Sunday, January 3, 2016

Who Are You When You Die?

When death comes to take our last breath from us, it doesn’t greet us by the title we earned at college or the rank we made our way up to in our business or work world. It doesn’t look at our socioeconomic status we arrived at, or the type of car we finally arrived home in. Death doesn’t look at what relationship titles we carried out, whose daughter/son, mother/ father, sister/brother, wife/husband we managed to be.  Death strips us down, taking it all away. 

I see this all too real as I watch my father in the nursing home that he has only been in for a few short months.  All that hard earned effort to make it in the world has been stripped down to his core essence.  Who are we when we die?

I recently had the honorable experience of participating in a seven day, teacher-led, mindfulness-based, silent retreat.  I knew when I signed up for the retreat, I wanted to have no expectations for what the week might bring. The week was a profound experience.  Silence for seven days. Silence meant no speaking to each other, no reading, no writing and no eye contact.  There were about 60 participants.  The retreat itself was quite structured as most of the day was structured around mindfulness based meditation – sitting and walking.  It was interspersed with yoga exercise, mindfulness based eating times, tea times, and about two hours a day for free time.  The structured days started at 7 a.m. and went to about 8:30 p.m. every night with meditative mindfulness-based moments.

We did have one small group time with our teacher in which we could speak and ask questions around our meditation practice.  Our group processed some questions about death – first talking about our parents and the difficulty in watching the process of Alzheimer’s or other diseases take memory away from our parents.  My teacher related how it felt when her own mother no longer realized she had a daughter.  As difficult as it is to watch our parents fail, she related, it is harder still to look at our own death. She wondered if we were able to prepare for our own death and if we knew who we would be when we die.  I pondered the question the entire week as we meditated. Who would I be when I die?  Who are we when we take away our titles? Our belongings? All the things we attach meaning to that have no meaning when you die?  Who would I be when I die? 

It was amazing to me that I could spend seven days with 60 people in silence, without eye contact and yet really get to know people.  I became aware of their energy, their kindnesses, my judgments, and how the little things others did made a big difference – which ultimately meant that the little things that I did – made a difference.  That made a huge impact on me as I realized there are no acts too small of giving.

The last night of our retreat we had food, celebration and conversation.  I seated myself randomly at a table with five others and although I really felt close to the people I was sitting with in knowing their essence, I did not know their names, their work, where they lived and what their lives were about.  I was surprised to find myself at a table with another mental health practitioner, a CPA, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a yoga master.  It was then I realized that I had spent the week with the part of people that really mattered – their essence –is this who we are when we die – our values and our essence?  This shows up in how we treat people and how we share and extend ourselves to others.  This definitely has impact in other people’s lives and how they see you and relate to you. This seems like it may be who we are when we die.

I am going to make 2016 a year about remembering who I want to be when I die.  Maybe you want to contemplate this question yourself.  Figuring this out seems like a question well worth the effort earlier in life rather than later.  We spend a lifetime striving for things that we think matter – it would be good to get that figured out before we get to the end.  May you have a thoughtful, meditative and mindful 2016.     

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