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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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CC Search
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timthumb.jpg
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Yama – God of Death and Dharma

Among those who contemplate death, few are as thorough in detail and depth as are Buddhists.

A traditional Tibetan book, Bardo Thodol, is often referred to in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, though a more accurate translation is The Great Liberation through Hearing.  A modern classic of Tibetan Buddhism is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.

Two contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, Patty Winter and Gregg Ruskusky, share their understanding via workshops – one of which is coming to Portland OR this April 28-30.

This extended session addresses care-giving for the dying and grieving with a overall objective of opening insight to our personal mortality and self-care.

I have registered and am looking forward to learning! Maybe I’ll see you there.

The workshop is sponsored by Maitripa College, the single degree offering Tibetan Buddhist College in the US.

Our Common Ground: Death and Dying
Patty Winter, RN, and Gregg Ruskusky
April 28-30, 2017
Friday, 7-9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am – 12:30pm and 2-5pm

Information and Registration
https://maitripa.org/event/death-dying-workshop-2017/


Conversations on topics such as in this post are common at Death Café Corvallis, in which you are welcome to participate.

Image Acknowledgement

800px-Yama_tibet.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yama

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

Catrin_o_Ferain.jpg
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.

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/

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

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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

potter_jumpDean Potter jumped off a cliff 2,286m (7,500ft) up and died.  He had done this and other stunts taunting death many times; in the end death won.

Dean is a celebrity among many people who risk their lives to base jump, climb, dive, and engage in other activities known as “extreme sports.”

I have no criticism of those who engage in extreme sports, even when like Dean they hit the wall.

I do think that his death affords an opportunity to explore an interesting distinction – that is: our culture commonly reviles people who kill themselves, but does not revile (and even honors) people who get themselves killed.

Dean Potter got himself killed, but he did not kill himself.  That distinction is at the core of why folks dead people like Dean are treated heroically, even spiritually, in the media while suicides are publicly called out as “cowards.”potter_moon

The legal status of killing oneself has changed in the US from being a felony in all 50 states to currently having no explicit criminal sanction, but will likely invoke State health authority.

Getting oneself killed has never been criminal, so far as I am aware, so that jumping out of an airplane, a cliff, or building is one’s own business, unless it involves trespassing.

People who get away with such activities are not treated publicly as criminals, but as celebrities.

There is something fascinating about people who risk their lives for fun andhoudini_water_torture profit.  In 19th century England attempted suicide was punishable by the death penalty.  At the same time people paid to see performers go over waterfalls in a barrel and for Houdini to court death chained in tank of water.

Perhaps the distinction is based in the intention.  The serious suicide intends to kill themselves and die.  The daredevil is not overtly trying to kill themselves and die, but rather to come close to death and escape its grasp.

Dean Potter did not jump off a cliff because he wanted to die.  He expected to live to tell the tale of his near-death experience.  He spoke of his experience of fear and his intense awareness that he might die.

It by surviving that the daredevil represents a triumph over death.  We honor the risk takers because they show it possible to overcome the fears that we experience.

potter_flight_frontalAccordingly, when the risk ends in death such as Dean Potter, our sense of the risk is verified and we know that he was playing it for real.

I suspect that the more successful we are at preventing death by disease, accidents, and violence, as our natural life spans increase, our value for living will grow.  One effect of this value is that daredevils – those who risk death – will become more special and interesting for us because they will be risking even more.

To be clear – I find daredevils fascinating and followed Dean Potter’s adventures.  I am not criticizing him or other risk takers.

I do think it is relevant to re-think how we classify those who get themselves killed and those who kill themselves.

snuffed_candle_purple"Why Euthanasia will Eventually be the Leading Cause of Death" is a blog post that raises a provocative question, but not the one directly implied in the title – the real issue here is the steady – even rapid – decline in causes of death. If disease, accident, and violence continue to decline, then it follows that lifespans will increase and some other factors will dominate. Whether that is euthanasia or suicide is weakly argued in this article. It is a provocative story all the same.

If topics such as the above interest you, consider attending a Death Café. These events occur around the world and US, including Corvallis, OR.

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,death_cafe_corvallis_hubble_spiral_galax.fw social action group, religious or anti-religious organization, political committee, or sales pitch.

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.

For gathering logistics or to join Death Cafe Corvallis, if you like, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/deathcafecorvallis

Contact – deathcafecorvallis@gmail.com – for information.

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