Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign
“Long haired freaky people need not apply. Do this, Don’t do that! Can’t you read the sign?” (1971 Five Man Electric Band). Those were the years of Male Hair Liberation. My Honey’s Father told him to get a hair cut or move out. He moved out and that’s how we met. There was a transient friend who kept his mid-back length, dark straight hair covered by a wig when he went to work. At 25, Don was bald on top with a ‘monks’ ring of hair hanging to his shoulders. And there was Eric, 6′ tall, skinny and sporting a big, thick, pouf of a ‘do’. Can’t call it an Afro because Eric was Wasp White wearing a 10′ scarf perpetually draped from his neck.
The most famous sign in our family hails from Louisville, KY and was first seen on a trip to Nashville: Tattoos While You Wait. This was before cell phones or there’d be a picture. A reputable source recently reported that the billboard is no longer there but the Tatooist is. Ahhh… all is impermanent. The next most famous sign was on the window of an Auto Mechanic / Body Shop garage in Orange, NJ: We’re Not Responsible For Anything. Add these to your short list of Zen Koans.
The signs of the times. We’re challenged to see them and understand their meanings. We see species declining all around us, what does it mean? “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”. The accelerated rate of learning and exploration. Where is it going? Where am I in this ever-changing scheme of things? It is all about me, isn’t it?
No Reading! No Talking!
This was the sign, blinking in neon red, flashing on the near-side of my mind, if that’s what you want to call it. It was during a rare, forced sit meditation that it caught my attention. The forced sit was precipitated by the awareness that I felt kind of stuck and dry and wanted to understand what it meant. So I sat in my easy chair, half cup of coffee on the side, and began to quiet, always starting with the breath, watch the breath.
It’s not really hard to do at all but it has taken practice. For this I am grateful. It’s also a big part of why I’m such a nut about encouraging the practice of Mindful Dying, as soon as one can, to be more skillful in navigating the last adventure of this life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Resting in the breath I begin to notice thoughts. I don’t verbalize the thoughts, I just notice and watch them move on. It’s a very active process regardless of how much it may look like sleeping. And there, just lurking at the left side of my peripheral awareness, is a sign that says ‘depressed’ this way. This could mean danger but, cautiously, I take the route anyway. Been down this road and don’t like it any more than I did before, but I should be more skillful now. With the briefest of attention I looked into the sucking blackness of inflated ‘depressed’, a worthy adversary not worth taking on. Returning to the breath: ‘the past is no excuse, neither is it license. It is experience that teaches that it is up to us to learn what is to our greatest advantage to living a good life’. Forewarned is forearmed, C’est vrai?
Fortified with food, sleep and body work I got back to sitting, letting the memories of events and interactions over the last couple of months slowly stream by. There it is, giving un-asked for advice again. That didn’t go well and it had all the signs of a slippery slope. I sped up the footage until something big grabbed my attention. I don’t even want to give it attention now, that which shall not be named, but I must.
A cowardly physician, believing that his world view is the correct one, does not have the cojones to tell the truth. Willing To Withhold Information from a Patient but Who May Be Incentivized With an Additional Government Payment To Discuss all the different procedures and interventions available and, thereby establish ownership [of the dying process]… in the hospital. And too bad if you have a calm smile and an earnest plea for help, you’re just making it more difficult… for the physician.
This article contained at least six of my top ten gripes about our medical industrial complex and I went beserk. My intention was to verbally blast the author for the paternalistic, authoritarian and entitlement to control that are common personality traits among medical professionals. I am convinced the author is coming from a place of good intentions, it’s just that we see the world from different perspectives. After three days of anger, frustration, and wrestling with words that were always inadequate, I closed the computer, gathered all the notes and pages, stuffed them in a file and left the room. There was no consolation.
In The Last Quarter Of The Last Century
Once upon a time… the concept of consolation, and its’ mirror image desolation, were introduced to me by one of my special teachers. Consolation is expansive (yin) and Desolation is contractive (yang). Consolation is characterized by an outward facing attention, whereas Desolation is self-centered.
The mystery is nestled in the realization that they are not opposites. There is no good or bad, better or worse, right or wrong, there is different feelings, subjective experiences. That’s not to say they don’t feel like opposites when things get un-balanced. In this way, they are signs. They are signs, that when we learn how to read them, are reliable guides through life. Some of the first signs we learn to recognize are: Danger, Comfort, Stop and Go.
Having been forewarned, I was alert. Forearmed, I was prepared. I sat. And that’s when the red neon No Reading! No talking! sign began flashing, followed by an arrow pointing to a bigger sign → Practice. Stay present in the experience. For how long? Until it’s run it’s course.
The End Is Near
Thank goodness I was able to laugh when I realized the message. It’s not the first time I’ve been surprised like this. It’s akin to the experiences of when my Sweetheart sneaks up and scares me … in a lovingly, benign way. A very expansive, open, energizing, yin experience.
No reading or talking. No books, no articles, no podcasts, no writing. It’s OK because I had neither words of my own nor inclination to focus on reading someone else’s. I listened. I wondered what the relationship was between the article I had read and Mindful Dying. I worried that criticism of our medical care system could easily be interpreted that Mindful Dying means saying ‘No’ to medical care. Not talking was getting comfortable and safe, a way to avoid having words misunderstood.
‘No talking’ included putting the breaks on the chaos of random thoughts running through the mind. It was time for the slow, focused moves of the Tai Chi, whether in body and mind or, lying in bed before sleep and going through the moves mentally until there was quiet. And there was routine work, good for the body and good for the soul.
This went on for about a week, staying present in the experience and figuring out what I needed to learn when it was time to test out reading a book, just a short one. And the book said:
“There was a mental state I used to attain when playing soccer: my self would disappear and I would be free, free of doubts, and limits, free to focus on nothing but the game….Sufi mystics and Zen Masters would, I suspect, understand the feeling.
Possibly ancient warriors did something similar before they went into battle, ritually accepting their impending death so they could function unemcumbered by fear. (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid)
It’s only a few weeks until the end of the third year of my “One Year To Live Experiment” so it’s a good time to begin taking stock. The strong emotional reaction to the infamous article was a sign, a discomfiting sign that called into question ‘if this, then what is Mindful Dying about?’
Mindful Dying is about relieving our fears of Dying and Death. And so we tell stories. Because our medical care system is a dominant force in our culture of dying and death it is represented as a key player in many.
Mindful Dying is about learning and practicing the skills of mindfulness: heightened awareness of what is going on outside of this body and inside; learning to notice how thoughts and emotions come and go, how all things change; learning how to read the signs so as to better navigate through tough transitions; living with intention.
Mindful Dying is about accepting the reality of my own death so I may function unburdened by fear. It is knowing ‘I will die and I don’t know how or when’ and being ready for the transition. Hey, it’s a Once In A Lifetime Experience!
Have fun, practice mindfuldying, and have more fun.
Visit our FaceBook Page for articles that may be of interest, not the infamous one aforementioned.