Learning How to Live by Learning How to Die, Part I

Mary Ann Barton, September 2012Today I’d like to talk with you about a thought I’ve had at several moments in the last few months, which is that I’m learning how to live by learning how to die.

I don’t mean this in a literal sense. I haven’t been diagnosed with a life-limiting condition, other than the one we all share, which is that of having been born human.

In a figurative sense, however, I’ve been doing two things that place me in a position to imagine letting go of myself at the very end of my life, a letting-go that is filled, somehow, with calm and equanimity, with a feeling of being complete.

Now, it’s true that I feel a certain level of superstitious anxiety about saying this to you, as if my acknowledging these thoughts might trigger a particularly horrible event, such as getting hit by a truck or summoned for a biopsy that turns out to be end-stage cancer. However, I’m going to assume that simply talking about dying won’t actually hasten my demise.

The two activities that have prompted these musings on peaceful dying are: (a) singing in a pastoral choir and (b) practicing mindfulness meditation.

Singing in a Pastoral Choir

Twice a month, I sing with the By Your Side Singers, a circle of women and men at my church who gather to sing soft hymns, chants, and songs that evoke feelings of comfort, connection, and healing. From time to time, three or four of us go to sing for a parishioner at home or in the hospital. Sometimes we’re there to share a moment with a person who is healing after surgery; at other times, we’re there with a person who is dying.

At the twice-monthly sessions, we set up a blue mesh lounge chair in the middle of the circle so that one of us can lie back and be sung to by everyone else. When I’m in the recliner, listening to the voices shift from unison to improvised harmony and back to unison again, I let myself float, as if these are my last and most beautiful moments, as if I’m replete with belonging and gratitude.

Mindfulness Meditation

Last week I began using a 45-minute “body scan” meditation on a CD by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at UMass Medical Center. I first heard this guided visualization on cassette tape perhaps 20 years ago, when I took a mindfulness course in Concord, NH. Hearing the instructor’s voice again, and thinking about it after the recording ended, I was struck by how much deeper the meditation felt to me now, compared with my memory of doing it back then.

“Deeper” isn’t the right word, really, since that makes the process seem much simpler than it actually felt. But there’s something about the way I listened to the sound of the instructor’s voice, and something about the way I directed my attention to each part of my body, that was different — in a liberating way, as though I’m much more prepared to breathe into and then let go of each body part. My toes, the sole of my foot, the top of my foot, my ankle, my calf. Breathing in. Noticing the feelings. Letting go. Feeling satisfied with just attending to my life in that moment. So satisfied that I would be willing, if this were indeed the end of my life, to say yes to death. It would be sad for my loved ones, and of course frightening and sad for me, but it would also be fulfilling and oddly comforting to me. I would have done what I came here to do, as Mary Oliver says in her poem:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
~ Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”

Thanks for listening,

Mary Ann

Photo by Wendy Wolfberg