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dying 101: where to start the investigation?

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We could begin right here, with our own stories around death. Close to home, for instance: our childhood experiences, illness narratives, who died and when, funerals, memorial services, family secrets. Or in the world at large: events nearby, such as accidents, disasters, suicides, or far afield: war at home or abroad, natural disasters, mass murders, rampages, starvation.

At least that`s how I began this post. But before looking at death, our own or as a phenomenon per se, we`d best  agree that it’s a mystery. Awkward to talk about in polite company and impossible to fathom in private. The ego is incapable of imagining its own demise. Rodney Smith, in Lesson from the dying, suggests an earlier starting point to our investigation:

“When we examine something as familiar as a leaf and study it closely, we find that we actually understand very little about it. We may know what tree it fell from, its form, shape, and color, nothing about what it is. … Just because we can give an object a name does not mean we understand it. … if we do not get lost in the name and description, however, everything — from the smallest leaf to the remotest star — opens up into question.

I invite you, right now, t reflect on what you actually know about the world around you. As Woddy Allen once said: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” Stop everything right now and look at your dominant hand. See it not as `my hand` or `my skin`but as  a surface and texture, as colour and contours. Let go of `hand and `mine.`Note opinions as they arise, then let them go. What do you see? Open your child`s eyes and see, as if for the time. What IS this that you`re looking at? The more you investigate, the more you`ll discover. Notice old conceptions (my hand is fleshy) and judgements, however joking (I`ll never play piano with those stubby fingers).

Now do the same with another object nearby: a flower, a teabag, and piece of clothing. Not its texture, shape, common and potential functions. What do you see, in your hand and this object, that surprises you? Note your I-know-this wanting to rush or sabotage these moments of examination and reflection. What restrictions or limitations are you becoming aware of — what keeps you from really seeing?

Once you`ve investigated your hand and the object for a while, what has changed in your perceptions? Can you let go of that as well, to not let the new view to settle in and define (and restrict) what is before you? Can you see how old views (those held over a life time and those just acqired) might restrict what you see before you?

Smith suggests another task to bring attention and focus to what is. As soon as you can out asie ten minutes, sit somehwre at ease but upright. Tirn off all distractions: bright lights, sounds (music, telephone, computer, humming refridgerator) . Remove or lmit all distractions and possible interruptions. Sit and listen. Whatever you hear, let its sound enter your awareness. Note your minds instant activity to indentify and name it. Note and let go. Return awareness to mere sound, Not as it comes into awareness and how it fades away. If it persists, are there variations? Even a dog`s peristent bark has a melody; even traffic noise has ebb and flow. Listen. Hear sounds and hear silence.

You may want to jot down your impressions and insights on a new sheet of paper or your journal. Let it be the starting point of your journey towards conscious living and oconscious dying.

source: Smith, R. (1998). Lessons from the dying. Boston: Wisdom Publications, p. 16-17.

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