In Lessons from the Dying, Rodney Smith, a senior vipassana teacher at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), offers a multifaceted view of death and dying. His deep understanding reflects both his thirteen years of hospice work and his background in Buddhist practice as a veteran of the first three-month retreat at IMS in 1976 and a monk in Asia for four years. As the title implies, Smith is speaking primarily to those of us who have not yet had to face our dying. He urges us to learn from those who have completed this journey on how to live with greater vitality and passion.
The lessons Smith draws from sitting with the dying parallel the lessons of meditation practice in such areas as deep listening, suffering, acceptance and letting go. Time is a theme throughout the book, and Smith offers greater insight into this important dharma topic than I have heard from any other Western teacher. According to Smith, when we stop constructing thoughts of past and future, time comes to an end for us; we then enter the deathless realm of timelessness. Exercises and reflections at the end of each chapter help to bring this message home to the reader.
An early chapter in Lessons from the Dying reminds us of the ever-present mystery of existence. Death can offer glimpses of worlds beyond our usual experience. Smith tells the story of a hospice patient named Jim who was very close to death. Unknown to the patient, his brother died suddenly in a car accident. The hospice nurse and family, not wanting to cause Jim additional stress, decided not to tell him of his brother’s death.
The family and the nurse then entered the room where Jim was coming out of a coma. As they entered, Jim rose up on his elbows and asked why no one had told him that his brother had died. The family, astonished, asked him how he knew. He said he had been speaking with his brother in the tunnel. Jim then laid back and died.
The heart of Smith’s message from the dying has to do with love. As the dying person moves through the arduous task of letting go of her past and her future, she finds more and more of her being in the present moment. Hope, says the author, shifts from a desire for length of life to a desire for quality in life.
When a person is dying, experiences of tenderness, gratitude, appreciation and love become common. A hospice patient named Richard was not used to sharing his feelings with his wife Peg, and Peg felt excluded from his dying. When, at Smith’s suggestion, Richard agreed to tell Peg that he wanted her to be by his side when he died, a “floodgate of communication” opened for the couple. “A few days later I returned, and they were still sharing deeply together. They were shining and giddy. Richard pulled me aside and thanked me for giving him back his romance.”
Why can’t we, the living, open to life with the wholeheartedness of the dying? The answer, says Smith, is that we haven’t opened to the fact of our own death. Denial skews our relationship to time, making us feel that time is unlimited. When we realize how precious time is, the present moment becomes all-important. As Smith puts it, “The ending of time can allow us to return to caring. It is found in the balance between overreacting to the fact of our death and denying it will occur at all.”
Smith has uncovered the richness in death without romanticizing the dying process for patients, families or hospice workers. Many of his patients suffered great physical or emotional pain in the weeks or months before their death. He relates how in his own hospice work, he was plunged into despair as the implications of death began to penetrate his defenses. Yet over time, he writes, a growing appreciation of the unity of life and death allowed him to regard death as a friend rather than as an enemy. He tells the story of a hospice patient who echoes these sentiments, “Death don’t scare me no more, honey. I had two of my children die in my arms. I have looked death right in the eyes and his eyes are kind.”
In Lessons from the Dying, Smith excels at communicating such a deep trust in death that we too, as readers, start to regard death as a friend.