. I’m going to say it again: if we have no idea when it is going to happen, then there is no sense in worrying about when it will happen. We just needn’t worry about it at all. Now, that doesn’t mean go drinking bleach or disobeying traffic laws but we can just go about our days and not worry about it. Because we don’t know. Let go.

Big ALSO, can I look in the mirror and acknowledge my unfixed life span and love myself as if I could die in any of the aforementioned and not mentioned ways? Properly? Can I look at those around me and acknowledge their unfixed life span and instead of sitting with the anticipated pain, love them properly? As if there may be no more opportunities to let them know how much you love them? Because there may not be. And instead of that idea prompting a minor panic attack, deep breath in, blow it all out. Let go. Freedom.

In love and peace,

Rhiannon

Be Prepared?

Death will come whether you are prepared or not.

This is the third of Atisha’s nine contemplations on death. What does preparing for death look like? There are certainly practical preparations to be made, and I strongly encourage anyone reading to get on it, regardless of age or health status. However, the mental preparation which is the focus of this contemplation brings to mind images of our friend, the Grim Reaper, knocking on our door when we least expect it.

As with the previous contemplation, this one made me think of my children. I have an 18 year old daughter who drives a motor vehicle and is going away to college in NYC in the fall. I also have a four year old who will be going to preschool soon. Is it possible to be mentally prepared for their death if it happens before my own? What about my friends still in their 20s and 30s? Am I more capable of preparing for the death of my grandparents because they are older? My mom’s because she has cancer? And of course there is me. It can come at any time? Really?

I was at a yoga class yesterday evening and it was outside in the park and lovely. Then during savasana, it occurred to me how vulnerable we all were, lying prone on the ground with our eyes closed. And then…I imagined someone with a gun coming to shoot and kill as many of us as possible! I saw myself trying to run away. The horror on people’s faces. Murder is not cool. At all. But is it possible to withhold judgement about the method and timing of death? Of any death. Who decided that dying of old age was the “good” way and everything else is “bad” anyway?

How about it’s hard enough to grieve the loss of someone you love without the added upset about how and when it happened? That part of it is optional. My dad died from complications from COVID this year. The entire process was horrific. Losing him was indescribably painful. But, I could also be upset because he died from a pandemic that may or may not have been handled super poorly, the fact that there is a vaccine now and it’s too late for him, that he had to die in ICU alone, that he was only 62, that it wasn’t his time, that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. But it did happen that way and there isn’t a single thing I can do to change it. And that was when he died and so it was his time.

I wasn’t prepared because I had this idea of when the “right” time and way was for his death. I’ve assigned this judgement to each person I care about, including myself. But we don’t have to. It IS possible to withhold judgement here and say people die when they die and however and whenever that happens was indeed the right time and way.

In September

In September, I’m going to the ocean
After I walk away from the desert
where I left your body
because tears will be scarce
and I’ll choose water over grief

In September I’m going to the ocean
Warm sand stuck between my toes
Filling up the cuts on my feet
Breaking them open once more
Just before they threaten to heal

In September I’m going to the ocean
The water begging me to become
part of something vast, I cry
Salt pours over me, bleeding
The ocean roars with laughter

In September

By Kate Woznicki

Humanity In The Breath Of Life

Breathe in life, breathe out death.

That’s how I began my meditation when approaching the second of Atisha’s nine contemplations on death, your lifespan decreases continuously. On my journey in this practice, I’ve settled on a level of peace about the fact that everyone dies sooner or later. The purpose of this exercise, to me, demonstrates the urgency of vigilance to this matter. Every breath we take, every movement, every word, brings us closer to death.

I sat for the first week with this and I wasn’t really connecting to it in any meaningful way and then I was thinking that every breath brings us closer to death. And that’s when I thought about…babies. I KNOW but just stay with me. I thought about a baby’s first breath and how even that, that very first breath, is the first step toward death. It still sounds icky I know but hear me out. I have two children. I think any parent reading this shares the understanding of the gravity of that first breath, especially if everything didn’t go as hoped.

I was 37 when I had my son. My body has been through a lot and I was high risk for a number of reasons in addition to my age (or advanced decay, as I like to call it). I was afraid every single day of my pregnancy. I wanted this little boy more than anything in the world and I was terrified about that first breath. It felt absurd at times but the fact of the matter is, about 22,000 babies die in the US each year. Ultimately, he wasn’t growing well in my little aged belly and my labor was induced three weeks early. After 24 hours, I had an emergency c-section. My first question when I could speak was “is he breathing?”

My baby is going to die someday. My beautiful adult child is going to die someday. My friends. My family. But also, every breath they take brings them closer to death. So not only do I mean to live each moment of my life in love, gratitude, and service, but every interaction we have with another could be honored as one shared moment, bringing us both closer to death. So maybe relish it? I know we try but like, more. Not only in an individual way, but a collective way, we can be loving, grateful, and of service each moment of another’s life too.

Are You Well In The Suffering?

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. (Jesus)

Imagine Jesus waking up the way many of us do, with a list of things we’re still stressed about from yesterday, all of the things we have to get done or go do today, and the things in our body that don’t feel good, and then going out into the world like “what’s up? how can I help you today?”

He actually didn’t do that though because He knew that in order to give others peace, He had to have His first. Jesus set an example for us in self-care before it was cool (another thing for us to stress about when we’re not doing it right/enough). He took time to eat and drink, rest His body, rest His mind, be in community, and ask for help.

It is my conviction that there is no way to peace – peace is the way.

Thich Nhat Hanh

As previously mentioned, we already know we’re supposed to do self-care-ish things. There is literally too much information out there about it. I’m not even going to say another word on the subject. When I woke up this morning, I had a million things on my mind (sadness because I miss my dad, conflict, fear), many things to do (mostly good things), and everything hurt (ohhhh my aching back!). Suffering. I woke up suffering. I wake up suffering most days, to varying degrees. We all do. But, instead of asking myself how much I’m suffering and what I can do to fix it, I’m asking myself how much peace I have today. And if I don’t have enough for me or I don’t have any to spare, I need to work on that. That doesn’t include problem solving. It means taking a breath or several, sitting in the quiet, finding gratitude, and asking for help from others who do have peace to spare.

Feeling good all the time is not the goal. We’re not meant to feel good all the time. WE ARE NOT MEANT TO FEEL GOOD ALL THE TIME. Even on our best days, there’s going to be a thing. On our worst days, peace is 100% possible.

So we ask ourselves not how much we are suffering today, but how much peace do we have today. And if we have extra, give it away.

Finding Beauty In Impermanence

In the immortal words of Axl Rose, “Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.”

I’m fairly certain he was referring to romantic relationships in that song but here I want to talk about my relationship with my Self. I’ve been meditating on death for years after having a glimpse of what that surrender can do to my perspective during my near death experience in 2008. I didn’t have any sort of format for this, and really the focus has always been on my own death and served as a brief, daily reminder that I am going to die. I don’t like to be caught off guard by this idea. There are times when my vigilance slips and I temporarily forget how very temporary I am and when I remember, it causes a teensy bit of panic. Aside from avoiding this mini mental breakdown, the benefits of death mindfulness for me include being better equipped to quickly put the “little things” in perspective and having a clear focus on what matters to me in my life, which is giving love and being of service whenever and wherever possible.

Recently, I discovered (via remembering that I can Google things) that there is actually guidance on how to do this:

Maraṇasati is a Buddhist meditation practice of remembering that death can strike at anytime, and we should practice assiduously appamada and with urgency in every moment, even in the time it takes to draw one breath. Not being diligent every moment, is called negligence by the Buddha. (Wikipedia)

Now, if you’re reading this and you are not a Buddhist, guess what? Neither am I. And practicing this meditation will not make you a Buddhist. I promise. It does, however, offer an effective outline on how to be mindful of death and dying. There are different approaches to this and I’ll offer some links at the end if you want to research on your own but I’m just going to tell you how I’m doing it.

Eleventh century Buddhist scholar, Atisha, gave us a nine point set of contemplations on death. I am doing each one for two weeks, during meditation before morning yoga. I will write about each one separately because as I work through this, each point deserves its own conversation.

1. Death is inevitable.

We know this but do we like, know know it? Everyone dies. As an abstract thought, it’s fine, right? The transformation of thought comes from more specific consideration. So I sit and breathe and list historic figures, pop culture icons, and finally family and friends that have died. For those I don’t know personally and/or who have been long dead, I hold in my mind (briefly) what I know of them. For family and friends, I consider a memory of them. As I do so, I think [Name of person] died. So it goes like this:

George Washington died. Abraham Lincoln died. John F. Kennedy died. Prince died. George Michael died. Grandpa Leonard died. Grandma Lola died. Grandpa Pat died. Digger died. Grandma Nell died. Eric died. Mary died. Kate’s dad died. My dad died.

As I wrap up two weeks of beginning my days with this meditation, I find it not only a reminder of our impermanence but also of the importance of honoring the memories of those we’ve loved and lost on the regular.

Give it a try. I double dare you.

Further reading: The surprising benefits of contemplating your death. (Vox). The Nine Point Meditation On Death (The Daily Enlightenment)

My Personal Grief and Ongoing Path to Peace

My dad is dead. My dad is dead. My dad is dead. My dad is dead. My dad is dead.

For the first several days, shuffling about in a daze, these words entered my mind repeatedly and I couldn’t comprehend the meaning. My dad died on January 12th, 2021 of complications from COVID after spending three weeks in a coma in ICU on life support. Today would have been his 63rd birthday. I live in Northern Illinois and he lived in Southern Louisiana. The last time I saw him not in a coma was shortly after Thanksgiving when he and my bonus mom were up for a visit. I hugged him and told him I’d see him in a month because I had planned to drive down for Christmas. I flew down a few days after he went into the hospital (December 29th) because I wanted to be there when he woke up and to support my brother and other mother. After weeks of ups and downs and the reality of multiple organ failure and him not waking up, they told us that if he did wake up, he would be in a permanent vegetative state. Permanent vegetative state. Those words echoed in my mind for several days as well. We made the horrific decision to remove life support and said goodbye.

I never imagined it could be as hard as it was. I guess I always just thought that we’re built for this because everyone dies and that I would just magically be reasonably ok. I also considered myself to be a pretty spiritual and death positive (accepting and not fearful, not “yay death, let’s do it right now!”) person. I was not prepared for the pain. I had no idea it was even possible to hurt that much.

I’m 41 and I can tell you it’s been quite some years since I was consciously concerned about what my parents thought about the direction of my life. But suddenly, I didn’t know who I was or what I was supposed to be doing. Despite having two amazing children and a lot of other very important people in my life, I didn’t know how I was supposed to go on. If my dad is gone, I am not his daughter anymore? That part of my identity, and at first, my entire identity felt shattered. I just wanted the days to be over. It felt like I would always feel that way and as much as it hurt, I thought that if I started to feel better, I was losing him more somehow. Every morning, I woke up and told God how angry I was. How I very strongly disagreed with the outcome of the situation. My belief that everything happens the way that it is supposed to was burned to ash.

The one thing I heard that was helpful, the ONLY thing, was that it would help me to understand more humans. My best friend, Kate, said that. She’s very smart. She also lost her dad suddenly a few years ago. I couldn’t hear much at the time and I didn’t know what that meant but I hoped that at least it would help me help other people in some way. Slowly, slowly I have begun to heal. With a bit of time and help from my friends, I realized that I was having a very necessary human experience. It didn’t matter what I believed about what happens after we die. I wanted my dad physically here. Alive and well. But he isn’t. And everyone dies. Everyone dies.

Four months later, I still really miss my dad. I’m very sad that I will never see him again. But I feel his absence less and his presence more. Time gets a bit more bendy. I had to feel that pain. I had to allow myself to feel the pain and talk about it with people I trusted. I had to say the things that sounded crazy in my head out loud to other people who would just love me and say “I know”. Every day, I am working to make peace not only with the loss of my father, but the inevitable loss of others. For me, that includes yoga and meditation and trying to find ways to help other people navigate this thing.

Death may be inevitable but it is absolutely, totally and completely heartbreaking and earth shattering to lose someone you love.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

Love, Nan

Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

I know, I know. I had to.

But seriously, how much time do we spend thinking about how we want to die? Most people I know have an answer to this question. More often than not, it involves old age and being asleep. Or maybe during a favorite activity like drowning if you love water or a heart attack during sex? Many of us also can readily say how we definitely do not want to die. We imagine the most painful scenarios or deepest fears.

First, let me say that I hope anyone reading this gets to have their perfect death scenario. Second, it’s probably not what you think it is.

Until recently, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what a “good death” meant to me. I’ve spent an absurd amount of time contemplating and discussing what I would like to happen to my remains once I’m dead. My favorite is still that I’ll be mummified and my organs placed in canopic jars painted with the characters from Dexter’s Laboratory. I’ve had advanced directives and power of attorneys in place since 2009 and when it comes to things like, do I want to be on life support, I think many of us can say with some confidence what we want to happen there. Whether anyone who matters knows that answer is a topic for another day. But, what does a “good death” really mean to you?

The reality is that we may have little or no control over what takes place during our dying time. But what if you do have some say in that? What do you want it to look like? Really. If you have the option of dying at home, is that where you want to be? In your last hour or moments, what do you want to smell? Do you want to hear music, and if so, what is it? Do you want someone to read to you from your favorite book or a sacred text? Which one? Maybe there’s a favorite movie you’d like to have playing, or a home video. If you can choose who you want to be by your side when you take your last breaths, who will it be?

Recently I sat down (I was on an airplane so I was forced to sit still for a bit) and wrote out what my “good death” looks like. I included a few notes about post-death items for fun. I then shared it with a few of my closest people and I’m going to share it with you:

🤍 I want leaving this body to be an expression of gratitude for the love and the joy I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in this lifetime.

I really like hospital rooms and so I don’t really care if I’m there or at home.

If possible, I would like to have present my love, my children, Kate/Zack and Colin, and my siblings. No grandchildren. I do not want children to see me dying or close to death. I also don’t want anyone to be present who isn’t comfortable with it. Like, if you don’t want to watch me die, I get it.

I want to smell jasmine.

I want to hear my BestStuffEver Spotify playlist. No easy listening nonsense. I’m serious.

I do not want a living funeral. Just hang out. Talk to me, talk to each other. Listen to my awesome music.

I do not, under any circumstances, want to be cremated. Embalming is aOk. Bury me in a coffin with my Franklin School shirt. If I haven’t taken care of it already by the time I die, I want my epitaph to just say my name, YOB-YOD, and “Remember what the dormouse said…”

I hope to god I’m living in New Orleans when it happens but if I’m not, please have my body sent there to be buried. Have a memorial service wherever but I have to be buried in New Orleans.

For the memorial service, I ask that there be no eulogies. I would like a slideshow of all of the photos of me in my Franklin School shirt to be played on loop along with my Funerals Spotify playlist. I promise it will be awesome. 🤍

Are we having fun yet?

Really though, I encourage you to give it some thought and I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

In love and peace – Rhiannon