Tricycle Film Club

Buddhist films and discussion for the
Tricycle Community

Griefwalker

The redemptive power of a deep love for life

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Welcome to the Tricycle Film Club!

GriefwalkerEach month, Tricycle Supporting and Sustaining Members will be treated to a select feature-length film, presented in partnership with Alive Mind Cinema and BuddhaFest Film Festival, June 14-17 in Washington, DC. The benefits of membership continue to grow, so if you're not already a Supporting or Sustaining Member, upgrade now and watch our March selection, Griefwalker, written and directed by Tim Wilson. The discussion is led by the film's subject, Stephen Jenkinson.

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Griefwalker (March 2012)

A universal experience whether or not we can admit it, death is the sole counterpart to life. From the moment we take our first breath, death is our only guaranteed experience. This is something Stephen Jenkinson not only understands but something he loves. And he wants you to feel the same way. Griefwalker, a feature length documentary by Tim Wilson, sets its lens on Jenkinson in an unforgettable exploration of death phobia as a culture.

Discussion leader Stephen Jenkinson, a Harvard educated theologian, is one of Canada’s leading palliative care educators. Listen to a Tricycle Talk with Jenkinson here.

Read more about Griefwalker—and purchase the film—here.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

My fear is the manner in which I may go. My preference is to die peacefully in my sleep. I'd rather not be crushed, shredded or horribly burned and die slowly and painfully.

marlajs's picture

I share that sentiment. I would prefer not to go in a painful car wreck, but I may not have ultimate control over that...

I enjoy the work of small town (Milford, Michigan) poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch. His first book of essays, The Undertaking, is really wonderful - all about life and death, their interconnection, how he must deal with them in his work, and what the rest of us lose by ignoring death. He has a great story, though, of burying a man he knew who was apparently looking for the "right" spare hubcap at the junk yard when a car fell on him and he was crushed. But he didn't see it coming - his last thoughts were "hey, I did find the right hubcap!" I suppose that something very sudden and final with a happy realization as the last thought wouldn't be so bad.....

Dominic Gomez's picture

As far as Buddhism is concerned, it is one's final moments that count. Do we die with regret, or fully satisfied that we've done the best we can?

dahirjama's picture

I woke up at 2am and now I just finished watching this this feast of a film. Wow! I am speechless and crying with joy. Thank you ever so much

vegard's picture

Unlike the rest of you posters, I don't particularly get the point of this filmic exercise, nor did I feel warm and fuzzy after watching it.

What I saw was a city boy who decided for some reason that indigenous people are so much cooler and went native. His adopted lifestyle unfortunately includes the trapping and drowning of animals like the highly useful beaver, whom he submits to the indignity of turning into mittens for spoiled humans while he glibly discusses how these same humans can lose their fear of death. I have nothing against true subsistence hunting and trapping, but very few humans need to be involved in those activities anymore. A plant-based life is kind, healthy and environmentally wise.

As I understand it, Steve attended a pricey school to learn religion and then decided to do his own thing spiritually, which is fine and dandy except that in his borrowing of the clothing, manner and lifestyle of the native, he seems to be more of an actor watching himself strutting on the stage than a real person with genuine ties to Planet Earth.

As for his ideas about death, I agree that nobody should be subjected to being kept alive far beyond her ability to function independently. I believe that euthanasia of the terminally ill and elderly, as we do for our pets, is compassionate, practical and smart.

Steve's notion that the reason people fear death is that they're afraid that those who are left behind will forget them I just don't agree with. After all, we're not all of us social creatures who desperately want to propagate our DNA. A fair percentage of humans don't care about personal posterity and all that flimsy ego baggage, in part because it's so pathetically ephemeral in the grand scheme of the universe.

IMO, the fear of death is simply the fear of the unknown. Even though we were all "dead" for most of the history of the universe except for the current measly measure of our individual lives, we've forgotten what nonexistence feels like because of all that's happened to us since.

Having said all that, I would just add that living in the moment as animals do will lead to a greater appreciation of the lives we have now. As "higher" animals we've largely lost that ability and need to re-cultivate it.

GURUDRU's picture

Well said! Although your response differs greatly from most of the posts here,I agree with your opinion completely.
Bravo for being willing to share an alternate opinion. You have stated it so well I have nothing to add..

Laura438's picture

I also have concerns about what appeared to be Steve's cultural appropriation of indigenous spiritual traditions.

In the Vajrayana tradition we know how the practices originated and who held the lineage as it came down to us. We know who our teachers' teachers were and who their teachers were. Thus, we have confidence in the teacher and the teaching. We also, of course, have our own discriminating awareness wisdom as well, and we observe the teacher and his or her long-term students for their authenticity, wisdom, and compassion.

While we had the opportunity to observe Steve teach and to meet some of his clients, a major error in this film, I thought, was not letting us know about Steve's spiritual path or the lineage through which his teachings came. There was a mention of Steve's two master's degrees, Algonquins, and Mongolians, but there was nothing else to tell us by what authority Steve teaches from an indigenous tradition.

Some white men, such as the children's book author, Paul Goble, are adopted into tribes and given the authority to speak about, if not for, indigenous folks. Information like this to establish Steve's authority was missing.

In spite of this drawback, I think it is important to separate the message from the messenger. As I have noted in my prior comments, I found the film's primary message powerful and enlightening and am grateful for it.

wilcuneo's picture

I think Stevens personal life is immaterial .... its his message thats important, not him and how he chooses to live his life.

Truth is Truth no matter where or who it comes from! No race, teaching , culture or person owns it.

Personally I think true spirituality comes from leaving things like Vajrayana and lineage, race and culture behind.... they are all signs that we are still trapped in Samsara :)

Reminds me of the Buddhas story of the man who is dying with the arrow in his breast.......does it matter where it come from and who fired it?

When we hear or see truth, we know it. Do the Buddhas words have meaning because it was he that spoke them?... or was it that what he was speaking was the truth:)?

Laura438's picture

Hey, wilcuneo, thanks for speaking back to me. I am glad to have someone to discuss this with in more depth.

I also found truth in the film and in Steve's work with clients and his teaching to groups, as I noted in my prior posts. For me this discussion is a minor aspect of the film as a whole and, I hope, will not detract from the power of the film for anyone.

The essence of the problem as I see it is that Steve would be even more effective in his work if his authenticity as an indigenous person or as a teacher of indigenous spirituality simply did not come up. This problem could be solved in many different ways. Steve's stating his authority to teach in this lineage is just one of them.

Like you, I think that it is important to separate the message and the messenger and you wrote similar words about the Buddha...and yet...

Part of the authority of the Buddha and of any teacher whom we sit with comes from not only what they say but the congruence between what they say, how they say it, and their very being.

I believe that the Buddha was entirely congruent--from all accounts of him that I have heard. The incongruence that jarred me in this beautiful and moving film was the exchange between the filmmaker and Steve around the issue of culture.

The filmmaker pointed out Steve's heritage (Scots, Irish, English) and his appearance as a "spitting image of an Aboriginal person." Steve did not reply directly. Instead he took the discussion in the direction of the need for urban people to be from somewhere and about the disconnection of white people from their ancestral dead, as I remember.

I just wish that Steve had been asked, what was your spiritual path? How did it happen that you became so deeply identified with indigenous spirituality? Why does it speak to you so deeply that you adopted the dress of an indigenous person?

I also wish that since he was given the opportunity to discuss these questions, he had responded less enigmatically. It would have made him more congruent in my experience.

wilcuneo's picture

Hi Laura

It seems to me that Steve is speaking directly from his own experience of life, which is his own unique experience, and understanding, it was not based on a teaching or a culture. I did not notice that he was talking from an indigenous perspective, only that his lifestyle was. I got the feeling that an indigenous lifestyle gave him a sense of belonging to and being part of nature.

If you had had all your questions answered would that have changed the message? or would it have just changed how you heard it.

Is there any more or less congruency in Steve choosing a Canadian indigenous lifestyle than a person of similar heritage choosing to live as a Tibetan or Zen or Theravada monk with all of the cultural rituals and practices that really do not have much to do with Buddha’s teachings. More pertinently a person from the east coming to live in the west who adopts western clothes and culture?

Do we need to understand the person and their belief system to understand the message or do we need to trust ourselves to hear wisdom regardless of where it comes from.

Consider that the Buddha deserted his wife and child; if they had not been wealthy they would have been destitute… when he first began to teach he had no lineage, no tradition… nothing other than the wisdom within his words and the wholesomeness of his actions… Who would listen to him today? I think only those who were prepared to trust themselves to hear the truth….

Steve is obviously no Buddha , but from the little I have seen he speaks with sincerity and has a honesty , his lifestyle and background is immaterial his uniqueness and understanding is not and we should not confuse the two.

Laura438's picture

Thank you for your thoughtful reply and for moving this discussion forward.

You asked, “If you had had all your questions answered would that have changed the message? or would it have just changed how you heard it?”

My answer is it would neither have changed the message nor changed how I heard it. As I think my posts prior to the ones about this issue make clear, the wisdom of the Steve’s message came through to me and I am very grateful for the film, its effect on me, and especially for Steve’s work in the world. All beings benefit from it.

What answers to my questions above would have done is relax some of the discomfort I was feeling because of my concern about cultural appropriation and the fact that Steve did not address his connection to indigenous spirituality or the indigenous lifestyle directly.

It was helpful to me that you said: “I got the feeling that an indigenous lifestyle gave him a sense of belonging to and being part of nature.” It frames Steve’s adoption of an indigenous lifestyle the way he might–from inside his mind.

When the filmmaker confronted him about his being “a spitting image of an Aboriginal person,” he replied that urban people need to be from somewhere. His response to the filmmaker’s question suggests that your insight is right on target.

Interestingly, as I was practicing just now, I realized that it is exactly Steve's deep connection to nature (creation) and his ability to bring us (me) into that connection, too, that was most powerful and moving for me about the film.

Again, thank you, wilcuneo, for this discussion. I hope it is helpful to others as well.

ekoangel's picture

A profound film ... wow what wisdom Steven.
How to live each moment in its preciousness ... how to 'turn towards' ones own ending and the ending of the lives of others.
To look grief in the face ... the face of the woman who lost her child ... the grief within ones own body-mind.
I will watch this again.
A truly life enhancing film.

shin's picture

Hey Sam,

I once read that the Buddha pointed out somewhere (but I'll be damned if I can find the reference!) that the very fact we cannot conceive of "the Presence of Absence"--our non-existence--can be used as a pointer. There are those rare moments in our own experience when Personality View (sakkya-dhitti) has receded into the background (not quite 'dead', but not in the driver's seat either) and yet, we have not disappeared from existence... So there is the ... um, *something* deeper than personality that is everpresent. I think that's why guys like Ajahn Mun could say, "The Heart knows no cemetery." Or as Ajahn Chah apparently once said when asked 'What is Awareness?' he replied, "Awareness isn't even is!"

peace

Dominic Gomez's picture

That something would be "the true aspect of all phenomena, which can only be understood and shared between buddhas". (Lotus Sutra, chapt. 2)

Sam Mowe's picture

Hi Shin, I think I follow what you're saying. Thanks for your input.
Sam

Jeremy.Tatman's picture

Amazing! Thank you.

Laura438's picture

Steve,

I will quote you and tell others
"it is not human to fear death."
For their benefit and for mine
I would like to be able to name
cultures that do not have such fear.

Can you name some for me?

Thank you.

worthmoremusic's picture

powerful film......thank you for sharing it ! I immediately go to:

EVENING GATHA
Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken! Take heed!
Do not squander your lives....

Laura438's picture

My deep gratitude
to Steve,
to Tim, and
to the men, women, and children
who opened their lives to us in this film.

The spiritual message
in this film resonates
deeply for me
with my study and practice of Buddhism.
It was wonderful to hear the news
in fresh language and imagery.
It brought me back to presence.

Like jennyhighstreet
I remembered:
I am dying.
I stand right now
on two legs:
I am alive, I am dying.
I feel rooted
in the twins,
Creation and Destruction,
and know my place
in the order of things.

adrian.bueno's picture

That was a great movie, thanks for sharing it.

Sam Mowe's picture

I was speaking with Stephen Jenkinson on the phone earlier this week about the film (for a Tricycle Talk audio interview that will be posted next week!) and the phone cut out in the middle of what I thought was an important question. We were unable to reconnect on the phone, so I thought that I'd post my question here for either Jenkinson to answer or some of you to weigh in on.

As somebody who believes that we should keep death at the forefront of our organizing principles for life, I am still unable to imagine my own death. I try to keep death in mind, because intellectually I can see how that might be beneficial in life, but my own death is still not real to me. How can I make it real?

When Jenkinson heard this question he started to answer with, "That's not where you start..." But then the phone cut out.

Thoughts?

Sam Mowe
Associate Editor

oldgoat's picture

Sam,
A person's death won't be 'real' until it happens?
Volunteering to hospice brings me much more than I expend.
And someday, it will be me in that bed.
David Jeffers

Jane N's picture

I'd love to hear his reply to your question! Far be it from me to second guess him, but let me speculate. Could it be that an intellectual approach to death and the motivation to benefit one's own life go wide of the mark? Maybe it can't be made real because what you're considering death to be isn't real. It's society's construct or your own imagination. Maybe the real death is more holistic, more integrated into your life and much simpler. (Substitute the words "I'm" and "my" where appropriate, because this very much applies to me.)

yourneighbor57's picture

This film provided so many insights. I've been exploring this issue for many years. My mother just died after a long illness and I'm trying to make sense of the fact that/the way that she died, my own relationship to death and the fears that my daughter carries around this. The film has given me much to work with.

That said, there are places that did not ring true for me, especially the idea that we fear what happens after death (of not being carried?). I think the only honest thing that we can do is work toward resting in not knowing. I also dislike the idea of something being "owed." That's too judgmental a term. Perhaps language can not express some ideas well - or English contains the connotations of judeo-christian theology within the words used to try to describe our relationship to All That Is. The idea that death feeds life really made sense to me. Also the idea that we take a larger perspective than our own lives or even those of our children when considering death. It does have a place in daily life that modern western culture denies. In light of the way that my mother died, I also see the great value in dying with awareness and love.

I will watch this again soon.

Laura438's picture

Hi, Neighbor,

I watched this film a second time and found it helpful to do so. The narrative is like a poem, intuitive and not linear in some places. I picked up things the second time through I missed the first time.

My understanding of the word, "owed," in the context of Steve's presentation of it is close to gratitude.

We live in the midst of such plenitude and "take" air to breathe, water to drink, plants and in some cases animals to eat and to wear, especially on our feet. And, yet, how often do we express our gratitude for these gifts? We (at least I) take them often without thinking.

Steve used the words, "owed" and "taker," rather than gratitude, but awareness of the fragility of our own individual lives and gratitude for the gifts in each moment seemed to be the core of his practice and what he is teaching.

tinalear's picture

What an incredible film. Both for the profound content and the sumptuous imagery. And the music. Thank you, thank you.

Jane N's picture

This is truly a transformative message about death itself. Still, I wish it addressed the horrors of the diseases and indignities that precede death. My friend, in long-term care with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease, and now bedsores, would certainly embrace death, but this prelude to death is painful and frightening.

d.s.t.'s picture

This was really awesome. What an important message! THE message! Thank you so much. I was very happy to buy a copy to rewatch and share with loved ones.

Favorite quote: "If you have to get news of your death from somebody else, how firmly in your life are you?"

cindylp's picture

An incredible film I will share with many. Thank you.

fairway Linda's picture

What a wonderful life. I hope you had good luck with your IVF. Thank you for sharing this incredible story.

wilcuneo's picture

I think i need to watch this movie several times ....just to absorb it. This movie captured my attention! no words of commendation can do Griefwalker justice , they would all seem too trite to adequately describe it.
I have always had a deep fear of death from the age of 14, when i realized that death was not an abstract thing it was going to happen to me too. I do not think one days has passed in the last 53 years when i haven't thought about my own death. I really do not know what i am afraid off but I think its loss of control and not being able to do the things I have always wanted to or just the fear of the end of me :)

After watching Griefwalker I feel that I was given a gift all those years ago, a clear realization that I would die. Instead of accepting the gift and using it to celebrate life, it became a thing of fear for me which has diminished the quality of my life even to this day. I particularly liked the part where Stephen said to his friend "you must not just accept death...you must love it"

I want to be there too ....not to sure why ..its ineffable!

My thanks to Tricycle for making Griefwalker available and to Tim Wilson for making it and to Stephen for sharing his life with us.

jennyhighstreet's picture

I just watched Griefwalker with captivation and wonder. It had a wholesome effect of knitting together fragments of myself that come from my forgetfulness about death, which the film gently brings back to the foreground. Since having cancer several years ago, I find that when I lose sight of my sure death in my life, more fear is provoked, and as Steve points out, its a fear that is hard to pin point or define. He explains how our culture avoids the topic and the consciousness of death and tells how most of us are quite ill prepared. He defines that as cultural, not human, and presents the idea that in half of the world there is not a fear of death. Maybe those are cultures in which death is more visible or present and the illusory material buffer between people and mortality is not as thick. The filming of this beautiful movie amongst the pristine waterways of Nova Scotia with an Algonquin influence made it very emotionally energetic and compelling. Thank you to the producers and thank you Steve, for your generous teachings.

fherman894's picture

Wonderful!! Yeats wrote about "the pity that's hid in the heart of love". This flick is about how to walk with this deep experiential knowledge of impermanence here and now, fearlessly. Letting it inform every moment. Jenkinson says "the cradle of your love of life is the fact that it ends."
Wow!! Just what the doctor ordered! Deep thanks to Steve Wilson and Mr.Jenkinson.
Fred