Practising A Year to Live

Loving the Truth

I was going to write, today, about ‘regret.’ However, after lunch I spent some time immersed in painting. At first I was a little removed from the work, but very soon I found myself absorbed. Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalypt stems. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, lifting the whole canvas. I became engaged in seeing colours that were mysterious – like the different blues which I invited into the blacks. 

When I’ve painted, my senses are heightened to colours all around, in all kinds of places. An ordinary brick wall presents subtleties without end; the myriad kinds of green in the forest; and the tender reds, in places you’d never expect to find them, in those same greens. The way the sunlight splashes on the clay at sunset.

As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the Being of the world, a sense came to me, a felt sense without words. When I got inside, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to ‘say hello’ into that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt senses, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was either unpromising, or ‘ineffable.’ However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, it came into view. (That’s why it’s called Focusing; because it goes from murky to clear – like the frosty circle of the lens in the old cameras went from frosty to clear when the lens got the subject into focus.)

What came clear was an understanding that I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, was an introduction to the radiance of Being, through the art of seeing. As I came away from the studio, the radiance was intense, dissolving differences everywhere about me, in the very ordinary miracle of seeing the world. The Pittosporum as I passed it,; the concrete path; the tangled Jasmine in the corner.

Today, I was going to write about ‘regret,’ and about the thing that I regret the most, that which brings me to tears; which is, that I have not loved the truth  enough, and how I sided with the false, for too long.  But instead, I find myself marvelling at black with phthalo blue over a green-black underlay — how the purples peek out, in the right light. And, the  tiny, yellow spots in these eucalypt leaves. The red line around the edge. 

Seeing is for developing. I understand, now, that it would be just as great, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life, without having learned to sense the unspeakable in the ordinary. All my philosophy would be just empty name, if I didn’t see the world aright.

Experiencing Bodies

The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were talking, as she drove onto and along the freeway, going back home to the mountains. She wanted to check how was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and a feeling of tenderness came for the whole world, because I knew that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my prostate. And my energy body was relatively peaceful.


To come to terms with death, I live in my bodies – the most elementary of which are the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body.  Isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body – usually with a gross body (that is, a physical body)? Yet, are we really putting our heart into living as bodies? I realised when I was in my late twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, in the very tiny portion of it above my shoulders.


But what is the body that I am? It is unknowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing,’ isn’t it? Discovering my tendency to like to ramble all over the place, lost in thought night and day, I decided in 1995 to follow my breathing, and that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. If sometime you see me with mala beads, that’s what I’m doing: tracking one bead for each exhalation. If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is present. And, I can learn about all the ways I set up my ego-boundaries, which is where ego-death gets created.


Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops. (And, I’m aware that there are limitations, which I can’t go into here, to the knowing of the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’) Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind body – gross, feeling, or sublte energy body – is a self-organising process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. Any body is of that larger life. I can feel that inherence in the big process.


This grounding myself in the body, sensing into its condition in all conditions, helps me realize what the Japanese Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. The way that I think of it is, that any body is made up of all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its particpation right now in the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle. Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being. The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I get that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how that shifts your sense of your self; how the feeling body responds.


This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. My OED says of ‘com-‘:The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.” This, if we are to save ourselves and flourish, together with our fellow species on this little blue planet, this we need to explore, to know, to feel intensely – that is, the presence of, this body as together with all that is.


And, to my mind, the prefix ‘em-‘ (which means the putting of one thing into another) is, however, appropriate when we come from such a culture as ours, where we don’t live in our bodies, but in our mentally-fabricated worlds. To ‘embody’ might mean – rather than bringing something into the body – it might mean re-minding. (Did you know that the Buddhist word for ‘mindfulness’ – sati – means ‘remembering’?) A remembering that the body is already-always a ‘minded’ body; that it is a body-mind, is a bodily being-together-with-all.


What makes death such a big deal? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are always of some level of body?  Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in ‘owning’ by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ The body-mind is then split. However, as a dynamic presenting of body-mind states, in reality I am never a static or objectifiable ‘thing.’


Those three bodies, are, then, each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety – a fact which only mindfulness of body-mind states can reveal. The way of mindfulness of the ‘body’ revelas the body at ever more subtle levels; and, as I know myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. From one of these levels or perspectives, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying its patterns. And there are subtler levels, again, beyond this. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?


Following my Thread

the piercing cold –
in our bedroom stepping
on my dead wife’s comb

– Buson Yosa (quoted in Patrician Donegan’s Haiku Mind)

Regarding my last post: I’m back to try and do the topic some justice. Quite apart from trying to enter that topic of ‘the meaning of life’ too late at night, I admit to being challenged with this one. Over the last… I don’t know, maybe fifteen years… I’ve come to meet a life-long unconscious attitude which could be summed up as: “What’s the point in creating, when you’re going to die?” The whole journey, which I mentioned some days ago, with art, has helped me see this. I also have another state of mind which says: “What is this?” This is said, not always with that beautiful feeling that I have felt often, the feeling of wonder and curiosity. No, this can be more like bewilderment. It’s hard for me to put that out there, but… (as my paternal grandmother used to say…) “There you go.”

I had a pretty rough upbringing. Relentless abuse. That may have been a contributor to the despair, cynicism and pessimism of my drunken teenage years, and to the counter-cultural rebelliousness of my early twenties. With all the violence of my early childhood, and I grew into someone by the age of ten or twelve, who had little reason to feel good about being alive, and seriously weighed up leaving here by the age of twenty. Life did indeed feel like Macbeth said, “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” The violence also contibuted to the fact that I swung heavily the other way, when I found the Buddhadharma; because I then stuffed my negativity down with false positivity, and obsessively went after the enlightenment thing. (I understand that this portrait is over-simplifying, but it’s fundamentally faithful to my development.)

That’s some of the story. On the other hand, my fearful tendencies might well have come with me, in my head-centred character. That is to say, I might well have been born with a little tendency to fear and skepticism. Whatever the case, I remember, in the early seventies, identifying with the baby in the womb, portrayed in Jimi Hendrix’ song Belly Button Window (Cry of Love album, 1971):

And I’m looking out my belly button window
And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns.
And I’m wondering if they want me around.

Then, at the limits of my depression, in 1969, I discovered the teachings. So, since then, blessed with the chance to put some healthy, skilful means to use, I’ve followed my thread, and not sacrificed my passion to know the answer to “What’s this?” The challenge has been, to see the ‘world of dew’ without the pessimism, without the cynicism. To learn to see it, free of fabrication, as it is. The challenge has been, equally, to not turn away from the reality of the dewdrop world in naïvety, merely clinging to concepts of the Buddhist ‘deathless.’ I am grateful to my teachers for their support in this.

So… meaning of life? I am sure there is a meaningful way of living. That’s not too hard to develop. And, with contemplative skills – in the forms of mindfulness, meditation, constructive concepts, and inquiry – combined with Focusing (develpoed by Gendlin), I have found that a primordial kind of non-verbal meaningfulness informs my cells. I feel it in my bones. I don’t think that I started to use the teachings on death very seriously until about twenty-seven years ago, and my learning is still going on. However, I can now say that I’m grateful, to know how to use dying and death to live realizing dewdrops.

Your shadow
on the page
the poem.

–  Cid Corman

A day to remember my parents

I had a dream a couple of years ago, in which two young aboriginal men told the dream-Christopher: “It is an honour to speak with the dead.”

A spontaneous visit with a friend to the local vihara today,  led me to reflect on how I’m treating my parents, who have both died. I think I’ve got some learning to do, here. The Sri Lankan family who provided the lunch meal, were commemorating the death of their several parents – and they do this every year.

I got to thinking that, while I do often think of my parents’ deaths – each of which had its own story, its character – on the other hand, I don’t commemorate their death. I think of each of them, from time to time, and I think about the manner of their deaths, but I’m going to explore what more there is in the relationship – something for me to take care of, likely, before I go. I might find I’m avoiding feeling something. If I had a year to live, wouldn’t I follow this thread? Yes.

I’ve noticed that others of my family, and some of my acquaintances, they do this: they go to the cemetery, each year, on the anniversary of the deaths of loved ones.

So, thanks to an unexpected invitation to a meal at the Vihara, I’m starting to explore something new. Maybe my first step is to find out the dates of my parent’s deaths, and make a note in my diary. And, then, between now and the first of those dates, I’ll check in ‘there in the middle of me’ to see what comes. I imagine it can be, at the very least, a day of gratitude, and an opportunity to be feel of the preciousness of a human life – and maybe it’ll be painful, but… okay.

Meet Death in Meditation

Zen master Dogen: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”

To practise unelaborated meditation, I take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:

‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)

That’s the authentic heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master said, ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, not a thing is worth landing on. This is excellent training for death.

If we take ritual as placing the body in a gesture toward Being, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is living ritual. Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax. Relax body and mind, and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance. And, a note for those who find this hard, at this stage, give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.

Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever arises. By relaxing our usual here-there and self-other posturing, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying. 

Blessings to all!

What’s My Being-With Like?

“On their deathbed some people look back on their lives and are overwhelmed by a sense of failure. They have a closet full of regrets. They become disheartened when they reflect on how they have overlooked the preciousness of their relationships, forgotten the importance of finding their “true work,” and delayed what some call “living my own life”” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
Somewhere during my forty-fourth year, one evening I was nurturing a question, about my unlived life – in the kind of territory which Stephen points to, in that quote. Although I hadn’t found Focusing, I had, by then, come to learn to ask intimate questions of myself, in just the way that I later refined in Focusing. That is, that night I asked my question with a gentleness, and with a pause for feeling into the ‘more’ which might come in the middle of my body, about the question. (Now that I think of it, I had been doing hospice training for a couple of years, so that probably contributed to this gentleness. My mentor spoke of listening to others in the manner of an ’empty bowl.’)
So, this night I was emptying myself for my own question. I asked: ‘What, if I died now, would I regret not having developed? What have I neglected?” I paused, and listened inwardly, in the soft middle of my body. And, from a long-forgotten place in myself came the knowledge which burst into tears: “The artist.” it said.
I began to bring art-making into my life, and even entered an art competition that year. In the next year, I enrolled in Art School, at the old East Sydney Tech; and held an exhibition with a friend, by the end of that year. I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that in that same year I turned the corner in my spiritual work, and I also discovered that I would never go mad. To honour who you are can come in all kinds of forms; for instance, just speaking your part in the meeting with the regional or departmental who-evers can lead to a subsequent spiritual opening.
I won’t pretend that I had a revolution. I’m still doing my best to let the artist live in me.

The point is that we can always make a start in honouring who we are. I posted something in this vein – about people’s end-of-life regrets – on my positivity blog, a while back. Here is a list, recorded by Australian palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware, in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
I wish I didn’t work so hard;
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Short as it is, it’s a formidable list of transformations possible. However, here I want to emphasise the spirit of the inquiry we can bring to our unlived life, the ‘being-with.’  What is your ‘being-with’ like, your way of being with the questions you ask inside? Do you drop them in, like small pebbles into the still pool of your precious body? Can you ask gently, curious about what might come – not knowing, actualy, what the ripples will be like, those intimations which may appear there? The Earth is groaning for want of our intimacy with bodily wisdom.

Comment on ‘The Bony Fact of Time’

The point, to me, of the poem in my last post is in those two words at the end: “We wonder.” We wondered together. The young man was in a hospice. And, he was dying – of that, there was no doubt. And yet, even then, it is still a matter of not knowing exactly when, and there is always the question of what it will be like. He couldn’t sleep at night for fear of it.

I was merely a few years older than he was – I think I was thirty-nine – but, I knew these questions were mine, too. I was healthy, but I had begun to contemplate the inevitability of death. It wasn’t a matter of only one of us having the illness.

What will it be like? Sometimes I’m plain curious, almost excited, like Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes:

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

Now, twenty-six years later, now that I’m old enough to die naturally, and after my cancer last year, I have been thinking more about this. ‘What will it be like?” The practice of dissolution of the elements is a wonderful one, and I have no doubt at all about its helpfulness – not only because it nurtures a joyous, wakeful life; but because it goes a tiny, tiny bit of the way in responding to the unanswerable.

However, the event will be unique. I sense its inscrutability regularly. “What’s it going to be like?” This question is a wake-up. I was healthy back then, but his question prodded at my sleep, rousing me from the slumber that is there in the trance of youth, in the trance of health, and in the trance of one’s life appearing not to be threatened.

There are, practitioners, these three kinds of intoxication. What three? Intoxication with youth, intoxication with health, and intoxication with life.” – The Buddha, quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya.

But, here’s the more impelling point: When I realise that death is not readable, I feel the presence of my life in Nowness equally as mysterious – just as immeasurable. No clock-time can be brought to this moment. It’s just as unfindable as death. We are just as unable to ‘measure it out in coffee spoons.’ The breeze in the curtain, the sun-splashed wall, these are not findable, not objects thrown over there.*

This is the true wonder – the real doorway to the infinite. Death will be this moment.


* My OED tells me that ‘object’ means “lit. thing thrown before or presented to (the mind or thought)”

(The story about my name is a long one, and I’ll come back to that, in a month or so.)

The Bony Fact of Time


“What time is it?” he asks again,
shifting his pain in the wheelchair.
I search for an answer, but sense
that clock time isn’t what he means,
his bony feet in my hands. The white wall
sun-splashed. Thirty-three, he looks ninety.
My hands strong; his white sole. “I don’t know.”

(Morning: I breathe, stretch, enjoy
the grass beneath me. Tai-chi:
a firmness of feet, earth support, birdsong.)
“It’s a very spiritual thing,” he says,
“to massage someone’s feet.”  Breathy.
“Scary” he says. “This not knowing…
What’s going to happen, I mean.”

We wonder. The radiant curtain; a breeze.
Then: “What time is it?”, forgetting he asked.


– Christopher J. Ash

Matrix of Mystery

“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther. (See post: June 9, 2015)

I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in that passage. I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine space opens. The thought of the certainty of my death, or of the uncertainty about the ‘when, where or how’ of my death – or of the certainty of the death of those I love – these contemplations easily bring such openings.

My positioned and positioning ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. Knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself. And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.

Now the second part of Guenther’s statement is sweet, because the boundless, empty, and still presence is full of magic. It’s called ‘ordinary life.’ And this magic unfolds. (Hence: “… the importance of this very moment…”) Languaging can be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger meaningfulness. Because, this is a matter of ‘not two’ – that is, it’s not about something called the present, colourful languageable moment which is different from the still, luminous openness. Not at all. We’re talking about how unfolding occurrings (sic) never leave the implicit, the invisible womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into somethings.)

“… the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. (It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two’). This unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for life unfolding its possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)

Visit to the Blackheath Graveyard


In a Focusing group which was exploring our relationship to death, Zen teacher Jan Hodgman suggested we visit a local graveyard. Joyce came with me.

What a complex experience this was. The first thing that grabbed me, at the front gate, was the signage presents us with the human habit of division. I stopped awhile to get the lay of the place: the map showed all the divisions – these causes for which so many have died throughout history. Over there is the Catholic section, over here the Presbyterians are buried; and there the Church of England; and, there’s a section for the “Independents.” (I found the only Buddhist in this section – a child’s grave with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum engraved on it).

Knowing a little bit about the painful convict role in the beginnings of my town, I took special note of where I would find the convicts’ graves – the men kept practically as slaves in the local stockade.  Sometimes, when they died, they weren’t actually buried, because they weren’t looked upon as worthy of laying beside the citizens. They were discared in the bushland. The map had them down the back of the graveyard proper, behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When I went there is made me sad, that they are still the neglected, the forgotten, down an unkept track, in the scrub.

Joyce and I separate for a short while, while I go down the bush track. I reflect that all that is dear to us, we part from eventually. That’s one clear message in this place. At the convicts’ graves, I reflect that their mothers’ couldn’t have wanted this end for them.

Back in the main graveyard, the poor were interred alongside the rich. Money might give us a bigger gravestone, I thought, but it doesn’t keep death away. Neither does your religion, or your place in the strata of society, obviously. Some large marble graves, alongside those that were merely piles of earth. This one with a rough, wooden cross askew. The convict scum, and the respected citizens.

I reflected that one’s body interred with others doesn’t make much difference to the certaintly of death. Down in Wentworth Falls, by the railway line, there’s one lone grave, of a young man killed by lightning in the early days of the mountains settlement. What’s the difference? Alone by the railway, or here in the Church of England section with your wife or husband’s bones?

The couples, families, children. Death comes at any age. I contemplated the ages at which people die. And, although a graveyard doesn’t reveal the causes of death, I recalled Atisha’s contemplations on death, and imagined that here in this place we would find numerous causes of death. (Atisha reminds us that the causes of birth are few, but the causes of death are many.)

I contemplated that my own death is certain. My dear wife’s death is certain. And neither of us knows the time. I’m breathing, aware of my soft belly, and this immeasureable life.


Blog Post by Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Posts

Recent Comments