Welcoming Death: A Conscious Transition

About nine months ago, at the end of a meditation, I inwardly heard the question, “Are you ready?” Silently I answered, “Yes, I am ready.” I understood that God was preparing me for what would soon come into my life.

For about a year, walking up hills had become more and more difficult. I attributed the difficulty to emphysema, even though I’d never been diagnosed as having the disease. I’d been a heavy smoker for many years before I quit in 2001.Then, for another decade after I quit, I was exposed to heavy secondhand smoke in the Las Vegas casinos where I worked.

My meditations were usually very good, but a “sadness” for which I could find no explanation began to sweep over me. I was living at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, serving God and Guru by helping to open the hearts and minds of people in need of spiritual upliftment. So why the sadness?

Soon it became more apparent that something was seriously wrong. Mornings or at night, I began to feel discomfort in my chest. While cooking at the Retreat kitchen or serving in the office, I became short of breath if I moved too quickly. Soon I had to stop working altogether.

I found myself not caring very much about work-related matters I had previously regarded with enthusiasm. As my enthusiasm waned, I remembered that Swami Kriyananda, before he left his body, had spoken of no longer having the enthusiasm that had been a hallmark of his life. Could my own lack of it be a warning? I wondered.

The diagnosis confirmed

Finally, I saw a doctor and learned that I had “hypoxia,” a loss of oxygen that occurred when I walked even a short distance. An x-ray showed a “mass.” After a series of tests, the findings were “stage-three lung cancer.”

With the diagnosis confirmed, I saw my approaching death as coming from God, an opportunity to begin closing the doors on the concerns of the ego and to devote myself to passing the “final exam.” Exams have never been my strong suit, but God through my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, and my teacher, Swami Kriyananda, had already given me all the instructions I would need for this particular exam. By their grace, I had experienced in meditation the deep knowing that my soul was one with God, and I knew there was nothing to fear.

Throughout my life I had often given thought to how I would greet Sister Death. I would ask myself, “If an accident happened right now, what am I thinking? Where is my mind?” I’d always hoped I would have a warning of my impending death. Now, through God’s grace, just such a warning had come.

Should I fight the disease?

The most natural response to the diagnosis would be to fight the disease by undergoing chemotherapy. Yet I already knew that chemotherapy would not produce a cure. Even if the disease went into remission, there was an eighty percent chance of reoccurrence. My solution was to meditate and ask God, “What is Your will for me?” The answer I received inwardly was, “It’s your time.” That answer brought not only a sense of relief, but feelings of freedom, joy, and peace.

Within each of us there is a deep knowing of what is right in such situations. For another person, fighting the disease might be best, regardless of the outcome, perhaps because in some past lifetime he prematurely gave up the struggle to live. The answer for me was to do everything I could to clear up my remaining karma.

The importance of making amends

Many of Swami Kriyananda’s recommendations on preparing for death, discussed in his essay, “The Final Exam,” are similar to those in the 12-step programs for overcoming addiction. I’ve been trying to live these principles since I became part of Alcoholics Anonymous thirty years ago. In a nutshell, the 12-step program involves forgiveness, self-honesty, and making amends. The ultimate goal is to learn to see things as they are, and not as we would have them be.

Making amends I had already focused on intensively as part of AA’s 12-step program. Sometimes the amends were financial, such as repaying money I owed. At other times, they took the form of expressing gratitude. I was placed in a foster home when I was eleven years old. What I very much needed at that time was a mother, a role my foster mother refused to take on. Although she gave me a home, I nonetheless felt a huge resentment toward her because she was unable to give me what I needed emotionally. Years ago, as part of AA’s program, I called her and thanked her for everything she had done for me. She was very congenial and offered me a home if ever I needed it.

Having had five marriages, I also needed to make amends to my former husbands. During these marriages I was never at peace. In each marriage, my husband and I always wanted the other person to change. The 12-step program enabled me to take my share of the responsibility for these relationships not having worked, and to come to peace in the understanding that each of us had done our best. By taking responsibility for my mistakes, I was able to let go of any lingering negative feelings towards my ex-husbands.

Making amends teaches non-attachment

With my children, the making of amends has been ongoing. For the last twenty-five years I have helped them financially and emotionally, even when that help was not acknowledged. I was not acting from guilt but from the awareness that these three children are my own, even though I was unable to raise them. I have prayed for them and also for the people who raised them, a practice which at first was not easy.

I am in touch with two of my three children. The third child, a son, I have only seen a few times in his life, most recently six years ago. Each day I pray for my children and send them love. It’s important to me that they feel comforted, that they know I love them and, more importantly, that they know God loves them just as they are. Reassured by that understanding, I feel at peace leaving them.

For some weeks now I’ve looked at my life and have come to feel that there are no more amends to make. I have been fortunate in coming to terms with the life I’ve lived, the errors I’ve made, and their consequences. When it has not been feasible to make amends in person, I have asked Divine Mother and my Guru to send those souls the blessings they needed to be at peace. Some of my errors with my children only God can repair. Reaching a point of trusting that He would repair them helped set me free.

Withdrawal and “cleaning house”

As my energy level declined, I experienced a natural withdrawal from involvement with work and outward service. At the same time, I did not want others to have to sort through and dispose of my belongings after I had left this body. With the help of a few friends, I’ve completed this process. I decided on what I still needed and what I could give away, now or later. The involvement of friends brought clarity and joy to the undertaking, and helped me realize that certain items that were no longer important to me might be useful to others.

Have I done a similar housecleaning with interior thoughts? The answer is “yes.” I find myself asking: Do I have any regrets? Is there anyone to whom I still owe amends? Do I need to say things to others that I have not expressed? Can I continue to serve others, even though I am much weaker physically? Have I accomplished what my soul came to do in this lifetime? Am I done?

In answering these questions, I find myself at peace. I am coming to the end of a lifetime in which it has become clear that God loves me and that together we have been victorious. Ending life on this note seems perfect.

Knowing that, as death approaches, there will be physical pain and discomfort does not concern me nearly so much as the possibility of losing the awareness of my Beloved’s inner presence. I have shed many tears in prayer I that I never lose this awareness.

A veil has dropped away

A veil has dropped away. It allows my friends and me to speak openly of our love, and of the fact that life in this body is coming to a close. There is a joy in this openness.

Prayer is now easier for me than meditation. The practice of Kriya Yoga has always felt like an umbilical cord connecting me to the Divine. Now, because of the condition of my lungs, I can no longer meditate or practice Kriya for very long. Nonetheless, by the grace of God, whenever I pray or meditate even for short periods, I experience deep silence and stillness.

My one remaining test is not to be angry with myself for my role in possibly having created this karma of illness and early death through my 20-year addiction to alcohol and my 10-year addiction to cigarettes (two packs a day), practices which devastated my body. My Guru gave me this thought today as I spoke to him about my feelings: “Remember, it was God in you who was in darkness and acted in that way.”

By the grace of God, I have been given the strength and clarity to take the next step. Although I’m at peace in knowing that it’s my time to go, the prospect of leaving Ananda, the opportunity to serve, and all the love I’ve received is causing the sadness I sometimes feel. When you’ve put so much of yourself into something, it’s not so easy to walk away from it even though the project is finished. I attained my life’s dream when I returned to Ananda and was able to serve wholeheartedly with my spiritual family. If there’s any sadness it is in leaving that life of joyful service.

Update: Nayaswami Brindey passed away peacefully in her home at Ananda Village on March 9, 2016, surrounded by her closest friends.