Last year I decided to begin training as an End-of-Life Doula. People asked why I would want to take on such a challenge, saying it will be difficult and painful to watch the suffering of other people. But I knew in my heart it was right. I’ve been studying REN XUE and practicing YUAN QIGONG for 12 years. The effect on my life has been profound, bringing a sense of clarity and calm that translates into the ability to cope with life challenges without being drained by negative emotions like fear, sadness, anger, or denial. Making the decision, I knew that in order for me to be mindful of others’ suffering without turning away I needed to have a guiding light of my own as a foundation and focus. REN XUE acts as that guiding light.
The transition from life to death
After experiencing a number of significant deaths in my life I’ve become curious about what exactly is happening when we begin the transition from life to death – or, in terms of Qi, from form to formless. I noticed some people are peaceful and relaxed during this transition while others resist with all their hearts. What factors contribute to the ease some experience and how can we help others get to a place of peace and acceptance? Ren Xue means “the study of human life” and I’ve found many of the answers to these questions addressed in the Ren Xue teachings.
Supporting someone who is dying
I’m not only talking about the ‘final’ days. And I’m not only talking about the person who’s dying. I’m talking about everyone involved the minute it’s clear things aren’t going to get better. So much is in motion at that point. So many thoughts, actions, and behaviors are elevated. There’s the practical side of things – getting papers in order, taking care of needs like doctor appointments, medicines, and various therapies, planning for the burial, etc. Then the family and friends also need to be cared for, not to mention the dying person as they face their own mortality (if they’re not denying it, which is another level of interaction altogether). So much is brought up that can spark anxiety, stress, fear, and confusion and yet it can feel like time is standing still.
The Continuum of Life and Death
Ren Xue helps me look at transition on a daily basis because we’re always in a place of transition. I experience transition when I do the practices, study the theory, or apply what I know. Or when I move from one city to the next. Or if I end or begin a new job or relationship. I’m a different person throughout the process. My cellular structure has changed. My frame of mind has changed. My perspective has changed. Looking at the dying process is no different.
And being able to relax into transition is integral. So I have to look at where there’s resistance as I go through daily life. When I’m free from resistance I’m more at peace, which will aid me as I transition through life, death, and beyond. If we can change the context of death from “it’s all over” to “it’s a continuum”, there will be a clearer sense that the ‘work’ we do in this life will ultimately affect where we are in our next life. Shen (the True Self) will continue after we die, so the more effort we put into this life the more peaceful the transition. And it’s never too late to start doing the work.
Living from the Heart
An open heart is a large part of what being an End-Of-Life Doula is all about. Using the practice of Tong Yuan, we can communicate with Xin (the heart) and learn to strengthen the presence of 5 main heart qualities: trust, openness, love, gratitude, and true respect. The goal of strengthening these qualities is to weaken or clear unhealthy patterns (automatic ways of thinking or feeling that we have developed and which can impede us from living a joyful life). By clearing unhealthy patterns, we return to a more relaxed, calm, and harmonious state. Developing the 5 heart qualities is essential to living a well-balanced life. Or death.
As I delve into this new area of interest, I know that a challenging situation doesn’t need to be seen as difficult – it can also be viewed as an honor and a form of Gongjing - respect for all. Poet Ocean Vuong recently commented that his mother instilled in him the feeling that “You can look at something, people and scenarios, endlessly and still find something new. Just because you’ve seen it does not mean you have known it”. He’s speaking about having the faith that whatever you’re experiencing will continue to give meaning. This is how I feel about working with the dying. There is so much to witness with wonder and awe.