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