Few of us are encouraged to actively contemplate the inevitability of our death, or that it could happen at any time. This year, I actively sought out the opportunity to do just that. An email from Spirit Rock, a meditation center nestled in the hills of Woodacre, California, presented a class entitled, “A Year to Live.” Their classes had been there for me as an online gift during COVID with a collective of over 64 insightful teachers providing valuable life tools. This newest offering expected a different level of engagement, a year-long online commitment in forgiveness, gratitude and letting go. Through meditations, inquiry and small group discussions, we would be guided, with support of community, through a process of living 2023 as if it were our last.
“A Year to Live” is now in the first quarter of learning and exploration. During the first meeting, our lead instructor welcomed 600 participants from across the globe. In the second, we were organizationally dispersed into smaller groups of nine. These more intimate groups are expected to meet monthly in between the larger ones. Upon meeting my new clan of wisdom seekers investigating living and conscious dying, I was fascinated to learn who showed up. Our crew welcomed two emergency-room doctors who wish to be more connected to patient care; a clinical psychologist who works in palliative care, yet realizes her own work with grief needs support and practice; and others who have loved ones experiencing terminal illness. I round out the group, sharing my fear in denying that my healthy 89-year-old mother will pass, believing she is immortal.
Homework or lifework is the most substantial part of the journey. We are asked to journal daily, meditate daily (even if it is short) and recite the five Buddhist remembrances in the morning and evening. These are the five truths that the Buddha believed we should contemplate and accept:
- I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.
- I am of the nature to have ill-health. I cannot escape ill-health.
- I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death.
- All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. I cannot escape separation from them.
- My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
In addition to this daily practice, we read a small book called, A Year to Live by Stephen Levine. For over 34 years, Levine counselled concentration camp survivors and their children, as well as Vietnam War Veterans. A primary theme is to explore grief when dying, yet also the more subtle incarnations of grief. Our everyday grief accumulates as a response to burdens of disappointments and the loss of trust and confidence that follows the less satisfactory arch of our lives. In order to avoid feeling grief, we “armor our hearts,” leading to a gradual deadening of our experience of the world. On many occasions, when a loved one dies, we are rendered incapable of dealing with grief and are swept up in all our emotions.
Since starting this class, my moment-to-moment intention has centered around opening my heart and examining all my actions with a deeper meaning. My teacher started this class with a simple story of a man in hospice with a terminal life sentence greeted by a stranger. The stranger asked the man “What does it feel like to die?” The man asked the stranger, “What does it feel like to pretend you are not?” When we spend our life in flight from death, we find ourselves in flight from life. The work we do before the end of life, to trust the process to which we all succumb, is directly proportionate to our trust in life.
Jennifer Di Francesco is a wellness explorer and desert adventurist and can be reached at www.coachellabellaboho.com.