Friday, April 3, 2015

Watching, Waiting, Learning: Reflections on end of life.

A new time in my life has arrived. My father in law is ill, at home with hospice. He is the first of the four parents (my two and my husband’s two) to become ill. Pancreatic cancer.

Our humanity is rooted in our ability to die. We are manifestations that have arisen and that will pass away. Being human we know this deep down inside, which is why we have so many skills, preferences, and biological systems to support our staying alive. One of my meditation groups is studying the chakras right now and the first chakra (at the root of the spine) deals specifically with our basic needs to stay alive:  food, water, safety etc.  I also learned recently that we remember the “bad things” much more easily than the good because the memories of bad things or situations (poisonous food, unsafe areas etc.) help keep us alive. For example, if we forgot that a big hungry bear lived in a particular cave, we would be putting ourselves in danger each time we walked past or looked inside. Our memories of the negative are strong and emotionally powerful because they help keep us alive. All of this is to say that we, by our own human nature, know our vulnerability.  We know what will threaten our lives, and we do whatever we can to avoid it. 

So, when the time comes for us to pass, all of our life experience and biological hard wiring is put into action and into question. Of course this is essential for the person who is passing, but it is also something we experience as by-standers.  As we watch someone become weak, become confused, or debilitated by pain, we are confronted with our own fragility and our desire to keep those we love safe and with us. 

My father in law’s confusion is one of the hardest aspects we are experiencing.  The spreading cancer (to the brain) in combination with the strong pain medication is a recipe for disorientation. But, why is disorientation scary, to experience and to watch? Perhaps because our survival depends on our ability to orient ourselves in time and space.  As a healthy independent person, being lost threatens our survival. Being lost or the feeling of being lost triggers all of our fight or flight systems as we try to orient ourselves and find our way back home to safety.  In this way, the sensation of being lost or confused is as scary as actually being lost. And, seeing someone lose this skill is hard to process.  Of course, when we see a baby experience confusion, we have compassion, because we understand that it is our role to take care of the infant or child until they are capable of doing it themselves.  But, to see an adult we love and admire lose this ability after decades of being capable somehow seems a tragedy. 

But, this is the tragedy of life. This is why the Buddhists say life is suffering.  Our being human is the condition on which suffering rests.  And, that is also beautiful. That is the Buddha nature. 

Some people are torn from this life before we can see what is happening. Accidents, sudden heart failure or stroke do not give us the chance to witness and learn from the process of illness. Such a situation has other lessons to be learned. But, we cannot choose our fate nor the fate of those around us.  So, we respond with compassion. Compassion as we would for a baby. Compassion toward our loved ones, and toward ourselves.  Our systems for survival will kick in at every turn. That is their job and they will do what they do. We get to watch, wait, learn. This is our chance to notice our deep desire to survive and then to release that hold so we can be free of the chains of fear and accept what comes, as it comes.