Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reflections by John Tarrant on Gregory Willms death

Reflections by John Tarrant on Gregory Willms death


Sesshin Teisho by John Tarrant RoshiJune 26, 1994  Day OneCamp Meeker, California

A few weeks ago we were here in sesshin and it seems to me that we're still in sesshin.  So this is a very favorable time to go deep; to take another step in the Way.  A few weeks ago Al Einhorn's ashes were on the altar during sesshin and since then I've been to two more funerals.  So I thought I should talk about death today.
Death is something that's like birth and taxes; it's always with us.  Until you can be at ease with death, you are not at ease with life.  Often it's thought that the measure of a person's meditation is whether or not they are at ease with their owndeath.  If, when you're dying, you can say, "Yes," then that is a good thing.  Since you're going to do it anyway, it's not much use saying, "No."  I don't know whether this is a quote of his or whether he made it up, but at the beginning of one of Robert Haas' books of poems, he says, "What shall we do with a beast so enormous, so intractable, so difficult to deal with?"  And the answer is, "We shall praise it."  That is our life, we must praise it.

The two funerals I've been to recently were for Gregory Willms and Anne Aitken.  Both of them knew they were going to die fairly soon and did it well, so it wasn't really a shock.  Let me talk about those two deaths a little.
I realized that Gregory was going to die soon when he arrived at my place with some paintings and stuff that I knew he liked and he started distributing his goods, distributing the objects of his life.  He was kind of into objects, so that was significant for him.  During his last months he spent a lot of time setting things in order, giving little things away to people.  In a way s of unpacking his life.  We spend all this time collecting things and now he was dispensing with them.  While most of us knew he was going to die in a few months, he didn't know he wasgoing to die at that time, but because he had this attitude towards death, that it was his last journey in this life, then he really didn't make too much of a fuss about it.  When the nurse called Gregory's partner, Leonard Gabriel, and said, "We'relosing him.  You better come into the hospital really quickly." Leonard jumped into his car and came in.  The nurse and the physician were trying to stabilize him so that Leonard could arrive and he had been stabilized by the time Leonard arrived.Leonard said, "They tell me that you're dying."  Gregory said, "I don't know.  It's okay."  So they spent the night talking and when the dawn came on he would drift in and out and his speech would get very soft.  When the dawn came on, he roused a little and saw the stars fade and heard the birds and then stoppedbreathing. When I heard I figured probably everyone was still at the hospital, the body was still at the hospital, so I jumped into my car because I had agreed with my friend that I would chant for him.  So I went round and chanted and some other people came around, Roberta.  It was quite a party in the hospital room. Because it's a new hospital and the AIDS wing, they left us alone to do our thing, I guess.  We were in there for hours and chanting.  It was very interesting because it was very easy. There was this very easy serene feeling in the room.  It was veryplain that clinical death does not mean entire death.  You can really feel somebody's consciousness around in the room before it's gone out further.  I began to understand how the Tibetans wrote their manuals of dying which was just by being with a lot of dying people and watching what they experienced and what they noticed.

What I noticed was that Gregory was quite comfortable being there with his friends and seemed to have no impetus to leave.  There was a sense of this benign, amiable presence in the room.  But as we chanted, then something would release and he'd be moving on and moving through.  So one has that sense of chanting somebody through and that the chanting is a very, very powerful thing to do at such a time because it goes so deep into my heart and everybody's heart.  And that was very easy with him. When Roberta's dad died a few months ago, she arrived in the hospital room not long after he was clinically dead.  He had struggled; he had fought very hard for the last two days.  They took him off code, which means that if he died they wouldn't revive him, and he knew he didn't have enough heart muscle left to survive, but he kept himself going.  He started his own heart quite a number of times when it stopped.  Through those two days he struggled while his family was gathering.  He bought some time that way so that he could say goodby to people.  Roberta said that struggle was very much in the room.  As she chanted him through and she didn't have a lot of help because everyone else was not familiar with this concept.  She's sitting there alone with her dad with her meditation beads chanting, talking to him, while the nurse came in to check on her every now and again to see if she was okay.  It was kind of sweet.  She said that the room was much thicker, much more turbulent with her dad, but as she chanted, then everything smoothed out.  His mouth closed, his face smoothed out and he went on.  She could feel him moving away as she kept chanting.  Rather quickly, actually.  Until by the time she left after he was completely cold, he was gone.

We feel the differences in the kinds of deaths people have.  We feel the truth that we shall face this ourselves one day and that those we love will face it.  I think that the great poignancy of human life is that if you don't love, you're the walking dead,and if you do love, it's a contract that either you'll be at that person's death bed or they'll be at yours.  So it's good to become at ease with it and be able to expand the heart around this kind of transition.  This kind of coming and going that we do so busily. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reflections on death

April  26, 2011

Everyone of us reading this, and every person we know are all going to die, and we don’t know when.  This is a simple truth, but not something we bring to our attention very often.  I have been considering death recently as we watched our beloved Himalayan cat fall into a death spiral.  After a week of tests, x-rays and attempting to revive his body and spirit it became clear that Bodhi was dying.  Forcing food and water finally did not work and our efforts to help finally seemed an indignity. He would accept no water, food or touch.  And he constantly sought a cave to lie down in.  It was time to let him go. 

The young Siddhartha wandering out of his palace was struck by the omnipresence of disease, old age and death.  It must have been everywhere he looked in the poverty around him.  These days death is not on our radar very often.  And, it is likely you have not ever even been in the presence of a dead human body.  .  .  . or one that was not embalmed and presented peacefully. 

As I was reflecting on all this I came upon a letter written nearly twenty years ago by a close friend who was a Buddhist and a psychotherapist.  He was in the last year of a life that was being dismantled by the HIV virus.  As I was hanging out with him and being a support, I invited him to “consider his purpose” during these last months.  In response to my question he wrote this letter: 

January 28, 1993

Thanks to Patricia

Thanks to Patricia, I’m finally sitting down, writing.  In particular, I want to record several key ideas that have somehow been distilled in the course of the years that I’ve been dealing with HIV.

For me, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of this journey has been each confrontation with treatment decisions.  AZT?  PCP? Prophylaxis?  Antibiotics to treat skin problems?  Slowly, I’ve come to realize that THERE IS NO OTHER PATH than the one I am now on.  There is no alternate life out in space in which I took AZT and increased my energy and my life span.  Or sabotaged my own health and died early.  Further, NO ONE KNOWS what the outcome of my decisions will be.  This seems especially true to me now, as all of the men with HIV who were sure of what I should do are now dead.  Seeing this reality clearly, that there is only the life I am living, is sometimes comforting, especially when I am facing another confrontation with a physician and her ideas of what I should do.  More consistently, though, it gives me a solid foundation of reality on which I might build with my day-to-day actions.  

This writing all sounds so dry, in sharp contrast with the moment of panic, despair and rage in which I struggle with decisions of which way to go next.  Of course, I understand all of this as a quite natural expression of my desire to prolong my life and relative health, and my fear of pain and death.  So, if no one really knows which decisions will lead to longer life, on what basis can I make my decisions?  Slowly, and only in retrospect, I am coming to see that the course of treatment I am following are quite consistent with my values, and that the options I have rejected run contrary to them.  More specifically, I see clearly the immense and perhaps irreparable damage that has been done on this earth by the human use of poisons to solve an immediate problem with little or no attention given to the wider consequences.  Many of the standard treatment options that have been urged on me seem so similar.  Take AZT and slow the replication of the virus—but what about the bone marrow?  Use antibiotics to prevent pneumonia from finding a home—but what about all of the helpful flora in my digestive system and the rest of my body?  I see now that the ways I am dealing with HIV are very close to the ways I treat my yard and garden.  I can not say that would never use any toxic substances there, but that is my general guideline.   Further, it would take a lot of talk and research to convince me to do otherwise.  I’ll do the same with my body.  If I treat my body in a way that is consistent with my life and values, in a way I have already “won.”  If I make my treatment decisions only in an attempt to stay alive, I will eventually ‘lose.”

One final bit of clarity that has come my way.  In the last decade, as the pace of the epidemic has increased, I have had my share of opportunities to see the horrors and suffering that can come with the loss of the immune system.  Far too many of my darker dreams and fantasies play themselves out in my own private horror show.  In cognitive moments it sometimes helps me to realize that all of that is not happening now, and that whatever comes it will certainly be a “fresh” Gregory who will do what needs to e done.  Though I know this to be true, it has only occasional power to cut through the delusion of WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN.  Moreover, this delusion is also a product of the natural mind, leading me to prepare in the ways that I can for increasing debility and eventual death.  In its darkest aspects, it reminds me that from a realistic perspective, like many people faced with the final wasting of this disease, there may come a moment when suicide is what needs to be done.  Still at THIS MOMENT the sky is a remarkable blue, diarrhea has finally passed, and I am able to receive these thoughts and haltingly record them on the Mac which dear Leonard has kindly let me use.  Yes, it is ever so useful to be here now!  I have found it useful to finally come to a simple statement of my purpose, that I will do what I can to live well and long until I get very sick.  This statement—so ridiculously simple—has been very helpful to me in rallying my resources to what needs doing now. Future action can be taken in future moments. 

My sincere thanks to Patricia Ryan Madson and Gregg Krech, without whose kind urging and nagging these words might never have come to paper.

Gregory Willms  (photo above)
Gregory Willms died of complications resulting from AIDS in the early hours of June 2, 1994 just as the morning star appeared in the dark sky.  His Buddhist name, given to him at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, meant “Morning Star.”

When we allow ourselves to actually meditate on the reality of death . . . our own deaths and those of our loved ones . . . it is possible to find a clearer view.  The miracle of life begins to overshadow any petty problems or issues we face. 

I invite us all to consider death.  The purpose is not to become morbid, but rather to look with deeper realism and purpose into our daily life. 

Patricia Ryan Madson
April  26, 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

Truth or illusion?

"An image reflected in a mirror, a rainbow
in the sky, and a painted scene
Make their impressions upon the mind, but in
essence are other than what they seem
Look deeply at the world, and see an illusion.
a magician's dream."

7th Dalai Lama

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The poetry of Maya Stein

It's not change I'm after
By Maya Stein

The way a haircut can reframe a face. The move to a zip code that gets less fog. More of this or less of that – I can think of a thousand ways to prove my eagerness to trade the current reality for its fresh and scrubbed alternative. It’s so tempting to believe a transformation of even minor proportions will be epic, felt somewhere in my deepest deep. But in the interim, we grieve
for what we don’t or can’t have, and that ache is paralyzing. I see it’s not change I’m after, but peace.
Tranquility and rootedness for everything that craves release.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Blog in transition

In case you are a reader who checks in from time to time I wanted you to know that I will be starting a new blog focus soon. I am contemplating sharing biographical stories. I compiled a list of "indelible moments" and perhaps I will share some of these. Meantime thank you all for dropping in. I'll be back soon.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Off to Indianapolis

Our love of Stanford women's basketball is taking us to the Final Four. We are on route to Indianapolis where our women will play Texas A&M tomorrow night. Call us crazy. It is sweet to be a fan. Isn't Nneka Ogwumike a beauty? We are cheering for you.

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