Being with Dying
Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death
by Joan Halifax
Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2008
Reviewed by Kathryn Madden, CND
What if we were to discover that there is very little distinction between living and dying, and that contemplative practice simultaneously equips us to live and die well? In Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death,Zen priest and anthropologist Joan Halifax inspires us to mindfully "live and practice in such a way that dying is a natural rite of passage, a completion of our life, and even the ultimate in liberation" (xv).
Drawing upon four decades of experience in sitting with dying people and their caregivers, Halifax writes not only for them but also for "healthy adventurers as well—acolytes eager not only to explore the full range of life’s possibilities but also to focus pragmatically on the one and only certainty in our lives" (xvi). Spiritual guides will be intrigued by Halifax’s development of contemplative practice as a natural, spacious way of living in the moment that serves one well when ill or dying, in vivid presence to a dying loved one, or in everyday cultivation of the true nature of our mind as "a great ocean, boundless, complete, and natural just as it is" (2).
In each of the three major sections of the book Halifax develops one of the Three Tenets articulated by Roshi Bernie Glassman as a basis for peacemaking: not-knowing, bearing witness, and compassionate action. Each chapter concludes with a beautiful experiential meditation such as "Letting Go through the Breath" which prepares us for the reality that our last breath will be an out-breath—an "ah" of exhalation.
In part one, not-knowing is presented as a preparation in life or in death for dwelling in uncharted territory with the reality of how things are, rather than how they should be. Through trust and patience combined with openness and acceptance we "develop the necessary relationship between compassion and equanimity and learn to respond from a place that is deeper than our personality and our conceptual mind" (11).
Part two bears witness to the unpredictable and chaotic transition out of life as a way "to be with what is without resistance and allow for the inevitable changes around dying to happen freely" (61). In this, Halifax asks if we can "give no fear" (62) by letting go of control strategies or ideas of what it means to die well. She explains this is in order to let the dying person take the lead. Through inspiring examples and practical suggestions, she challenges us to care for ourselves just as we wish to care for others.
Part three describes how compassionate action "asks us to make a whole cloth of all the pieces of our lives, to include everything that has happened and not to reject anything" (125). Halifax offers numerous poignant experiences to describe the range of responses a dying person can face when encountering death. The stories illustrate "that the road to death is always matchless" (127). She emphasizes that often a dying person needs nothing but simplicity. Lastly, Halifax reminds us of the extraordinary nature of being a caregiver along "a path that is traceless, humbling, and often full of awe" (200).
Kathryn Madden, CND, completed spiritual direction training at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA, and at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. She is currently on the team of the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, NY, USA.