Death and Equanimity

This is Mom and Dad’s black and white wedding photo that was touched up by a professional painter, as was common at that time.

Since our growth and success is only achieved through facing challenges, it is not helpful for any person to treat common human experiences as though they are ‘problems’ just because they are not pleasant. Those experiences are valuable learning opportunities when it comes to creating a good life.

The way we ‘make friends’ with those challenges is by learning how to flow with reality, without resistance through thought. Then, even in the most dramatic situations can be very worthwhile as experiences.

A good example of this happened recently during a phone session with a client. My parent’s wonderful respite worker uncharacteristically urged me upstairs. My client kindly waited on the phone and listened-in while the caregiver told me that she thought my Dad might be dead. Keep in mind: I’m here caring for him for all of these years because I love and value him a great deal.

Despite how I feel about my Dad, reality is bigger than just me and him. So my immediate reaction in the moment I was in, regarded the caregiver in front of me—I was concerned for her as a person. She’d lost another long term patient/friend just a week before and that had been hard on her.

Being the sort of person who will often try to reduce tension with humour, I said to her, “Boy, this isn’t gonna look good on your weekly report, huh?” I winked. She half-ducked, and gave something like a guilty sad-smile. She was grateful for the compassion, but still sorry.

The client on the phone kindly offered to go, but I told her it was okay; that we weren’t sure what we were dealing with yet—because that was true at that moment, and the present moment is the only ‘place’ in space-time that reality ever really happens.

As I went over to Dad, I gave some of my presence over to noting: ‘Well, at least if he is dead, he was in his favourite chair, in the sunshine, reading the paper,’ (which was one of his favourite things.)

It’s very important to note that I did not ‘do’ that act of appreciation using ‘words’ in my mind. Those were things I was appreciating without the interference of words. I knew what the chair meant, and the sunshine, and the paper. I didn’t need words or a linear narrative to be able to grasp the good feelings that grew out realizing that the setting was ‘fitting.’

When I touched him he did not move at all. My immediate, (wordless), thought was a fast-sinking dark one: something along the lines of: ‘OH!—maybe this is….’ I touched him more firmly.

There was no movement in his chest or shoulders. I tried even more firmly. Nothing. I felt my brain forming the idea: ‘Oh wow… he’s really—’ and then BAM! His eyes suddenly opened and he scared the crap out of all of us. Then we all had a laugh.

Immediately after that, I got back to my client, (who noted the whole thing was a bit surreal on her end); Dad went back to eating; and the caregiver got back to her card game with Mom. It was all quite intense while it was happening. But once it was over, at their ages and our experience levels, things like that are somewhat ‘normal’ to us, (meaning, we’ve all had time to learn to ‘allow it’ to happen without any resistant thinking).

As a victim of frequent micro-strokes, Mom and Dad and I have had dozens of instances over the years where Dad has crumpled and it looked like it was his time—and then he recovered. When it first happened, it was much like the first time I drove my brother’s race car. The first time it all seems so fast that our brains can’t really process all of it.

The first time we face an intense bit of reality, our minds are just trying to prioritize what parts of reality to pay attention to. But once our minds get used to an idea, everything slows down. Then, instead of reactions, we can be present—even at a moment like that. This is why Olympians, surgeons, and dancers all visualize and practice a lot. Whenever it’s practical, they want to convert thinking to knowing; and resistance to presence.

As an example of how that changes things, consider this: several months ago Dad started to crumple, so I laid him back in the hallway gently, and I asked if there was anything I could do? He was silent and staring. I shook him a bit and told him I loved him and that I would do whatever he needed. But he was still just staring.

Then, figuring this might be ‘it,’ I started to tell him what a great Dad he’d been, and how he was loved by so many people, that he’d done just an excellent job of being a really great human being and Dad, and that his parents would be proud of the life he lived. And this all sounds very touching, doesn’t it? But you have to remember that he’s almost totally deaf, so I’m forced to holler all of this into his ear super loud, at close range, so in the end it probably looks like something from a comedy. And that’s okay.

Even I found it blackly comic to be saying those things in that tone, but what can you do? That was what reality gave us to work with in that moment. And as it was, it was like the previous case I mentioned. Eventually he just blinked, looked at me confused, sat up, and we continued on our way. For his age, in his condition, this is kind of ‘normal.’ Yet think about how often he gets to hear this wonderful message about himself.

I’m here caring for them for this long, and enduring the very difficult trials of age and dementia because I love my parents. Losing them will likely be the most painful experience of my life. But if I let my fear of that—my resistance to the reality of that—take over my mind via my thinking, then I cannot be present for their life, now, as it is happening.

Every experience is not just our ego’s experience. We cannot only look at how some event impacts us. To be fully present we must also be attentive to others’ experiences as well. If I am in that hallway being ego-me, wishing ‘my’ beloved Dad wasn’t dying, then my consciousness is not available to present with him when he goes. I must allow the experience by being present for all of it, rather than resisting it with words and ideas, like my personal hopes or wishes for me not to lose my Dad. I must allow reality to be.

This is what it is to ‘flow.’ This is why it is so important to remember that our suffering does not come from so-called negative emotions. Suffering comes from resisting reality. If I accept that I will eventually lose them, once I do, I will want nothing more than to cry and miss them. So I will do that for as long as it feels good.

Eventually, when grieving feels like something we want to stop, rather than do, then it no longer serves our lives. When that shift happens in me, I will dispel those negative emotions because they will only exist because I am resisting reality with my thoughts. And that is done by ignoring the living of life in present reality, so that the time can instead be used to create ‘wanting’ narratives about alternate, illusory realities in which my parents would still be alive.

The reason I won’t do that is because those narratives will then accidentally trigger my natural biochemistry, which was designed for life-and-death reality, as previously described. If I do that chronically—as those who ‘over-grieve’ do—I can do a lot of damage to my physical body with that stress, and I spend my life being psychologically tortured and unavailable to others, all when none of that would change the reality that my parents would be dead.

As Shakespeare said, “Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so.” The death of my parents will not be good or bad. It will be natural, painful, and then I will move on to better feelings. But that shift is only made possible by the flowing—the letting go—of any thought-based resistance to reality I might attempt through my thinking.

To help you also benefit from living with this sort of flow, next we will talk about how, by learning to see reality in this way, we can begin to recognize that there are many cases in which our so-called ‘positive emotions’ are in fact very damaging to our lives, and how supposedly ‘negative emotions’ are some of our most valuable bits of wisdom.

peace. s