Rodney Smith lives in Seattle, Washington, where he has been running a hospice. He has also set up hospices in Texas and Massachusetts and teaches workshops nationwide on working with death and the dying. He has been offering vipassanā retreats at IMS for many years, and has recently completed a book called Lessons from the Dying, to be published by Wisdom Publications.
You were on staff at IMS in the very early years, weren’t you? What was it like in those days?
When I first came on staff in 1977, one really didn’t have to know much to find a place in one of the departments. They were hungry for bodies to fill positions. I began in a newly created position called a rover. My job was to rotate between the kitchen and maintenance. Besides putting up with a lot of Rover dog jokes, I really knew nothing about either cooking or fixing things. The first meal I cooked was a complete disaster (I multiplied the entire recipe by 13—including the cayenne and chili peppers). They quickly put me permanently in maintenance.
Then they sent me to plumbing school so I could learn how to fix the pipes. On my first job I shook the pipe I was working on, and four other leaks occurred. I was useless. But for the most part, we were all that way—well-meaning, good-hearted, with a strong desire to practice; but by today’s standards mostly useless if any unusual circumstances arose. Just after I left I remember the staff wanted to save money, so they turned off the water flow through the radiators to the annex during the winter while the building wasn’t in use. Needless to say, the pipes froze and burst throughout the entire building. We were hopeless.
Where did you go from IMS?
I had gotten a real taste of vipassanā practice during my time at IMS and only wanted to deepen that practice. So I went off to Asia and eventually became a monk in Thailand.
How did you find your way from being a Theravada monk to a hospice worker?
It was really an extension of my practice needs. I had spent several years on retreat, including a few years in Asia as a forest monk, and at some point felt my practice was becoming rather dry. I wasn’t sure why. I had always thought that a monk’s life would fulfill my spiritual needs, and it did for awhile; but later I began wanting to connect with people and work more with my heart.
I read Steven Levine’s book Who Dies?, and said to myself, “I want to do that work.” Upon returning from Asia, Ram Dass was staying at IMS, and he hooked me up with a hospice in Houston that had a spiritual focus. Fourteen years later, here I am, still doing the same work.
Dying has given me the same focus and interest in self-discovery that I had during those years of intensive meditation practice. In some ways, I never left the forest.
What do you bring personally in your work with hospice patients from vipassanā practice?
The willingness to listen and learn from the dying. Nothing more, I hope, because I think we do a disservice to the dying (or anyone, for that matter) when we attempt to move a person’s mind in any direction whatsoever. We are not there to intrude on the person’s consciousness.
The preparation for death is often a sacred time. We join them in this human process as human beings, not as teachers or instructors of a good death. Our experience of having been with thousands of people at the edge of their life offers the hospice patient some reassurance around the process they are going through. But as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross says, “people die in character,” and each one of us will go through it in our unique way. The hospice worker honors that way by creating the optimum environment for the person to grow as he or she needs to grow, independent of our own ideals of what a good death may be for us.
Growth seems optimally to occur through listening, when the listener is not demanding anything or judging the speaker. Through the intimate contact of being heard, the speaker is able to grow in whatever way he or she determines.
The preparation for death is often a sacred time. We join them in this human process as human beings, not as teachers or instructors of a good death.
Now here is where vipassanā really helps: to practice vipassanā is to be a skilled internal listener. If we can externalize the practice so that we listen to others as we have learned to listen to ourselves, the same mechanism for growth is available to others as we have used on ourselves. As in our own internal practice, the awareness of others must be laced with affection in order for the trust and growth to be complete. Then we essentially offer the speaker a meditative environment, and the same healing can potentially occur within them as within ourselves.
Of course the other component of vipassanā practice which is essential in working with death is the willingness to look, no matter where the looking takes us. That fearlessness is essential when you confront death, or death will beat you every time. Looking at death is as safe as looking internally. But there are just as many surprises!
You are writing a book on the experiences you have had with the dying. Can you tell us the thesis of the book?
The book is entitled Lessons from the Dying (Wisdom Publications, May 1998). I have been privileged to know many people who have come to deep levels of insight as they approach death. Their wisdom is the wisdom of the ages, but their lives are often very ordinary. Somehow, without any special preparation or practice history, there often comes a very acute spiritual understanding. The question I pose in the book is: Can we access this perception now and live accordingly, without waiting until we are on the edge of our own life? Through their stories and the exercises in the book, I attempt to make the lessons from the dying our own. The book is actually a practice guide on how to live with death…. Oh my, I shouldn’t have said that—now no one will buy it!
Is there one lesson in particular you could share with us?
People have so many ideas about how to die. Often people who think they are spiritual have the most difficult time dying because they keep bypassing their very human experiences for spiritual reassurances. In hospice care, we call this dysfunctional theology. A person uses their practice to take them away from their humanness. They falsely believe that to be spiritual means they will die with love in their hearts or some other misconception. They can’t tolerate what they really feel because it doesn’t conform to their ideas about practicing all these years. It is sad, because practice is and has always been about being fully human. This means both screaming and loving, and loving the screams.
This is certainly an important lesson of death. Death is the great equalizer. We all die, and what we have been in the past means nothing to that moment (it actually means nothing to any moment). For each of us to go through that moment without pretension or regret, free of the past, is the optimum way to die—and to live! Like toothpaste through a tube, death squeezes the past out of us as we are dying. The dying often try to square themselves with their lives through life review. They will talk endlessly about the areas of their lives which still hook them and ensnare them in the past.
We sometimes hear of exceptional phenomena occurring around the time of death. Has this been your experience?
There is such profound mystery to death. I was with a dying man who was in and out of coma, and unknown to him his brother suddenly dies in an automobile accident. The family and I meet in a distant part of the house to consider whether the dying man should be told about his brother. The family decides not to; because the dying man is so close to death himself, they feel it would cause him unneeded stress at a very critical time in his dying. We then go upstairs and down the hall the where the man is in bed. As we enter his room he looks up and says, “Why didn’t you tell me my brother died?” Shocked, we ask him how he knew. He says, “I’ve been speaking to my brother in the tunnel.” He then turns over and dies five minutes later.
Our hearts love stories such as these, because it breaths a breath of fresh air into our lives. We rejoice at the fact that the known world may not be all there is. Our mind is frightened by that fact, but our hearts delight in such revelations. Working with the dying brings a reconciliation to that split. We go through the fear to discover the wonder of death.
Is the involvement of Buddhist teachers making a difference in our culture’s approach to the processes of sickness, old age, and death?
I think it is one of the factors. It is a chicken and egg question, since the readiness of our culture to look at death is the same readiness which allows Buddhism to gain a foothold. But more to the point, it is not just the Buddhist community which is alive to the subject. This wellspring of activity is the first indication that a secret has been revealed, and once opened can never be completely denied again.
Often people who think they are spiritual have the most difficult time dying.
The baby-boomer generation is aging. And I think the same consciousness which expanded through Woodstock and the anti-war protests, and then contracted back into the stock market and traditional living, may be reemerging as death approaches. It seems to me that an insight occurred to many people back then, which is returning its fruit now. There is much less denial of death, and Buddhism is playing a role in how people are examining the issue.
Of course the problem is still the intellectual versus the experiential modes of knowing. People are beginning to read about all the right ways to die and navigate the bardo [intermediate] states and near-death experiences, and angels, and on and on. But what has this done for us? It certainly is the first step in the subject receiving the attention it deserves; but after all of the reading, what change has really occurred? People are still living in extraordinary fear of death and distorting their lives with forethoughts of grief.
The power of death [is that] it gets your attention and takes you suddenly into the experience of life.
It seems to me that it is here that Buddhism can have a real impact. It provides the tools to make the experience our own, to work with the fear and projection, and make death a workable moment. We are and have been doing this, but more is needed. Maybe meditation courses around the theme of death and dying can be offered. I think Buddhism can help this process through the instrument of inquiry—reflecting and investigating the issues all along the way.
How has death and dying been a spiritual practice for you?
It is very interesting, the multiple levels from which death touches us. Try saying to yourself, right now, seriously, that you have only twenty seconds to live. What happens to your mind during those seconds? Immediately there is spaciousness. Immediately everything is simplified, and your way is clear. That is the power of death. It gets your attention and takes you suddenly into the experience of life.
If you really take it on as a spiritual practice, be prepared for a wild ride. Everything comes at you. Almost immediately, death begins to evoke a vast mystery. But the other side of the mystery is fear. It entices and threatens at the same time. So one of the first ways it works on us is through fear. “I’ve got to get myself together because I am going to die!” Death brings up many of the ways we hold on to life at the expense of clarity and compassion. There is a great deal of ego involvement at this stage.
I remember a time when I had been working in hospice about six months. It was Christmas time, and I couldn’t believe anyone could be happy with so much death in the world. I was really taking it on: angry and frustrated with my inability to alter death, and yet totally enamored by it. I saw a father playing ball with his son, and suddenly realized that I was missing the joy contained in that scene. After that I began to balance the living and the dying, and to stop fighting so much with death. I used the first precept on it [the refraining from doing injury to anything], and let it live. This lead into the next phase.
Now death begins to intercede in my perspective in a more subtle way. It becomes the psychic posture, the perceptive stance that we take towards all things. At this point, everything is weighed in light of death. For instance, one begins to irreversibly understand that everything ends in death. At that point all of our actions, purpose, and meaning begin to merge into that realization. What is life about? Is it about the products that die or the process itself? At this level we are not only talking about gross material products, but the subtle ways we “save” or “waste” time, or cultivate one state of mind as opposed to another state. But there is still separation here. Death is still outside peering in. We are cleaning up much of the fear, but there lingers the residual dualism of life versus death.
Now death begins to takes us headlong into the whole issue of time. If everything within time dies, and death is the ending of time, what then is time? If something ends, it must by definition be finite, imaginary, and limited. As long as our spiritual practice is based in time, meaning we are growing, cultivating, and becoming, then death stalks us all along the way. This takes us to the final conclusion of death.
The way to freedom is to become death itself. In death there is no movement yet complete aliveness. To pursue anything in the light of death is to be fooled—so we stop all movement. No pursuits, no death; no building up, no destruction. The serious practice of death leads us into the deathless, and puts an end to itself.
Are there any final words of encouragement you would like to offer us all?
We are told that Plato, on his deathbed, was asked to summarize the Dialogues, his life’s work. Coming out of a reverie, Plato said simply, “Practice dying.” May all beings practice dying.