Coupla nights ago I attended an evening hosted by the Boulder-based Men’s Leadership Alliance at the Boulder Shambala Center. Topic: dying and death. Attended by a mixed-gender group comprised of 20-somethings to 70-somethings. This was an interesting mix of people! I was curious as to what might transpire (I’m familiar with, tho not schooled in, Buddhist practice around death and the value of contemplative being with the dying—including one’s own future dying). Here was a secular (albeit deeply soul-searching) organization hosting a night on death at a contemplative center. What would we accomplish in 3 hours?
When I co-edited the Mens Council Journal: Stories of Male Experience (almost 20 years ago; favorite issue, The Underworld)—part of a second wave of caretakers of this soulful publication founded by those who would subsequently form MLA—I was aware of the role I played: middle-class guy exploring deep men’s issues. All involved, I think, were middle class guys, though many of us did not subscribe to mainstream social norms. I however, did not engage in contemplative activities, nor did I feel drawn to or engage in ritual-based retreats intrinsic to Mens Work. Nor do I now, although I understand and value ritual’s role in human experience (to tenderize).
Buddhism offers profound guidance around dying and death. It, apparently alone among religious/spiritual pursuits, delves into end-of-life matters face-on as a matter of practice. Having also attended a Naropa Institute conference on contemplative caregiving, I think I can accurately assess that current Buddhist practice around death/dying limits itself to personal contemplation even when applied to assisting patient-families at end of life.
My work focuses on practical matters, and I remain interested in joining with contemplative Buddhists in offering the public a more comprehensive training for preparing for dying and death. Because that preparation must happen as part of our busy, everyday lives in the mundane world. How do we manifest the resolve to die peacefully (like 90% of us say we want)? How to we get to the place where we can quietly contemplate if we are not already Buddhists, or innately drawn to that path? What must we know and understand about what occurs by default—medically, emotionally, experientially—aspects that serve to function as a fuel for subsequent contemplation?
My work leads us through contemplations of the mundane, the worldly—the stuff on the other end of a 911 call. Once non-Buddhists have truly contemplated those realities (distinct from casually commenting upon them), we will have arrived at a place of opening to deeper contemplation, contemplation that re-teaches us how to be with dying, and with the dying as their lives close. To actually manifest the resolve to die in peace. The fork toward the end of life’s road is placed well in advance of that end.