What could be more poignant than heartfelt life advice from people who are facing the end?
Inspiration and Chai is a blog by an Australian palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware; press surrounding her book based on her experience has been circulating for about a year, but I only *just* heard about it this last week. I had to share it with you lovely readers! There are certainly elements of sadness to this collection, all the fruits of wisdom shared are really born from these patients’ biggest regrets. Which makes this read all the more valuable. These are fellow human beings, some elders, others not, who had the rare opportunity to share their broad perspectives, looking back on all of life before it comes to an inevitable finish. By paying attention to their advice, instead of repeating their mistakes, we have an opportunity to build upon their wisdom for the generations to come.
Here’s a little tid bit …
From Inspiration and Chai
For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.
People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality. I learnt never to underestimate someone’s capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.
When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again. Here are the most common five:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.
Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.
For shade from the late afternoon sizzle (especially this tree featured above! After walking around Nice’s markets and beaches I needed a soft cool spot to take it all in and breathe a breath of thanks.).
For providing us with fresh air to nourish our bodies.
For wood to build our homes.
For branches to climb and dream upon.
For the constant reminder that with strong roots and nourishment, we can all grow toward the sky.
Growing up with Shel Silverstein, I always thought this was one of his saddest poems – the boy doesn’t seem as grateful as he should be … so today, I’ll make up for that.
Sharing a metta (loving-kindness/friendship) meditation with my Hiking Yoga students today, under the sweet sun rays, just at the shore of the lake in Prospect Park, was a true gift.
They were led through a visualization involving someone they love, who they feel comfortable with, who they feel they can be themselves around no matter what. We sat with them in this visualization and imagined our love for them as a white ball of light. We offered the light to this person as a symbol of gratitude, and observed how that felt in our own bodies. We then contemplated how the recipient of that love might react. It was a short 8 minute session, full of gratitude, lightness of heart, and warmth.
One of my oldest friends joined us, and it was her first meditation session ever!
Metta meditation can be helpful for depression and chronic pain and I invited participants to use this meditation on people they feel anger for as well. It’s a powerful way to assuage negative emotions, even if it feels counter-intuitive at first.
There are hundreds of metta meditations out there; here is a beautiful session from Sharon Salzberg.
The definition of metta, according to Wikipedia:
Mettā (Pali: मेत्ता in Devanagari) or maitrī (Sanskrit: मैत्री) is loving-kindness,friendliness, benevolence, amity, friendship, good will, kindness,close mental union (on same mental wavelength), and active interest in others. It is one of the ten pāramīs of the Theravāda school of Buddhism, and the first of the four sublime states (Brahmavihāras). This is love without clinging (upādāna).
The cultivation of loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) is a popular form of meditation in Buddhism. In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, this practice begins with the meditator cultivating loving-kindness towards themselves, then one’s loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings. In the Tibetan Buddhisttradition, this practice is associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering. Tibetan Buddhists also practice contemplation of the Brahmavihāras, also called the four immeasurables, which is sometimes called ‘compassion meditation’
“Compassion meditation” is a contemporary scientific field that demonstrates the efficacy of metta and related meditative practices.
Inspired by a friend who made it his mission to provide me with a full day awesomeness in Cold Spring – delicious food, hiking, good conversation, a jaunty ‘lil car ride – today I offer thanks to generosity.
Giving tickles the brain, igniting all kinds of elevated mood centers in the noggin’ – and what may come as a surprise, the giving brain is even more stimulated than the receiving (check out the article from Psychology Today below). Being generous (doing things like taking the time to donate blood, for example) improves our emotional landscapes in a host of ways: increasing feelings of satisfaction, decreasing feelings of anxiety, and in the case of volunteering, enhancing our concepts of work ethic.
Where the instinct comes from is still up for debate – is it a prosocial evolutionary technique?
One thing is certain: as soon as we can let go of those feelings of “not enough”-ness, or those niggling reciprocation concerns, we’re free to act as if we’re larger than life, giving with abundance, making other people’s lives better, and relishing in the joy that follows.
By Maria Konnikova | January 4, 2012
What determines the value of a gift?
A few weeks ago psychologist Dan Ariely, inspired by the holiday frenzy, pondered the hows and whys of gift-giving. Reading his piece—an endorsement of a behavioral economics view that challenges the rational economic contention that gift-giving is a largely irrational dilemma—at once brought to mind the story that has to me (and, I suspect, to many others) always epitomized the spirit of gifts and generosity: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Only a few pages long, the story may be O. Henry’s most famous, its title almost a byword for a certain type of present. Say it, and chances are people will at once realize just what kind of gift you mean. A gift that is the real embodiment of quality over quantity, the value of thought over any amount of expenditure. A gift that puts the mere mention of a Holiday Wish List to shame. As O. Henry writes, “Eight dollars a week or a million a year—what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer….Two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
Recent work suggests that O. Henry may have been more right than he knew. The gifts that Della and Jim gave to one another may have actually been the wisest even from the most rational—at least in the evolutionary sense—of views, despite the fact that for a homo economicus, their value would have been worse than nothing, as bad an economic exchange as could be expected: humans may be wired to be overly generous, and that proclivity can actually confer a large survival advantage.
A group of psychologists from UC-Santa Barbara set out to test the long-standing conundrum that even in anonymous, one-shot games—in other words, in situations where you know that (1) you will never again encounter your partner and (2) no one has any idea what decision you’ve made—people more often than not choose to incur costs themselves in order to allocate benefits to others; an irrational behavior by traditional economic standards if ever there was one. In their model, the team managed to isolate an asymmetry that had previous been ignored: in an uncertain world, it is far more costly to incorrectly identify a situation as one-shot when it is in fact repeated than it is to mistake an actual one-shot encounter for a repeated one. Put differently, it is better to always assume that we will in fact encounter the same partners over and over. So costly is it to make a mistake in the opposite direction that, even absent any reputational or other mechanisms, it makes sense for us to behave generously to anyone we encounter. As the study authors conclude, “Generosity evolves because, at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy…even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain. Human generosity, far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core, may turn out to be a bedrock feature of human nature.”
So, it makes perfect sense for us to be as generous as we can. In fact, we may even like giving gifts more than we like receiving them—Jim’s joy at seeing Della’s happiness at her present was likely greater than his enjoyment of his own gift, and the opposite holds true for Della. In one study, subjects were given the choice to receive a very tangible material benefit to themselves—up to $128—or to donate money to a range of charities. Each charitable donation would decrease their own monetary endowment, while each choice that focused on their monetary interest would maintain their earnings.
Brain activation for monetary reward and donations. Figure and caption taken directly from Moll et al (2006).
Not only did the researchers find that all participants consistently chose to engage in costly donations, anonymously giving up an average of 40% of their endowment (around $51) for charity, but they also discovered surprising differences in neural activity for decisions that involved donating money versus receiving money. Specifically, while monetary rewards activated the mesolimibic reward system, including the dorsal and ventral striatum and the ventral tegmental area—as would be expected of something that gives us positive reward—when people donated money to a charity, the same network showed even greater activity—and the activity spread to the subgenual area (implicated in social attachment), which had remained inactive in the pure monetary reward choices. While we may not always agree, our brains seem to suggest that the joy of being a gift’s giver may eclipse that of being its recipient.
But “The Gift of the Magi”—and Ariely’s point—goes beyond simple generosity, to the thought that lies behind the gift itself. The act of giving is itself part of the gift, to be sure, but giving thoughtlessly is not enough. The actual value of a gift—which, in the story, ends up being negative in the immediate term to both Jim and Della—stems from the calculation which went into its choice: what will it actually mean to the recipient?
Ariely singles out this type of gift as one that makes the mental leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else. It’s a leap that is incredibly difficult to take—exhibiting empathy, let alone perfect empathy to the point of complete confluence with the mind of another person, is a tough feat even in the most conducive of circumstances—but that may be worth taking all the same. For, even if you fail to make it as accurately as you may have wanted, the effort will be noted. The actual accuracy is somewhat beside the point. What matters is that you try to make the shift from your own mindset to someone else’s, that you make the effort to think about what present would be best suited to another person. It’s a generosity that presupposes generosity of time, not just of material expenditure: you may not have thought it out quite correctly, but at least you’ve taken the time to think.
True, a time investment may seem not worth the hassle. After all, isn’t it easier to just ask what someone wants, or go online to check what they want, and leave it at that? Won’t everyone be better off? Not necessarily. Generosity of time and thought may actually pay off in more ways than we think. Not only is the gift recipient likely to be appreciative, but we ourselves may benefit. Generosity—which in this definition actually includes generosity of time and generosity that is both unexpected and spontaneous (in stark contrast to the list-variety of present)—is one of the top three predictors of a successful marriage, a surprising addition to the expected culprits, sexual intimacy and commitment. It can make us feel better about ourselves. It can help us actually be happier and see the world as an overall better place. In short, it might be an initial investment that is worth making.
And, at the end of the day, it may well go further than any “ideal” present that was purchased off of an Amazon Wish List but required no actual thought of your own ever could. If Jim and Della had both officially requested their gift, they may have avoided the result of their overly generous impulses, but the effect would have been taken away entirely. The sheer fact of verbalizing the desire would have taken the resulting gifts out of the Magi realm altogether. As Ariely puts it, “Instead of picking a book from your sister’s Amazon wish list, or giving her what you think she should read, go to a bookstore and try to think like her. It’s a serious social investment.”
Giving—and thoughtful, generous giving at that—may be more rewarding than receiving on numerous levels, from the neural, to the personal, to the social. And would a more generous, so to speak, gift be even more rewarding than a less generous one? While that remains to be tested directly, I’d be willing to bet that Jim and Della’s ventral tegmental area and striatum went all sorts of crazy when they picked out one another’s presents. And isn’t it just the type of gift you’d most want to receive yourself?
There was no shortage of knowledge (or wisdom) at the Omega Yoga Service Conference this weekend. Two jnana yogis (jnanins) in particular really lit up the room lecturing on key topics for service yogis.
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University (the top ranked uni for graduate psychology programs in the US), delivered a brilliant presentation on compassion, some of the neurophysiology behind it, and how people in the helping fields can strengthen this powerful skill.
We were treated to summaries of findings by Paul Gilbert and host of other leaders in psychology and compassion research (Fiske, Goetz, Longe, Slovik, et al.) – years of scientific mining filtered down to the gems of their labor (priceless for the lay people in the audience, including myself!). And despite the limited time, we were offered several hands-on exercises to nourish our own compassion, or to utilize in a clinical setting. Kelly’s presentation was practical, clear, and absolutely inspirational as both a yogi and an aspiring academic.
“Kelly McGonigal is a leader driven by compassion and pragmatism.” – Forbes.com 20 Inspiring Women
Trauma was a big theme throughout this conference and Bessel Van der Kolk closed the gathering with a presentation on Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma. Bessel’s approach was a comfortable mix of personal sharing as a clinical psychologist and the intriguing new research emerging about which areas of the brain are most affected by trauma. He opened with a few aesthetic representations of trauma, including a video clip from shell-shocked WWII veterans in Europe – otherworldly and fundamentally disturbing.
We were later shown brain imaging scans of PTSD patients just a few years back – illustrating almost complete lack of activity in their temporal parietal insula and parietal cortex areas. For PTSD patients, sensations from the body were almost totally blocked. Their brains no longer wanted them to physically ‘be,’ their trauma had been so severe. Bessel described pranayam as the only known technique to regulate the brain stem, the part of the nervous system in charge of automatic functioning. He also discussed the importance of the vagus nerve, which contains 80% efferent fibers, nerve communication going to the brain.
Clearly, I’m still connecting some of the dots; all this information, along with my discoveries in Health Psychology and Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology this year, clarifies the “why” questions that pop up when I suggest asana, meditation and pranayam to my students. The scientific research might seem redundant to hardcore practitioners, but is absolutely vital in locating the process of efficacy, what *exactly* is working, *how* is it doing what it does, do duration and frequency of practice make a difference, and if so, how much?
It’s also great fodder for recruiting new yogis (especially you skeptical lot!) – something this yoga evangelist is very keen on (be warned! ;)).
Already what I’ve written could be broken into *two* blogs, one about Kelly’s presentation on compassion/science and one about Bessel’s on trauma/yogic techniques/science. But this is a blog on how grateful I am for jnana yogis. Yogis like Kelly and Bessel who are discerning the Real from the unreal or illusory, yogis who exhibit the best of svadhyaya (self-study). Their extensive studies and commitment to yoga provide great clarity in the grey areas that arise where Eastern philosophy meets Western science.
If you’re a traditionalist, you may find my definition of a jnani rather modern. Kelly and Bassel did not give presentations on spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads – and they made absolutely no mention of self-realization. Would they call themselves jnanis? I have no idea! But they’ve shone a flashlight along my path, a light that came through their profound study, and so, for me, they are jnana yogis to be grateful for!
A Traditional Explanation of the Path of Jnana Yoga
Jnana Yoga is considered one of the many paths of yoga (along with Hatha, Karma, Bhakti, Raja/Classical/Patanjali, etc.) – though the techniques and nuances of philosophy differ, they all lead to one state: samadhi (bliss, liberation, self-realization, etc.). Jnana Yoga is known as the path for the intellectual. According to Sadananda in his Vedanta-Sara, a fifteenth century text on jnana yoga, there are 4 principal means for attaining liberation on the path of jnana:
1. Discernment – viveka – between permanent and the transient
2. Renunciation – viraga – of the enjoyment of the fruit of one’s actions
3. The six accomplishments: tranquility (shama), sense-restraint (dama), cessation (uparati), endurance (titiksha), mental collectedness (samadhana), faith (shraddha)
4. The urge toward liberation (mumukshutva), similar to the bodhi-citta of Mahayana Buddhism.
(Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition, 31)
If you’re interested in diving into what jnana yoga is all about, the Bhagavad Gita (500-200 BC) is the first text to reference this path, and Swami Vivekananda is said to be the penultimate example of a jnanin. His commentary, “Jnana Yoga,” published by Advaita Ashrama, though written in the language of the Victorian Era, is an elucidating read on the subject.
Queen Liliu’okalani, the last queen and first yogi of Hawaii.