This is one of the books from my TBR pile which I finished a couple of weeks ago, and am finally getting around to creating a post about.
I have mixed views about this book. It is a gentle and helpful guide. It was also a long read, and a little too esoteric for me in places. I am interested in general Buddhist philosophy but have no desire to become a Buddhist myself. However, I got a lot out of reading this book none the less.
The book is separated into four main parts. The first deals with living. The Buddhist secret of dying well is first of all to learn to live well. There is some excellent information in this section especially insights on meditation and why we all would benefit from the practice.
“We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home.
Meditation, then, is bringing the mind home.”
The second section of the book is called ‘dying’. In our culture so little is said about the taboo subject of dying that it is a relief to read words that address this essential part of the human experience. Death is largely ignored by society. The dying are hidden out of sight and mind and the subject is swept under the carpet, until, when a loved one or we ourselves become terminally ill, we are stunned into facing this most difficult part of our journey.
In my own life people I loved have died, both sudden and slow deaths. I was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the situations. When my grandmother was dying of breast cancer in hospital years ago, I am ashamed to say I ran out of the hospital in tears unable to face her pain and sickness. When my brother lay in a coma for nine days before his death I was lost in an ocean of fear and confusion. I was scared and naive and had no understanding of how to be with a person who is dying or how to cope once a person has gone. This is the normal state of things in the Western world. In the time since I have been grateful to be able to remedy this lack in some way by reading and learning about the process of death.
It is not morbid to want to learn about death, if anything it makes living richer. We more deeply appreciate what we have now, when we bravely face the fact that our lives do not last forever.
“Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”
The third section is on death and rebirth and focuses mainly on the Buddhist theories of what happens beyond death. I found this section difficult to follow and nearly gave up reading it altogether.
The final section is the conclusion, bringing together the previous sections and calling on readers to become a part of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the way we look at death and care for the dying. A revolution too, in fact, that will bring greater peace and compassion to the way we live and the way we care for the living.
I recommend this book if you are willing to keep an open mind and be enlightened by ideas that may be very different to the one’s you currently hold.