“If we woke up each morning, knowing we only had a year to live what would change? How would we greet the day, our partner, our job? Until we are directly confronted with our own mortality most of us live life as if it will never end.”
Back in 2011, Digital Dying interviewed what may well have been at the time America’s only Death Education teacher, New Paltz High School teacher George Campbell. In 2012, we published a lengthy interview with Sheldon Solomon, a Skidmore College psychology professor. He has spent his career trying to understand just how humans respond to the knowledge that they will die. But the heavy words above are for a unique new type of class. They greet visitors to the website for a year-long course offered at the New York Insight Meditation Center, located in downtown Manhattan in New York City. The class is called “Life and Death – Is That All There Is?”
In the class, students write their own eulogy, plan their last day on earth, and connect intimately—or as intimately as our present Age of Zoom will allow—with other like-minded human spirits, young and old, who may be wondering about death, or perhaps trying to live in the face of it. The course is led by instructors Nancy Glimm, Rosemary Blake, Jon Aaron, and Amy Selzer, a former special education teacher who spoke with Digital Dying about the class. Amy also teaches another course at the Insight Meditation Center on aging called “Aging As A Spiritual Practice.” In the time of coronavirus, with Americans anxious, stuck in their homes or communities, and struggling for normalcy, the course is a way to ground people. Below is the conversation Digital Dying had with Amy.
Tell me a bit about what happens in the course?
The course is largely based on Stephen Levine’s book, “A Year To Live,” and Frank Ostaseki’s book “The Five Invitations,” plus other things we have read, exercises, poems. We typically do one full-day class a month. It has been very rich for us teachers, and the feedback that we get has been amazing. The students feel like it is really transforming their relationship to themselves, to their future, to their past.
In one session, we created a bucket list, and also a core values list. The idea is to move toward what is really important, what really matters if you are about to die. Another thing we talk about is regrets, our unfinished business and how to face that. Through different meditations, we talk a lot about forgiveness, forgiveness toward others, and also self-forgiveness. In one recent session, students wrote a set of three eulogies. The first eulogy was with the inner critic in mind—What kind of a eulogy would your inner critic write? The second eulogy was what their dearest friend would write for them. The third eulogy was written by them, keeping in mind that they could forgive themselves. Maybe things are perfect just the way they are. Whatever was unfinished, whatever regrets they had that led them to where they are right now in this moment, we try to teach them to hold that not as an inner critic, but just with love.
Why do you believe there is a need for this course?
There is not a lot of discussion about aging in this culture of ours, and there is not a lot about death or facing death. The students are grateful to have this space where they can talk about these topics because often their friends or family don’t want to hear about it. After a day-long class, one participant came up and said, “That was amazing, but I would have liked a different topic.” That is the attitude of so many people. It is just too scary to talk about. But the point is, we are all going to grow old, and this is part of Buddhism. There is a reflection we spend a lot of time on called, The Five Recollections, and the points they cover go something like this: I am of the nature to grow old; I cannot avoid aging; I am subject to illness; I am subject to death; I will grow different and separate from all that is dear and appealing to me; I am the owner of my actions; I am heir to my actions; I am borne of my actions; I am related through my actions.
Those certainly are powerful lines. Do young people tend to participate in the course too?
Each course is about 60 people, and it is very mixed. Everyone is welcome in this class, and it is a very welcoming group, both age-wise, diversity-wise, gender-wise. I am impressed that younger people wanted to take it. But the feedback we get is that many of them have had difficult issues around death growing up. There is a lot of fear, and they just want to see if they can work with it differently. I used to be a teacher in public education, and I do think it would be useful to bring a course like this to schools, but I think given the way our culture is there would be a lot of resistance. But, this is reality, this is our life. Everything is impermanent, everything and everybody. Anything that arises, that is conditioned, passes away, whether it is a plant, a person, an animal, or an experience. We are all about to die at some point, so what is it you want to focus on? What are the stories you choose to tell yourself?
When you say ‘stories’ are you talking about personal stories, or the stories of our culture and our society?
Both personal stories and society’s stories. A lot of our stories are habits. They are patterns, and from the time we are born, they are being conditioned by our family, our friends, and different experiences we have. Out of these stories we create this persona, and we overly identify with these stories we have about ourselves, even though this is just one thing, one part of us. Then we judge ourselves based on these stories, which makes it even worse, because this leads to a lot of self-judgment, and a lot of wanting and not wanting. One example is with aging, which we discuss quite a bit in our aging class, but it is also pertinent in the life-death class. There is so much anti-aging messaging in our culture. Many of the people who are older feel separate, feel disconnected, feel like they are of no use. And what the Buddhist teachings do is to show them that this is untrue. This is part of a system of old stories we have about ourselves.
Tell me more about yourself personally, how did you get here?
I was a public-school teacher for many years. I was in a self-contained classroom with kids who were emotionally disturbed. When I first started classes were small, special ed had become very popular and there was a lot of money for it. That was wonderful. But education goes through cycles, and as money runs out for programs, it becomes difficult to keep them going. I can say that from my own experience a lot of my life, I avoided taking risks. I thought it was too scary for me. I just couldn’t do it. As I became more involved with Buddhism and meditation, I realized that there were wonderful tools. There is no dogma attached, it is just like, ‘This is a teaching, why don’t you try it out and see if it has any value to you?’ If it does, great take it on; if not, then don’t. I still feel fear. It is not that you are not going to have pain. No, that doesn’t happen. But you can learn to respond to it differently when it arises. If you had asked me years ago if I had been in this position taking this class on, especially in my old age, I would say no way.
Do you think the coronavirus has changed the way we view the process of aging?
I know many people from the different classes I teach living in multigenerational families now. Like the grandparents, the parents, the kids, all in one place because they feel safe. I don’t know if that will continue, but there is so much unknown, there is so much uncertainty around the virus. This is something we talk of in the aging class and the facing death class. We live with uncertainty all the time, even before the virus. But we don’t like to focus on that, we don’t know from one moment to the next what is going to happen. Sometimes it is joyful, sometimes it is horrific. There is always uncertainty, but it is too scary to face. That is one of the reasons we distract ourselves so much, so we don’t have to face it.
Give us a sneak preview, what is something you plan to do with the students in an upcoming class?
December is the last class, and one of the things we are hoping to do is visit a cemetery and have a contemplation there. It just puts us in that environment we are all familiar with, because we have all lost loved ones. Some of the people in the group, even the younger ones, have gone through illnesses. To be in that environment moves us closer to actually facing death. How do you feel when you are in that space? What comes up for you, in your mind, and in your body? Do you want to be buried? Do you want to be cremated? Do you want to die at home? All of these different questions and possibilities arise. And they are all important to think about. Throughout the year we are exploring what matters most to us, and facing our own death. We are all about to die at some point, so what is it you want to focus on?