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172352729A vital factor in who we are as individuals is how we conceive of death.

This is because how we conceive of death conditions how we value life.

Few of us value all lives equally, even when it comes to human beings.

Nor do many of us think of our own deaths in the same terms as we do for others.

Some folks may have a degree of clarity in these variations, but I suspect that for most of us the deep questions about life and death are a confused tangle.

Plenty of the day-to-day disquiet of our minds arises from this confusion.

Our mortal struggle is explored by Stephen Caves, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge, in his essay Not Nothing.

“When I squidged it, I summoned the Reaper to my desk. If only briefly, I caught his eye.”

Caves sets out the dilemmas of life/death values starkly then seeks a balance point between them.

The degree to which he succeeds at this depends upon the insight gained by an attentive reader, such as yourself.

I suggest that you read this article and come back to it on successive opportunities for at least three readings.

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Take your understanding of Cave’s analysis into conversation with people in your life.

They may embrace the topic outright, recoil at the mention of death, or dismiss the entire issue as meaningless.

In any of those cases, and the points in between them, you will at least gain a perspective on the various ways that people think about dying and accord value to the living.

 

Image Acknowlegements

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jose_fallenWhatever I anticipated on Friday morning it was not to witness the last breath of a young man.

I walk to work whatever the weather and this morning the rosy fingertips of dawn hinted at a sunny Spring day.

I had an early meeting so stopped at the corner café to organize my notes over espresso.

After coffee I set off to campus. A block away I saw something on the walkway my side of the railroad tracks.

The object looked like a sleeping bag, though as I approached it moved and I knew there was a person there, perhaps asleep.

There was a person there, but he was not asleep. He was unconscious. He had fallen face down, his left shoe at a right angle a few feet behind.

His arms were tucked under as if he grasped something to his chest as he fell.

Blood seeped from his forehead and saliva pooled at his lips.

There were no others around and I said to him; “Are you awake? Can you hear me?” No response so I called the responders at 911.

The dispatcher asked the right questions in the right order and instructed me not to move him.

One of the questions was; “How far did he fall?”

As I think back, my answer was strange; “To the pavement.”

I was not being glib. I was speaking from an image in my mind of a human body falling from upright to fully prone without catching itself. My image was of the impact such a fall onto cement must incur. That is, I suppose, what happened.

While answering the 911 dispatcher’s queries a man passed walking along the tracks. He was shouting something. I looked up to catch it. Waving his arms the man said; “He’s a drunk!”

Ignoring the irrelevant I asked the dispatcher to repeat his question. I do not recall what it was or how I answered.

While waiting for the paramedics an elderly woman approached walking her small elderly dog. She asked if the man on the ground was awake as the little dog sniffed at him. They moved on.

There was a moment of stillness – quiet and lonely. The sun was not yet high and we were in the shadow of buildings, he on the ground, me standing near.

He lay motionless but for a deep exhalation that came from his mouth bubbling the saliva which mixed slightly with the blood.

I did not see him inhale and felt this may be the last of his breath

Ancient texts from Egypt, India, China, and Israel speak of the life-force as a form of breath. The Greeks called it Pneuma.

As Jose’s life leaked out onto the pavement I said aloud; “You are not alone.” That was all.

In a moment the stillness broke with a siren wail and police were there.

They knew him as “Jose” and tried to awaken him. One checked for a pulse at his jose_response_pastelthroat. They turned him over, opened his shirt and began CPR.

A fire truck arrived with paramedics who broke out equipment and became busy.

A police officer had questions for me and I turned away from their efforts to bring Jose back to the living. He was not coming back.

The officers were respectful of Jose and tried to save him. They were kind to me.

The remainder of my day was not so eventful though I remained slightly disengaged.

My words were in a measure unclear to others and by the end of the day I felt as though I were speaking through a veil.

I walked home late by the same route and found flowers in a cardboard box where Jose had fallen.

jose_momento_pastelLater I learned that Jose was known to his friends as Francisco.

In my evening meditation I contemplated the death of a young man, just 34 years.

The Gazette Times had an article about the incident in which Jose is identified and I am designated a passer-by.

In truth, I am but a witness to the passing by of Francisco “Jose” Semadeni.

 

He did not die alone.

catrin_o_ferainSome philosophers have argued that being conscious of death is a path towards living authentically with personal integrity and self-determination.

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger writes’ “Death reveals itself as that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational, and which is not to be outstripped.” In other words, my death is personal, individual, and inevitable. Fear of death stems from rejection of these facts. Recognition of these facts is part of taking total responsibility for one’s own being – authenticity.

Elizabeth Seto (Psychology,Texas A&M) and colleagues set out to test this philosophical position empirically. They found a correlation between the vividness of thoughts about death (e.g., memories) and attitudes related to personal authenticity.

Their paper is insightful for anyone, particularly the Introduction and Discussion sections.

Study finds link between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-016-9556-8

An interview with Seto at PsyPost is also a valuable read.

The association between vivid thoughts of death and authenticity
http://www.psypost.org/2017/02/study-finds-link-vivid-thoughts-death-authenticity-47692

The drift of this philosophical/psychological issue is: if you want to get real in life, get clear about death.

Image Acknowledgments

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yorick#/media/File:Catrin_o_Ferain.jpg

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Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Cafe Corvallis. You are welcome to participate. Information at Death Cafe Corvallis.

maxresdefaultIllness and pain are linked to death through our concept of the quality of life.

A new video, Life Asked Death: Palliative Care in Asia, examines the role of mortality in the qualitative value of life.

The raw reality of this story develops from the context of people seeking treatment for terminal illness in regions with few resources such as parts of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

This is not an easy video for some people to watch, even for the 26 minutes that it takes.

I suggest that you do so because the last half of the story focuses on the significance of knowledge in quality of life.

Through direct experience we find that one of the main sources of suffering for dying people is not knowing what is happening to them.About_Bangladesh_IMG_2268

Fear of the unknown – not understanding the path that one is on – creates mental anguish.

The truth about one’s condition and impending death turns out to be a source of strength for the people that we meet in this story.

What a remarkable fact that is, that consciousness of our deaths and the causes of our pain is actually a foundation for greater quality of life.

With consciousness comes choice and with choice comes the resolution of identity, even if we are about to lose ourselves in the mystery of death.

I am eager to know what you think of Life Asked Death: Palliative Care in Asia, and the concepts in it.

In good spirit,

Jon

storytellingA recurring topic at Death Café Corvallis is the legacy.  This may be material inheritance such as money and property, it may be creative inheritance such as a beautiful garden, it may be moral inheritance such as the impact of one’s actions in the world, and it may be communicative inheritance such as the story of your life.

Some people bequeath the story of their lives to their successors by writing memoirs or an autobiography.  Not all of us have time or skill to write a book, but we all have the resources to write our own story.  Writing your story has powerful benefits for your loved ones when you are gone and for your self while you are present.

A valuable guide to writing your story in preparation for your death is Having the Last Say by Alan Gelb.  He provides a practical workflow for developing a single story that conveys meaning from your life.  Gelb describes his process in an interview with thanatologist Gail Rubin – The Consequences of Death.

An interesting element of Gelb’s book is the set of questions that he poses throughout in order to prompt reflection and creativity. Questions such as;

When has my mind and body ever felt in perfect harmony?

If I had to relive moments in my life, which one’s would they be?

If I had to imagine a place in the world that puts me at total peace, what is that place?

Just having these questions is valuable to anyone who thinks about death. They are certainly provocative of personal creativity for addressing a topic that some findmel_blanc_gravestone_505x278 daunting – the story of your own life.

Notably, Gelb emphasizes that the project of value in writing your story is not in order to create a summary or evaluation of your life.  Quite simply you are telling a story about your experience that has significance for you.  That is enough to convey rich meaning for others.  I propose that Gelb’s idea is worth an effort for everyone. Consider the following propositions (mine):

Proposition: we cannot understand what death is unless we understand what life is. 

Corollary: in order to effectively conceptualize our own death, we must accurately conceptualize our own life.

The beauty of Gelb’s approach is that any part of our life experience that has significance for us is sufficient for that conceptualization, in part anyway.

At the least your story will provide content for your survivors as they find need to speak about you and think about you.  At best you may find personal growth through meaning making about that most rare and precious topic – you.

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Image Acknowledgements

CC Search – https://creativecommons.org/

Philippe de Champaigne, Still Life With SkullThat there is a relation between thinking about death and happiness is undeniable because some thoughts about death make almost all of us unhappy.  Thinking about the deaths of those we love – both retrospective and prospective – leaves normal people with sadness.  Experiencing the death of a loved one is an unhappy time.  Contemplating the unjust and preventable deaths in the world is enough to evoke melancholy in even the most stoic of us.  Contemplating our own immanent death is a mixed emotional situation at best (unless one strongly wishes to die, but that is a different issue).  So, what sense is there in which thinking about death could be construed as a method of increasing happiness?

Karen Wyatt draws from Tibetan and Taoist traditions in a recent article; “How Thoughts of Death Can Be A Key to Happiness.”  She considers specific techniques used in mystical practices that may both lessen the impact of our anxiety about death and even raise our spirits in conceiving of death altogether.

In effect, the six death thought techniques that Wyatt summarizes include:

    • Ritualize
    • Relax
    • Enjoy
    • Improve
    • Broaden
    • Record

The techniques are practical and easy to employ.  If one has strong negative feelings about death, then more therapeutic and perhaps guided approaches may be appropriate.  Still, we can all gain value from these practices.

I’ll add a seventh technique to Wyatt’s list;

  • Dialog

Finding open and intelligent people who will listen and discuss your ideas about death is a powerful way to address the emotional impacts of those ideas.

Death Café Corvallis is all about open dialog about death.  I find the participation in conversational liberty to be a strengthening and spirit lifting activity in its own right.  When related to to concepts of death, the impact is often pronounced.  You are invited to Death Café Corvallis gatherings and to join the Facebook Group in order to get event announcements and online dialog.

Karen M. Wyatt, M.D. is the Author of “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” and “The Tao of Death.”

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Image Acknowledgements

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https://www.pinterest.com/pin/354517801894454820/

“It’s a strange thing, but when you are dreading something, and would give anything to slow down time, it has a disobliging habit of speeding up. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

orloj-1102369_960_720Time, of course, does not really change pace but our subjective experience of time does.

If time seems to be speeding up to you, it is because you are not getting as much done as you want to in the time that you have.

How you manage what you need to do determines whether time is your enemy or your friend.

The most powerful tool that I know of at OSU for managing your time is the academic coaching program available at the Academic Success Center in 102 Waldo Hall.

At no cost students may meet with an academic coach in order to organize tasks, priorities and schedule, then meet regularly to maintain progress.

Many time and task management systems are available on paper and online.

The Uncalendar from People Systems is a 53 week calendar book without pre-set dates so that you can start today with templates for recording objectives, tasks, priorities, resources, notes and much more.

I track my due dates and tasks on both a paper date book and online because entering twice forces me to double-check which catches errors.

Trello, my favorite online project-management application, works as a list-making tool with capabilities for check-lists, due dates, reminders, labeling, and sharing.

Cross-platform mobile apps include the richly featured MyLifeOrganized to the simpler Wanderlust and Any.do.

Important as it is to organize time and activity many people experience the frustration of consistently running up against deadlines; where does the time go?

Figuring out how you use your time is crucial to effective self-management and there are many time-use tracking applications, most of which are oriented toward business contexts but a 556656621_ba9e8c870f_zclever student could use any of these to produce an analysis of personal time and resource utilization.

Some cross-platform apps for desktop and mobile are Klok, RescueTime, ManicTime

For iOS there are Atracker, Eternity, Timely; Android users may look for Toggle, Yast and Timesheet.

Windows phone 8 supports ONTRACK, TimeSheet Tracker, and Time to Harvest.

Time trackers only work if you are consistent and honest with your time-logging, which if done for a month will give you the general patterns that allow for deliberate change; consciousness leads to control.

When you know what you need to do and how much time you have to do it, you may apply a powerful productivity technique called “Pomodoro.”

To use this technique you will need a simple timer with an alarm.

Here is how to apply Pomodoro:

1.Choose the task to be done

2. Set the timer to 25 minutes

3. Work on the task until the timer rings

4. Take a short 3 minute break

5. Repeat steps 2, 3 and 4 twice more

6. Take a 15 minute stretch break

7. Start back at 1

At the end of this you have worked 2.5 hours plus 24 minutes break time, so it all took 3 hours – repeat the process or move on to another task.

ancient-1246694_960_720Several mobile and desktop applications help apply Pomodoro technique to different situations; look carefully at apps before committing to one as some are multi-featured and some are just timers.

Do Pomodoro every day and your productivity will increase.

Anxiety and the speed of subjective time are related and you can gain time by worrying less about it.

A 2015 study, “Mindfulness Meditation and the Experience of Time,” shows that practicing mindfulness leads to an overall perception of lengthening time.

As the study’s main author Sylvie Droit-Volet explains;

“Mindfulness training has two major goals. The first is to access a deep state of calm. The second is to focus attention and awareness on what is happening in one’s own body and mind as it happens, that is, in the present moment. Mindfulness therefore changes the relationship with time by focusing individuals’ attention on the present moment.” (P.89).

If you have time to worry and feel anxious, then you have time to practice mindfulness and there are numerous opportunities to do so.

Community colleges, Universities, recreation centers, and community health organizations offer workshops, classes and sessions focused on mindfulness.

Spiritually-oriented organizations such as Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Tibetan Meditation and others offer instruction.

Books and audio guides address mindfulness techniques.

The Great Courses offers The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being on video or audio along with other self-directed high-quality spiral-544400_960_720_trcourses.

Some educators have embraced mindfulness and meditation as teaching/learning strategies, generally called Contemplative Learning.

Oregon State University has a Contemplative Studies Program in which courses within the general curriculum are taught using mindfulness techniques.

You can take courses in writing, psychology, philosophy, religion, and natural resources management that use mindfulness techniques in the class.

These are not courses about mindfulness, rather they use mindfulness methods to teach academic subject matters.

In other words, you can practice mindfulness, learn a topic, and satisfy degree requirements all in one classNow that is an effective use of time.

All of the techniques mentioned above take some time to discover and do. Perhaps you feel that you simply don’t have time enough to bother.

Therein lies the puzzle, when you are running out of time it is a sign that it is time to compel yourself to walk.

“When in doubt, I find retracing my steps a wise place to begin.” J.K. Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Image Acknowledgements

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/jdbaskin/7192766626

556656621_ba9e8c870f_z.jpg
https://www.flickr.com/photos/bogenfreund/556656621

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https://pixabay.com/en/spiral-words-thoughts-mindfulness-544400/

zen-nothingWoody Allen’s witticism; “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens” points to an important possible truth: I won’t be there when death happens because there will no longer be an “I.”

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) argued that our own deaths are literally nothing to us.

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

The cornerstone of this argument is the implicit premise that in order for to anything to matter to me there must be a me for it to matter to.

This reasoning also allows that something may become nothing.  That is an ontological proposition of importance.

A contemporary version of this reasoning is explored by philosopher Jeff Mason in Death and It’s Concept.  I recommend reading his article which is short and clear.

It seems to me that this line of reason also presumes an empiricist conception of meaning, such that the significance of a concept requires an experience of it.  I think that empiricist presumption is why this line of thought focuses so on the fear of death.

This way of thinking about death – that it is a non-concept – is ancient and resonates fully with us now only be reflecting upon it.

I’d love to hear from you about these ideas.

Consider attending/joining Death Café Corvallis.

Come speak truth to death

Fall 2015
Mondays 5:30-7:30
2nd St Beanery, 500 SW 2nd St, Corvallis 17330

deathcafecorvallis@gmail.com

Look for the guy in the tie.

Image Acknowledgements

zen-enso221.png
https://thezenlibrary.wordpress.com

Got thoughts about mortality?

Monday’s – 5:30-7:30 PM – 2nd St Beanery – 500 SW 2nd St. Corvallis OR 97333

Death Café Corvallis is simply in order to listen and talk about death.

Death Café Corvallis is NOT a support group, therapeutic agenda, debate society, social action group, religious or anti-religious organization, political committee, or sales pitch.death_cafe_corvallis_hubble_spiral_galax.fw

Our welcoming, friendly and supportive café is open to everyone who participates in a welcoming, friendly and supportive manner. Our guiding principles are respect, openness, and confidentiality.

Come drink coffee, eat cake, and discuss death with interesting people. Join the online Death Cafe Corvallis community if you like.

Death Café Corvallis is allied with the US Death Café.

— contact – deathcafecorvallis@gmail.com

Come talk truth to death.

I am deeply troubled by the recent tragedy in Roseburg and recent atrocities in Yemen and Afghanistan, so I want to share with you ways that I have been exploring for responding to horror without becoming numb to its significance.

I am learning to implement a technology by which you too may sustain yourself while also acting effectively in a tragic world.

First consider how we commonly respond to news of a horrible event.

When I heard of Thursday’s Umpqua massacre I felt a cold weakness in the middle of my chest.

Shortly after I stood before a class of first-year students, some of whom I knew were from Roseburg, all of whom reminded me of the dear people we had just lost.

It seemed apparent to me that they did not yet know what had just happened and I struggled with a sense of unreality as I reached for something meaningful to say.

After that class I wept.

Perhaps you also have physical reactions to awful news.

Next I did what many parents do when we hear of a disaster; call our children just to make sure they are ok.

Then come a series of predicable messages from predictable sources.

People start sharing rumors and reports as if possessing the latest bit of information can impact the gravity of the incident.

Leaders hold press conferences and send email denouncing and consoling.

Some people immediately seize the shock of the moment to advance or defend their political and personal agendas, often in ways that increase the harm.

Then comes a barrage of angry and speculative verbiage about who to blame.

Experts weigh in with analyses, statistics and opinions.

That evening people with gather with candles, put personal items at the site of the harm and set up memorial scholarships, every detail shared by constant repetition through many media.

Then we go on about our business in wait for the next appalling event.

In our present age all of this reaction happens with blinding speed and tends to race past the reality of the moment, as if the attendant information and spectacle is more significant than the event itself.

This set of reactions may be called a “viral cycle” because the activity builds on itself and has a predictable path as social phenomena.cue_routine_reward.fw

Do you recognize the parts of this viral cycle and most important, your roles in it? Do you have characteristic reactions to news of a horrible occurrence?

If you do, and I think that we all do, then there is a habitual pattern in you that guides your reactions automatically.

What concerns me about these habitual patterns is that they typically leave us individually and collectively in a negative mental state and with a sense of impotence about effecting any change for the better.

When there is nothing that we can do about suffering except feel bad, it is natural to seek emotional distance and I suspect that much of transpires in the social viral cycle are various ways of gaining that distance.

Yet we really can do something to make things better in the face of horror and it starts with our remarkable ability to modify our own habits.

There are techniques – a technology – for changing our own habits. By using those techniques we can teach ourselves to react with care and kindness in the face of horror.

This capability matters because increasing care and kindness in the world is the effective means to preventing future tragedies and because acting with care and kindness sustains your self when the worst happens.

Here is how you may modify your gut reactions to tragedy (and any other habits that you want to change).

Learn the technique of habit modification such as that developed in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2014) by Charles Duhigg. the_power_of_habit

In Duhigg’s analysis every habit consists of a cognitive/behavioral loop in which a cue triggers a routine which elicits a reward.

Think of the cue as an event that happens to us, the routine as a behavior pattern that we perform in response to the cue, and the reward as a perception that the routine was successful.

Habits are self-reinforcing and habit change is most effective when we associate the cue and reward with a different routine.

When we learn of a horrific event it is a cue that triggers routines (such as those listed above) which reward us by reducing negative feelings.

Following this analysis of habits, the effective means to changing your reactions to shocking events is to associate the cue (horrible events) and the reward (feeling less badly) with a new routine (patterns of action).

A routine that is relevant to the cue of horrible events is to increase your feelings of care and expressions of kindness

I am serious that expressing kindness from a feeling of care provides an effective counter to shock and frustration

Treating others with kindness from care through words and actions will change how you feel.

I’ll not suggest how to be caringly kind because in order to effect personal change those feelings and behaviors must be uniquely yours.

I will show how to develop those feelings and behaviors for yourself.

Step 1: Every day for two weeks practice caring kindness for yourself and turn them into a habit.

You already know how to be mean to yourself and maybe have a strong inner critic.

Now add to that self-judgment an inner advocate that throughout the day acknowledges positively you for simple accomplishments and voices value for you as a person.

In second week scan the news for a horrific tragedy, it won’t take long, and when you find it make yourself aware that the fact that you care about it is reason enough to be kind to yourself (just some inner kind words are enough).

Step 2: Every day for two weeks practice caring kindness for others.

People are all round you so opportunities for care and kindness abound.

Start with people whom you know and tell them what you value about them, then expand into kindness to strangers.

Repeat the news-scan activity in step 1, this time responding to tragedy by increasing your caring kindness to others.

Step 3: Every day for two weeks practice caring kindness for people whom you dislike or who irritate you.

Caring for enemies may be as simple as wishing them well in your mind instead of wishing them harm; i.e. that they suffer the same as they cause.

Replace signals of irritation (scowls, gestures and words) with quiet patience until you are practiced enough to muster a smile.

Repeat the news-scan activity in steps 1 and 2, this time responding to the tragedy by increasing your caring kindness to people who irritate you.

Now put the three steps together so that you perform all of them at least once per day and please note that in order to work you need to make this a practice in action, not merely a thought.

I base this formula upon the psycho-spiritual technologies developed and taught by Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Śāntideva, King and Gandhi among other luminaries.

I believe that using the technology of habit modification to transform your feelings of hurt and frustration into actionable change will benefit you because the resulting patterns of behavior make you more effective and positive in dealing with tragedy.

I also believe that this practice will contribute to preventing some horrific events because as the practice of care and kindness grows – by you joining it – the people who potentially cause harm will encounter care and kindness.

The killers at Umpqua, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Northern Illinois and so many others expressed their perceptions of social isolation as a partial motive for the horror they inflicted.meditation-651411_640

If a potential killer experiences even momentary kindness from strangers, their path of destruction may be altered.

We have the technology to change ourselves, our actions and the people around us.

You and I are not helpless in the face of horror and tragedy as long as we have the will to become the change that we want to see in the world.

 

Oregon State University Support Resources

OSU has resources for students, staff, and faculty for addressing grief and stress.  The centers of these resources is:

CAPS
http://counseling.oregonstate.edu

Student Health Services
http://studenthealth.oregonstate.edu

 

Image Sources

Sépulcre_Arc-en-Barrois_111008_12
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadness#/media/File:S%C3%A9pulcre_Arc-en-Barrois_111008_12.jpg

cue_routine.reward.png
jon dorbolo

the_power_of_habit.jpg
http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

meditation-651411_640
https://pixabay.com/en/meditation-compassion-presence-love-651411/

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the following individuals who contributed to this essay.

– Jennifer Knaus

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