29 May 2013

Teaching the Next Generation About Death

How should we teach the next generation about death and dying? Ultimately it is a question about life and living. When my sister-in-law Lisa passed away on April 27th after a 2 and a half year battle with stage four breast cancer, we found the wisdom of Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1993) invaluable. In the last weeks at least 3 copies of the book were circulating through the house It is a modern text very influential in the hospice care movement, written specifically for the western, non-Buddhist audience. Lisa had taught us in life that art and its expression are healing and essential, converting half of the house's first floor into an artists' studio stocked with materials and spaces to create in multiple mediums. She passed away surrounded by her art and the images her loved ones had created for her. One of the last books she was reading was The Artist'sWay: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron (1992), and her copy which I inherited is still decorated with the multi-colored note tabs she had used to mark influential quotes and passages. This book is amazingly healing and spiritually transformative. Between these two texts I found the courage to learn a new culture of death and to celebrate its expression through art.

The image accompanied here is called “Transition” and I created it while accompanying Lisa on the day she passed away, seated in a corner of her art room, trying to capture our family's feelings on the death and dying process, specifically for the younger audience of the next generation. Between the inversed images of death and birth there is a potential space of light that had my paper I was drawing on been larger, would cycle around both images in a symbol of infinity representing the transformative birth into self-realized illumination, heaven, or the realm of the Buddahs as it is called in different cultural faiths. It is an image that came up the previous night while openly conversing about our sadness with our young nieces, all gathered around Lisa as she slept, transitioning from this world. In this moment our family was like that of the tigers saying good-bye, sending our dear Lisa on a journey between dreams leaving her body, but we reminded ourselves that in another dimension, in another world, we were also present in a state of excited anticipation, ready to receive a new life through birth either into a new life or into a state of illuminated heaven. We are present in all the realms simultaneously and we can focus our awareness of our true, multiple dimensional nature through meditation or contemplative prayer. In the higher realms we are not separated. In this world, in the experience of the death and dying process, we use art to console our grief, to express our emotions, to dissipate fear, and to fill ourselves with the love of life and living.

We covered our hands in sidewalk chalk coloring mandalas, in sticky glue and paints putting texture on canvas, in garden soil planting seedlings, in flour baking sweet cakes and breads. We danced, spinning in hoops and dressed up in costumes to celebrate birthdays, decorating the walls with colors and images. How else could we teach the next generation about death, about life? How else could we transform the experience of loss through art and expression into an experience of love? Through art and meditation, through open expression, we allow ourselves to be whole, not just our grief and loss, but our entire cosmic being, transformatively present and able to embrace our transitions.


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