When I think about becoming wiser in my life: softer, kinder, more available; I like to start by looking at the end of my life and moving backward to the present. Why do I think of my own dying as a teacher? Because for more than 40 years I have spent a lot of time sitting with the dying, talking, in silence, in prayer, in laughter, and in peace.

What startled me at first, so long ago, was witnessing many of my most distressed and anxious clients reach a point close to death—perhaps a few days or a week before they died—when something in them gave way and they began to glow. Happiness suffused them, as well as a sense of distance from feeling responsible for the distress of their loved ones. “It’s all good”, they’d say, and glow. “It’s all going to be fine”, they’d say, and shine with an inner light they never felt before.

I marveled as I watched and continued to support them and their loved ones. Over time I began to expect to see this new freedom expressed at the very end of life. In fact, I began to prepare people to notice and welcome the earliest signs of this transformation. What are the signs? Perhaps deeper, more peaceful sleep…or soft peace at the idea of not eating, no longer pushing themselves to eat or drink if they didn’t want to. And these people who have nothing left to lose—so they’re truly free—(isn’t there a song about that?) have a much easier time forgiving themselves and others with grace and finality. They have already let go of so much; that letting go of anger, guilt and regret has become easier than they ever thought possible.

So, I wonder, why not get there now, way ahead of my death, assuming I have more time on this earth. But how can I get there now, when I haven’t been forced to learn the grace-filled lessons of loss that accompany dying… yet?

I think the transformation must begin within myself with a commitment to look inside very tenderly. That inner critic we all know so well? I’m learning to simply thank “her” for her opinion, since arguing with her only gives her power; then let the critical thoughts go, like leaves slipping past me on a fast moving stream, out of sight, on their way without me.

What else helps me soften? Meditation. Even when my mind is racing and upset I just sit there, gently dragging my mind back to my breath- cool in, warm out. Twenty minutes, once or twice a day. And yoga, which I began only a year ago, but find that it is the best tool for integrating my mind, body, heart, and spirit. It has brought a quiet joy to my life that seems to stick. It’s easy to access when, for example, I see violence on television or in movies, violence that would have upset me for much longer in the past.

The more I practice these peaceful ways, the happier I become. It’s not as though life outside me has changed. It can be chaotic, fear filled, or dramatic; but there is a soft stream inside me carrying me deeper within- to that place of peace, the peace I learned from all of those dear dying people I sat with for all of those hours in my past. The very best teachers of all.

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  1. kristen braybrooke:

    Tess, you will always be my beloved teacher. I am so grateful for your wise counseling when I was scared, lost and alone in my breast cancer journey. You were my warm, safe hug every week. You were my lifeline to another view of my medical treatments and my potentially blissful existence even during all the chemo and radiation as well as after. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
    Love and gratitude,