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…

Waiting: it’s a hobby


The seminar would be late starting, because of a technological hitch.  The famous choreographer said, “I’m good at waiting. It’s my hobby.”

This startling statement has stayed with me longer than any of his brilliant insights into dance. I decided to adopt this hobby myself. Since then every slow queue, every delayed airline, every lonesome minute in a cafe or a dentist’s lobby is an event in itself for me. I’ve got to wait anyway: why fret about something I cannot change? Waiting is not a void: it’s an event.

A friend said, “What I don’t like about waiting is the fact that nothing is happening.” But something is happening: you are waiting.

A glimpse of angry waiting

I went to Warehouse Stationery for a small urgent printing job. One machine was out of action and a staff member away sick, so there was going to be a delay. OK, can’t change that. In bustled an upset person with angry hair.

P. from K. “I’m a proofreader and I’ve just come in from Karori” (a 15 minute bus ride) “and my job will only take two minutes so can you do it straight away?”
Staff. “I’m sorry / delay / 15 minutes / machine / away / queue.”
P. from K. Repeats her speech.
Staff “Many people are waiting, that lady” (me) has been waiting a long time.” (Actually only 5 minutes so far.)
P. from K. (To me) “I’m a proofreader from Karori, etc, will you let them do my job first?”
Me. “No, that will throw everybody out.”

P. from K. then rushed off town to find another printer willing to do her job instantly. Which would have certainly taken longer than 15 minutes.

Waiting under a tree

I understood her position. I felt sorry for her. And life had handed me the gift of ten minutes to ponder on the mysteries of waiting. I sat on a bench and watched clouds racing each other across the sky. Was I witnessing celestial road rage?

  • Does angry waiting sprout from that deadly seed, a sense of entitlement? This is always puzzling to an outsider: why should a proofreader from Karori take precedence over a writer from Mt Victoria? A Hummer over a VW Golf? Storm cloud over fluffy white cloud?
  • Does angry waiting hurry things up or slow them down?

Some waits are harder than others. Waiting for test results. Waiting for news of a life-and-death nature. Waiting for news that will determine your future. You feel frightened, powerless and frustrated.

But when these life-or-death waits occur I try to at least remember that waiting can be a positive thing. To perceive waiting not as a vacuum but a state that I experience for better or for worse. To wait mindfully. Perhaps to fill my mental waiting room with small good things and thoughts and helps and hopes. I can’t change the outcome, but at least I can avoid contaminating others with the toxin of my angry waiting.

Let me remember the tree and let the clouds do what they will.

Forgot why you went downstairs? Try audible mindfulness: talking to yourself


Talking to yourself has had a bad rap. I do it, you do it (don’t you?), pretty well everyone does it. We’re not crazy! Self-talk has many useful functions and many benefits. For example, your out-loud private talk can provide company, a pep talk, a safety valve, devil’s advocate, or coaching from your infallible cognitive behaviour therapist. Often we help ourselves to learn something by talking it through.

Keeping your purpose front of mind: a lost skill

Are you inclined to forget why you went into a room or through a door or up or down the stairs? Join the club. Our heads are so full of Very Important Thoughts (the Middle East crisis, global warming, hip operation, granddaughter’s birthday) that we lose track of a thought as mundane as why we walked from A to B.

Here’s a tip that I’ve just started using consciously with awesome results: I just say out loud why I’m moving from A to B.

  • “I am going downstairs to make a rum baba” (in your dreams)
  • “I am going into the study to book my ticket to Timbucktoo”
  • “I am going into the garden to pick parsley” (not to rip out weeds or bring in the washing).

Mindfulness the manageable way: self chatter

Mindfulness day by day, living in the moment, so desirable, so difficult to achieve! And what is this loop of personal jabber but mindfulness in action?

If I can make stair-talk a habit, that gives me 20 or 30 moments of mindfulness a day. Without such a habit, mindful moments are random, and sometimes a whole day goes by without a pocket of mental peace and refreshment.

I am listening to birds

This afternoon I had a very beautiful experience by using this simple expedient.

I was taking my vege scraps to the community garden — no detours allowed.

On the walk, there’s a patch of trees favoured by the Olympic champion bird choirs of Mount Victoria. Today I got massive delight from their performance just because, at the top of the hill I said to myself, “I am listening to the birds.”

Focus. Focus (mindfulness) brings pleasures beyond just accomplishing the task in hand.

Today has been a perfect day, and it’s not over yet.



Attachment or love: where is the borderline?


Buddhists believe that we should aim for a state of non-attachment, and that anyway, everything we attach ourselves to is temporary, so it’s kind of pointless to get attached. Well, that’s a gross over-simplication of a profound philosophy, but it’ll do as a definition for now.

I do recognise that it may often be a Bad Thing to become over-attached to people or things or ideas.

Attaching ourselves to objects

If we are over-attached to objects, that may imply that we have invested too much pride in material possessions. We are greedy pigs.

Or maybe we have endowed a certain object with the power to represent a certain memory, or belief, or perhaps our self-image. We may be in love with an object for its beauty or nostalgia or usefulness or symbolism or rarity.

I imagine that attachment to objects is the crudest form of attachment.

But is it a Bad Thing to be intensely aware of the merits of an object, for example, an apple or the planet Earth? Isn’t that better than taking them for granted?

Attaching ourselves to ideas

If we are over-attached to an idea, that may mean we are closed to other ideas. We cling to our own perception or theory. We become boring, banging on about the same-old same-old year after year. We don’t listen to other ideas. We cannot collaborate. We become snarky, prickly conversation-stoppers, defending our idea against all comers. We may join a cult of fellow-worshippers. Other people won’t let us join their book group.

And yet how thrilling it can be to fall in love with an idea! Then we want to explore it to the limit, to test it to destruction, to talk about it all the time. One day we may find pot-holes in our beloved theory — and that’s fine. We can still can keep the idea as a valuable tool or even an inspiration, loving it for itself, on its merits.

Attaching ourselves to people

And if we are over-attached to people? OK, the Buddhist warnings may simply imply that romantic love is fleeting, or that co-dependence is a sickness.

But setting aside hormone-driven romance and pathological states of infatuation or neediness, I am unwilling to let go my attachment to my personal band of family and friends.

I do my best to hold their hands lightly so that they can slip away at any time. Eventually, on my deathbed or theirs, I will let my dear ones go. But please, Mr Buddha, allow us to love one other consciously and carefully until that moment.

Let go, let go! No no no no!

I consider myself pretty good at letting things go. Books flow in and out of my house like a river. Every time I buy something, I try to give something equivalent away. Messiness is fine but clutter offends me and gets dealt with pretty smartly.

But I had better let go of my self-image as a clutter-clearer. Because last week I thought I had lost my little blue change purse, and this was unexpectedly disturbing. When I lost it, I almost lost it. I was ready to slap LOST notices on every lamp-post and send out a press release and undertake grief counselling.

Luckily the purse turned up a few days later: it was just hiding.

Seems I am irrationally attached to that change purse. Hm, why, I wonder?

  1. Usefulness. It is perfectly designed for its purpose. Though tiny, it has three compartments: one for notes, one for cards and one for change. It fits into my smallest pocket.
  2. Beauty. It is beautiful object of the softest bluest leather.
  3. Nostalgia. It is a memento of a happy family event in Morocco.
  4. Rarity. It is impossible to replace without going back to Morocco.
  5. Symbolism. It is simple and cheap and unappreciated by other people. I honour the designer and the maker.
  6. Oops. I just noticed a more significant symbolism: the purse holds my money. How humiliating. How deeply unspiritual.

These are all reasons for enjoying the purse, but surely not for attachment.

OK, not perfect. But we knew that.

NOTE ABOUT THIS POST: “Attachment…” was posted elsewhere on 15 July 2015. Friends had trouble leaving comments on that site, but Lesley Maclean said:

Maybe it’s ok to be attached to things and people. Or rather it is neither ok nor not ok. There’s no wagging finger around to tell us either way. But, when we lose these things, we suffer because of that attachment. And if we would like to lessen our suffering it may pay to enquire into this attachment a bit as you have so admirably done with with purse, bulging with coins.

But when I lose someone or something dear to me and I cry, I think that’s a good thing. The Buddha cried, and we can too…

To which I replied:

I like your delicate approach to this thorny topic. My approach is more like a bulldozer, sometimes.