Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lessons for the Living

Over the summer I had the pleasure of meeting Stan Goldberg at Many Rivers Books and Tea. He glows with love and warmth.

Stan's got cancer, serious cancer, and to deal with his cancer, he decided to get acquainted with the dying.

Stan's written a book called Lessons for the Living about his experiences as a hospice volunteer. His book probably won't sell well. Most people seek to avoid thinking about dying and death.

Funny, because dying is the ONE thing you can count on happening to you. Kind of important, too, don't you think? Death deserves more than suppressed thinking.

Stan's book is a worthwhile read, a reminder that happiness and fulfillment do not come from consumerism and material wealth, as advertisers and the government officials who work for them would have you believe.

Happiness comes, paradoxically, from coming into relationship with the murky and mucky but fertile unconscious, like a lotus blossom rooted in pond bottom mud.

Here's Stan, speaking for himself:

...Hospice isn't a place—it's a state of mind, a willingness to compassionately accompany someone on their final journey, not judgmentally but as a friend who was willing to hold one's hand, cry, or just witness the end of life. As I walked that path with more than two hundred people, they became friends who led me into events that I had to face without any emotional armor. It was the first time in many years I felt authentic. These experiences reflected what's important in life more than could countless books and workshops. I watched the joy of a woman whose mouth was wired closed as she smelled a fragrant slice of apple, and I learned to accept what's possible rather than what's desired. I sat with a musician who was listening for the last time to a Grieg concerto, and I understood the beauty of things that had no words. As I played Chutes and Ladders with a child, I felt grief for the first time in my life and I cried as he told me he knew this would be our last game.

Although every one of these people has died—these people who have taught me so much, my hospice teachers—this isn't a book about death. It's a blueprint for living. I participated in events so powerful they grabbed me and said, "Listen, this is important." When I paid attention, I felt a change. It was as if every time I left the bedside of a patient, I stepped into the crispness of a fall morning. Lucky people experience these transforming moments a few times throughout their lives. I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience these spiritual moments almost weekly for the past six years.
In the middle of his talk, Stan played his Native American flute. He plays it for his hospice patients. The music spoke so eloquently that I decided to invite one of these flutes into my life. I play it every day, both as a part of my daily meditation practice and in kindergarten as a musical interlude before we partake of our mid-morning snack. It's a beautiful gift.


Sandra said...

This is a lovely piece. both your writing and Stan's. And yes, a difficult topic.

I wanted to thank you for commented on my blog. It is good to hear what people think.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Oh Dan - what an inspiring post. Thank you for featuring this amazing man, Stan Goldberg.

I, for one, want to familiarize myself with death - at the very least with the idea of dying. At the far end of our property there sits a cemetery. Occasionally while outside I hear some machinery, and wonder what is disturbing the peace. And then I realize a grave is being dug. I always try and stop and spend several seconds knowing that one day it will be for me. Certainly that is what Buddhist monks do when they choose to sit in a cemetery.

I loved how Stan highlighted that the dying moments are truly spiritual ones. I wonder if they are if the person dying is engulfed in fear. Perhaps the beautiful unconscious is prepared to help us with dying - and graces us with peace and acceptance at the end. In case that is not so, I want to be work now, at accepting, even embracing, the inevitable.

Dan Gurney said...

Sandra, it was MY pleasure to leave a comment on your thoughtful blog post. You take on some difficult, but important, topics. I'll be back.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Bonnie,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. You posted today on the Law of Attraction and it made me think that lots of people might avoid thinking about death because of magical thinking, you know, "I'm not going to give my thinking over to thoughts of death; I might attract death." Fear-based thinking.

Paradoxically, thinking about death helps us to live life more fully.

Do people who are dying become engulfed in fear? Certainly not all! Some people approach death with divine equanimity.

There are plenty of Buddhist practices aimed at helping us through our dying so that as we die we are awake, calm, and composed.

The more we can come to terms with our own death, I believe, the more we can live our lives fully, completely, and fruitfully.

Delwyn said...

Thank you Dan for Stan's story and your own words...As my Father rapidly approaches the end of his life this story is very poignant...

Happy days

steven said...

hi dan - the word gratitude is leaping off pages at me these days and of course it is embedded in any discussion connected to dying.
"happiness comes, paradoxically, from coming into relationship with the murky and mucky but fertile unconscious, like a lotus blossom rooted in pond bottom mud." this is an awareness that i have cerebrally for some time but which is rising to the forefront of my living clutching the idea of gratitude. they're connected, i'm trying to understand how.
thanks for this thoughtful and powerful posting dan. have a peaceful day. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Hi, Delwyn—

I know your father is fading quickly towards the end of this life. I hope that he is able to approach his death with equanimity and that he has ample opportunity to say his goodbyes to everyone near and dear. Stan's book includes some very useful guidelines about how to be of help when you're around people who are at the end of life, should you anticipate being with your father as he passes. My thoughts are with you, Delwyn.

Dan Gurney said...

Steven, you're welcome! I thoroughly enjoy your writing and pictures on Golden Fish as well. As for gratitude, I try to turn my mind in that direction every day, just to remind myself that mostly the world is going just great. Odd how the "complaining mind" gets so much more of our attention. Like the way we take for granted, say, our thumb until it gets cut, and all of a sudden it's hard to button a shirt.

Margaret Pangert said...

That was very powerful, Dan. The English are noted for saying that's the one thing Americans don't get: that we shall eventually die. I've seen hospice workers with patients, and they always concentrate on the person to see how to relieve them in any way. It is such a gift.

Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, Margaret, for stopping by and leaving a comment today. I'm glad if you enjoyed the post. I think there are many more things we Americans don't get, but our denial of death would be one of them.