Newsletter September 29, 2019

Meditation and Death

This newsletter is about meditation and death, and is dedicated to my dear mom. She died peacefully this summer, and I want to tell you a little story about her to illustrate a few points about meditation at the end of life.

My mother was the quintessential mom, with a big dash of spunk.  She grew up in the Italian Alps in an area called South Tyrol, where meditation was not heard of, but prayer was—in fact, there were 7 monasteries, 7 convents and lots of churches for a town of under 20,000 people.  

She was a teacher of physical education in the local schools, bought her parents one of the first cars in the town, and loved hiking, playing the guitar and singing with friends and family.  When I look back at candid photos of her from her youth, she was always laughing and happy.

My aunts told me how many men fell in love with her, and yet she turned away all their marriage proposals.  But after meeting my dad at a dance for teachers and spending 3 days showing him around the area, they fell in love and he proposed to her next to a beautiful  castle.  She decided it was either him or no one, and with that decision, her whole “Sound of Music” fairytale youth suddenly changed.

They got married on a mountaintop and she was one of the first people to leave her home town in 1967.  She followed my dad to Michigan and she spoke not a word of English, like so many immigrants at that time.  

The two of them gradually built a life, raising 3 children, and mom gracefully dealt with all the trouble we kids created.  And I can assure you that we kids were quite good at making her life difficult.  Maybe sometimes she even wondered whether it was worth it to leave her quaint, little town in Italy...

Anyways, during one particularly tumultuous period in our family, I became interested in meditation and she gradually started getting interested herself, engaging me in conversation about meditation and mindfulness, accompanying me to various meditation centers and eventually practicing with me.

She moved back to her home town after my dad’s death, and had 11 golden years with her siblings, my brother, her friends and lots of traveling.  And slowly, her meditation practice deepened.   

For a number of years, we would call each other, agree to meditate for 20-30 minutes, then hang up the phone and each meditate—me in Michigan and her in Italy, and then we would call each other afterwards and chat about it.

Conversations always were even more tender and loving after our meditation and she would tell me how it helped her be more relaxed and let go of her troubles.  She would also meditate with my sister who lived in Belgium, doing the same phone buddy system and also meditated on her own, sometimes daily, sometimes a few times a week.

The last time she came to visit us a few years ago, we were already seeing signs of her health failing and I had to spend most of my time at her side, but still, we shared 4 wonderful months together.  

One day, she and I sat on our porch side by side and meditated together and she fell into a deep state of relaxation, after which she proclaimed, “I’ve never experienced that before and I just want to do that again!”  

In that meditation session, she let go more than she had ever done before.  And this was a prelude to what she would have to do over the next few years.  That last period of her life forced her to deal with letting go of her role as the matriarch of the extended family, letting go of her various physical and mental abilities, and much as we tried to help her with her functionality using nutrition, exercise, and lots of loving attention, her health continued to decline.  

Throughout her decline, at every visit except my last one, she asked about my life, my family, my siblings, my work, and I could tell that her mothering instincts were still there.  But over the last year, she spoke ever less, and the mom I knew faded quickly.  

One day early this year, I was back in Michigan walking our dog, and the question came up for me, "I wonder how I will feel when she is gone?"  And immediately, I felt a strong sense of reassurance from my heart and I knew that most of her was already there inside my very being—and there was no need to worry.

Eventually, she had to let go of almost all but the most basic functioning, was extremely feeble and bedridden but she didn’t lose her love, her sense of humor, and her stoic way of dealing with pain and suffering.  And she didn’t lose that sense of simply being, which she had practiced in meditation.  

At every visit, every few months, I would sit up on her bed with her and we would look out the window and be together—sometimes saying a few words, sometimes just being quiet and peaceful together, watching the clouds pass by in the sky.  And at every visit, we chatted briefly about death.  I would ask her if she was ready to go, and she would always say no.

But the last time, when I asked her that question, she was quiet and I knew something was different.  The next day, it was clear she was dying.  And I was privileged enough to witness the profound, otherworldly movement from life to death.  

During that final hour, my sister and I each held one of her hands, as I put my other hand on my mother’s heart.  We were completely silent and she went through the dying process—it was both peaceful and intense for her.  I could tell she was extremely focused.  Without planning it, I went into meditation with eyes open gazing at her, barely blinking and relaxed into that sense of being that shows up as meditation deepens.  

We had practiced letting go together so many times, and this was the final time.  As she was slipping away in the final few minutes, something quite remarkable happened.  I noticed that her focus shifted and a surge of joy and a great relief set in.  

And then she was gone.  

When I look back on that hour, I can only impart its importance to you by asking you to look back on your life and reflect on those few times in your life that stand out as profound—where you realized something or charted a new path that made all the difference in your life.  

Almost all of us have moments like that.  And for me, being with my mother in the last moments of her life was one of those times.  Those precious last moments showed me how important it was that she practiced meditation.  

If you boil meditation down, it is simply the process of letting go.  As we let go, with practice, our everyday sense of self melts as we relax into a more fundamental state of simply being, which then also slowly melts as our whole experience gently disappears.  When experience shows up again, we feel completely refreshed.

I am convinced that this simple daily practice not only helped my mother, but also helped me be with her when she was fading and when she died--without falling into despair or grasping at her, which would have made the process more difficult for her.  

The day after she died I walked outside into the big field behind my sister’s house and had a moment where I wondered, "where is she?"  And immediately, that same strong feeling came from my heart and I felt her there, no distance at all from me.  

Her being was there, right in the center of my own being into which I relax when I go into meditation, where there is nothing at all.  No thoughts, no worries, no stress, no suffering.  And now, some months after her death, I feel my dear mom in a new way, as motherhood itself, a kind of sacred source always there.

Meditation and death.  They are intimately connected.  Meditation helps us live more fully by letting go of the future and the past, and in its peak, we even let go of the present.  And now I have seen in the person who loved me the longest, that meditation not only helped her live her life with less stress, but eased her final passage.

How grateful I am to my dear mom for all she did for me, and to the wonder of meditation for all it did for us.

Subscribe to Kurt's Newsletter "Meditation in Real Life"

* indicates required