Zach O'Brien
Zach O'Brien
India 2013-2014
Namaste! I am a native Californian with a love for new experiences, meditation, and asking questions. I'm traveling to an Indian ashram called Amritapuri to join an environmental conservation project and study Sanskrit and yoga. Read More About Zach →

The privilege of spending time with the dying

These last few weeks I’ve taken on a job in the ashram’s hospital in addition to the work I’ve been doing at the ecovillage.  Every few days I spend the afternoon watching over Archan, a 90 year old man who’s spent the last few months in the hospital trying to recover from a perforated lung and a broken hip. He’s partially deaf, completely blind, and seems to be descending into a haze of confusion that often prevents him from recognizing his children, old friends, and caretakers.

At times it can be heartrending seeing Archan suffer and lose basic capacities like the ability to go to the bathroom on his own.    However, working with Archan has really become the highlight of my week and has turned into a sort of meditation for me.

When I’m not assisting in tasks like feeding Archan or changing his diapers, I like to rest my hand on Archan’s shoulder to let him know I’m there.  Archan LOVES physical touch and usually responds by nuzzling his head against my arm, almost like a little kid would.  As we share this form of connection, I like to silently chant a compassion mantra that goes something like this:

May I be free from suffering...

May Archan be free from suffering...

May all being be free from suffering...

I pray first for myself because as I allow the mantra to bring me into the present moment, I’m often confronted with a subtle feeling of uneasiness toward Archan, or specifically his condition; at some point I’m inevitably reminded of the uncomfortable fact that someday I’m probably going to look and feel just like Archan, and that’s not a warm, fuzzy thought.

Through this exercise I’ve gotten to experience something really wonderful though.  I’ve found out that if I can just relax and get comfortable with the heightened awareness of death I sometimes feel around Archan, my heart naturally and effortlessly responds with compassion for myself, then eventually for Archan.  In the rare moments when I can really get still, I catch glimpses of the possibility of expanding these feelings out in ever widening ripples to other people, animals, plants.  Supposedly compassion can become as wide and expansive as the whole universe.  I can’t even imagine that possibility at this point but it’s a work in progress.

I think we tend to think of compassion as something we have to emotionally scrunch up and try really hard to feel, or even as something that is impossible to feel unless we have faith in a higher power or an intrinsic meaning to the human existence.  I think people can often feel that it’s naive to believe real compassion can exist in a world that seems to run biologically via natural selection or politically via cutthroat competition and capitalism.

But instead, my experience with Archan suggests to me that there is an amazing simplicity to compassion.  All you have to do is create just enough space to allow the heart to open a little, and compassion will begin flowing out spontaneously.  Compassion is the heart’s natural response to suffering.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by Jennifer Wellwood I recently stumbled across.  It’s a bit melodramatic, but I feel it really captures the attitude of openness and relaxation toward mortality I’ve found to be key in cultivating compassion for the sick and dying.  Try embracing the impermanence of your own and your loved ones’ existences.  You just might be surprised by the empathy and compassion that begins to flow from your heart.

Tonight, Pluto, with the crescent moon as my witness,
I welcome you as my lover.
If you have come to break down my door,
See, I have opened it,
And wait here for you at its threshold.
If you have come to tear off my clothes,
I have flung them aside already,
And stand naked, shivering gladly.
If you have come to hurl me into the abyss,
Watch now, as I release all false supports, one by one,
And fall toward you in ecstasy.
Hear this, Pluto, lord of transformative fire:
What you have come to take from me, I offer you.

May you and I enjoy many, many more years on this beautiful planet, and may we grow in the kind of grace and courage that allows us to face the impermanence of human existence without anxiety.  🙂

(Update:  I found out several hours after writing this post that Archan suddenly and unexpected passed away earlier today.  The cause of death is supposedly listed as “old age”. It’s been such a privilege being around for the final days of another human being.  Archan will never know the value of the lessons his caretakers and I learned simply by being around him for the final leg of his journey.)

3 thoughts on “The privilege of spending time with the dying”

  1. May suffering ones be suffering free, and the fear-struck fearless be. May the grieving shed all grief, and all beings find relief.

  2. wow. just rediscovered this thing (facebook free for a month now) and am so blown away by this story. the journey you’re on over in India sounds incredible zach. trey and I send lots of warm wishes your way! cannot wait to read more of these posts and catch up with you in person!

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