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Following Our Breath

November 3, 2013

by Stephen Damon

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity of spending some time with one of our residents, who has breast cancer that has metastasized into her brain.  Over the past couple of weeks she has lost most of her lucidity and only whispers single syllable words from time to time.  Although she has appeared not to be able to follow conversations, she has seemed very focused on something, perhaps on her approaching death.  When I first met her we talked about books and our kids and all the things that most of us talk about, but now I just sit by the side of her bed and hold her hand or rub her shoulders in silence.

About a week ago I saw a peculiar look in her eyes as she stared out the window at the foot of her bed. It seemed as if she were taking in a lot as she stared at something that was not in the tree outside her window.  She seemed to be studying something that was neither outside the window nor in her room; maybe it was herself.  Her eyes, which didn’t seem to be focused on anything, reminded me of the look that Zen Buddhists have when they meditate with their eyes slightly open.

After twenty minutes or so of silence, she turned towards me and asked “If I knew what was going to happen to her?”  If she had asked me what I thought would happen I might have said a few things about death and dying in the context of Buddhism, especially The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I have been studying for quite some time.  But no, she wasn’t asking for a theory or a guess.  She was asking if I knew anything.  Letting her words in, I felt all my studies in Buddhism and philosophy drop away because she was asking for the truth that is beyond all scriptures.

As I let her words sink below my thoughts into my heart I said the only thing that I knew was true: I did not know what would happen to her. As I heard myself say those words I felt that truth had entered the room. She must have felt it too, because she smiled for the first time in a very long time.  Anything we could say had to match the authenticity of admitting that we did not know the future; not only her future, but my future too.  This not knowing was the standard by which everything I would ever say or do would be measured.

But I did have some experience of being with people as they passed from this world to the unknown. Many times I have witnessed what appeared to be a great relaxation and “liberation.” I remembered one woman who laughed until her final moments and another who smiled after her last breath. So I said that I thought she would not have any more pain or fear or anxiety or depression. I said that the best thing for her to do was just to follow her breath as her chest rose and fell.  I said that as other things became too difficult for her, she could always return to her breath again and again. I suggested that her breath would show her the way. This I knew from my Zen meditation practice. Letting go of everything and just following the breath was a good way to start each day and a good way to end our lives.



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