Mindfulness as Planetary Death Doula Training

Photo by James Lee

Many of you have had this experience; the sensation of an awesome truth landing in the body, falling like a snow curtain, silent and weighty, yet somehow fortifying – liberating even. This mind-body state of inner knowing feels for a moment as if time has stopped and everything appears crisper, clearer. Hearing someone speak a previously unspoken truth aloud lands in the gut heavily, but allows us to actually make contact with what is. I think this is why it feels empowering to me, even when it’s an unwanted truth. We cannot make contact with what was or what might be.

During the opening session of Upaya’s year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism Training, I had this experience when environmental activist, author, and scholar Joanna Macy reminded us that although there is still the possibility of saving ourselves, the purpose of our contemplative and activist training may ultimately prove to be to serve as death doulas for our dying planet – to the end of life as we know it. Having volunteered for hospice in the past, I understand how important this is. Those of you who have experienced or witnessed a birth also understand this. It’s a sacred and transformative time, either way it goes. And as Joanna said, “What a funeral we can make.”

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. – Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia

As always, the truth of balance seems to accompany every important insight. I heard a teacher once say, “Practice as if your hair is on fire”. The current state of our world certainly supports that sentiment. Yet, it may be tempting in our grief or overwhelm to use our mindfulness practice solely as a refuge – a place to escape the “trauma of everyday living” as Mark Epstein, MD would say. Upaya’s leader, Roshi Joan Halifax invited us to consider apoliticality and neutrality as the perspective of a privileged Western interpretation of the wisdom teachings underlying mindfulness that allows us to avoid the truth of social suffering as well as our social responsibility.

If we do manage to save ourselves, it will only be through the releasing of harmful ways of thinking and being and the elevation of more mutually beneficial beliefs and practices. The Pachamama Alliance says that in this best case scenario, our task will be “to serve as hospice workers to a dying culture, and to serve as midwives to an emerging culture.”

At the same time, Upaya’s president Matthew Kozan Palevsky reminded us that a rigid attitude of “fixing” or of over-focusing on what’s wrong is a “radical negation of life” and that we can’t truly and fully show up for something we’ve rejected. This is the essence of practicing ardently and with a mind that can welcome it all in – the good, the bad and the ugly.

To think continuously about changing the world is to spend your life looking at what is bad in it. To be attached to the world is to be attached to the world as it is, and not for any reason, because reasons can always be countered. To consider the world from first principles, to think about how well it would work if everything were different, is to be ready to throw away everything you know. Radical idealism and a sense of limitless possibility are the brighter facets of absolute rejection. – Larissa MacFarquhar, Requiem for a Dream

Recently I led a class on mindfulness as remembering. We can easily lose sight of the higher purpose of our practice – that it helps to free us, individually and collectively, from suffering. But, this can happen only if we can remember what is skillful and cultivate that, and remember what is unskillful and let that go. The deafening silence in the slipstream of a profound truth makes us wake up for a moment – but will we remain awake? Will we remember or will we drift back into our habitual ways of being? What are we waiting for? What am I waiting for? There is no other moment but now. May we all remember the truth of this moment and welcome it in service of the next.

It will not always feel good,
This growing.
This stretching beyond the boundaries of the known,
The comfortable.

It will not always feel safe,
This learning and relearning of your own abilities
This reexamining of beliefs
This pushing of envelopes
This breaking through enclosing walls.

You will shiver.
You will doubt.
You will want to run home.
Back behind walls of safety.

This walk to the edge will not
Feel good, safe, or comfortable,
But there is no faster way to learn.
There is no other way to grow.

So step out.
Leave your home base
Your comfort zone
Your cocoon
Acknowledge the fear and discomfort
But step out all the same.

With each step you take,
Your world expands
Your caterpillar mind will
Strain to comprehend the unbounded vastness of the sky.

Step out.
Unfurl your wings.

– Meg Goodmanson, Transformation

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