AFTER THE LAST BREATH? AN OPEN MIND
presented at the Unitarian Universalist Gathering of South County
I had a patient, Larry, who told me that although he’d been raised Jewish he’d given up on religion a long time ago- all the fighting and arguing over God and who is right and wrong wore him out. He told me that by his late teens he’d come to the conclusion that “Life is a predicament-and we’re all in it together. What I can do is help the poor schmuck sitting next to me on the bus”. Then he asked me if I thought there was something after this life. I told him I did. He asked why and I shared a story of a patient who had an NDE. He listened respectfully and then when I’d finished he said, “The brain is a remarkable thing and it will do all sorts of neat tricks to comfort you as it is shutting down- but once it does, it’s Lights out!”
Well I had the pleasure of visiting him for several months and that subject didn’t come up again. UNTIL, one day as I was wrapping up my visit and heading out the door - all of a sudden, out of the blue he asks me, “You really think there’s something after this?”” I told him the same thing I did the first time the subject came up. He smiled and said, “It’s lights out”
But this time I did something different - I asked him if he could keep an open mind. He thought about it for a moment and then said he could. So I said to him, “good, because I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised. He smiled at me and said, “You know-I’d like to be surprised” So I said goodbye and told him I’d be back next week. But to my great surprise Larry died 2 days later. I say surprise because he did not appear to be close to death when I’d seen him.
I called his wife to check in and offer my condolences. She told me she had been with Larry and that it had been peaceful. Then she said, “something a bit strange happened”- she told me he’d been in bed with his breathing slowing down and stopping and then starting again and then all of a sudden he sat up and opened his eyes really wide, smiles and then lays back down and takes a breath out and is gone.
I asked her if Larry had told her about our last conversation and she said that he never told her what we talked about. So I shared what I’d said. Well she says to me, “Larry and I’ve been together over 30 years and it took a lot to surprise him- but he certainly looked surprised- and happily so.” She was greatly comforted to hear this story.
So what did Larry see? Well, I don’t know. But I’m glad that whatever it was he seemed happy to see it.
BUT “What" he saw is not my point here- it is THAT he SAW…
There is a Zen saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few”
In Buddhism cultivating “beginners mind” is greatly encouraged.
It’s said that we do not see reality as it is- we see it as we are.
In other words filtered through our beliefs and emotions.
I don’t know about you all but I do know that there have been times in my life when I’ve been caught up in some fear or anxiety or some story I was telling myself- and I could not- DID NOT- see clearly- I imagined worse case scenarios.
And thanks to that, I totally missed seeing another possibility- or even that another possibility was possible!
There have also been times when I absolutely believed I knew something….only to find out that knowledge and belief are 2 different things.
Here’s the thing: belief can keep you trapped because you mistake it for knowing. But it’s not!
Yet it can be a Vital first step to knowing “something”!
The Wright brothers had to believe flight was possible- we never would have reached the moon had not many people believed it possible.
I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan- and believed I could do what they were doing, which was play music and have a band. Within 3 years I was playing bass, had a band and was playing dances- BUT I had to believe it was possible first…….
But sometimes we believe something that is not necessarily true- a story or a teaching or philosophy- even something about ourself, like I can’t dance or I’m no good at- fill in the blanks….AND this becomes a kind of self limiting OR self fulfilling prophesy. That’s what I mean when I say “trap
- beliefs can feel like “who” we are- because we’ve invested so much in them- that’s why people can get so defensive if those beliefs are challenged-it feels like a “personal” attack…Because we have accepted them as “TRUTH”— when we begin to question this it can be a very painful experience and our ego will rebel!!!
As Mark Twain said so well, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble- it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
I Think we can all agree that we’ve seen this demonstrated a lot these past years- and it’s caused a lot of pain. (P)
So, in my last conversation with Larry I asked him if he could keep an open mind. I did this because I have learned (the hard way)-through my own experiences- that our mind-set and belief or OUR certainty about something can literally blind us - I know it has me.
And again, thanks to the patients I’ve met, I know that this can affect our experience as we are dying.
But Just as IMPORTANT, it will most DEFINITELY effect our experience while we’re living!!!
Regarding Larry: he had expressed to me very clearly and with great certainty that death is the end- there is nothing beyond or after it, as he put it, “It’s Lights out”- these were his words both times when we’d discussed it.
But by that last visit I’d gotten to know him and knew that asking such a question as “can you keep an open mind?” was perfectly appropriate. I’m really glad I did. Because it gave him an “option”-another choice- rather than looking for confirmation of his belief, he was able to leave room for something “else”- to open his mind to something new.
When Jesus said that we needed to become as a child in order to see the Kingdom of heaven I believe he was saying something very similar to that Zen saying. Both of these are encouraging an open mind
You know-It’s an easy thing to say, “Keep and open mind” - but it’s not such an easy thing to do, is it?
Speaking personally, much of my earlier life was about getting the right answers, knowing things, finding the right solution- I believed that’s how you made your way in the world, right? And to a certain extent this is true.
But for me this hardened into some rigid ways of thinking as well-some beliefs hardened into what to me seemed to be true, or so I thought.
It took a series of painful events- a falling apart of the world & life that I had helped construct with my opinions, expectations and certainties about beliefs- it took this falling apart & pain to shake me up enough that I became willing to question- to try a different way. And this took time and it was painful.
Today is Mother’s day…what comes before birth? Labor.
I look back at that time in my life and that is what I see now when I do, it was exactly that- it was labor and the beginning of a very different story.
But it was also a death too -dying to what had been-.
And that required a letting go of some old ways of thinking and beliefs-
There’s a saying, “The Universe has shaken you to awaken you”
I think these days all of us are feeling a bit shaken……Life will do that.
Because life is a process…it is not static- evolution doesn’t work that way.
If we look at nature we see everything is in process!
It’s easy to see the beauty in this process at a time of year like we’re in now- with life bursting out everywhere you look. But there are other times things look quite different- a bit messy and chaotic, or even dead.
Leaves fall, Stars explode and collapse, energy transmutes from one thing to another- over and over & over again! The same energy and atoms that have been in everything going all the way back to the very beginning - what we call the BIG BANG -is here right now in this room as you and me!!!
One thing transmutes to another- but in between there is what appears to be chaos and death- but it is so much more!
“When it seems everything is breaking down, something else is breaking through”- this is a good thing to remember - especially in difficult or challenging situations.
I don’t know about you, but I do take comfort in this. And in my own life I have seen this as I look back at the twists, turns and up & downs that my journey has taken me on so far.
I have heard similar stories from so many others as well.
To my way of thinking, We are all on a great adventure…and part of what makes it an adventure is the mystery of it all!
And in truth, what kind of adventure would this be if there weren’t some thrills and chills along the way?
There is a way to transmute even the most difficult thing into something beneficial, not just for yourself but for someone else too
As Larry had said, “Life is a predicament and we’re all in it together- the least we can do is help the person sitting next to us on the bus”
In my opinion that’s no small thing…as a matter of fact, it’s everything.
So this morning I’d like to suggest an “open- mind - fulness” practice to you.
Just like in meditation, Use your breath as a cue. At various times during the day bring your attention back to your breath and as you breathe out, release whatever you’re thinking about or worrying on- just let it go with that breath…and then as you take your next breath in say to yourself, “open mind”
Try this for a few weeks- see what happens. See if you feel different. See if life looks a little different to you.
An open mind can take you places you never imagined. So will an open heart- and I think you will find these two go together. Thank you