I was initiated into Mindfulness and Meditation through an academic route by undertaking a two year diploma course at our local university.   However, I have become aware of the debt that is owed to Buddhism for its unique and valuable contribution to our present understanding of the human condition, so have frequently attended meditation sessions at a local Buddhist Centre.  When I learned that this centre has a Bardo group which meets monthly, my curiosity was piqued and I had my initiation into a Death Café this afternoon.

Death and dying form an integral part of the Buddhist tradition, a subject which is openly discussed in the East, but a topic that is surrounded by taboos in the West and only vocalised under very explicit circumstances.   I have attended numerous meetings at this particular Buddhist Centre and meditate there regularly, but was feeling a little out of my comfort zone attending this gathering which was so boldly and openly being called a Death Café.   Curiosity and my need to experience novel events allowed me to overcome my trepidation.

Between death and our next rebirth the Tibetans believe we experience an intermediate gap; this gap is called the Bardo.    Whilst I do not have a belief in rebirth, I was interested to learn the Buddhist way of supporting people in the last stages of their earthly existence.   The term bardo can additionally be more loosely used for describing any space that occurs between two states.   The transition from sleep to wakefulness, or the interval between meditating and coming back to interacting with the present moment, are also considered to be states of Bardo.

A group of about fifteen people were gathered for the meeting which the facilitator opened with some guidelines for the participants. She informed us that there were other Death Cafés operating in and around Cape Town.   Each gathering followed its own procedures and there did not exist any ideal protocol or favoured procedure.   Without being prescriptive a Death Café is a space for the participants to share their ideas and emotions around their personal experiences of the death of loved ones, with participants acting as support for each other.   It is a space in which people are encouraged to talk about their own experiences, rather than to engage in deep psychological theory.   People from all religious denominations are welcome to the group which includes non-believers and sceptics, as well.  The usual rules around confidentiality were mentioned as well as the need for everyone to be given a chance to express themselves.

The rationale for people attending this Saturday afternoon meeting were many and varied, as were the ages of those present which ranged from a young woman in her 20’s, to others of middle age and a few seniors, as well.

Many of the more senior participants spoke about their difficulty in disposing of their physical possessions.   One lady spoke about how she had sold many hundreds of books, but still had many beautiful books, illustrated with beautiful Tibetan objets d’art which she never looks at, but she nonetheless could not bear to part with them.   A middle aged gentleman spoke about how his memorabilia were packed away in a large bin in his garage.   He knew he would never look at the contents but was unable to part with material of such a personal nature.   Someone else spoke about her elderly mother spending time sitting in her wheel chair in the garage.   Her redundant possessions were stored in this external area and she spent time sharing the space with her beloved possessions.

It made me wonder whether this attachment to objects was a characteristic of this particular generation.   With today’s move toward minimalism, maybe the present generation of young people will not have the same feelings about their possessions when they reached the end of their life!

I became aware of the value of placing my reminiscences into a digital format with my personal blog posts living in an electronic format which does not pollute any land space.    Whilst listening to these reports about hanging on to belongings, I felt pleased I had instructed friends and family some years ago to forgo giving me presents on the occasion of my birthday.   I had reached the stage where physical things had started to lose their importance.   I have everything I need.

Varied experiences of difficulty around the acceptance of death were articulated.   In one instance the daughter did not want to discuss the funeral arrangements with her elderly mother.  This lady had definite ideas around how this last rite should be commemorated and because of her daughter’s reluctance to speak about it she had written detailed instructions to be followed on her death.   In other instances participants mentioned the problems they had when elderly family members were not prepared to accept they were at the last stage of their life.   They refused to talk about arrangements around their death.

There were differing opinions on the terminology to use in describing the state of death.   Someone took strong exception to bereaved people talking about their next of kin as having “passed on.”   She felt the use of the direct terminology was important.   “People do not pass on,” she proclaimed, “people die.”   No euphemisms were permissible for this lady.

The constructive meeting ended with the facilitator giving us the chance to quietly attend to any strong feelings we may be experiencing and to consciously and mindfully accept their presence as an integral part of the human condition.   I may well attend a similar meeting in the future.   The discussion was valuable.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Tracey Ford, the mother of a 17 year old boy who was shot dead at an ice-skating rink in London, some years ago has wisely said, “Forgiveness is not saying that what happened was OK, it’s being able to say within your heart that you accept what’s happened and you won’t let it stop you living a life or seeing humanity in the person who has hurt you.”

A frequently quoted life enhancing statement by survivors of the Holocaust of WW2 is, “We can forgive, but we will not forget.”

And, what did Nelson Mandela proclaim? “We must strive to be moved by a generosity of spirit that will enable us to outgrow the hatred and conflicts of the past.”

The topic of forgiveness has come up for me because next week I will be facilitating two meetings on Conscious Ageing when this subject will be the main item for discussion.    Whilst I have been running groups on conscious ageing,  for more than ten years, now I have taken on the role of a ‘blogger’ I have decided to incorporate my postings into this facilitation process.   So the current posting will act as both an introduction for the participants at the meeting, and hopefully the source of food for thought for the readers of this blog.

Stocism is a Hellenistic Philosophy which was developed in the 3rd century BC and has a very practical approach to life and living.   The central tenet of Stoicism reminds us that our dissatisfaction in life tends to depend on our reflexes rather than logical reactions to life events.  Buddhist philosophy and the Stoic belief system have a common thread running through their philosophy of how to live the good life. It is not what happens to you in your life that causes difficult emotions like hurt feelings, but it is rather your response to life events. So these unconscious reactions need to be transformed by the cognitively conscious part of the mind.  Once you are able to understand the reason for the unconscious wounding, the logic behind your reaction; then you are better able to deal with those feelings and forgive the perpetrator.

As many of you are aware, one of my ways of exercising my body and my mind is by participating in playing croquet.   This sport allows one to exercise both the mind and the body whilst at the same time having the opportunity to socialise with both partner and opponent.   I believe that intrinsic to the game of the croquet there is an exercise in forgiveness.

When I was recently telling my tennis playing companion about my love of croquet the response was, “But I have heard that is a most unfriendly game as it involves hitting the opponent’s ball away from the hoop.   Don’t you find you feel anger at having your beautifully placed ball sent far away from the target by your opponent.”   “But, it is just a game,” comes the obvious response.” Just as others will hit my opponent’s ball away, so they will in turn do the same to me.”   The procedures intrinsic to the game becomes excellent training in not taking offence.   The result – there is nothing to forgive!

Many senior people today were brought up in an era when youngsters were punished for making mistakes, either in school or in life.   This early life conditioning places us in the position where we may tend to want to punish those who have seemingly wronged us in our adult life.   This may be the unconscious and automatic reaction, but not necessarily the logical response to the hurt.    We can all make silly mistakes.   Today there is more enlightenment in the knowledge of child rearing.   There is a greater recognition of children’s rights.    Maybe the current generation of school goers will feel the need for forgiveness less often.

The practice of meditation is not easy for beginners.   The natural reaction is to think one is not getting it right.   “How can I attend to my breath when all these thoughts keep raging through my mind?   I think of all my tensions, and all the jobs which I need to get done.”   However, part of the rationale for developing a meditation practice is the training that is offered in self-forgiveness.   There is no wrong way to meditate.   Once you have set the attention, and go through the motion of bringing your attention back to your breath as soon as you realise it has wandered, then you are fulfilling the practice.   You do not need to forgive yourself.   There is no wrong way to meditate.    Those people who have the resolve to stick at meditation practices will probably find the ability for self-forgiveness is considerably enhanced.

One of my favourite personal stories relates to an anecdote which goes back some thirty years.  I was dining at home with my husband Joe, and our brother-in-law John arrived at the front door for a visit.   Bonzo, our black Labrador barked when he heard the knock on the front door,   I chastised him.   “Bonzo,” I said, “that is Uncle John at the front door.  You do not need to bark at him, you know he is our friend.”   To which Joe spontaneously responded, “But Bonzo is allowed to make a mistake.   You must forgive him.   He is only human.”

I wish to introduce you to one of my favourite thinkers.   Matthieu Ricard holds a doctorate in molecular biology from the Pasteur Institute, in Paris.   He is a multitalented scholar who interrupted his research into cell genetics to become a Buddhist Monk. He not only translates Buddhist texts but also acts as one of the chief interpreters for the Dalai Lama.   In addition he is a prolific photographer and has done sterling work in raising money for the underprivileged in India, Nepal and Eastern Tibet.

Much of the information in this blog is culled from an article in Tricycle which you can either read or restrict yourself to my personal interpretation!

Because Matthieu is immersed in scientific methodology I respect his capacity to interpret Buddhist texts and philosophy for the Western mind.   He has played an important role in the scientific study of Buddhism by being the first subject, who is a long term meditator, to be examined in an EEG machine.   I had read about this research about ten years ago and I was highly impressed when I learned about the results of his meditation on compassion when it was evaluated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The readings, when measuring Matthieu meditating on compassion, were the most extreme that had ever been witnessed. The needle measuring the requisite brain waves went right off the graph paper!    I was so impressed by this overt demonstration of the power of meditation that when a new course was offered in Mindfulness and Meditation by our local Stellenbosch University, I was the very first person to enrol.

Matthieu, in conversation with a journalist from Tricycle Magazine, says that one of the main pursuits of Buddhism is, “To bridge the gap between the way things appear and the way things are.”   So often our suffering is caused because we interpret events or conversations unrealistically.  Buddhism helps us to understand that events and happenings are not always as they may appear to us.   Most of our perceptions are from the interpretation we place on our sensations, rather than an accurate portrayal of reality.   So, one of the aims of Buddhist practice is to determine the difference between reality and our interpretation of events.    The study of Buddhism precepts is a therapeutic route to our realistic interpretation of our experiences.

A newspaper headline describing Matthieu as the “Happiest man in the world” has been oft quoted, and he was asked how he felt about this description.    “Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest man in the world,” he replied.  Happiness, however, can be over-rated as a personal goal according to Buddhist precepts.

He then went on to say, “Thinking that happiness is just an endless succession of pleasant experiences seems more like a recipe for exhaustion than it is for happiness. Happiness is a way of being, not a sensation. If you are only looking for pleasure, then you need to know that there’s probably no way that the brain could sustain pleasurable sensations forever.”   He believes that genuine happiness is related to wisdom.   Pleasure by itself is over-rated.   Whilst there is nothing wrong with pleasure, it cannot be equated with true happiness.   For true happiness, a person needs to be attuned to reality and free from mental toxins such as hatred and craving.

Matthieu has some interesting things to say about evolution.   If we need to wait for genes to change for people to become more altruistic and compassionate, we may need to wait for 50,000 years.   However, if the wisdom of Buddhist psychology and philosophy can be culturally acquired then there can be a major transformation towards more peaceful solutions to conflicts in just a couple of generations.

It would be great if the current major trend of seeing more and more people with a Western cultural orientation assume the skills of mindfulness and meditation,  could lead to the evolution of a greater understanding between all cultures, and ultimately we could achieve greater understanding and altruism between people of different social and political backgrounds.

“So the idea is to gradually progress from a state of mind where unfavourable conditions prevail, to another state that is characterized by stable attention, inner peace and clarity, confidence, courage, openness toward others, benevolence, the ability to deal with emotions, and other qualities of a vast and calm mind,” says Ricard.

For Matthieu in conversation view: