Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken
Do not squander your life.
~ Zen Night Chant

Thornton Wilder’s famous novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey imagines the lives of five people killed in the collapse of a bridge in Peru. In the novel, a missionary watches the falling bridge “fling five gesticulating ants into the valley below.” Curious, he sets out to trace the lives of the victims in an effort to understand the seemingly random nature of the tragedy.

Really, Wilder’s story is a parable of the struggle to find meaning in chance and in inexplicable tragedy – a struggle the victims’ relatives face after the disaster. Wilder explained that he himself was seeking the answer to a question: “Is there a direction and meaning in life, beyond the individual’s own will?”*

His story reminds us that death isn’t only for the dying – it is also for those who survive us. Indeed, dying is not an individual act. A dying person is often a performer in a communal drama. Like our last will and testament, a legacy that materially benefits our survivors, we also leave a legacy of how we experience our death. And the bulk of that legacy comes from how we transition through the ultimate rite of passage – how we are able to be with our own dying.

Often we take part in rites of passage without being aware of what we are doing, or without having the transition and its shifts in consciousness acknowledged by our culture. Long, sleepless hours, high pressure, and the presence of suffering, death, and the mysterious unknown are ingredients in such rites.

Death urges us to accept and appreciate our lives, to forgive ourselves and others, and to let go as the small self is dissolved into a larger stream of being.

Even though we may not call them rites of passage, such universal transitions in everyone’s life include the elements of separation, the threshold, and return. Often we are not fully present for these experiences, the tide’s deep ebb, because they may be painful or frightening. They include being ill and recovering our health, making love for the first time, giving birth to a child. And dying is possibly the ultimate example of such a transition.

Death urges us to accept and appreciate our lives, to forgive ourselves and others, and to let go as the small self is dissolved into a larger stream of being. From the perspective of Buddhism, this is the greatest opportunity for awakening and freedom—as Emerson said, the wounded oyster that mends itself with a pearl.

But what rituals do we have in our culture that denote and legitimize such transformative passages? Practically none. Our society does not view catastrophe as a passage. Instead, chaotic, frightening experiences are usually controlled and suppressed. They aren’t conditions with which our society is comfortable.

Yet even without support we instinctively seek the experience of separation, the threshold or being on the edge, and return. Clearly, dying and death in our culture are a rite of passage, whether we realize it or not. Some people experience a mental breakdown that induces maturity. Others, suffering, resolve to enter a strong spiritual practice. Some become physically ill and then evolve into wounded healers, turning outward to help others after having healed themselves. And of course, many people in their experience of dying “unconceal” their own natural wisdom. My father became even wiser as he was dying. Issan Dorsey became a true Zen man as he died. My friend Julie matured into a teacher as she lay dying. And Ann, the brilliant physician and research scientist, found faith beyond language as her brain was taken over by an aggressive death-dealing tumor.

Strange to say, but catastrophe is usually the circumstance that liberates strength, wisdom, and kindness from within the suffocating embrace of fear. Dying, we can be more alive.[quote text=”Strange to say, but catastrophe is usually the circumstance that liberates strength, wisdom, and kindness from within the suffocating embrace of fear. Dying, we can be more alive.”] Being present and giving care in the midst of a meltdown of mind or life can seed compassion. This is how we mature, and how transparency and intimacy are engendered. Our very physical and psychic vulnerability, if we allow it, shows us the path and the present. It can also nurture gratitude and humility. Catastrophe is the essence of the spiritual path, a series of breakdowns allowing us to discover the threads that weave all of life into a whole cloth. 

Years ago, when I visited Biosphere 2 in Arizona, I asked the scientist taking me around why there were wires tied to the trees and attached to the Biosphere’s frame high above us. He explained that since there was no wind in the Biosphere, the trees had nothing to resist. As a result, they had grown weak and needed to be held up. Like our body and bones, we need something against which to resist in order to make us stronger.

How, then, I have asked myself over the years, can we truly be with dying, this invisible road of initiation that will open for all of us? How can we let it tear us apart and, by so doing, strengthen us? For me, living with the three tenets of not-knowing, bearing witness, and compassionate action has been like having a key that opens many doors, doors that have led to the same place – the unknown, the inconceivable, the place of simply being present for the truth of what is happening. Over time the tenets have sunk like sweet water into the ground of my daily life, including my work with dying people. I have come to see the tenets as a boat that takes me across uncharted waters. I turn my mind and heart to them in order to remind me of what I hope to realize in my interactions with those who are dying.

Mindful contemplation deepens our capacity for concentration, openness, and insight, so that we gradually expand the horizons of our hearts until they are big enough to include everything…

These tenets help me remember with some humility how I can be more intimate with and transparent to whatever is unfolding in the present moment. They help me act more skillfully as I spend time with those who are suffering. They guide me toward inclusiveness, and toward the contemplative practices that are the heart and bone of being with dying. Mindful contemplation deepens our capacity for concentration, openness, and insight, so that we gradually expand the horizons of our hearts until they are big enough to include everything, including the reality of death and the fact that even when someone dies “well,” it may not be a pretty picture.

Giving care to a dying person and his or her family is an extraordinary practice that puts one in the midst of the unknowable, the unpredictable, the breakdown of life; it is often something that we have to push against.  Physical illness, weakness of mind and body, being in the crosshairs of the medical establishment, and losing all that the dying person has worked to accumulate and preserve can be the hard and pulling tide of dying. A caregiver can be there for all of that, plus the miracles and surprises of the human spirit. And she can learn and even be strengthened at every turn. This is a real path of discovery when we let go into it as we give care.  Whether family or professional, caregivers walk a path that is traceless, humbling, and often full of awe. And like it or not, most of us will find ourselves on it. We will accompany loved ones and others as they die.

If we are fortunate, we will be there for our own death as well. A dying person can meet the precious companions of truth, faith, and surrender.  He or she can be entered by grace and space like a river flowing into the ocean or clouds disappearing into the sky.

For practicing dying is also practicing living, if we can only realize it. The more truly we can see this, the better we can serve those who are actively dying and offer them our love without condition.

Thornton Wilder’s novel concludes:

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough.*

Love was also the message from Martin Toler, a man who died several years ago, along with many other miners, in the Sago coal mine accident in West Virginia. Slowly dying in the thickening air of the mine shaft, the oxygen wicked up with every breath, Toler used what precious little energy he had left in his life to write a note of reassurance to those closest to him – as well as to the millions of us who later heard about it.

From deep inside the earth, Toler addressed the entire world, beginning his note, “Tell all, I see them on the other side.” He promises his kin to meet them in eternal life – in the place that is deathless. He expresses for all of us the deep human wish that our connections will transcend the event of separation we suffer at the moment of death. “It wasn’t bad, just went to sleep,” the note continues, and scrawled at the bottom, with the last of his ebbing strength, the tender, unselfish words “I love you.”

I have often sat by the bedside of dying people with their relatives close at hand, waiting for those last words of love and hope. Being on the threshold between life and death gives an aura of mystery and truth to the final utterances of the dying. We who wait feel we can somehow penetrate the thin veil between the worlds through the words of the dying one; those so close to death might know what we all long to know.

Toler’s last words honor the noblest in our human connections, that life is sacred and relationship holy. Through the darkness, he reached out not only to his family but to the rest of us, including us in his community through his abiding and compassionate words. For, as the Buddha told his cousin Ananda, the whole of the holy life is good friends. Our relationships – and our love – are ultimately what give depth and meaning to our lives.

These wise people on the threshold of death carry a message to the rest of us that death is our friend and not to be feared.

What message do we want to leave behind when we die? When poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, she uttered one word: “Beautiful.” “I am not in the least afraid to die!” exclaimed scientist Charles Darwin.  And Thomas Edison, the genius inventor, said only, “It is very beautiful over there.” These wise people on the threshold of death carry a message to the rest of us that death is our friend and not to be feared. What have they seen that we wish we could know? What is this mystery that all of us will enter?

All of these last words are deep teachings about how we can commend our spirit to the experience of dying—and how we may live in the meantime.  They are a treasured testament of the human heart that calls us to transcend suffering and find redemption by encountering death fearlessly and even beautifully. Thus we come to understand directly the truth of impermanence, the intense fragility of all that we love, and that, in the end, we can really possess nothing. Yes, we may meet each other on “the other side.” Yet we may also ask ourselves, Can we meet ourselves and each other now? Knowing that death is inevitable, what is most precious to us today?

We cannot know death, except by dying. This is the mystery that lies beneath the skin of life. But we can feel something from those who are close to it. Martin Toler said, “I love you.” He said, in effect, everything is OK. In being with dying, we arrive at the natural crucible of what it means to love and be loved. In this burning fire we test our practices of not-knowing, bearing witness, and compassionate action, practices that can also hold us up through the most intense flames. Please, let us not lose our precious opportunity to show up for this great matter—indeed, the only matter—the awesome matter of life and death.

Originally published by Shambhala Publications. Copyright 2008 by Joan Halifax. Used with permission.

* Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

Joan Halifax Roshi – Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, civil-rights activist, and author – is Founder and Abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As Director of the Project for Being with Dying, she counsels dying people and teaches health-care professionals about the dying process. Our thanks for the gracious permission granted by her and by the staff at Shambhala to post this Afterword from her book, Being with Dying:  Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death.

Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax

About the author

Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher, Founder and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a social activist, author, and in her early years was an anthropologist at Columbia University (1964-68) and University of Miami School of Medicine (1970-72). She is a pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. Her books include: The Human Encounter with Death (with Stanislav Grof); The Fruitful Darkness, A Journey Through Buddhist PracticeSimplicity in the ComplexA Buddhist Life in AmericaBeing with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of DeathStanding at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet; and Sophie Learns to Be Brave.