Last weekend thoughts of death surprised me at the beginning of a workshop I was facilitating. I was explaining the opening-round process to the participants, part of which involves passing around a red bag (a magic red bag) full of cards. The cards each have words on them that convey something about what it means to live a full and rich life, words such as Authenticity, Empathy, Clarity, To Be Understood, and Trust, to name a few. As part of their check-in, participants are invited to pick a card and share the words on the card with the group or keep it to themselves. As I was explaining the process I reached in and pulled out a card. The words on the card I chose were Mourning Losses: Loved Ones and Dreams. I was surprised and a little shaken as I briefly considered the words on the card but chose to keep those feelings to myself, even though I’ve been enjoying coming more alive in my workshops by sharing more opening and vulnerably.
For several years now my practice of life has been informed by contemplating death, thanks in part to the recommendation to do so by people I respect. My contemplation of death is not some kind of morbid fascination or attempt to escape from life (at least I hope it isn’t); rather, it’s in service of coming more alive and of living a life I’ll celebrate and be at peace with now and when I die. Sometimes I will check with myself to see what I would do if I had a day or month or year or five or ten years to live. Other times thoughts of death come to me due to something I’m reading or listening to or during an intense activity like a sweat lodge ceremony (sometimes it’s less like contemplation and more like frightened imagining). Over the last year, my contemplation of death has intensified, probably because of a stronger commitment I’ve made to coming more alive and living a life I can celebrate.
I passed the red bag to the person beside me and the opening round began. Many people shared quite vulnerably and openly, which helped me to open up more once the opening round was complete. I shared that I was still feeling a little shaken by the card I had chosen and was thinking about my loved ones, particularly my grandmother who is getting close to the end of her life. There were three participants I had met briefly before and who I knew had some empathy experience, so I asked two of them to support me with some empathic reflection. One of them guessed that I needed some reassurance about my loved one’s well being and the other guessed that I wanted to stay focussed and present for the workshop. Both guesses helped me relax and get centered in myself again.
If I zoom back in on the moment when I was reading the words on the card I had pulled, I remember being afraid of losing a loved one without having the chance to say goodbye. It’s a little hard to know exactly what the fear was about or put the it into words, but my sense is that I was afraid of not getting a last chance to say I love you in a way that leaves no traces of doubt.
Although contemplating death has been an important part of my practice of life, it hasn’t always been easy (like when I’m in front of a new group of workshop participants about to facilitate a full-day workshop). At times I have felt quite terrified, on the brink of panic, like I used to feel sometimes when I thought about death as a boy and teenager. Somewhere in my teen years, during an intense episode of fear, I decided to breathe as deeply as I could into the fear, and it dissolved. After doing that a couple of times, the terror stopped coming, until about a year ago.
Over the last year I have a handful of similar episodes of intense fear about death. Again I have breathed as deeply as possible into the fear. A couple of times I attempted to send love to the fear while expanding my lungs. Fortunately I had the trust to explore the fear while getting empathy from one of my empathy buddies. The fear seems more intense and tenacious now than it did when I was young, but my younger self might disagree with that. It has been a few months since my last episode of intense fear or terror, so perhaps it has passed again.
Robert Frost said that the best way out is always through and I won’t argue with him. I will however attest to the fact that it can be very hard to remember to go through or even remember that there is such a thing as through when on the brink or in the midst of intense fear. It can also be damn hard to remember and trust that it’s ok to reach out for help when fear hits the fan. So I practice going into and through my fear and my thoughts, sensations, feelings, needs, whatever is before and within me. And I practice asking for help. I practice with baby steps as often as I can so that I’m more prepared for when the giant leaps come.
“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.”