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FACING DEATH ~ EMBRACING LIFE

by Nirado

What would you do if you were suddenly given three months to live ?

It's probably the last thing you actually want to think about, yet in reality, the only certainty in life is death, other than birth and that we can assume has already happened. What is not certain is the time of death. We live in a culture that is in constant denial of this fact and one that provides very little preparation for this profound transition.

Being one who has probably had her fair share of losses in life: death of a parent, separation from a partner, a miscarriage, and the loss of income due to an extended illness; I thought I knew a thing or two about grieving, letting go, moving on. I'd experienced death celebrations in other cultures and felt I had a fairly healthy attitude to death and dying.

About a year ago, however, I'd reached a plateau in my healing process and a basic enthusiasm for life was eluding me. I had a subtle, nagging feeling that maybe I was actually scared of getting totally well and embracing life with my former energy. Who will I be? What will I do? How will I manifest support for myself? What is my purpose here? I understood somewhere that until I was ready to confront my own mortality, my life was going to remain somehow on hold - my potential unfulfilled. It was actually this fear that motivated me to enrol. A life lived in fear is a life half lived, and all that!

So it was with a sense of inevitability and not a little trembling, that I found myself booked to do a two-day workshop called Facing Death - Embracing Life with Judy Arpana, a friend, teacher, and kind of personal guardian angel of mine whom I've been privileged to know since I moved to Byron Bay nearly 10 years ago. Her wisdom and compassion is dispensed with straight talking, sensitivity and humour and I knew I couldn't be in more capable and caring hands.

An inspirational healer
Arpana's work with the terminally ill and her study of the dying process with Tibetan lamas and other teachers over the last 20 years has been inspirational and healing for many people.

I asked her how she came to be involved in this work. She replied, "Working on the premise that we teach what we need to learn, I obviously need to be doing this work and I'm really happy if other people benefit from it. There has been a lot of grief in my life. When my father died and I wasn't there and I didn't hear about it until later, it was probably the worst possible scenario for a healthy grieving. This drew me to Tibetan Buddhism and I have been blessed with meeting many wonderful teachers in my life. If I can be a vehicle for sharing what I have learned from them, them my life right now seems to have a sense of purpose."

Here on the North Coast of New South Wales, Judy Arpana was responsible for establishing a branch of the AIDS Council of NSW in Lismore. She has been part of a network of support for the sick and dying that now includes an alternative Funeral Service, where bereaved friends and families are offered practical information and support in creating meaningful ceremonies, and a Buddhist Hospice Service in Mullumbimby, staffed by volunteers who care for those who wish to die at home.

Bringing light to the subject of death
Arpana is fond of saying that her mission is to 'normalise' death. In demystifying death, we come to accept it as a part of the natural cycle of life and we can begin to live less fearfully and save ourselves unnecessary suffering.

"During the workshop,we examined the whole nature of loss and grief, not only in relation to physical death, but with all the little deaths that can occur in the course of a lifetime. It could be the loss of a friendship, a pet, a relationship, a lifestyle, job or house...children leaving home, menopause, retirement, the loss of self-image or a physical function."

We often don't recognise grief," Arpana says "because it isn't any one feeling or identifiable emotion. We each have our unique way of dealing with grief, loss and change. Hearing others' stories in the group, you start to recognise that some of the things you might have been feeling are actually a manifestation of grief. To realise that denial is, in fact, a valid coping mechanism is a great relief."

Unreal expectations
Arpana says that it's been her experience that it takes at least two years to adjust to the loss of a family member or close personal friend. "We often expect ourselves to be strong and to be over it in two or three months. Hearing that this is a totally unreal expectation to put on yourself, allows compassion for your own pace and way of grieving."

Stephen Levine in his book 'Healing Into Life and Death ' offers this insight: 'That feeling of not grieving correctly, of being separate from grief, is grief itself. It is that feeling of separation from ourselves and others to which the word 'grief' can most accurately be applied...Opening to the little grief, the little losses, the little deaths, we make room for the greater grief, the greater losses, the greater death.''

It is important to understand and honour the grieving process as an essential part of healing. Change is our only constant. If we can restructure our concept of change as loss and recognise the gains it offers, we can learn not to resist it. Then major life transitions become much less painful. Embracing change with grace and ease, we can move more positively and freely towards the next stage in our lives."

"I think it was Osho who said that there is only one real fear: the fear of death. If we closely examine all our fears, they actually come back to not existing. This state is also attainable through meditation. By meditating we are actually practising for our own death. In the workshop, meditations and guided visualisations assist participants in accepting and preparing for a conscious death."

Life: a preparation for death?
Arpana cites the Buddhist idea that life is just a preparation for death. "They say the most important moment of your life is the moment of your death, and that we will handle that transition in exactly the same way that we have dealt with all other changes in our lives. If we respond at that moment with fear, or anger or grasping (what the Buddhists call attachment), then we will take a rebirth unconsciously. We will incarnate very quickly and without a lot of direction. With a calm and clear mind, however, free of fear, ready to leave and with nothing incomplete, we are able to consciously choose the mode and place of rebirth."

In the workshop there are opportunities to complete unfinished business, prepare a will, even write your own obituary, design your funeral and art-direct your wake. For me, this was a very profound experience, as I really did complete some issues that had been lingering and draining energy. In creating a celebration for my passing, I had a huge amount of fun and really came to appreciate myself as I am now. I realised that I don't need to become anybody else to be worthy of being celebrated.

What Arpana teaches is the kind of information to which everyone should have access. We need more light cast on the subject of death and dying. It needs to be brought out of the dark, unspoken territory where it currently resides in our society. I beleive it should be taught in schools!

One participant reported, "As I begin to prepare for my death consciously, I feel I am preparing for a renewed sense of appreciation for all that is precious to me in my life."

Arpana adds: "In facing the inevitability of our death, the ordinary and simple events in our lives take on a deeper significance. We develop a greater appreciation for those around us and the planet we share. Life's priorities change. We learn not to postpone life and awaken to a deeper compassion and a richer, more meaningful existence."

For me, writing this article has been a confronting journey. Delving into this territory again has brought up a heap of reminders about uncomfortable areas that I've yet to clean up in my life: cupboards not sorted, affairs still to put in order, responsibilities postponed, letters unwritten to loved ones, creative projects yet to initiate, words left unsaid, gratitude unexpressed.

Although, giving voice to this fundamental material represents one piece of unfinished business that's now complete. So if I'm dead by the time this article appears, there'll be one less pile of papers for my loved ones to deal with! It's been a HUGE life so far and if this is it, then I'm full of gratitude. (Detailed instructions for a long, loud and outrageous celebration are scribbled in one of my notepads, guys. Remember, she loved to party!)

Recommended reading: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche Healing Into Life and Death by Stephen Levine.

See also Disha's Death Celebration

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