Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fearless and Fragile in Life and Death

In an old issue of Shambhala Sun I stumbled upon, Zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi is described by one of her students using the two title words for this post: fearless and fragile. Roshi Joan, as she is called, has spent much of her adult life caring for the sick and dying, and teaching others how to do so. What I find so inspiring about her life story is this simple, but profound commitment she made after her grandmother's death years ago. Her grandmother, she said, "normalized death" for her by being a caregiver for dying friends when Halifax was a child. However, the grandmother's own death was a long and lonely process, and Halifax later came to realize that much of her grandmother's "misery had been rooted in her family's fear of death, including (Halifax's) own." And so, at her grandmother's death, Halifax "made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died."

The fragility of life is all around us, available at every moment. We don't need the death of a loved one to be reminded of it, although often this is the only time when we allow ourselves to be reminded. Willfully ignoring the fragility of life is a particularly well developed, commonplace human trait. I've long felt that our society is particularly poor when it comes to the whole issue of death and dying. Many of us lack the support, and courage, to open to what is a natural process and a part of all of us. And, as a result, our relationships with the living, and the dying, suffer greatly.

I still remember the day I came home from a day trip to Red Wing with my ex-girlfriend to find that our beloved family cat, Buzz, had collapsed and was put down by my mother and sister while we were gone. It was a shock to realize that the vague glance I gave him that morning, thinking he looked a little tired, was my goodbye.

How many of us have multiple stories like this about friends, family, pets, co-workers? And by this I mean that the story includes some level of loss beyond the loss of the person or animal - a sense that you weren't really there, or had assumed a continuity about the others' life that turned out to be just a story. It seems to me that fearlessness involves being fully alive and deeply engaged in your relationships as much as possible. And not only human relationships, but with animals, plants, your every surrounding. To be able to be open to what is there without rejecting or manipulating - including your fears and failures.

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