By Joseph Rogers
I have a sticky note on my desk, it reads:
I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot avoid aging.
I am of the nature to become sick. I cannot avoid sickness.
I am of the nature to die. I cannot avoid death.
I will become separated from all that is dear to me.
I am responsible for my own actions.
I also have a stuffed crochet octopus on my desk. I don’t want to be of the nature to take myself too seriously.
These statements are, of course, the five subjects for frequent reflection of Theravada Buddhism. They represent for me the beginning of Siddhartha Gautama’s spiritual journey, those reflections that drove him to abandon all that was comfortable toward a freedom that was not dependent.
They are not a statement of YOLO.
These statements are not a reminder to live; they are a reminder that I will die.
One of the events that influenced my process to become a Buddhist Chaplain working in healthcare and hospice was the death of a family friend. She was a talented, gregarious, joyful young woman who contracted cancer for no reason whatsoever—except, these things happen. My parents and several more of her friends all moved to a secluded canyon in Northern California to be with her in community while she was dying. It took several years, but in the end she gave her last breath surrounded by husband, family, friends and some dogs. Everyone sang to her as she transitioned and she knew that she was loved. I wanted to help others to die like that because it was peaceful, it was kind, and it profoundly affected all of those involved.
The reality of death in this country is much different than Heather’s death. We have found myriad ways to medically extend life, but not to avoid death (unless you kill an albatross or your brother Abel).
And as a result of this avoidance, a great many of us will die in an institution, with the very tubes and machines surrounding us that we say we want to avoid. After we die there, our loved ones may find themselves stuffing black plastic trash bags with our personal items in front of our corpse as the institution hurries us to make room for another patient. I apologize for this grim picture, but that is the reality we face if we do not face our death.
If you do not prepare for your death, you will be unprepared for it when it comes.
Everyone knows they will die. Nobody thinks it will happen to them. Our culture believes in miracles and fighting on and the underdog and “these things happen to other people, but not to me.” We are addicted to I, me and mine. Why would we believe that this person we think we are could possibly end? And yet there on the road is a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. Do we dare see them?
So here is the hard and disappointing thing I have learned working as a spiritual counselor for hospice:
Death is not a transformative experience because you will die as you have lived.
You will not work your shit out on that hospital bed. You will not find forgiveness as you are dying in some big soap-opera moment, you will not become a better person, and you will not become enlightened just because you’re dying. Your chaplain, if you have one, will most likely be a well-meaning evangelical Christian divinity student resident who will not be allowed to talk to you about Jesus although they will want to save your soul.
Your family and friends will avoid the subject of your reality and mostly will try to cheer you up. Most likely your body will be too busy taking care of dying (and the body does this beautifully), or you will be too doped up to process anything anyway. Unless you are willing to look at your own sticky note, this is how you will die, and it will not be a kum-ba-yah moment in some California hippie commune.
You gotta find transformation on the cushion—and off the cushion in your relationship with your partner, your family, your workmates, your sangha, the least of your brethren and your friends. You are going to have to forgive your parents. You have to face the dark corners and go into the rooms you are avoiding. You have to learn what an advanced directive is and fill that shit out.
Like right now.
You must practice as if you are balancing a glass of artisan homebrew on your head as you walk through a crowded farmer’s market with some cosplay ninja behind you ready to cut your head off if you spill a single drop.
You are going to die. So get busy dying already.
The Rev. Joseph Rogers, MDiv. (aka Pu Luo, Luminous Awakening or just Reverend Bling for casual Dharmic events) is a professional hospice chaplain, and meditation teacher in Los Angeles. He is the co-founder of the #LoveMoreMovement along with his wife, Sarit Rogers; an ordained minister with the International Center of Chinese Buddhist Culture and Education, USA; has completed teacher training with Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society under Noah Levine; and received his Masters in Divinity in Buddhist Chaplaincy from The University of the West mostly so he would have something to talk about at parties and charity auctions. He likes to write about himself in the third person, play fetch with his pit bull Lulu, and plans on kicking Samsara’s ass. He can be found in less than 140 characters @paralax999, and you can learn more about how #CompassionIsRevolution at LoveMoreMovement.com.
Editor: Dana Gornall