Mindfulness brings wisdom into your life, irrespective of personal circumstances. The art of mindfulness, in living and dying, helps us to embrace each precious moment and to experience the poignant beauty of our life. And sometimes, life brings challenges and situations that are beyond the norm, but wisdom teaches us that any situation calls for the same mindful response to life.
Lessons in Mindfulness and The Art of Dying
“How can I be dying and not feel like I am dying?” These were the first words a terminally ill client said to me.
These words were profound. Were they a cry to embrace life or a need to enter the experience of death? And, what is the difference between these?
When the client first approached me, I was uncertain if she sought a psychotherapist, a counsellor, or my expertise as a spiritual mentor. All I knew was that she had only had a few months to live. Her suffering was considerable and she had come to me seeking support.
Initially, our consultations were in my rooms, but later I visited her in the hospital where she spent the last few weeks of her life. For respect of privacy, I changed her name to Sophie but, at the time, had no immediate recall as to the meaning of this name. In retrospect, Sophie’s story continues to grow my own wisdom from within.
Although Sophie drew from my psychological support, much of our time together were meditation lessons in mindfulness. That, and the continual refining of these skills through the art of living in mindfulness.
Sophie came to see this as learning the art of dying. At the same time, she came to live life to the fullest extent as her inner wisdom blossomed and bloomed. In learning how to die, she learnt the ordinary art of living life.
Sophie grieved over her young children’s impending loss. She meticulously organised for the care of her nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son after her passing.
She anguished countless tears over the personal loss of knowing she would never attend her daughter’s wedding. All the while, she made space to allow herself the joy of her children’s antics.
She trembled in terror at the thought of a painful death, but learnt to relax and accept these fears rather than fighting them to the end.
Sophie learnt the art of living, and of dying, in the last five months of her life.
I write this as a tribute to a remarkable person, who, gripped by confusion, sorrow, anger, anguish, and terror, found peace within a wisdom mind just prior to her death.
She accomplished in such a short space of time what many mindfulness practitioners struggle with for most of their lives with far less adversity. If anything, it’s a reminder that mindfulness takes us beyond the boundaries of time.
“I am so scared. I want to learn how to die without all this fear. I don’t want to spend the last months of my life like this. I don’t want this to be my children’s last memory of their mother”, Sophie sobbed.
I asked her, “How do you know you are afraid? Where in your body do you feel this?” I gestured by closing my eyes, suggesting she may like to do the same.
Sophie closed her eyes. She clenched her hand against her chest and said, “My chest is very tight, and my whole body is shaking”. She placed her hand back on her lap and said, “I feel so cold.”
I suggested, “Leave your hand on your chest. What do you feel with your hand there?”
She put her hand against her chest, then responded, “It’s so tight here, I can hardly breathe. I need to take a deep breath in.”
“Go ahead. Take a deep breath in”, I suggested. “What else do you feel?”
Sophie took a deep breath in. “I feel my chest expanding”, she said as she breathed in, “and relaxing a bit now”, she said as she breathed out.
I asked, “Can you feel your hand against your chest?”
“Yes”, she said. “It feels warm. Comforting. I’m not pressing hard, but just having this here feels like it is supporting my body, my whole being. Holding me together.”
“Leave your hand there”, I suggested. “What else do you notice?”
A slight smile emerged. “It feels nice. I’m not feeling as cold now. There’s warmth in my body again.”
I watched as she relaxed a little into her experience. I asked gently, “What are you experiencing now? What has happened to the shaking?”
“It’s more subtle now, but still there”, she responded. “My whole body trembles all the time. I don’t like it shaking like that, so I try to distract myself by keeping busy”, she frowned.
“Would it be alright to stay with the trembling for a little bit now?”
“Yes”, she said quietly.
“What do you notice? Where does it feel the strongest?”
Sophie did not hesitate. “In my gut. I suddenly remember that I am going to die and I feel my stomach doing somersaults. My whole body shakes and I think I may as well be dead now, because I’m not really living anymore. I don’t want to live like this. I can’t stand it.”
“Do you feel somersaults in your gut now?”
“Yes”, she responded, with a sense of urgency. “It’s intolerable. My chest is tight and I can’t breathe.”
“Can you still feel your hand against your chest?”
She paused. “Yes, I feel my hand. It’s not as comforting as before.”
“That’s alright”, I reassured her. “What does it feel like now?”
“It feels like my hand is moving with the shaking of my body”.
“Does that feel okay?”
“Yes. It’s strange. My body is shaking, but it feels okay for it to be like that.”
“Yes, it’s okay for things to be like this.”
Sophie was visibly more at ease, and the anxious tension in the room dissipated. I commented, “You look more comfortable now.”
“I’m still shaking, but I am comfortable”, she said. “It’s tolerable now. It’s okay”.
She opened her eyes and looked at me, puzzled. She hesitated, then asked, “How can this be okay? How can I still be shaking, still be afraid, still know that I am going to die soon, yet be okay?”
“It only needs to be okay for this moment, right now”, I responded. “You don’t need to worry about what it might be like next week, tomorrow, or even in the next moment. Just notice what is happening for you now.
“Allow for whatever you are experiencing, be it pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Create space for being okay with whatever you are feeling, and notice when this changes.”
Lessons in Mindfulness and The Art of Living
Mindfulness is simple, but perfecting the art of living, and dying, is not easy. Mindfulness is about noticing what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is.
The act of noticing moves our experience away from the all-consuming contents of our mind to experiencing life as it is actually happening. This shift of mental perspective allows for ease and freedom not otherwise possible in our normal mode of living.
Sophie experienced this movement away from the grips of her mental and physical hardships to mindfulness and acceptance over and over again. At first, this was catalysed by my presence, but later it became a natural process of her own being.
She smiled recollecting her children calling her a Buddha as she meditated both in the day and the night through her terrors, anguish, pain, as well as joys.
Sophie became adept at noticing the nature of each experience without fighting her aversion to them.
Learning to acknowledge and accept each experience enabled her to comfortably be with the confusion, pain, fear, and sadness, as well as appreciate the nearby songs of birds, the warmth of the blanket around her, and the smiling faces of her children.
She embraced the entirety of all the experiences that arose from the remaining moments of her life. By directing her mind to each, without prejudice, Sophie learnt to be comfortable with the uncertainty of living.
In her last days, she perfected the art of living, which is essentially non-different from the art of dying.