"A Path of Discovery" by Roshi Joan Halifax
12 May 2010
I grew up in the South, and one of the people I was closest to as a girl was my grandmother. I loved spending summers with her in Savannah, where she worked as a sculptor and artist, carving tombstones for local people. She was a remarkable village woman who often served her community as someone comfortable around illness and death, someone who would sit with dying friends.
And yet when she herself became ill, her own family could not offer her the same compassionate presence. My parents were good people, but like others of their social class at the time, they had no preparation for being with her as she experienced her final days. When my grandmother suffered first from cancer and then had a stroke, she was put into a nursing home and then left largely alone. And her death was long and hard.
This was in the early sixties, when the medical establishment treated dying, like giving birth, as an illness. Death was usually “handled” in a clinical setting outside the home. I visited my grandmother in a plain and cavernous room in the nursing home, a room filled with beds of people who had all been unwittingly abandoned by their kin—and I can never forget hearing her beg my father to let her die, to help her die. She needed us to be present for her, and we withdrew in the face of her suffering.
When she finally died, I felt deep ambivalence, sorrow, and relief. I looked into her coffin in the funeral home and saw that the terrible frustration that had marked her features was now gone. She seemed at last at peace. As I stood looking at her gentle face, I realized how much of her misery had been rooted in her family’s fear of death, including my own. At that moment, I made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died.
Although I had been raised as a Protestant, I turned to Buddhism not long after my grandmother’s death. Its teachings put my youthful suffering into perspective, and the message of the Buddha was clear and direct—freedom from suffering lies within suffering itself, and it is up to each individual to find his or her own way. But Buddhism also suggests a path through our alienation and toward freedom. The Buddha taught that we should practice helping others while cultivating deep concentration, compassion, and wisdom. He further taught that enlightenment is not a mystical, transcendent experience but an ongoing process, calling for three fundamental qualities: fearlessness, intimacy, and transparency; and that suffering diminishes when confusion and fear change into openness and strength.
In my twenties, I entered “the cave of the blue dragon,” the dark space inside where the bilge of my short life had accumulated. I knew instinctively that I had to realize healing directly through my own experience, that my habitual relationship to anguish could be resolved only by facing it fully. I felt that befriending the night was an assignment for survival, and knew intuitively that thinking about it would not be of much help. I had to practice with it—that is, I had to sit still and look within for my natural wisdom to show itself.
I also understood through the civil rights movement and protesting the Vietnam War that the rest of the world suffers as well. My bones told me that Buddhist teachings and practices might be the basis for working with and transforming the experience of alienation, both personal and social, so a commitment to social action began to grow strong roots inside me. I found I could put my own difficulties into perspective through working with those whose problems were more difficult than mine.
My grandmother’s death guided me into practicing medical anthropology in a big urban hospital in Dade County, Florida. Dying became a teacher for me, as I witnessed again and again how spiritual and psychological issues leap into sharp focus for those facing death. I discovered care-giving as a path, and as a school for unlearning the patterns of resistance so embedded in me and in my culture. Giving care, I learned, also enjoins us to be still, let go, listen, and be open to the unknown.
One thing that continually concerned me was the marginalization of people who were dying, the fear and loneliness that dying people experienced, and the shame and guilt that touched physicians, nurses, dying people, and families as the waves of death overtook life. I sensed that spiritual care could reduce fear, stress, the need for certain medications and expensive interventions, lawsuits, and the time doctors and nurses must spend reassuring people, as well as benefit professional and family care-givers, helping them to come to terms with suffering, death, loss, grief, and meaning.
As I worked with dying people, caregivers, and others experiencing catastrophe, I practiced meditation to give my life a strong spine of practice, and an open heart from which I could see beyond what I thought I knew. I was grateful to find that Buddhism offers many practices and insights for working skillfully and compassionately with suffering, pain, dying, failure, loss, and grief—the stuff of what St. John of the Cross has called “the lucky dark.” That great Christian saint recognized that suffering can be fortunate because, without it, there is no possibility for maturation. For years the lucky dark has been the atmosphere that lends clarity to my life, a life that had seen death as an enemy, but was to discover death as a teacher and guide.
As a young anthropologist, I further explored death through studying the archeological record of human history. Through the millennia and across cultures, the fact of death has evoked fear and transcendence, practicality and spirituality. Neolithic gravesites and the cave paintings of Paleolithic peoples capture the mystery through bones, stones, bodies curled like fetuses, and images of death and trance on cave walls.
Even today, whether people live close to the earth or in high-rise apartments, death is a deep spring. For many of us, this spring has been parched of its mystery. And yet we have an intuition that a fragment of eternity within us is liberated at the time of death.
Witness—to apprehend a part of ourselves, which has perhaps been hidden and silent.
As death draws near, a dying person may hear a still small voice inviting her to freedom. Sitting with the dying, sitting still in meditation, and sitting at the edge of cultures differing from my own, I have also encountered that still small voice. It is there to speak to us all, if we can give it enough silence to be heard.
Excerpted with permission from Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death (Shambhala Publications).
Joan Halifax Roshi is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and author. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center, a Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.