End of Life

In the last few  years, I have walked with lots of people and their families through the journey of grief and loss as a chaplain. Death like birth can be a painful yet a very sacred moment.

I am currently home visiting my parents, and now I get to journey with my father as he journeys towards death. In the past year, my father discovered his kidneys have significantly being effected by his blood pressure medicine. In April of this year, my father’s kidney function was at 15% and he had a tremendous health scare before seeing a specialist at Duke hospital. Despite some critical changes to his meds, my father’s kidneys have continued to deteriorate: November it was at 12% and currently, my father’s kidneys are at 9% function.

The sadness is intensified by the fact that my father has chosen not to pursue medical measures like dialysis or seeking to get a kidney transplant. My father is a minister and he has told me that he is ready if it be God’s will. I respect my father’s choice and decision, but it still makes me deeply sad. I am not quite ready to let my father go…but it’s out of my control.

I have chosen to be with my parents the best I can and try to support my mom and dad. It feels different to navigate hospice as a son, even though I have helped many others navigate through the process of dying as a chaplain.

I usually have not been this vulnerable and personal on this blog, but I think I will continue to share my journey with accompanying my father through end of life and journeying with my mother as she goes through the process of grief. I don’t know if anyone is reading, but I need to write so the sadness does not swallow me whole.

I offer this prayer for both my family and all those journeying with someone as they approach end of life, and as they journey through the pain of it all:

Divine Creator,

May you bless this moment with all its pain, sadness, laughter and joy.

May we remember that each moment is sacred. May Your loving hold each one of us as we journey together to the unknown. Help us to walk with our loved one, and may You hold us in Your Light as we say goodbye and they journey home to You.

Thank you for the gift of Your love, the gift of family, and the gift of this very moment.

Unconventional Metta Practice

Spiritual life is something I have to live in the midst of my life. Sometimes, I suffer from the delusion that if I only have time I could dedicate more time to spiritual practices. I think intentional time set for prayer and meditation is very important, but so is incorporating spiritual practices outside of that intentional time.

I wanted to write a blog post about metta meditation practice, and thought it might be helpful to share my experiences with some more unconventional times and places, where I practice metta. Metta is Pali word is roughly translated as loving-kindess. There are different ways to do metta meditation practice, but here’s one way that’s part of my practice. There are numerous phrases one can use to wish oneself and others metta or loving-kindess, but my teachers have always told me to begin with myself. A simple phrase I use are: “may I be happy, may I be healthy and may I be free from suffering.” I am sure you’ve heard other versions, so use whatever phrase that comes easily to you. I first start with myself, someone I know in passing, someone I am close to, someone that’s I have difficulty with, then I often return to wishing myself metta before I move onto people in my neighborhood, then all beings near by, and then all sentient beings everywhere.

Most teachers tell you not to do metta for someone you are romantically involved with, but teachers like Judith Simmer-Brown from the Shambhalah Buddhist tradition have encouraged such practice. I was at a lecture she gave at Duke years ago, and she encouraged folks to do metta to loved ones. Traditionally, metta for those you are romantically involved have been discouraged, because there can be strong feelings of attachment and mixed emotions, but my own experience has been that it has often been helpful to do metta for my significant other.

Some of the more unconventional areas I like to practice metta meditation is when I drive, especially if I am stuck in rush hour traffic or on the highway due to an accident. I find this practice very grounding and helps me not to jump to road rage, and extend compassion to other drivers and even other living beings as I travel.

I also have begun to pratice metta around grief and loss, even extending it to the soul/life force of a departed person, and then usually some metta for friends and family of the deceased. As I said before, I find it helpful to return to practicing metta to myself and returning to it if I find my heart hardening or just hitting a wall, which can include drowsiness, tension, or other forms. Like all meditation practice, root yourself in your breath and body as you repeat these phrases. There’s no hard rules on how long you have to dwell on each person, but I typically like to spend some significant time with each person/subject I am wishing metta too. I typically like to do 20 minutes of metta meditation, but sometimes do shorter or longer practice depending on the occasion. Sometimes an hour long metta practice is needed on the highway, so I don’t loose my shit. 🙂 I also like to practice metta while my daughter naps, and extend loving-kindess to her. I used to practice metta meditation when she was a baby while I was holding her, which is a wonderful practice since you can feel your child breath and stomach rise and fall against your own rising and falling of your breath.

Meditation Poem Series: #42

I found out tonight that a friend of mine died today, he was battling pancreatic cancer. I feel a lot of sadness, but also gratitude that I got to know him and that our lives crossed paths.

I return to my sit even when life happens, in the midst of joy and sadness…I keep coming back to my seat.

Meditation Poem #42
death cannot keep away
lives woven together
by common solution

Meditation Poem Series: #32

I had a Christmas Eve miracle, I woke up before my daughter this morning. I was able to sit for 15 minutes while she slept, I could hear the rising and falling of her breath. I am grateful for this morning and being able to sit, and be present to life.

After my morning meditation, we were able to have breakfast. We had a small service for my brother and sister’s baby girl Abigail, who died around 3 months of pregnancy. We buried her ashes in the back yard, and my father offered grave site liturgy from the Methodist Book of Worship and I offered some prayers and a blessing. Grateful I can be present to all of life with the people I love.

Meditation Poem #32
life and death
united in one breath
infinite love flows

Reflection: Life, death and Star Wars

I don’t talk about my vocation as a chaplain a lot, but I’ve worked in hospital settings to currently a retirement community. Grief, loss, and death seem to be reoccurring themes in the life of chaplaincy.

I do enjoy being a chaplain in more of a communal setting than the random visits that happen in a hospital setting, but it also makes it more difficult when people die. Pastors and ministers are people too, and it’s sad, when I am constantly saying goodbye to people I form a deep bond with. However, I know God is using me and my gifts to journey with folks as they approach the end, or approach the ultimate new beginning for those of who believe that death is not the end.

It’s interesting what our pop culture says about death. I know Star Wars takes myth and views of multiple religions and blends them in one; I equated Zen Buddhism and Taoism as the largest spiritual inspirations of Star Wars. The Force seems similar to the Great Tao that cannot be named. Jedi masters like Yoda act as strange Taoist sages, or eccentric Zen monks that talk in paradox. I am still unsure where Force ghosts fit into all this, but it does strike to this notion that death is not the end for all of us that we are still tied to life by the Force even in death.

In Christianity, there is a strong sense of the communion of saints. Saints aren’t necessarily force ghosts that come back after death to give us wisdom, but they do speak to us through the walls that divide life and death.  All of this to say that what separates life and death is not as clear as we make it out to be. I love the Buddhist notion that each breath leads to our last, and this is not to make us depressed and withdraw from life, but the awareness of death allows to see each breath as a precious moment and gift.