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A lesson I never forgot

22/12/2013

I was for a good many years a practicing social worker in a north London hospital. I was fortunate to have met amazing people, people of a generation that were the salt of the earth, of which many were in the final stages of dying. I would sit with them and hold their hands and talk to them. And, often their concerns were with unpaid bills. I would assure them that these matters would be taken care of, and that there was no need to worry. That was a powerful lesson—a lesson I never forgot.

People think that only others will die.
They forget that sooner or later they will, too….
Make the one word “death” master in your heart,
observing and letting go of everything else.
~Suzuki Shosan

Lord Buddha exhorted his disciples to reflect on death a lot—to use it as the ultimate prompt to practice now, in this moment; to practice every day. To stoke the fire before it’s too late. To prepare ourselves to make skilful choices in the moment when we leave this body. The same things that impede meditation are those that cloud our view at death: pain and emotional distraction. The better we master these fetters in life, the better chance we have of forgoing them at death.

So we have two strands of preparation to follow: 1. training the mind; and 2. getting our worldly affairs in order. The two can complement each other. The more we act and think in line with the dharma, the less likely we are to put off making decisions that will ease the dying process for our loved ones and ourselves, that will make us less burdensome, as the Buddha admonishes us to do. And in arranging temporal things—making wills, assigning health proxies, researching and sharing our wishes for end-of-life care and for the preparation and disposition of our own bodies—we make it easier for ourselves to drop the attachments and patterns of thinking that muddle a skilfully approach to death.

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