Follow up to Open Death Conversation

I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the Open Death Conversation on Wednesday evening. I commend you all for your thoughtful and open-hearted comments and the careful listening you gave each other. I really hope you all found the experience beneficial. Some of you obviously found it useful enough that you wanted to continue the conversation and suggested a monthly online conversation. I think that’s great. I am not planning on continuing because I want to devote my time to developing and teaching the online course on Lovingkindness and Compassion (primarily for the reason given below) as well as the online sitting group. 

There are two things I want to say related to the aftermath of the Open Death Conversation. Consider how you engage in future conversations: I am not a grief counselor and the past ODC and future ones shouldn’t be considered to take the place of grief counseling. However, people can be enormously supportive for each other when they are going through various stages of grief. I wish I had such a support group when my parents died. I recommend you follow the “step forward, step backward” advice: If you are comfortable speaking in groups, make space for others to share and if you are a bit shy or reserved, push yourself to share. Always make sure everyone feels safe.

The second thing is: there is a thin line between sharing your ideas with friends and getting overly absorbed in your story. I saw this happen at the Community Dharma Leaders teacher training at Spirit Rock that I did for two years: people got caught over and over in their personal suffering, forgetting that it is precisely our suffering, grief, and fear makes us human and bind us all together. It really isn’t personal. Our “ah-ha” moment comes when we drop (just temporarily) the “me and mine” storyline and embrace our fellows with openheartedness. Please remember to LISTEN to each other. Listen to your body, too.

And that’s why I ask you to commit yourself to your meditation practice as a follow-up to this Death Conversation. Meditation builds compassion as it allows us to open up to our own and other people’s suffering without being overwhelmed. A highly effective technique is the practice of lovingkindness and compassion. Insight and Metta practices have been shown to be of enormous help to caregivers in end-of-life facilities. I am trying to offer more meditation practice to caregivers up here in Michigan but it’s been very difficult to get a foot-hold. Still, I remain convinced it’s important to offer this transformative teaching.

The class that I am teaching in October is going to emphasize practice: I’m recommending you spend at least 15 minutes a day doing a metta/compassion practice for the full 6 weeks. There you have it: I’m ending this with a shameless plug urging you to take my course!

Awareness, Reality and Snoopy’s Doghouse

I introduced two interesting articles today on awareness which led to discussions on what our mind is really experiencing. The first article is from the online magazine, “Inverse” and is titled: “Scientists Reveal the Number of Times You’re Actually Conscious Each Minute.

Then I read from the article in Tricycle Magazine called, “Attention Means Attention.”  This put some of the ideas from the previous article into a Buddhist perspective, since Buddhist practitioners tend not to be that surprised that humans have such short attention spans.

We then talked about how we perceive the world around us, and how an awareness of impermanence gives us a different view of reality. Our discussion then devolved (I take total responsibility) into the philosophy of reality through the lenses of Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Peanuts (esp. Snoopy’s doghouse)! 

Putting down that heavy load

What we should and shouldn’t do

We had a rather free-form discussion today, and I thank you all for helping me along with talking about some ideas that aren’t quite coherent yet in my own mind.  I talked engaged Buddhism and why I believe that forcing political agendas and passing judgement on others may be at odds with what the Buddha taught.  I referred to two articles from Tricycle:

A Call to Conscience

Although I agree with much of the politics, I found this article to be somewhat dogmatic.
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
and this…well, I don’t know if failure is inevitable, but I know that there is something important going on that we can look at directly and take refuge in Buddhist teachings.

And just this last thought from Rumi (and Mary D.) There is a field:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.–Rumi

Working with compassion in our practice

After our first sitting meditation, I read a quote from Pema Chodron about meditation practice: 

Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.

John very clearly saw this as an invitation to look at the practice of compassion. We ended up having a great conversation on how we all defined compassion, and how we work with it. How can we have compassion for people who we believe have reprehensible behaviors or beliefs? Who is deserving of compassion? Do we know how to show ourselves compassion? 

Before we sat for a second silent meditation, I read the following:

You do not have to leave the room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait. Be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet. -Franz Kafka-

I also offered a story about grief and the movement of the heart as compassion arises: this is what’s happening in the news right now:

(by the way, the mother has stopped carrying the dead baby and has rejoined the pod)

Open Death Conversation on August 29


I would like to invite you to join me in an online Open Death Conversation on August 29, from 6:30-8:30 pm. This is a similar group conversation to the Death Café, which I’ve spoken to some of you about, but this event will be online and I will use a format that is recommended by the Zen Hospice in San Francisco:

I attended the Zen Hospice Open Death Conversation (ODC) last month, and it was a wonderful experience. The organizers gave me a set of guidelines for facilitating a ODC. Remember, I will be a facilitator, not a teacher. That’s why I’m not charging for this (although a donation to Zen Hospice or a local non-profit organization that focuses on end-of-life issues is recommended).

Here’s the overview from the guidelines:


At Zen Hospice Project, we dare to look at death directly and consider what we want for ourselves and how we might prepare for not getting what we want when our time comes.

Our online Open Death Conversation is a forum for discussing the many aspects of death and dying. We are not attached to any outcome. We do not direct the conversation. Everyone is invited; we only ask that participants show up with an open heart and open mind and allow themselves to go where they need to go. Through conversation, we bring death out into the open.

We have no agenda other than to generate meaningful, energetic conversation free from judgment. Drawing inspiration from the thousands of heartfelt conversations that Zen Hospice Project has had over the years of caring for dying persons and their families, we invite you to join us.


The event which was hosted by Zen Hospice last month was 3 hours long, and the time passed very quickly. However, I can’t really do more than a 2 hour conversation, so I think the best way to give us all time to talk is to limit the number of participants to 10 people. Please send me an email and that will be your registration. First come, first serve. You should also know that there is no religious affiliation attached to this, and no expectation of knowing meditation, Buddhist or otherwise.

This is filling up really quickly, so if you’re interested, please contact me!

Dealing with difficult emotions

Sunday’s sitting was about dealing with our emotional and difficult issues. The main thing I want to emphasize about this is that everyone is going to have difficulties, and everyone is going to feel they are coming up short somehow in dealing with their issues. We have to try to forgive ourselves and allow difficulties to arise, and I hope we can work really diligently on being kinder to ourselves. It’s best if I give you the link for the worksheet from the MBSR online class: “Turning toward difficult emotions”:

I also urge you to watch this TED talk; I found it very inspiring (and I’m not a pushover for these things!):




Judging Mind

We talked today about how much we judge ourselves and others: how our practice is going, for example, and how much we compare ourselves to others or even to how we meditated in the past. All of this takes us out of the present moment and leads to all sorts of guilt and angst. However, even if we can’t STOP ourselves from judging, how about if we stopped judging the judging?

Take a look at this article:

I also offered the group an exercise based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practice called STOP, which encourages you to take a one-minute breathing space.

  1. ‘Stop’: Take Stock of what is happening right now by checking in to the heart, mind, and body.
  2. ‘Take a Breath’: Turn your attention to the breath it wherever it is most noticeable in your body. It could be in the belly, or the chest, or the nose… Become aware of the breath as it comes in, and as it leaves the body. Allow your breath to stabilize and anchor you in the present moment. .
  3. ‘Observe and Open’:Pay attention to your present moment experience. Expand your field of awareness to include a sense of the body and the world around you: sights, sounds, smells, etc.
  4. ‘Proceed with new Possibilities’: Go on your normal activity with the newly acquired knowledge from your moment of mindfulness. Now you can re-adjust what might have gotten out of balance, both internally and externally. Generate an attitude of curiosity and openness.

Mini Death Cafe

I told the group about my experience yesterday with the Zen Hospice “End of Life Conversation.” I was very impressed with the experience. There were 9 people using the Zoom platform, including a wonderful facilitator.  The people weren’t all Buddhist practitioners, but had a very varied background and from a wide range of ages. I was impressed at what a thoughtful experience it was. The group (and our group today) talked a lot about how alienating grief and caregiving was for them, and how hard we are on ourselves in our expectations of how we deal with the issues surrounding death and illness.

I am going to get written instructions from Zen Hospice on how to facilitate this End of Life conversation. Several people in our group are already interested in participating. We just have to figure out when and if we can handle a 3 hour long workshop (with breaks!).

Meanwhile, here’s a link to the workshops that Zen Hospice hosts:

Also, I mentioned this article about the “Rainbow Bridge” from the New Yorker. I think it’s funny, but not everyone necessarily will:


Going Against the Stream!

Today (Sunday, 15 July) we talked a bit about the Foundations of Mindfulness and why we are interested in moment-by-moment awareness. I used the following article from Tricycle by Stephen Bachelor, who talked about why the Buddha stressed mindfulness of the breath, the body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind. It wasn’t just to become calm, but to understand and accept ourselves just as we are:

Foundations of Mindfulness

We then talked a bit about art: I got off on a bit of a tangent with a short discussion on Neandertal art. This started with me talking about how deep our conditioning likely goes: back into our evolutionary past. I always have thought that Neandertals have received bad press when they were quite sophisticated. And I just read a Scientific American article showing they were abstract thinkers as indicated by cave paintings:

Ancient Cave Paintings Clinch the Case for Neandertal Symbolism

Abstract images in Spanish caves date back 65,000 years—millennia before Homo sapiens set foot in Europe—settling a long-running debate over Neandertal cognition

Finally, I recommended that we try out new ways of “being in the moment”: perhaps by sketching and painting even if that’s not something we may think we’re any good at. It’s yet another way to be “in the moment.” This is the book I recommended to people, but Danny Gregory has written a number of them, and they’re delightful:

The Creative License



Concentration vs Mindfulness and everything in between

Today in class we talked about the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between concentration (or one-pointedness) and mindfulness (or open awareness). It’s interesting to move back and forth between the two, and see the relationship or overlap between the two.  I referred to a great book called “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana. The complete book is online, but here’s the section on Concentration and Mindfulness. I highly recommend you check it out!