November 21, 2011

Mindfulness Exercise: This Person Could Die Tonight

We are currently reading Jan Chozen Bays's How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness at the Tricycle Book Club. Each week in November, Bays will present us with a new mindfulness exercise that relates to the theme of gratitude. The fourth and final exercise is posted below. Give it a try and then join us at the discussion to tell us how it goes. Pick up a copy of the book here.

Mindfulness Exercise # 4:
This Person Could Die Tonight


The Exercise

Several times a day, when someone is talking to you, in person or on the telephone, remind yourself, “This person could die tonight. This may be the last time I will be with them.” Notice any changes in how you listen, speak or interact with them.

Reminding yourself
Put a note on your bathroom mirror, just above or below where your own reflection appears, saying, “This person could die tonight.”  Put similar notes on your telephone(s), in your workspace—somewhere where you will see them several times during the day.

Discoveries
Some people find this task a bit depressing at first, but soon they discover that when they become aware of their own mortality and that of the person they are talking to, they listen and look in a different way. Their heart opens as they hold the truth that this could be the very last time they will see this person alive. When we talk to people, especially people we see daily, we are easily distracted and only half listen. We often look a bit to the side or down at something else, rather than directly at them.  We might even be annoyed that they have interrupted us. It takes the realization that they could die to make us pay attention anew.

This practice becomes particularly poignant when the person you are talking to is aged or ill, or when death has recently taken an acquaintance or some one you loved. When the Japanese say goodbye to someone, they stand respectfully, watching and waving until the car or train is out of sight. This custom has its origin in the awareness that this could be the last time we will see each other. How sad we would feel if our last encounter with our child, partner or parent were flavored with impatience or anger! How comforting if we had said good bye with care.

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