By Katie McDonald Johnson
You might be thinking: this is a heavy topic for the holiday season. I thought so myself until I came to realize that the acts of living and dying are happening all around us, all the time. They are gorgeous, messy, and complicated. Perhaps nature’s transition into Autumn and the shortest periods of daylight in the year conjure up emotions that resemble grief. Amongst the holiday festivities some of us may feel blue, retrospective, and/or isolated due to a life event (death, divorce, change, illness…) in progress or in memory – or maybe when the world around you demands cheer, you move in the opposite direction. The spaces in between life and death are made up of joys, sorrows, traumatic events, blissful events, and peace. It is my hope that one or more of my thoughts on the subject might serve you in a time of loss, or simply through one of life’s more intense challenges.
Those moments in which you have to call upon the deepest rooted reserves of courage and insight seem to come out of nowhere like a freight train in the night. At least that is how I felt on the day I found out my Dad had cancer. At that moment, there was no way I could wrap my head around this information and accept it. I kept waiting for someone to take it back, to have made a mistake, to stumble back into the reality I knew and not this unbelievable new territory. After hours of crying, on the floor, on the couch, in the arms of my beloved, I was ready to take it in. Ready to take it on. He was still here – he had the fight of his life ahead of him. I settled into the emotional state of being present, literally moment to moment living.
1) We are ALL ONE. Everything that can be found in the universe can be found mirrored within us as individuals. We are all, literally, made of the same stars, dust, earth, water, and energy. We are all connected. To me, this means that we are always to be connected. Regardless of religion, health, education, race, sex – we are connected to the trees, the oceans, the dirt, the atmosphere, and they to us as humans. The morning Dad died, the nurses and doctors hugged us. Cried with us. We are ALL ONE. We are ALL LOVE. There is peace in this.
2) Time in nature with our Mother Earth. The circle of life and death is accelerated in nature. She can offer such majestic perception if you just stop and observe. The tides will continue to pull in and roll out after we take our last breaths. The beginning, middle, and end cycles of life are taking place all around us in plants, animals, and oceans. The arena of life on this earth is an amazing teacher and counselor. All around us now, nature is slowly going into hibernation. The leaves falling from the trees have lived out their stories; in their place new life willgrow. Mother Earth is nestled between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice; we know the light is coming and that this cycle is a necessary step. Just as the darkness of winter is remembered in plants and animals, experiences, lessons, and love we received from those who no longer exist in physical form (or in relationships that have come to a close) move forward with us and become a part of what makes you wholly YOU.
“Being Present” is a term we hear often and a practice we cultivate through meditation, yoga, and spiritual growth. I had heard it, and verbalized this teaching in yoga class and meditation. But until this juncture, I didn’t know how multifaceted, therapeutic and necessary this practice is. For me, it meant dissolving the fear of losing my Dad to this disease and instead concentrating my focus on what we knew in that moment, not what could happen down the road. It meant stepping into the role of daughter and being there in the way I could best serve our family. This felt a whole lot like transitioning into what we refer to in Prana Vinyasa yoga as the River Guide – not instructor – but someone to help navigate the sometimes swiftly flowing rapids as well as the gentle waters.
3) Breathe. Pranayama (breath practice and expansion) circulates vital life energy. Breathe for yourself, breathe for the dying, breathe for all beings who suffer. I distinctly remember my Dad’s oxygen levels rising when I led him through pranayama. Practice Samavritti pranayama – it’s so simple, so pure: equal the inhale and exhale in duration. Stay present. Control the breath, as there are not many other things that we can. This will help hold back tears when you need to be strong, compose your body after you’ve let the tears flow, and remain clear even when you feel dark. B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on Life: “Pranayama liberates one from fear, including even the fear of death. If there is anxiety in the body, the brain contracts. When the brain relaxes and empties itself, it lets go of its fear and desires. It dwells neither in the past, nor the future, but inhabits the present.”
I felt the call to write about this as well as a few other theories (both philisophical and personal) and practices from which I drew strength while Dad was dying and in the wake of his passing. By this I mean how they helped me cope in the thick of things; in the acute grief of loss (or trauma). These actions and beliefs have become woven into the tapestry of my life/consciousness/ritual. This is how I practice remaining present when hurled into unsteady territory.
Being with someone who is leaving the physical body is as magical as with one who is being born. It’s a privilege. A dying person has a lot to teach about what is important in life. Honor those teachings and be thankful for their transmission. Their energy lives on in you. Savor the days when you can utilize these universal teachings. Be forgiving of yourself on the days when all you can do is cry. Look for the light of the people you love who are gone from sight in all places and beings – most importantly within yourself. Honor the experiences that make you who are you are RIGHT NOW. Remember that the story of all life is circular and the end melts back into a beginning. Om Namah Shivaya.