|July 2004||2547||Number 69|
On Adaptation and Change
As you know I set off about a month ago to spend two or three weeks' self-retreat time at the monastery in Devon. On my way down I went to visit Patricia, a close friend who was about to die - at least that was my assumption. We had a very lovely meeting. We laughed a lot, and also expressed our appreciation for each other. It was rather emotional for both of us - lots of tears and drama - saying good-bye to somebody I had known for 30 years and shared so much with. Patricia had supported me all through my monastic life. There's something very precious about having somebody believing in you like that, who is definitely on your side. It was a friendship I valued greatly. So this leave-taking - the first leave-taking as it turned out - was very moving. When I was leaving, Patricia asked if I wanted to know when she was actually dying. I said yes, that it would be great if a message could be sent. Then off I went to Devon and began my self-retreat.
The monastery in Devon is a beautiful place for retreat. I was staying in a tiny kuti up on a hill. The kuti had a big window, so I'd sit on the bed watching the sun coming up. There were these dramatic sunrises; bright red sun and wonderful cloud formations - a continuous variety of visual impressions throughout the day.
The only day that didn't change much was a foggy day; it was misty all day. For hours and hours I looked out and couldn't see anything but this fog. It resembled what can sometimes happen to me in my mind - particularly in retreat time, where I can get into a dull, foggy state in which everything looks dreary and depressing; nothing is clear. These states can seem very solid, fixed.
I had my robes, I had my alms bowl, a couple of blankets, and I just lay down on the floor.
So on this particular day I more or less settled into just being with the dull fog. Then, quite suddenly, the fog lifted; when I wasn't looking, it suddenly cleared! This is very much like meditation practice. There's a dull fog and you might struggle with it. You're aware of it, its dullness and misery, but then somehow or other, when you're not looking, something seems to shift. There's a letting go of the struggle, and it's all bright and clear again.
So I was really enjoying living in the kuti, and allowing the impressions of Amaravati and the community here to fall away a bit. When I start a retreat after having been quite engaged, for the first few days I often find that there's a remembering of impressions of things that have been happening to me. So it was a chance to allow those impressions to fall away. I had a very nice walking path so I did a lot of walking practice.
Each day I was waiting - expecting Diana, the retreat manager, to come along with news from Patricia - but nothing happened. The days went by and I thought, 'Well, this is strange... When I saw her she had said her kidneys weren't working; it had seemed she would only have a few more days.' So I thought it must surely be about time. Eventually I couldn't contain my curiosity any longer, and phoned the hospital. They said, 'Well, yes, she's very comfortable, quite peaceful and is receiving visitors.' So Diana asked me if I would go to see her again; but I thought, 'No, no, I'm on retreat.' However, after a couple more days, suddenly I thought, 'Actually, I will go.' I had a rail voucher, so it was easy to arrange. Also, I had found out that the hospital was very close to the station; it would be easy to walk there.
I phoned Patricia and said, 'Would you like me to come? - I'd like to come.' And she replied that she would love it if I could be there. So I had 15 minutes to shower and pack, and get in the car with Diana to go to the station and catch the train to London. I asked for a three-day return ticket. The doctors had given Patricia some medicine to keep her going, even though her kidneys weren't working, because she had wanted to attend to some legal matters. She had planned to stop taking the medicine on the day that I would arrive. So I thought, 'Well, three days should be enough time,' and I took a three-day return ticket to Clapham Junction, and soon found myself walking through Clapham with my bowl and robes.
Clapham is an interesting area. There are all different nationalities, many Muslims and Hindus, but hardly a single native-born British person living there. I walked through Clapham, across Prince Albert Bridge, and up to the hospital. I knew a few people in London who were close friends of the Sangha. If I needed help I would be able to contact them; they might be able offer me a place to stay and food if I needed it. Actually, it was a step into the unknown. I was just going to see how things unfolded.
I found Patricia in her room. We talked and talked. The nurses came and went, and by the time evening arrived I still hadn't made any plans. However, it was obviously OK for me to stay in the hospital. I asked the nurses if I could sleep on the floor and they said, 'Oh no, we'll bring you a bed.' In the end I just slept on the floor. I had my robes, I had my alms bowl, a couple of blankets, and I just lay down on the floor.
By this time Patricia had more or less stopped eating, but we ordered toast for breakfast and then the vegetarian option (for me) at lunchtime. The catering lady was absolutely delighted, because she had been concerned about Patricia not eating. She was even trying to trick her into eating more. So when larger helpings were arriving and being consumed the catering lady was very, very happy. We never told her what was going on.
The days went by and we had a really good time. It was a relief to have done our weeping at that previous meeting, to have got that out of the way. Patricia slept. Every now and again when she woke up, we'd have a chat and a laugh. She had a phone, so people would phone up. We talked about the funeral, and thought about what she would like to have happen.
I said I was thinking of inviting Ajahn Sucitto to come to the service at Amaravati, and asked if that was some-thing she would like? She said 'Yes, and you too, of course. You could do the service together.'
It was interesting to notice the different stages of the dying process. When she was first given the diagnosis, Patricia was very distressed. After that she felt a rising sense of urgency, having to sort things out on a practical level; she was concerned about her will - who would have what, and how things would be sorted out. The illness developed more quickly than we had expected. She had thought she'd have several months, so the speed of it took her by surprise.
One day a healer visited us. He was obviously connected on some different level. While he was working with her he'd say, 'Yes, they're all gathering up there, waiting for you. You'll probably go quite soon.'
I was very touched to hear him say this. Then he said gently, 'I think you're probably just about ready.'
He turned to me and asked, 'Do you think she's ready?' But at that point I was choked up and couldn't speak, so I just nodded.
I had wanted to ask him how I could best help her, because when you die there's a tremendous amount to be let go of. In our lifetime we make many connections, to material things we have, to areas of interest, and things that we are concerned about. We have causes that we put energy into. For myself I have a tremendous investment in the Sangha, in the community here. I really care about it and want to support it; also, I have concern for the welfare of various friends and relations. So it was clear that with Patricia, my presence could either be helpful or, if I wasn't skilful, I could hinder her leaving in some way. I had really wanted to ask this healer for advice on how to manage this, but unfortunately I was too choked up to ask. He left her a little bottle of special oil. He said that if Patricia needed support or extra strength, she should sniff some of this oil. I noticed the oil there, and during the next days I was using it just as much as she was.
The effect of the healer's visit was interesting. When he had left, the realisation of what was happening in Patricia reached her at a deeper level. There seemed to suddenly be a deeper understanding of her predicament. She said to me, 'I really am going to die, aren't I? I really am leaving.' There was some level in her that began to accept that, to take it on board.
It was helpful being able to talk with the nursing staff about the dying process. There was one very lovely nurse who talked to both of us about how it would probably be. I was impressed with the nurses. They were so tuned in to both Patricia and also to me, about what it was like for both of us. One of them said to her, 'Well, either you'll just go to sleep and leave in that way, or else there'll be some kind of a crisis and you'll slip into unconsciousness and go like that.' She asked Patricia, 'How does that sound to you? How do you feel about that?' It was very lovely to hear, the sense of ease this nurse had with the dying process.
In this culture, most of us aren't at ease with the idea of death. This was the first time that I myself had been with anybody dying.
I felt very privileged to be so involved, to be able to go through it step by step, to notice the changing process. At first there was quite a lot of energy but gradually Patricia's skin colour changed, and she became weaker. Then I became the receptionist. When people phoned up, I would be the one to speak with them. I'd often have to say, 'Well, she's too weak to talk.'
One day they phoned up from Chithurst. Sister Thaniya rang and chatted with me. Ajahn Sucitto was there, so then we also talked. Ajahn Sucitto said to me, 'Please tell Patricia how much I appreciated her.' I said, 'Maybe you should say that to her yourself.' The two of them had a hilarious conversation about coffins. At one point Patricia burst into laughter. Ajahn Sucitto had said how he rather fancied a pale mauve coffin. Patricia said, 'But wouldn't you want ochre, like the monks' robes?' Ajahn Sucitto's response was, 'I think I've done what I can in ochre. I thought it would be good to go out in mauve!' So, far from being a mournful experience, the process was light and calm.
The last evening she became very restless. They had given her medication to relax her muscles, because she had been having painful cramps. With the muscles relaxed, she had slept for most of the day. In the evening she woke up and was mentally alert, but because the muscles were so relaxed she couldn't move. It was frightening for her. We had to turn her and move her limbs. I bathed her and even had to clean her teeth - I've never done that before for anybody. The nurse said she would come by every couple of hours to help turn her.
I sat quietly with Patricia. After about ten minutes she asked, 'What time is it?' I'd say, 'Ten past nine,' and then she'd moan. I could tell it was going to be a difficult two hours, because every few minutes she would ask, 'What time is it?'
I massaged her, we talked, and I did lots of chanting. Eventually we got to the end of the two hours. I went and spoke with the nurse about her condition. She explained that quite often near the end people develop something called terminal agitation, where they become very edgy, which is why Patricia was so restless and agitated. The nurses did what they could to help, and I sat with her through the night. Then her breathing began to change.
In the morning I had her breakfast, and at midday I had her lunch. I had arranged to go and have a bath and a rest in a friend's house during the afternoon. Someone else had arranged to come and sit with her while I was away. So I said to her, 'I'm going for a bath and a rest. I'll be back in an hour or two. Please don't go without me - unless you have to; you can go if you need to!' While I was resting, a call came from the hospital to let me know that she was going, so I returned to her room and we sat with her. We sat quietly; it was an extraordinary time. It was evening, just as the light was changing, about five o'clock. We just sat there, and watched her breathing. There was a point when there was a little in-breath and then a little out-breath - and then not another in-breath. Suddenly she was quite still. We sat quietly for a while, then I did the Buddhist chanting. Patricia was lying with her mouth open, and the other friend tried to close it, but it just flopped open again. So I thought, 'Well, never mind. No one is going to see; it doesn't matter.' We sat and talked for a few minutes, then the friend beside me looked up and said, 'Oh look. She's closed her mouth.'
One of the strongest impressions I had of the experience was how ordinary it was. Along with this came the realisation that this is something that is going to happen to each one of us. I don't mean that in an unpleasant way, but just that this is part and parcel of human existence. At Amaravati we are incredibly fortunate to be able to practise in the way that we do, with spiritual teachings and the opportunity to review our lives - to consider what's worth investing energy and interest in. Patricia herself was also fortunate. She had practised meditation for many years. She had visited Amaravati regularly, and had a keen understanding of Dhamma. So for her, death was as easy as it could have been.
During the last days there were times when she needed reassurance. For instance, she had a cottage which she would worry about. What was going to happen with it?... Or she'd worry about her friends - would they be all right?... I would say to her, 'Look, don't worry. Things are going to be all right. Don't concern yourself with those things any more. It is time for you to do something different. It would be good for you to give your full attention to what you're going through now; we'll take care of the rest. Try to just trust that things will be taken care of.'
Sometimes it's difficult to trust that things will be taken care of. We can feel that we have to hold everything together. Retreat time can be a good practice in this, particularly for people who are very conscientious. We can experiment with setting things aside. When we learn how to do that, then we can pick things up and put them down quite consciously - rather than obsessively or compulsively. Most of the year here, we have the opportunity to pick up duties and responsibilities - we try to do it in a measured and mindful way. When it's time to be taking care of something, we give it our full attention. But then, when it's not necessary, we should learn how to put our duties down, like Ajahn Upekkha, who had the duty of looking after the support group during the first weeks of this retreat. She picked up that duty and gave it her best shot; she did it very conscientiously. Now she is on self retreat and has set aside all those duties; she's having a great time. This is the ability I mean, the ability to pick things up when it's appropriate and to put them down when it's not necessary.
It's useful too to reflect on why putting things down is sometimes so difficult. For myself, I find it difficult if there's been a tremendous investment of self, if I'm responsible for something and have made it part of me. This is like taking birth - for example being reborn as the kitchen coordinator. I used to be reborn as the newsletter editor; that was an interesting one... It's not that it's bad to take up duties. It's lovely when people do this, and serve the community in some way. But when there's too much self-investment, then there's a great potential for suffering, because when our position is challenged we will inevitably feel hurt. Also, if we identify too closely with these things, we can feel over-concerned about them, and suffer when things don't go the way we think that they should. So we need to be able to pick things up when it's appropriate, and put things down when it's not appropriate, to adapt and change.
There was an impressive example of this during the funeral. Most of you were here in the Temple for the first part of the ceremony; that part seemed to go very well. Then we went to the crematorium for the second part. A good friend of mine called Daena had been invited to officiate, and had carefully planned what she would do. She would welcome everybody and give a little introduction, then there would be a few moments of silence, followed by a programme of readings and so on. At the end she would give a short blessing. So it was an important role for Daena.
We set off for the crematorium, having allowed plenty of time - so we thought.
The car I was in was leading; behind us came the hearse and behind that a string of other cars. However, one thing we hadn't reckoned on was that hearses go more slowly than ordinary cars; so we also had to drive slowly. Then there was a lot of traffic too, so that slowed us down even more. Eventually we arrived at the crematorium about five minutes late. As you may know, crematoriums are very particular about time; you have a set slot, and after that you must leave - no matter what. So obviously, because we were five minutes late we would have five minutes less for the ceremony. We went in and sat down. The lady funeral director was very composed. She had the list of people participating and began asking, 'OK, is so-and-so here?' - and most of the people weren't there. The minutes were ticking by ... ten minutes late ... twelve minutes late. Then she said, 'Well we're just going to have to bring in the coffin anyway. We must begin.' Only two of the coffin bearers were there, so the two lady funeral directors helped. They brought the coffin in, and she asked again, 'Is so-and-so here?' - and so-and-so wasn't... 'Well, how about so-and-so and so-and-so?' Fortunately they had arrived, two young twins, so they read out poems they had written. Then the next person read a psalm, and so on.
I kept looking around for Daena, but she didn't arrive and didn't arrive.
When we got to the very end, she walked in. The closing music had begun and the funeral directors were opening the doors for everybody to leave. But Daena wouldn't budge; she wasn't going to be pushed out by the funeral directors. She stood there and, with great dignity and presence, read out her beautiful blessing. She did it with a lovely smile. It was just great. I thought how difficult it must been for her to arrive 25 minutes late, knowing that there was only a half hour slot, to maintain her composure, abandon all the other plans, and just read. It was a great tribute to her, to be able to maintain her mindfulness even when things had gone so disastrously wrong. This is the ability I was talking about, the ability to be aware of circumstances, to adapt and change.
This lifestyle of ours can be a useful preparation for the time of death. If we cultivate letting go in this way, it will be a easy for us to go with dignity and grace, rather than with fear, remorse and regret. Then that last breath can be just a simple exhalation, a slipping away, a peaceful moment - nothing to be afraid of. This is how it was with Patricia. When she stopped taking the medication that was maintaining her, having had the final meeting with her solicitor to sort out her will, she said, 'Oh, I feel as though I can go on my holidays now. This is like a great adventure!'
At Amaravati we have the opportunity to invest our time in cultivating mindfulness and presence, just learning to be present with every moment. During this retreat we can practise being with the breath, observing states of mind, and cultivating presence in our daily life activities. Once the retreat is over we will have more challenging conditions, times when we are interacting with one another. Perhaps we will have difficulties, times when things don't work out the way we would like them to, moments of anger, irritation, despair, discouragement, boredom, or times when we're excited and looking forward to something. Our practice then, is to be with any condition as it is - taking an interest in every moment, rather than struggling to get away from it or to make it otherwise. We cultivate a sense of ease, a sense of presence, no matter what might be happening for us, so that even when things go horribly wrong we can maintain some sense of mindfulness and dignity.
Since Patricia died I've had times when I have felt very upset. It comes over me all of a sudden. Someone will say something or I'll remember something or see something and this enormous emotion sweeps in. It's interesting to see how incredibly all right that is. People round about might feel concerned for me, but when I am mindful, I have found that it doesn't really matter. If I'm happy that's fine, if I'm sad that's fine too. There is a sense of ease, of equanimity with all the feelings that arise; I try to practise with all of them.
So, I've said enough for this evening. I offer this for contemplation and reflection as a wish for everyone's perfect liberation, hoping that for all of us the moment of death will be a moment of ease, or even delight perhaps - who knows? Evam.