Rupesh Chhagan LAc   
                                      
June 18, 2011

The Sinking Ship: Death, Dying, and Chinese Medicine
posted under Meditation, Musings

It was Friday night, and Dan Jones was on his deathbed.  In his 70’s, riddled with pancreatic cancer, the five of us paid our respects with a 15 minute silent meditation.

Dan had been a skillful guide to my men’s group one Saturday in a straw bail house out past the Y in Oak Hill.  Seared in my mind is the memory of his haunting clear eyes and my hands gripping his outstretched index and middle fingers.  Intuitively, he asked, “Who betrayed you?”  He held space, allowed me to squeeze as hard as I could while a deeply buried volcano of rage erupted from within me into the still Hill Country air.  I am grateful for that day and his steady presence.


Now, here I was in a vigil with this long-time Austin psychotherapist and pioneer of men’s groups.  I decided to keep my eyes open, resting them on him as I sat on the floor.  He was on his side in this hospice bed, breathing through his mouth, laboring to take in air.

All of a sudden, we switched places in my mind.  I was him and he was me.  I was old and dying, swimming in an opiate fog, cancer consuming my organs, breathing like a fish out of water.  I was horrified.  All of a sudden, I painfully understood that I will die!

I struggled to keep my eyes open and continue to visually take him in, but the stronger force of fear prevailed.  It felt as if an invisible finger was forcing my eyes closed.  My inner “hero” fought for awhile, but eventually the kindest thing I found for myself was to let the eyes close.  That evening, I clearly witnessed in me the One Who Is Afraid to Look.

We’re all in the same boat.  A boat of flesh and bone.  And these boats are destined to sink.  They always have and always will.  So what is your relationship to this sinking ship?  How do you face the Inevitable End?

Practice Dying Every Day

Chinese Medicine offers both an invitation to investigate this relationship and a map that can cultivate greater harmony with the relationship to death and dying.

The first pillar of Chinese Medicine is Meditation. In this context, it’s the simple steps of:

  1. Pause during any “ending” in your life.
  2. Reflect on the question, “How do I do endings?”
  3. Notice how the energy is moving (the sum impression of the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations that are occurring)

Pausing and inquiring into the question “How do I do endings?” is the start to discovering how you will do the Big Death.  And by “endings,” I mean things like a divorce, a move, a change in job, quitting a habit, going to sleep at night, or simply ending a hangout session with a friend.  These are the “little deaths” of regular life.

The next step is to bring mindful awareness (the simple act of witnessing) to how you respond to all the “little deaths” of daily experience.  At these moments, do you find yourself getting busy or anxious?  Do you turn on sitcoms and space out?  Do you slow down, get quiet and reflective?  Do you plummet into the abyss of despair and loss?  Each person will have their own unique “ending” style.

Your unique “ending” style is the habit that will be in place when you die.  The approach towards the Big Death is simply another transition (from this body into whatever comes next) in the stream of a lifetime of transitional moments.  It’s the Big Transition.  And it’s the most mysterious one.  In Death, our deepest habit patterns of the mind surge forward with great force.  These deep habits are the accumulation of the billions of responses to everyday living you have done thus far.

“We get good at what we practice.”  (Joko Beck)  If you are practicing avoiding endings, then you will be avoiding Death till the very end.  If you practice calm bravery in the face of unknown transitional moments, you will bring calm bravery to the Big Mystery.  Practice dying every day. If we get “good” at the little Deaths, perhaps we will able to bring grace and wisdom to the most challenging transitional moment of them all, the big Death.

the Roadmap to Death & Dying

The third step is noticing how the energy movesThe Five Phases of Chinese medicine is a map for how energy moves in a process of transformation.  By process, I mean any life event that has a beginning and end.  It could be the act of reading this article, driving to the grocery store, or the life cycle of a human being.  In addition to describing how energy moves, the Five Phases describe the resources available during each phase of the journey through a life process.

Each Phase describes a quality of energy.  The season and the stage of human development associated with each Phase helps illuminate the quality of energy.  Let’s start with Water and move through each Phase.

Water relates to the season of Winter.  The energy is more still, contracted, laying in wait before the stirrings of spring.  In terms of human life, it is associated with pre-conception, conception, the time in the womb and early infancy.  It is the energy of potential before structure.  It is pure Being.  Think of a newborn with wide wondrous eyes not knowing the boundary between herself and the world.  In terms of a process, it is before the next process takes form.

Wood relates to the Spring.  The energy goes upward.  The earth begins to surge and throb.  The sprout elbows its way out of the seed.  Vibrant green leaves speak of new life and the ambition to reach the sun.  In human life, it relates to energy moving from the unconscious to the conscious.  It is the driving force of ego development and personality during childhood.  It is the time in a process of envisioning, making plans and decisions. It is the stage when an idea strives to manifest into the world.

Fire is associated with Summer.  As the sun moves towards the highest point in the sky at Summer Solstice, the days grow longer.  There is more heat and light during this time.  The energy illuminates the world, casting outwards and touching everything.  Fire phase represents energy in full consciousness moving into the world in the form of expression.  It is the development phase of early adulthood.  In the fire phase we act, respond, express our will, execute our plans and decisions, assert our individuality, make the mark of our individual character on the outside world.  In a process, it is the peak energetic experience.

Earth is associated with Late Summer.  The energy is neutralizing and calming.  It is when energy takes form.  It is the perfect, succulent, ripe peach.  It relates to mature adulthood.  It is the time in a process where we reap the consequences of our actions, when things have been manifested, assimilated or integrated in daily reality. It is the time to savor the fruits of our labors.

Let’s spend some extra time with the next two phases.  As a culture focused on production and speed, this next energetic shift to slowness and the internal experience is given less importance and attention.  We need to practice more being here.

The Fall is the time of Metal.  Leaves fall off the trees.  Green is replaced by brown.   The energy begins to contract, turn inwards.  Things return to seed.  This is the time in a process when things are ending, coming to completion, and letting go. Things become fully integrated & instinctive.  It is a time to connect to inner longing, discriminating what is most precious & essential.  The organs connected to this Phase are the Lungs and Large Intestine.  These organs function by taking in what is valuable and releasing the unessential.

Sadness lets us know we are in this phase.  In the clinic and in my own experience, this can be a challenging emotion to fully experience.  It often feels “too big” and all consuming to relax into.  Also, the phrase that comes up with sadness in my clients is, “I thought I dealt with this.  When will it end?”  It is good to remember the gifts that become available with the unimpeded movement of Sadness through our being.

First, sadness offers Release.  Nothing compares to the relaxation after a good cry.  A good cry is one that wrings out the body.  It’s a cry that is unconcerned with “keeping it together” or “being rational.”   It’s like the sweet quiet moments after a sudden flash of rain. Second, the virtue of Preciousness grows the more we allow sadness its full expression.  Preciousness is the simultaneous experience of the value and beauty in life and the impermanence of all of life.  It is expressed by the sentiment, “O’ this too will pass.”  Preciousness is the rushing impact of a breathtaking vista.  Preciousness is the surge of bittersweet joy when hugging your child before you go to work, feeling the love and knowing there is no guarantee you will see each other again.  Finally, the energy of sadness enhances discernment.  Knowing what is essential and what is no longer needed.  At the end of a process, like a romantic breakup or ending a job, there is the opportunity to feel the loss, gather learnings from the experience, and make decisions about what’s valuable.  This discernment carries forward into the next experience with wiser choices.

If the Metal Phase gets stuck or avoided, psycho-spiritual and physical disease arises.  Physical disorders of the Lung and Large Intestine (eg. asthma, constipation or diarrhea) manifest.  On the psycho-spiritual level, an unhealthy relationship to loss and gain develops.  This may be expressed as lingering unhealthily in the realms of despairing grief or insatiable longing.  Only seeing that things end without the awareness of beauty, value, and that things are also beginning spirals the psyche downward into the vortex of despair.  Only seeing the beauty and value in the “things” of the world without acknowledging their inevitable ending leads to a grasping materialistic nature.  Metal imbalance may also show up as stoicism–a remarkable absence of grief and longing.

Grief comes in waves.  And, like after a night of high tides and crashing waves, gems appear on the shore.  Wondrous and unknown creatures from the sea depths lay there for your discovery…

Prepping for my upcoming talk on Death & Dying brought me face to face with the question I was going to ask the audience, “How do you do endings?  What’s your ending style?“  As I reflected, I felt a knot in my throat and that feeling of unspoken words and squashed grief.  I remembered the two funerals that were held for Luke, my best friend in 11th and 12th grade.  He was a wild child.  When we got together, the beatnik, shaman, rebel, and teenager merged and exploded in poetry and improvisational sketches.  We would hitchhike from our school in the Dallas suburbs pretending to be vagabond pilgrims, nowhere to go and praying to everything.

After his fall in the mountains in Germany, his body was shipped back to the States and there was this ill-suited Christian ceremony that culminated in his cousin standing up and shouting in his grief, “I don’t know what Luke you guys are talking about!  Luke was too good for this world!”   I sat in the pew, lump in throat, mute.  The second funeral was out at Lake Belton.  This one was me making good for the promise I’d made him years ago.  When alive, he made me promise to give him a Viking funeral.  So years later, I put together a model Viking craft, painted Sejo (his nickname) on the side, and found myself with his three sisters and their partners in a limestone cove on the lake.  The lake rocked and churned with weekend warriors full of beer and chicken zipping around on their jetskis and powerboats.  I started to stress that this ceremony would be another disaster.  Magically, out of the chaos came a moment of stillness.  I held the boat in my hands as Johnny paddled me out deeper into the lake in an inner tube.  I set the ship  ablaze, and we had the Viking funeral Luke had wanted.  Though I finally found the right ritual, my voice box was still stuck, and I was at a loss of the right words.

So, I took the time to write the eulogy 16 years later on the floor of my house.  As I wrote, words and tears and anguish and praise streamed out.  My throat loosened and I left that experience feeling that Luke had never died.  The shaman, the poet, the artist, the irreverent wild child lived on inside me, enlivening me.  That evening, without me speaking a word about my private eulogy, one of Luke’s sisters had a dream with Luke and I in it.  I was a fortune teller in her dream.

And now we enter back into the Water Phase.  We started with Water–the infinite potential of conception.  Now we enter the infinite potential of Death.  The Five Phases are a circle with no true beginning or end.  Just as physics explains:  matter cannot be created or destroyed, merely transformed.  Water relates to the Winter.  It is associated with Cold, the sensation that sets in as warmth leaves the body before rigor mortis.  It is the time in the process to turn even deeper within, cultivate quiet, listen and set intentions for the next process.  Water is the Great Mystery.  It is the realm of the unconscious.  It is beyond time and space, linear thinking and cognitive knowing.

Our Will arises from the Water Phase.  Will has two aspects:

  1. Using our willpower to dynamically enact our deepest intention in the world (eg. spearheading a campaign to raise money for the treatment and awareness of suicide after losing a loved one to suicide)
  2. Using willingness to surrender deeply into a harmonious relationship with life’s paradox.  (eg.  Being okay with what is known and unknowable.  Matter and energy are ultimately indivisible.)

The emotion encountered here is Fear.  To let our being drop deeply into Water energy is not to eliminate Fear, but to willingly turn towards our Fear, staying open and conscious with It.  Fear’s function is to protect by heightening awareness.  On the one hand, it signals the response to run, fight, or hide from danger encountered in the environment, like a bear in the woods or the mugger in the dark alley.  On the internal level, it rises up as we confront our deepest psychic phobias, like the realization of one’s mortality.  Here, we have the choice to distract ourselves and become entrenched in addictive habits or stay steady and gain deeper access to our innate knowing.  Wisdom is the ability to navigate the world through innate knowing.  The virtue of Water is Wisdom.

According to the inner tradition of Chinese Medicine, each of us are endowed with a unique destiny.  A life spent in Wisdom is a life attending to this unique seed of being, learning the perfect conditions and causes to allow this seed to sprout, flower, and then gracefully return to compost.  Our ability to compassionately turn towards Fear deepens the ability to hear and respond accordingly to this inmost request of the spirit.

Kim said she was scared of what comes next.  The “Big Unknown” felt threatening.  I offered to hold her hand and travel into the energy of the unknown together.  As she turned deeper inwards, away from the TV and pictures of sandy beaches and the hope of being cured from her Lung cancer, she started to envision a field of horses.  Horses of different ages playing and lounging.  I had the thought that horses being “put out to pasture” might be a pleasant reframe of her inevitable end.  In a curious voice, she said, “They’re just playing.”  I felt her body settle and become soft.  And then the Fear entered.  She started to tremble.  And then shake like a hypothermic body emerging from a lake’s cracked ice.  I reminded her that I was there and she could come and make eye contact when the fear got too big.  We danced at the edge of the Unknown for the rest of the hour.  The next week I saw her, she sobbed the entire hour.  At the end of the hour, I asked her if she wanted to make a date for me to visit her next week.  She said, “I may be dead by next week.”  Six days later, she passed away.

The organs associated with Water are the Kidneys and Bladder.  Physical and psycho-spiritual problems arise when we get stuck or avoid the Water Phase’s full expression.  Problems in reproduction, growth, and development (eg. infertility, early menopause, birth defects) reflect an imbalance in Water.  Lower back pain, knees, and ankles are prone to injury.  Hearing and head hair loss reflect weakness in the Kidneys.  Psycho-spiritually, fear and anxiety predominate the mind when avoiding Water energy.  A lifestyle choice of “burning the candle at both ends” is illustrative of a Water imbalance.  Rather than a grounded, reality based understanding and execution of one’s resources (energy, time, physical and mental aptitude), choices that lead to exhaustion and depletion will be taken.  Because the mind does not have a healthy relationship to Fear and life’s paradox, the use of resources both internally and externally will be unwise.  Becoming stuck in the Water energy leads to a personality mired in fantasy.  A classic illustration is a pale, doughy bodied meditator uncomfortable in situations outside the practice of “Oneness” within a dim lit meditation hall.

I’d been working on this rock climb on and off for over 6 years.  In the beginning, it felt impossible.  A pipe dream.  Holds so small my fingers felt like they were breaking.  Moves so powerful my biceps felt like they would snap and roll up like rapidly retracting cheap 70’s window screens.  And yet, with a little competitive mojo from my friends and some training, climbing up this steep swell of limestone slowly become possible.

Dan Jones had died the night before, just a few hours after we saw him at the Hospice.  After the Hospice, we convened at my house, holding an impromptu memorial that included laughter and reverence and reflections on death and dying.  The next morning, I went climbing.  We got a late start at the crag.  The crisp climbing friendly temperatures of the morning were gone.  An afternoon Texas sun roasted above.  From the first move, I knew something unique was happening.  I felt light, almost like levitating.  The difficult moves felt easy and I remember having a quizzical curiosity as I floated up the rock.  My body was moving with power and precision, but my mind felt like a point of consciousness outside of myself.  I became a curious witness in motion.  It was an out-of-body experience thoroughly within my body.  As I stood on top of the wall, elation filled me.

Then I felt Dan’s presence.  An immense joy infused my being.  In those moments, I saw clearly that Dan was in everything.  Every cell of my body, every molecule I was breathing, every fern filled cliff I climbed.  He lives on.  And I saw that we all do too.  We never really die or are even born, just shape-shifting energies arising and passing in this continuous field of activity.  The message, “All is One,” filled me with enormous vitality.

Synopsis

  1. Practice dying every day.
    A.  Pause, Reflect, and Notice during life’s little “endings”
    B.  Get a sense of your “ending style”:  the habit pattern of thoughts, emotions, and
    body sensations during endings
  2. Use the 5 Phases as a Map and Reminder
    A.  As a Map:  see what phase you are in based on the energy; see which phase you prefer and which you avoid
    B.  As a Reminder:  there are gifts that arise naturally from each Phase even when the emotion is uncomfortable
  3. Develop your capacity to stay with sadness (Metal) and fear (Water).
    A.  The gifts of sadness:
    1.  Release: the physical relaxation after a good cry; the mental calm after grief is
    fully experienced
    2.  Preciousness:  the simultaneous experience of life’s impermanence and
    beauty/value
    3.  Discernment:  knowing what’s essential and not essential
    B.  The gifts of Fear:
    1.  Inner Wisdom: being able to hear and carry out innate knowing; setting
    intention and using intuition
    2.  Outer Wisdom: skillful use of outside resources to cultivate inner resources
    3.  Will
    a.  Ability to dynamically manifest our deepest intention in the world
    b.  Ability to surrender deeply into a harmonious relationship with life’s paradox