Maneesha’s article written for ‘The West Australian,’ about being Anna Freud at her death, and the connection between meditation and death.
Monday July 12 1999
We do anything to avoid the subject of death. It is the last taboo, the ultimate failure. But Maneesha James says there is a way to die with joy and with gratitude….
The scene: a bedroom in a house in Hampstead, London, circa 1982. An elderly woman, small and as fragile as a sparrow, lies curled up in sleep. In the stillness of the night I gaze, not for the first time, around the bedroom. The walls are covered with degrees, diplomas, citations and photographs. One photo in particular draws me. My client, Anna – slim and longhaired as a youth – walks beside her bearded father in a big garden.
Now, her face, resting on the pillow, is framed by cropped, steel-grey hair. Her skin hangs in wrinkled folds on her frame, and each breath is laboured. Yet when we had first met some weeks ago – when she was still conscious and able to talk – she was clearly her own woman, even at 85 and bedridden. Feisty, with intelligent, smiling eyes, she was not remotely cowered by the indignity of being hospitalized.
It is a privilege to be involved in these very intimate, last moments of Anna Freud, youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud. She is chiefly renowned for inventing child analysis and for her many papers and books on psychological work with children. Now she is dying. Though I did not know it then, the experience of being at Anna Freud’s death bed was to set me on a course that has led me to where I am today: using meditation as a way to help people enhance the quality of both their everyday living and of their dying.
My client died in the early hours of that morning and, by 4.00 a.m., I was back in my apartment.
I should have been sleepy, yet I found myself wanting to sit, with my eyes closed. Though I had been a meditator for some years, this time as I moved inwards I was immersed in an unknown energy. It was not my silence that engulfed me but another, descending on me from outside. Peaceful, certainly, but this was not the peace of the grave, of death. This was not the serenity of a ‘soul laid to rest’. This was a presence – vital, joyful, dancing. I am quite certain (though how it could happen I cannot explain), that Anna Freud’s consciousness had visited me while I sat in meditation.
I understood after her dying how intimate the connection is between meditation and death. I saw that if she (who, as far as I knew, was not a meditator) could leave in her wake such a profound silence, then the experience of death had great potential for someone who made their exit in the spirit of meditation. Yet for the majority of those living in the West, influenced by the major Western religious traditions, death is the bogeyman, the fear that is the basis of all fears. When his patient is cut down by the ‘Grim Reaper’, the doctor regards it as a personal defeat. Given our way, there would be no death, not ever. Once such a taboo, sex is now fed to us on television news hours and talk shows ad nauseam, but shuffling off our mortal coil is still not a subject to be brought up at the dinner table. Death is the last taboo. We spend our lives avoiding even the mention of it. Naturally, when we are finally face to face with our mortality, we are out for the count, literally terrified into unconsciousness.
Over the years, through my own experience and my work with hundreds of meditators, I know that any event is qualitatively different when we are truly present to it – aware and available, free of the mind’s commentary, just experiencing immediately and directly. When we can inwardly step aside or witness all that we normally use to define ourselves – our body, thoughts, moods, all the changes inside and outside us – we enter the dimension of the vertical.
Rather than skimming along the surface of life as we do in the horizontal reality, when we live with awareness, we move right down into the belly of the moment. This is vertical living. We all know such times. They are not confined to formal periods of meditating. Making love, watching a sunrise, pottering in the garden, playing the piano or running: perhaps outwardly unremarkable, in those experiences time stops for us. Submerged in a reality where there is no difference between us and other, we have dissolved the definition of our tiny self. Happiness itself is transcended, and we know pure ‘isness’ … a state of simply being. If living consciously brings such experiences, why would it be different as we move towards death? And who is to say at what point we are no longer living but dying? In one respect, we started dying the day we were born. In another, according to the enlightened ones we never die but only change form. The person who lives consciously knows a way of being that can sustain him through the entire process of life and death, and perhaps beyond – wherever and whatever that may be.
I do not know if there is life after death. But I do know there is life before death, and that we can live in such a way that when our time is up, we are ready. We have drunk of life with a totality that now allows us to greet death with dignity and grace. And let’s remember, the elderly and those with cancer or AIDS, or any other life-challenging illness, do not have the monopoly on dying. None of us knows where we are standing in the queue. If we are going to ready ourselves for the event we call death, we need to do it now! Is it so bizarre an idea: to prepare to die?
Bizarre not to, when you come to think of it. After all, once we are born, the only fact that we can depend on is that we are going to die. So doesn’t it make sense to ask: “If it is certain that I am going to die one day, is there anything at all I can do to make myself ready?” We are all pregnant with death. It is part of the parcel that goes with being born. Knowing that, do we want to go towards death kicking and screaming, or with joy… even gratitude? Do we want our death and that of those we love to be a trauma or a transformation? The choice is ours.