To philosophize is to learn how to die

Last weekend I went to a seminar on dying at the Garrison Institute. That might seem a rather Gothic weekend, but I don’t think it’s that weird. Socrates said: 'To philosophize is to learn how to die.' When we focus more on death, life comes into greater focus – its mystery, its poignancy, its brevity, and its purpose and value.  What things do I worry about that don’t really matter? What does matter? How should I prepare for my inevitable departure and does it matter where I go?

I'm sure you have your own theories - my working hypothesis is that the purpose of life is to realize our divine nature, over multiple lives, by learning to love more, and cling to the ego less. But am I really living according to that understanding? How often do I get lost in the ego-dream?

On a more mundane level, I also wanted to check out the Garrison Institute, because it’s the sort of neo-monastery I’d love to work for one day – a place, somewhere between a retreat and research institute, which teaches contemplative practices from several religions, and which combines practice with scientific research and critical discussion. It’s a beautiful old Catholic monastery on the banks of the Hudson river, an hour from Manhattan by train. It has a large shrine room which still feels pretty Catholic, if it wasn’t for the enormous golden Buddha at the front.

The weekend was led by Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski, two well-known western Buddhists who have done a lot of work with the dying, and who are old friends. They are a funny pair – Frank is like a large, lumbering, loveable bear, Joan like a small, fierce fox.

Frank founded the Zen hospice in San Francisco, which started by helping AIDS victims in the 1990s  (sadly it just closed due to lack of donations). He now runs the Metta Institute in San Francisco, and recently released the bestseller, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully .

Joan, meanwhile, started her career as a medical anthropologist in the 1960s, studying shamanism and altered states in various indigenous communities. She then married Stanislaf Grof – the transpersonal psychologist – and conducted LSD trials with him, before becoming more interested in Buddhism and eventually becoming a Buddhist nun and founder of the Upaya Zen centre in Santa Fe. She now runs the Being with Dying project, which trains hospital and hospice staff to have a more mindful attitude to death.

She’s one of several western spiritual teachers whose interest in Eastern contemplation grew out of experimentation with psychedelics – others include Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield and Lama Tsultrim Allione. Perhaps her interest in the art of dying also grew out of her psychedelic research – she spoke of how psychedelics help prepare people for death by giving them a practice run at ego-dissolution.

There were 100 or so people there, most of whom worked in hospices in some capacity – as nurses, chaplains, volunteers or ‘death-doulas’. I gazed at them and thought ‘what beautiful, pure bodhisattvas, dedicating their lives to guiding people through death!’ What a noble sector to work in!

That was probably a bit romantic. There is always room for ego and samsara in any human activity, including hospices. The first time we paired off for an exercise, the lady I was paired with – a wonderful and very no-nonsense New York Sicilian-American nurse called Linda – launched into a long tirade about the demoralization of the sector.

It appears the hospice industry has grown very big, very fast – the number of hospices in the US grew 43% between 2006 and 2016. The sector was only launched in the 1960s, with a handful of tiny charity organisations run by highly dedicated staff. Now, it’s big business. Millions of dollars in charity funding have been poured into it, and billions of dollars in health insurance. Many new hospice providers are in the business to make money, rather than out of any spiritual or humanitarian mission, and insurance fraud is apparently a big problem.

For Linda, the main problem is the pressure to increase the number of in-patients, while keeping staff costs low. Her fellow nurses are under pressure to fill in ever more forms on a hated new IT system (ironically called EPIC). Rather than having intimate one-to-one conversations with patients about they want to die, they have to tap away furiously at their computers during and after patient meetings. Many of her colleagues have resigned because of stress and over-work. What began 60 years ago as an intimate and passionate charitable endeavour has ballooned into a large, uncaring and demoralized bureaucracy, because of its own success.

Anyway, what about the teachings? What useful ideas or practices can I share with you?

Both Frank and Roshi Joan spoke about how to face suffering without losing your mind.  Joan began by telling a story about a time she and other volunteers provided healthcare to Nepalese mountain villagers. A man walked two days to come to their clinic, carrying his four-year-old daughter, who had very serious, infected burns. The little girl was in terrible distress while her burns were being treated and Joan, while watching, almost passed out – she became so unbearably identified with the little girl. She had to recollect herself, to stop herself losing her mind in a way that was no use to anyone. She breathed, grounded herself in her body and feet, and remembered why she was there.

This reminds me of the practice one develops on psychedelics, in which one can also temporarily lose one’s mind – the antidote is also to breathe, ground oneself in your body, and remember why you’re there.

Joan talked about other ‘edge states’ where one can lose one’s mind – how empathy can tip over into empathic distress, how altruism can tip over into crazy selflessness, how integrity can tip over into moral outrage. She’s quite a fierce activist herself, so it was interesting to hear her talk about the risks of excessive moral outrage today.

She said: ‘Moral outrage is catching, like a nasty virus. It can bring down the world. When it becomes your narrative and filter, it’s degrading of the values of kindness, compassion and love…We’re being colonized by negativity through social media. We have to re-colonize ourselves, like probiotics.’ I agree – so why doesn’t she leave Twitter?

Frank, meanwhile, spoke about balancing wisdom with compassion – the two wings of spiritual practice. Compassion without wisdom can get mushy, while wisdom without compassion can be too detached. We need to balance absolute with relative compassion – relative compassion is when you really feel a person’s distress, the pain of separation and transience.

But that sort of ‘everyday compassion’ can get exhausting – ‘it needs to be sourced in absolute, boundless compassion’, and the sense that, at some level, everything is OK.  In other words, it’s helpful to be able to connect to the transcendent, to some spiritual dimension that can give you hope and courage and faith, whether that’s handing your suffering over to Jesus, or the Buddha, or whatever.

Can we use our meditation training to stay present to the other person and their needs, even when they're feeling terror? Can we stay tuned to our own physical reactions, so we regulate and ground ourselves and don't shut down or turn away?

The main thing I took from the weekend was that we can’t escape loss and death in this life. Our loved ones are going to die and it’s going to really, really hurt. I heard stories of how grief and bereavement tore families apart and made people so sad they got ill or even died. We can’t escape our own dying either – we’re all going down that dark tunnel, and we need to practice breathing and letting go.

At the end of the retreat, we sat in a circle and repeated four phrases to each other, over and over:

I am of the nature to grow old, I cannot escape growing old.

I am of the nature to get sick, I cannot escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die, I cannot escape death.

Everything I hold dear, and everyone that I love, are of the nature to change. I cannot escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequence of my actions.

My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

It was powerful to repeat these phrases over and over, and have them repeated to me, and to hear them repeated around me by others, often in tears. It was difficult, frightening. Sometimes during the weekend I found myself literally gasping for breath. I found it particularly challenging to say that I cannot escape being separated from the ones I love.

And yet I think my fear of suffering and loss has held me back in life. It’s stopped me trusting other people, it’s stopped me making commitments to others and building a life with them, because I’m frightened of losing people, failing them, or being let down by them.

We can’t escape loss and death, but we can try to bring an open and courageous heart and a clear mind to the losses and deaths that we will inevitably go through. I hope I can face life with greater courage – not the courage to become more detached, but the courage to let life batter my heart until it is tenderized.