Joan Halifax Roshi has been death’s curious student and companion for over forty years. The anthropologist and Zen priest founded the Upaya Zen Center and has trained hundreds of healthcare professionals in contemplative care. Like Halifax herself, her long-awaited book is fierce and gentle, well grounded in a pragmatic spiritual wisdom. It shows how our living shapes our dying and how the two are inseparable. Here is a sample anecdote she gives:
. . . of a young man who stopped taking his medications, with the idea he would soon die a “noble death.” Four months later he felt his “story” had betrayed him. He had a definite way he thought things should be, and they were not working out that way. Finally, on the morning of his death after a difficult last struggle against the ideas that opposed his reality, he finally gave it all up and everything seemed to drop away, including his suffering and his story.
Halifax presents invaluable spiritual practices as aids in preparing for death. They include radical optimism, the boundless abodes, the nine contemplations, transforming poison into medicine, and creating caring communities. However, she wisely points to the danger of suggesting any one way as the right way. “The concept of a ‘good death’ can place an unbearable pressure on dying people and caregivers and take us away from death’s mystery and the richness of not knowing. We have to abandon our fixed ideas of outcome.”