A fun day meditating on death

Monk Nhat Hahn Dekar meditating on death.
Monk Nhat Hahn Dekar meditating on death

bootcamp2015-small 2(Reposted from 2015) In which I eagerly and fearfully spend a whole day meditating on death. On purpose. For fun.

 

At last the event I had wanted and feared: a full day dedicated to contemplating my own mortality. It turned out to be quite jolly.

To be precise, I was booked in for a day’s retreat on Life, Death and Transformation, under the guidance of a remarkable of pair of leaders. Hilary Lovelace has decades of experience in nursing the dying, and Stephen Archer as a trained Buddhist monk has been on close terms with his own death for years. I was very impressed: they were wise, clever, honest, funny and kind. And non-religious: I prefer that.

Here’s the blurb:

The purpose of this workshop to explore how freeing up our relationship with death can become a transformative force for healing and well being.

What did I hope to achieve?

Let me see. Perhaps to look my own death straight in the eye without flinching. Perhaps to own the knowledge, deep down, that yes, my death is inevitable.

And why in the name of goodness would anyone desire such a thing, you ask?

Not sure. I just see it as accepting reality, not just intellectually but emotionally, which in this case is extremely difficult to do. I need help!

Anyway, it’s the flip side of accepting that I may live another 25 years. Without this bucket of cold water, a healthy energetic oldie like myself could slide into magical thinking. I might believe I am sure to live all those bonus years, instead of just quite likely. I might believe that blueberries will banish the grim reaper.

Most people keep awareness of their mortality safely at bay until they drop in their tracks.  It’s too scary. That’s OK, I’m not criticising. What would I know, anyway? Do whatever makes you happy.

But for me, a “good” old age (which is not a bad old age) needs a supplement: awareness that it will end some day, nothing surer. Have I got that awareness yet? No way.

Writing puts it in perspective

If I just went to the workshop without writing about it… it might fade away rapidly. By writing about it, I figure out what I’ve learned. I’ve been writing into life…

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Death through the eyes of a child

The God of Mud: a cartoon
The God of Mud

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(Reposted from 2015) In which I try to come to terms with Death by comparing Ruby’s God of Mud with Death as described by Steve Jobs.

When Ruby (not her real name) was very young, she used to share her insights into life, the universe and everything. I wrote down 79 of these as found poems. Hang on to your hat — here comes one of Ruby’s revelations.

Ruby’s God of Mud is not unlike death as explained by Steve Jobs:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

The God of Mud

We don’t want anybody dying
(says Ruby)
because the people get sad
and make a noise —
“Oh, oh, oh, we want granddad!”

The god of mud kills people
when they need to be killed.
She eats them
then spits them out.

And if she didn’t kill people
she’d be sad because
she’d have nothing to do.
So that’s why she kills people.

I’ll draw her for you.
The god is a giant,
curly hair, ears, earrings.
She’s a stick person and an island.

She’s got a person in her mouth
(not happy) and she spits her out.
The person looks like a normal person
but her vagiva is gone

and her eyeballs fall out
into the god’s mouth.
She goes chew, chew, chew.
She is a horrible, horrible, horrible god.


Image is my attempt to replicate Ruby’s much better drawing. Poem by Ruby (not her real name) McAlpine. Both cc by-4.0

My year of being old

Photo of eclipse of the sun
Is old age a kind of eclipse? Can I bear that analogy?

bootcamp2015-small 2(Republished from 2016)  In which I look ahead to the final task in my year of being old: coming to terms with death and dying. Yeeouch.

 

So, I’m putting myself through a DIY boot camp for the bonus years, achieving one goal every month. I’m booting myself into action, establishing habits that are likely to preserve me—and my brain and my family and the national budget—in the best possible state while I live.

The final task is what it’s all about: I must come to terms with old age and dying. Whew, big ask, huh?

In one sense, the whole year is dedicated to precisely that unprecise and probably impossible goal. However, I’ll be forced to focus strongly on death for an entire day shortly, when I attend this workshop:

Life, Death and Transformation

One of my sisters told me about a Tibetan meditation on death, when for almost an hour she visualised herself dying in a remote place like a desert, and then vividly experiencing the gradual decay of her body. This sort of guided meditation, I expect, will be part of the workshop I attend.

My sister said that ever since that day she has never worried about whether she looks old or young. She still looks marvellous, but it seems she just let go of that understandable desire to look younger. I too would like to become less attached to my anachronistic self-image as a younger woman.

Why am I booting myself into such a morbid experience?

Well, it’s clear that most of us have highly successful mechanisms for denying, downgrading, dumping and downright rejecting death. We’re not going to die, oh no! And we’re not ever going to be old like that pathetic person over there who can barely walk or see, oh no!

Possibly the human capacity to blank out the end of life is a healthy thing. I don’t know. But that capacity is sustained by self-deception and bizarre thought patterns, which (to me) are not so pretty.

I would like to try another possibility: knowing deep in my bones that I will die one day, maybe tonight, maybe in 25 years, maybe sometime in between. I would like to be able to accept that fact, to understand what death involves, to feel the honest grief and loss, and somehow to be OK about the entire incomprehensible terrible wonderful bundle of life and death.

That’s what I’m expecting from a workshop on Life, Death and Transformation.

It’s hard work letting go

Of course this day will be hard work in every sense. Such understanding cannot be delivered on a plate. If it was easy, we would all think like Buddhist nuns and monks, I suppose. Or at least we would think rationally about our own life cycle instead of subconsciously regarding ourselves as exempt from the processes of dying and death.

With any learning, the more effort you make, the greater the rewards. And this is a different kind of knowledge.

Must I write any more about my year of being old?

I’m a writer, doh! But I hope that after this year, I’ll stop brooding on the topic and revert to being myself — not defined by age, exempt from internal ageism. Whether I write anything more, ever, about my boot camp feels more and more improbable. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been very, very real to me.

This was all about death. But I feel that I have again been writing into life.


 

Mindful moments: stand, drink water

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(First published in 2015) In which a poem and song about the Christchurch earthquakes help me to take a mindful moment when I drink a glass of water.

One of my boot camp tasks is to increase the number of genuinely mindful moments—when I’m fully aware of what I am doing and feeling and thinking and sensing at at the time. Sitting and meditating is easy by comparison. Both are a pleasure—but it’s difficult to snatch that quick flash of mindfulness in a busy day.

Paradoxically, mindfulness comes easier when it’s a habit. My son Geoff, for example, aims to be mindful in two situations: every time he walks through a door and every time he takes someone’s blood pressure. One is a moment of transition, the other a moment of stillness.

At Capital Choir we are singing a powerful new song — music by Felicia Edgecombe, words by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. Here’s the poem.

After the tremor

after the tremor the neighbour
after the terror the stranger
after the stranger the doctor
after the doctor the soldier

after the soldier the looter
after the looter the vulture
after the horror the ruins
after the ruins the kindness

after the kindness the sirens
after the sirens the silence
after the silence the weeping
after the weeping the comfort

after the toppling the creaking
after the shaking the shaking
after the shaking the questions
after the rage and courage

after profound desolation
after the nurse and the undertaker

we stand and we drink from a glass of water

— (c) Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

See that last line? The people of Christchurch know what a privilege this is. The poem forces us through a relentless sequence of events and feelings experienced by Christchurch people during the last few years. The horror began with a massive earthquake that shattered the city, but that was only the start of hell time.

We stand and we drink from a glass of water.

Stability. Water. We take them for granted, most of the time. For older people, stability and water are even more precious. Sometimes when I stand and drink from a glass of water, I try to think of nothing else. I look at the water—what an amazing modern blessing, clean clear water running out of a tap! And the glass—perfect, it works! I’m standing firm and straight and steady. The ground is firm. God I’m lucky!

These are mindful moments, refreshing, stabilising. A flash of awareness incites gratitude. And how much time do they take? None, because we have to drink water anyway—especially when we are older.

After the tremor: the song

Image from The Art of the Dresden Gallery (1907) by Julia de Wolf Gibbs

Photos of Christchurch before and after the February 2011 earthquake

 

Game plan for the coming decades

accept the unfathomable
and face the inevitable

Rachel McAlpine


Image from “Prodigiorvm ac ostentorvm chronicon […]” (1557)  Lykosthenes, Konrad; Kandel, David, and Manuel, Hans Rudolf

How dancing has improved the function of an aging brain

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Antique dancers’ brains benefit from dancing antique Greek dances

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(Written in 2015.) In which I perform a scientific analysis of the effect of dancing on an aging brain: three out of four cognitive skills have shown a marked improvement.

 

I belong to the Crows Feet Dance Collective. We rehearse once a week for 90 minutes and every year we perform a brand new contemporary dance show. “New”: that means every rehearsal is a learning session.

Any sort of dancing must surely be good for you physically, improving balance, flexibility, strength, and the cardio-vascular system. And let’s take it for granted that dancing is usually a social activity, which is also important for older people.

But how about the brain? Does dancing really make you smarter, as some research seems to suggest?*

I began dancing 9 years ago, aged 66, and I’ve been reflecting on certain cognitive changes that I can attribute largely to dancing. So consider me a walking, talking, fully subjective before-and-after case study.

Three cognitive skills have become much sharper: orientation, proprioception and kinaesthetic learning. I know: I was there. For my first four or five years I blundered around the floor in utter confusion. But eventually the truth emerged: yes, even at an advanced age, even with an incompetent driver, my brain was capable of benefiting.

Alas, I still give myself a Fail for focus, on which everything else depends. I understand that concentration does tend to get more difficult with age. But the other three areas of my dancing brain have improved so much that I will not give up.

Orientation: much improved

In the everyday world, I’m pretty good at knowing north/south/east and west. Provided you remain in the same hemisphere, sensing the compass points is not too difficult (hint: look for the sun).

But in a dance studio, orientation is not so simple. You’re whizzing around rapidly, occupying different areas, changing directions, spinning, turning left, right and upside down, told to face upstage or downstage or left or right or this corner or that corner, and you’re surrounded by other rapidly moving dancers. For the first few years, yes, years, I was constantly confused about orientation.

My sense of helpless confusion has passed. If at times I do get confused about orientation, I get it sorted pretty quickly.

Proprioception: a new era of awareness

It’s hard enough to pronounce this word, let alone actually do it. Proprioception is the sense of where each part of your own body is in space. Precisely where are your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your back, your head at this moment? At what angle is each leg, each arm?

Maybe I needed this skill more than most. I used to live in my head. I functioned OK, but in fact I had hardly any awareness of my body at all. I was aware of my busy little brain going 90 miles an hour, but as for my body, it was a kind of blur that came along for the ride. It was attached to me, but what it was doing—who knew?

Without good proprioception, you would never learn any choreography—your body would always be doing its own thing. You have to know how a certain position feels in your body: you can’t keep checking up, glancing at your limbs while you dance.

Happily, my propriocentric awareness has rocketed.

Kinaesthetic learning: damn fine

I learn so much faster now than before. Only a few years ago I would spend the whole rehearsal blundering from one move to another, copying the other dancers, thinking step by step in a dislocated juddering sequence of events.  Bend this bit, now flick that bit, right foot first, triplet, stop, run, stretch right… And I would use every memory aid I could concoct. Drawings. Diagrams. Videos. Narratives. Lists.

In those early years, learning choreography was horribly slow and horribly painful. Even when I could remember the moves, I was never really dancing. Still, by the time we performed I could stumble through my stuff more or less in the right place most of the time.

To be fair, learning new dances is pretty demanding on the brain. You’re watching and listening, and integrating oral instructions with your body, the music, other dancers and the geography of the dance floor. It’s not easy, which is why I like it.

Let me be blunt. I will never learn at a fraction of a young person’s pace. We all notice that. But when I compare my 75-year-old self with my 66-year-old self, the difference startles me. My muscle memory is stronger, and sometimes I even get that magical sense of flow.

Focus: must try harder

The one cognitive skill that I’m not happy with is my ability to focus.

It’s embarrassing to realise that I often look as if I don’t know the dance—but I do know the dance! I’ve just lost my focus temporarily.

In rehearsal, loss of focus is a nuisance and slows learning down. On stage, loss of focus can be a disaster.

Admittedly, it’s more difficult dancing in performance. The space is completely different, the lights are bright, you have to dodge obstacles, the auditorium is pitch black, and tension is high.

One night during our last season, I performed a brief involuntary solo. Inside, I was mortified, but I bluffed my way back to the gang. The stage was very busy at that point with at least 20 dancers in action, so I pretend that nobody noticed.

Next step: mindful dancing

Thus I give myself a 75% pass, which leaves room for cognitive improvement in the last 25% of my life. That’s great, because my motto is: Don’t peak too soon.

This is my boot camp goal: to focus on the dance consistently. In other words, to be mindful while dancing. To notice when my mind wanders and bring it back to the task at hand… and not to be too hard on myself.

The joy of dancing is immense. I want to carry on learning and growing and stretching myself body and mind and soul until I drop. And I don’t want to disappoint myself or my fellow dancers, who are all dear to me. For all these reasons, I will do my uttermost to focus on focus.


 


Use it or lose it: dancing makes you smarter, longer

Robert Powers of Stanford Dance summarises relevant research and its implications for us.

Image from The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures (1916) Emmanuel, Maurice. In the public domain.

Just when do you want to die?

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Exactly when would you prefer to die? Soon, before you are too old? Most of us don’t have a choice. I wrote this poem for Sally Bond, who died at 95 in a rest home on Christmas Day, 2014. But perhaps it will fit someone else you know, including you and me, one day. I like to think that the poem is so pragmatic that it helps me to live my life, that with this poem I’m writing into life.

When?

Most of us are afraid
of a slow fade,
a late grave.

Most of us equate old age
with panic and despair
and things we could not bear.

We say, Not us! No way!
We want to be hit by a bus.
… But when?

Most of us blaze through middle age.
Much later, we mellow.
Less yellow. More grey.

And later still, we fade.
Then death is subtle
and dying is wise.

I asked my sister, When
will I be ready to die?
She answered, When you die.


poem & photo by Rachel McAlpine cc-by-4.0

This poem is in Senior Poems, a Kindle ebook to echo and soothe your thoughts and hopes and fears and joys as you face the bonus years.