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Thursday, 20 March 2014

How Not to Freak Out About Dying

Sara Davidson is a respected American journalist and best-selling author of, among other books, Leap!, Loose Change and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, more familiarly known as Reb Zalman, is also a best-selling author – of more than a dozen books. The one you are most likely to know even if you haven't read it (you should), is From Age-ing to Sage-ing.

You should also read the book I am telling you about today. Every old person and probably some not-so-old people should read it. Here's why.

A few years ago, Reb Zalman contacted Sara to propose that they conduct a series of conversations together, conversations she would turn into a book. At age 85, he told her he wanted

”...to discuss the stage of life he calls December, 'when you can feel your cells getting tired, and your hard drive is running slow. I've been in your years but you haven't been in mine,' he continued, 'and I want to help people not freak out about dying.'”

December Project CoverSo in 2009, they began The December Project, meeting for an hour or two on most Fridays over the next two years as the Rebbe gentled lifelong and sometimes combative skeptic, Sara, with love and warmth, insight and understanding, great wisdom and much laughter into a deeper awareness of her mortality.

The book, I believe, might do the same for you. It does for me.

Although little of it is new to his “fans,” some of Zalman's personal story Sara relates helps make clear to readers who are unfamiliar with the Rebbe that this is a book for all people who are seekers.

Even a devout atheist would have trouble dismissing a man of god who counts among his teachers and friends the influential Christian theologian Howard Thurman, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and Timothy Leary with whom he shared an acid trip.

Taking LSD with Leary (something I too once did) reports, Sara, had broadened his views:

[UPDATE FOR CLARITY: I thought the parenthetical remark was clear but apparently not - it was I who took LSD with Tim Leary at his Millbrook home in New York State - as did quite a few people I knew in those days.]

”'It was clear that what I'd experienced in prayer and meditation before – the oneness and connection with God – was true, but it wasn't just Jewish. It transcended borders.

“'I was sitting in a Hindu ashram with Tim Leary, who was Irish Catholic, and I realized all forms of religion are masks that the devine wears to communicate with us.

“'Behind all religions, there's a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people. For Jews, it's a Torah with a crown. For Christians, the log-on to the infinite is Jesus. But no single point of view alone is right.'”

Reading that, I wanted to remind Reb Zalman that many non-believers also feel a oneness with the infinite without the trappings of organized religion. Then I realized almost at once that Zalman is too wise not to know this.

In one Friday session, Zalman told Sara about a personal task he was then working on – forgiveness - which has, he explained, three parts: repairing harm you have done, forgiving those who have harmed you and, the hardest one - forgiving oneself.

Sara, as she so often does in the book, asked my question:

”'How do you arrive at the point where you no longer feel ashamed?'

“Zalman called that kind of shame 'high fidelity regret,' writes Sara. 'I don't think there's real fire in hell,' he said, 'but if you experience intense regret, that's what the fires of hell are.'

“He said there's no point trying to dismiss or bury what happened. 'But to suffer all the time is stupid.'”

You can't fault Reb Zalman for being indirect. And then he shows Sara how she can learn to repair the harm, the pain, the fear.

At the end of the book, Sara the skeptic seems less freaked out about dying. She sums up the Rebbe's precepts:

”...trust intuition; when your memory fails, focus on your inner sense of presence – 'I am'; keep your attention on the road forward, not the rearview mirror; be generous without judging; forgive – everyone, especially yourself; and practice letting go...

“I've noticed that I'm more at ease with the reality of dying,” she says. “I view it less with dread and more with increasing readiness for the loosening and releasing of ties. This is not a fixed position, of course...”

No. On this subject, it never is.

There are 10 short chapters at the end of The December Project. Ten little lessons or exercises devised by Zalman, his wife and Sara to help readers “become more at ease with mortality.” They cover such issues as giving thanks, what to do when memory fails, kvetching to God and reviewing your life.

The book will be published next week on Tuesday 25 March when it will be available here and at most of the usual booksellers. Half the proceeds from sales go to support Rabbi Zalman's work.

Here is a photo of Sara Davidson and Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi from back of the book's dust jacket.

Sara and Zalman


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lyn Burnstine: My Angel


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

As we approach very old age, I think things happen that can help us be more naturally accepting of our own impending death. These are things I notice:

My happiness consists less of excitement and anticipation for new things, and more of peace and contentment with right now.

I experience more tiredness and pain, and less desire to go out in the world.

I feel more love for people and less impatience with them.

I can more clearly see my place in the continuity of life, and realize that my death is simply a tiny thread in a huge cosmic fabric.

I thank you for letting us know about these books. I really appreciate every bit of information you pass on.

A couple of years ago when some health problems had me knocking on deaths door, I gave a lot of thought about how I would handle my demise and, what I decided was this. Face death and dying head on. Don't look for any mysticism about it and look at it as the natural way of things and then do what I did.
Not having any family to do this for me when the time came, I met with my friendly, local funeral director and arranged, and paid, for everything. If you want to know what reality is like, thumb through a casket catalogue for a few minutes, that's facing death head-on.

I find that letting go is the hard part. Old memories creep in so often now and the ones of being wronged are part of past remembrances. At long last I am learning to forgive and when I can forget I think I will have learned to stop looking in the rearview mirror.

If it were possible and I knew just when to do this, I would like to go out on a small boat or raft on a quiet body of water, and at night with the stars overhead, drink some good wine until I was very calm and just let it all go. I would really like to spare my family trying to comfort me or be there for some final words of wisdom or insight. And, as much as I appreciate the work of Hospice, I would prefer not to have people coming in all the time to check on me, to try to provide what they might think I need, to assume things about me and my feelings about death. I would like the opportunity to let each of my family members know what they have meant to me, and how much I have enjoyed life, but that I was ready to let it go. And then I would like to lie there and let it go. I would like for this to be something that is just between me and whatever the source of the energy of life may be. But I'm realistic and realize that my experience of death will probably be nothing like this. Still, I hope for as little intervention as possible at the end.

"Taking LSD with Leary (something I too once did) reports, Sara, ..."

I guess you mean Sara took the LSD but with the commas there,
it sounds like it was you, Ronni. Or was it you?

Thanks, Roni. I'll definitely buy this book, not because I fear dying but because of the quotes you included, i.e. "feel your cells getting tired and your hard drive is running slow." It's a comfort to me to read the thoughts of wise people who are experiencing what I feel.

At present I'm reading for the second time Daniel Klein's book on his trip to Greece which I also discovered on your site.
Carol Rowland

This will make a great companion reader to the book along the same lines you recommended to us a little over a year ago called "Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar – Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes"

Just ordered a copy of the book. Thanks for the recommendation.

Just turned 86 and am in good health with all the aggravations--forgetfulness, fatigue etc. that many have. Ready to go! BUT--the how, the where and pain for my darlings that I am leaving behind do concern me. So very silly since those are the very things no one can control!
Do believe in some sort of life beyond but nothing mixes me up more than philosophy so I send up a few prayers and hope for the best. Living my most worthwhile and best life as far as it's possible. And definitely want to go ASAP.

I am not worried at this point about the process of dying. Maybe I should be, but I have always been so wholly terrified by the prospect of not being alive, that I didn't think about death itself.

I love the title of the book, and I have been thinking a lot late about how to deal with the fear of non-existence. I hope the book addresses it, it would be so valuable. Thanks, as always Ronni, for what you share here.

I like Cathy J.'s idea! I don't think I'm freaked out about death itself so much as how I'm going to get there; in other words, the process. If I knew I'd just "go" quickly, I wouldn't be much concerned. However, if I find myself in a long period of decline with the end being total helplessness, disability and dependency, I'd like the option of establishing the time, place and conditions of my departure. However, although I live in a "death with dignity" state, there are still many restrictions.

Elizabeth Rogers, Lisa and others...
The topics you've mentioned - fear of non-existence, declining health, dependency, choosing time and place of departure (or not) are all addressed in The December Project.

It is a wide-rangiing conversation richer in thought and wisdom than you can find in most places. There is so much I had to leave out that is at least as worthwhile as what I have written about.

Until my husband died I never thought about death. We were busy and planning and doing and living and life was good. Then he suddenly got sick and died nine months later.

Now, three years later and 69 years old, I think about me and dying. Like Woody Allen(?)--I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there.

Darn it, this is not the right time to leave. We're on the brink of exciting times ahead.

The 50s - that was a good time to go. Probably the dullest decade ever.

I do think we should have a choice though.

I just got back from a lecture at the senior hall titled, "I'm Dying to Talk to You." It was given by a man who'd been a Hospice volunteer for 25 years. Serious, end of life topics but we all laughed a great deal during the hour and I left there with lots of tools for how to talk about death and dying.

Darlene's comments always speak to this one.
With Spring arriving, busy all day and still no answer for some health issues
this comment is me today
"feel your cells getting tired
and your hard drive is running slow...

THANK YOU, RONNIE. This is exactly the book that I need. It goes along with everything I believe in. Love finding people who think the way I do. It is so reinforcing. Which is also the reason I love your blog.

I just pre-ordered it from Amazon.com Am tempted to buy a whole box of them to give to my friends. If I could afford it, I would. I will just have to let them know about it and hope they can afford a copy of their own. And of course, as soon as I finish reading it, I will begin to loan my copy out to my closest friends. We do a lot of sharing like that.

I've ordered this one up from the public library. It will probably be six months til I see it, but that's fine. Still living ...

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