This is a blog post about Death.
I have a confession to make.
I think about dying. I think about it quite a bit.
Probably more than is normal for a healthy, privileged, 26-year-old.
In November 2012 I witnessed someone's death. A week later my uncle died suddenly in a car accident. And I was not one of those people who grew up never having experienced a funeral - coming from a Catholic farming family is synonymous with having a large extended family (it's that magical combination of not condoning birth control, and the fact that the more kids you have - the more free farm laborers you get!!). This means I attended multiple services for great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles throughout my childhood. And have seen a number of dead bodies - the Catholics are also big fans of the open casket.
I had friends lose their father from cancer when I was a kid. A close girlfriend died in a car accident when we were 20. I lost one grandpa in my teens, and the other one two years ago. Clearly, death is everywhere. And it's not even that I'm so surprised when it happens. I'm more shocked my how UNprepared we all are for it. As a culture, we act remarkably ignorant about the fact that we ALL die. Or if we do think about death and dying, we think about it in a way that relates to OTHER people, not to us. Or as something that will happen LATER. Much, much, much, much later.
I think that's partly why the experience of watching someone die really shook me. It wasn't scary, it wasn't "gross". It wasn't even disturbing. I was mostly struck by the very methodical, gradual way in which a body can shut down- system by system.
When I went to visit, she hadn't been conscious for a few days. Her breathing was coarse and abrupt, like an automatic body reflex - there was no smooth flow between the in and out breaths, no regular rhythm. Still, she seemed aware of being surrounded by people that loved her. We sat with her, we talked, we told stories, laughed, held her hand, kissed her cheeks. Eventually we all lapsed into silence.
Listened to her breathing.
And suddenly we looked at each other.
Umm...Had she stopped breathing?
Another few seconds.
Despite the flurry of activity that ensued - the panic, the shock, the racing around and calling for a doctor/ a nurse/ anyone who knew what was supposed to happen next - there wasn't much to do but just be there.
I was still able to feel a radial (wrist) pulse at first, faintly, and then it faded.
I found the pulse stronger at her carotid artery, but then, it was slowing.
The nurse came in and found a heartbeat.
And then it was gone.
I had experienced - had witnessed, had felt - a body die. And it was the most normal thing in the world. The heart-wrenching pain, the overwhelming sadness - came not from watching someone leave this world- but from watching those who were left in it.
Her husband of 61 years who refused to understand the sad shake of the nurse's head, the whisper of "She's gone". Who continued to look around and call for a doctor, expecting one to run in and magically reverse the very moment we are all continually moving towards.
Her grandson, who - having lost his mother at age 7 - was now losing the only woman who raised him after that. Her Son-In-Law - faced with this sudden death, reminded of his wife's too-early and tragic demise, AND trying to support his partner as her father was dying, thousands of miles away.
It was terribly terribly sad.
But not bad. Not scary. Not unnatural. People obviously need to be sad, and to feel grief and to mourn when they lose someone they love. But there's nothing to be gained in resisting death itself. In being ignorant to the possibility of it happening at anytime. To any one of us.
Last spring, I attended a conference for Ashtanga Yoga held in San Diego. It was pretty amazing to practice with 150 people in the same room, but even more amazing to have the opportunity to study with the brilliant, compassionate and experienced teachers that were there. David Swenson, despite being one of the most light-hearted, hilarious yogis I've ever met; broached the topic with crystal clarity.
"Life is a terminal condition", he stated.
Every one of us will confront death. Which is a pretty scary thing... and so we distract ourselves. We attach our personal identity and self-worth to our possessions (which we can't take with us). Or to our bodies (which are changing and decaying every moment of every day). Or our brilliant minds, and thoughts, and ideas (unless you lose them through brain trauma or Alzheimer's disease or dementia). So who are we, really - if we're not our stuff or our bodies or our thoughts?
What we are is constantly changing. The cells which make up your physical body today are completely different ones than those that made up your physical body 10 years ago. Our ideas, and opinions, and memories are constantly shifting and evolving.
"Death is just another change", says Swenson. If, at the time of death, you identify with your body, your thoughts, your things - then it's fucking scary!! They will be gone! There's no doubt about it!
The goal of Yoga, the goal of the self-realized soul - is to surrender to change. To death. To not be attached. In Yoga, we use the body to learn that we are not our bodies. The belief is that our true nature is something less transient, something far more.
Sometimes I get little glimpses of this - Feeling all buzzy and alive and in love with the whole universe after a really great yoga class/meditation/acupuncture treatment. Or spending time with an amazing friend (I'm really lucky to have so many of these) and feeling SO connected to them, SO on-the-same-page, that you couldn't actually be any closer to them - even if you were able to crawl inside their skin like some creepy little parasite.
And I get to feel this twice a week in my work providing acupuncture to people detoxing from drugs and alcohol. These people have had shitty lives. Some of them have done really terrible things. Their bodies are in rough shape from years, sometimes decades of drug abuse, from living on the streets, from self-harm. But when I stick those tiny needles in their ears, when we all sit in a circle facing each other, with our eyes closed, doing nothing, quietly breathing - we are all the same. My clients aren't their addictive thoughts or behaviors, or tortured bodies, they - we! - are more, somehow.
We are a collective stillness, a cohesive experience, a community, a connection.
And so, as a 26-year-old, and with the full realisation that I have no authority whatsoever to speak on the meaning of life and death:
I propose that feeling is what we really are... that buzzy-alive-connected-loving-feeling-of-togetherness - is our true nature. And if we can all spend more time appreciating it... then maybe leaving our bodies, maybe dying, shouldn't be so scary after all?