I’m dying. Not today and not next week, but I don’t need both hands to count the number of months left to me. At the moment the pain is manageable and I can go about doing much of what I want to do (though I find myself wanting to do less and less). I’m writing to ask you how best to live my dying.
Rabbi Rami: I want to thank you for having the courage to share your question with me, and I want to apologize for my chutzpah in attempting an answer. I believe we live in five dimensions and we die in four. The five dimensions are body, heart, mind, soul, and spirit. Of these only spirit is birthless and deathless. The key to living your dying is to honor the four as you are surrendered to the fifth. Here’s how:
Body: Keep moving. For me, this means walking outside and attending to the beauty of nature—whether this is a forest, a mountain, a flowing stream, or a blade of grass peeking out of a concrete sidewalk. It also means practicing Qigong, the Chinese art of energy balancing. Find a teacher who can help you adapt the movements to your situation. My own teacher, Kathy Woods, practiced Qigong right up to the moment of her dying. Qigong’s capacity to awaken you to the infinite dimension of spirit “in which you live and move and have your being” (Acts 17:28) is astounding.
Heart: Keep loving. Two practices come to mind: Metta and Naikan. Metta (Sanskrit: loving-kindness) is the practice of sending blessings of liberation and joy to those you love and those you don’t. Pema Chödrön and Sharon Salzberg have both written powerfully on how to practice metta. Naikan (Japanese: inner-seeing) cultivates gratitude by acknowledging the gifts you receive daily. Gregg Krech is my go-to author on Naikan. Practicing metta and Naikan gifts you with forgiveness as well, and together kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness make your dying all the more loving.
Mind: Keep telling stories. I suggest the Jewish practice of zava’ah: writing an ethical will. Sift through your memories and record those experiences that taught you the values you cherish. This is not a résumé for the Nobel Prize committee nor a rough draft of your obituary, but a series of very short stories illustrating your core values and how you learned them, even (and perhaps especially) if you learned them the hard way. Collect the stories in a notebook or audio file and pass them on to your loved ones.
Soul: Keep connecting. Soul is the dimension of inter-being where you realize that each happening is a happening of the singular happening I call God (YHVH, from the Hebrew verb “to happen”). Reach out to friends and family. Ask them to sit with you, perhaps read to you, or sing with you. If talking makes sense, talk. If silence seems better, be silent. Hold their hands and allow yourself to realize, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh might put it, that you and they inter-are.
Spirit: Keep releasing. Not long ago I sat with my teacher Father Thomas Keating, and asked him how he was preparing to die. His dying, he told me, was an extension of his living: “Every time Thomas comes up” he said, cupping his hands and raising them from his lap to his chest and then letting gravity flop them back to his lap again, “I let Thomas go.” When you “let Thomas go” you discover you are so much more than “Thomas.” The truest you isn’t the “me” of body, heart, mind, and soul but the infinite, fluid, and nondual process of I’ing (Hebrew: Ehyeh, Exodus 3:14): happening in, with, as, and beyond all finite happenings. Dying is the surrendering of “me” to I’ing. Whenever you notice you are trapped in the fear and anxiety of self, cup your hands, raise them to your chest, and then release them.
As Father Thomas explained, there will come a moment when you will drop and not rise up. This is the end of “me” as you imagine “me” to be, and the full realization of the birthless and deathless I’ing that is us all. In Judaism this final releasing is called the Kiss of God—when the breath breathed into you at birth returns at death to the One who breathes it. My Hindu teachers say this is a moment of sat chit ananda: pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss. May your releasing be no less.
Reach out to friends and family. Ask them to sit with you, perhaps read to you, or sing with you.
Though I keep telling her otherwise, my 8-year-old daughter thinks that as her dad I should know everything. She keeps asking me, “What is God?” Nothing I say satisfies her. Any suggestions?
Eight-year-olds are in what Professor James Fowler called the mythic-literal stage of religious development, when God is understood as the guarantor of justice and fairness. If your daughter asked me this question, I would say that God is that force in nature that makes for fairness and justice. We tap this force through prayer, meditation, and chanting, and we embody it when we act justly and compassionately (Micah 6:8). If that doesn’t work, I’d tell her to go ask her mother: It’s time she learns who it is who really knows everything.
Why is it that despite every religion saying “love your neighbor as yourself,” religious people so often hate anyone who isn’t like themselves?
Because they live in restricted neighborhoods. People are xenophobic by nature: The fear of “the other” is built into us. Many religions feed on this, and divide people into warring camps of “us” and “them.” Tropes such as chosen and not chosen, saved and damned, believer and infidel, high caste and low create neighborhood divisions that allow us to love our neighbors while doing unto others whatever we damn well please. There are exceptions, but most religions, even liberal ones, cling to “us” and “them.” If religion is to move us forward into the 21st century rather than backward into the 12th, it will have to erase “us” and “them” in favor of “all of us together.” Don’t hold your breath. S&H
ONE FOR THE ROAD
My husband and I adopted my niece after my sister died. My sister was a fundamentalist Christian and asked us to raise her daughter in her faith. We’ve tried, but the fear-based values she is being taught violate everything we hold dear. How far do we have to go to honor my sister’s wishes? Are we obligated to teach her/our daughter things we know to be false, hateful, and wrong?
Share your responses at spiritualityhealth.com/one-for-the-road.
Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro will lead “Walking Without, Journeying Within”—a trip to the Holy Land with S&H in fall 2018.