Sallekhana or Suicide

 

images-2Several weeks ago, a prominent and beloved member of our community fell to his death from the 23rd story terrace of his downtown condominium.

I knew, without being told, that he had jumped. It seemed a horrific way to die, but I recoiled at the term “suicide,” with its connotation of an irrational action and a waste of human potential. At age 86, this man suffered from Lewy body dementia, a progressive disease that is a toxic blend of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Given his prognosis, it was hard to view his action as irrational.

“We need another word besides suicide,” noted a mutual friend, “for someone with a terminal illness who chooses not to prolong the suffering of chronic disease in old age.”

Shortly after that conversation, in one of those serendipitous coincidences that leave you breathless, I read an article entitled Sallekhanā is not Suicide. It is one of the readings for the class I’m teaching on how different religions deal with death and dying.

I had never heard of Sallekhanā (sa-lay-ka-na), although it has been around for more than two thousand years. This end-of-life ritual entails the gradual reduction of food and liquids until death occurs.

It is a core practice of the Jain community, a religious tradition that emphasizes non-violence and, like Buddhism, seeks eternal liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. According to Jain texts, the term derives from the words sal (meaning ‘properly’) and lekhana (‘to thin out’). Sallekhanā is viewed as the proper thinning out of the body and its passions.

But it is not for everyone, as there are strict criteria for its use, among them that:

  • Death appears imminent from old age or incurable disease.
  • One is mentally competent and in “good emotional health” but has freed him/herself from the bodily passions and emotions (e.g., grief, fear, regret, affection, guilt).
  • Responsibilities to one’s family have been fulfilled, and permission has been granted by them and by your spiritual “master.”
  • One has practiced “fasting” (e.g., no food one day a week) for some time prior to taking the vow of Sallekhanā. After taking the vow, one simply increases the extent of the fasting regimen, with the gradual elimination of food and water.

Jain teaching is quite clear that Sallekhanā is a sacred ritual that is part and parcel of a religious life style. Any self-imposed death that involves violence or impulsive behavior in response to depression, grief, or incurable disease, would be labeled suicide, not Sallekhanā.

Clearly, Sallekhanā does not cover my friend’s decision to jump to his death. But it does bring into sharp focus the fact that, in our current culture, many treat death as something to be to be avoided or delayed if at all possible. Sallekhanā is based on the notion that death is an inexorable and desirable part of a life well lived … that one’s worth as a human being is not measured by the ability to “hang on” in the face of terminal illness and considerable pain.

What word would you use?

 

Leaning In—To Old Age

 

MCG & KTZ in DingbocheFor several years after my husband and I abandoned our Wall Street careers to sail around the world, I accomplished nothing of economic or social value to anyone.

We rose at daylight, went to bed when it got dark, and aimed our sailboat in whatever direction the wind, weather, and currents allowed us to go. Because there was nothing I had to do and no place I had to be—indeed, most days my biggest decision was what to fix for dinner—I discovered what it meant to simply “be.”

Those years of being rather than doing were the happiest—in the sense of pure contentment—of my life. But my inability to hang on to that sense of contentment in the years since the sailing voyage ended has been a constant source of disappointment.

I rationalized its absence while I was back in the competitive world of high finance, assuming it would re-emerge when I retired. To my dismay, it did not. Even in retirement, I seemed to still be defined by what I accomplished. Co-teaching a comparative religion class at a local university. Chairing the board of a mental health agency. Planning a trip to Rome for Kent’s 75th birthday. Editing a friend’s memoir.

But no matter how much I accomplish, the shadow of old age looms on the horizon. With each passing day, I have a few more wrinkles, a bit less energy, and an ever-increasing list of words that are no longer at the tip of my tongue.

Why am I so determined to pretend I am still in the prime of life?

That is the question at the heart of Daniel Klein’s delightful Travels with Epicurus. In this lovely little tome, Klein revisits the Greek communities he knew as a young man, as well as the philosophers—among them Epicurus—who inspired him to live life well and to the fullest.

Now, in his 70’s, he muses on how the meaning of living life well has changed over 50 years. Throughout this geographic and literary travelogue, Klein asks whether trying to “extend the prime of life into old age” causes us to miss out on what is most valuable about growing old—and being old.

Drawing on the wisdom of his philosopher friends, Klein observes that in old age, you have the freedom to savor every moment for itself rather than what it represents … your friends are companions rather than connections … the person with whom you dine is more important than what you eat.

But, he notes again and again, the ability to savor those moments and those friends depends on your ability to step away from the often self-imposed notion that your worth is based on what you do rather than who you are.

Reading his book was a bit of an epiphany. Over the years, it seems I have put “finding contentment” on the list of all those things I ought to do. Reading Klein, it struck me that if I simply allow myself to grow old—instead of trying to stay forever young—contentment might actually find me.

Are you willing to step out of the stream and lean into old age?

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Travel as Experiential Expansion

 

My guest today is Lois Joy Hofmann who, like me, has rejoiced in her decision to step out of her comfort zone and live on board a sailboat as she and her husband ventured to foreign climes. Unlike me, Lois and her husband actually made it all the way around the around the world.

 

Travel as Experiential Expansion

travel -varanasiTravel requires a conscious effort to step outside our comfort zones. Not only do we challenge our physical comfort when we travel; we also challenge our psychological comfort.

My husband and I spent eight years circumnavigating the world on our 43-foot catamaran, Pacific Bliss. We flew back to San Diego between voyages. Our friends would ask: When are you leaving on vacation again?

“You don’t get it,” I’d reply. “Living in our condo for a while is coming back to comfort. This is our break, our holiday. Sailing, touring, and understanding the differing cultures of 62 countries—this is like work.”

Why did we choose to live like that?

Travel to us is not about staying in five-star hotels and enjoying a beach holiday. It’s a way of life. And even though we’ve completed our mission and sold our beloved Pacific Bliss, we’ll continue to travel as long as our health permits. Travel is how we learn and expand our minds. It’s as much a part of our lives as the books we read and the food we eat.

Think about it.

You can repeat the same life experience every day, year after year. Or you can travel for five, ten or twenty years and have perhaps fifty life-changing encounters during each one of those years! The more you travel, the more you expand your life and grow your soul.

What if you’re still working and can’t take off for a big chunk of time?

During the weeks that you can get away, I advise you to put a different emphasis on time. In the business world, everything needs to have happened yesterday, while at the same time, you must prepare for the future lest you fall behind. You’re never in the moment.

You can make travel happen on your time. I call it “slow travel.” As soon as you arrive at your destination, take your foot off that accelerator and slow down to a snail’s pace. Those ruins you wanted to see are not going anywhere soon! Leave those tight schedules and to-do lists back at the office. It’s only when you slow down, engage with your surroundings, and absorb the moment that you truly feel a sense of place. Sit down for a coffee with the locals. Spend time people watching. Sample strange food.

My husband and I implemented the technique of “slow travel” during a three-week trip to India We used Enchanting-India, a travel company specializing in tailor-made travel experiences using local guides. We selected a standard two-week, six-city round-trip tour from Delhi, then expanded it to three weeks to make time for photography and journaling at each destination.

Even so, we made changes to our itinerary on the fly. For example, when our next stop was to be the Raj Ghat Memorial, we could see from the car that the site was basically a black marble platform marking Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation. Long lines extended around block. We decided that getting there was not worth fighting traffic and jet-lag in the heat of the day. This is the advantage of independent travel! The plan is ours to make or break.

On the way to Sarnath to see Buddhist sites in India, we asked our driver to stop and allow us to “walk the village.” While we interacted with the locals, he waited for us on the other side. This link gives you a taste of the village and the people we met.

I urge you to let travel transform your life. Vow today to make a change outside your comfort zone. You won’t regret it!

 

Lois Joy Hofmann - travelLois Joy Hofmann is the author of Maiden Voyage and Sailing the South Pacific, the first and second book in a trilogy called In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss. Both books won first place in the Travel category of the San Diego Book Awards (2011 and 2013 respectively).

Her stories have appeared in magazines such as Latitudes and AttitudesCruising World and Living Aboard. Lois has contributed to online magazines and blogs such as: Multihull MagazineYacht BlogsMultihull newsletterTop Dekk and The Log. Lois has been a keynote speaker for various organizations including: yacht clubs, optimist clubs, book stores and libraries. She is currently working on the third book in her trilogy, to be called The Long Way Back.

When she’s not writing, Lois enjoys travel with her husband Günter to those countries they did not visit during their 8-year, 62-country sailing circumnavigation.

You can read about Lois’s travels on her website, Sailor’s Tales.

 

Letting Go of Anger

 

Letting-GoThe fine art of “letting go”—Buddhists call it detachment—has been one of my guiding principles since my early 40’s, when I spent a year crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small sailboat.

That was the year that I learned, in a visceral rather than intellectual way, that letting go is what you have to do if you hope to live in the moment.  A quest to find familiar foods—McDonalds and whole wheat bread—in Pacific Island communities could only hamper your discovery of such local delights as pamplemousse, guava, conch fritters, and ceviche.  Setting expectations—e.g. planning to arrive in Tahiti on a specific date and time—when you couldn’t control the weather or the currents was a sure-fire way to miss the sensual beauty of a day at sea … the dawn light creeping across the fluid surface of the sea, the porpoises who cavorted in our bow wake.

But letting go of these sorts of things has been easy for me compared to letting go of anger. Anger at a mother who neglected you. Anger at a spouse or friend who betrayed or demeaned you. Anger at the boss who passed you over for a promotion you deserved. Anger at anyone who violates your trust, who diminishes your self-esteem, who makes you question your self-worth.

I was reminded of this as I read a recent blog entitled, aptly enough, “Letting Go,” in which the author, Danielle, offered some practical tips for getting rid of anger.  Herewith, some tips of hers and some of mine.

  • Recognize that we all live in our own reality.

My mother was a case in point. She never intended to hurt her children, but she was so crippled by her own fear of being hurt that she had no emotional reserves to draw upon for the care of children. As she did with adults, she rejected me before I could even imagine rejecting her; she punished me for my inability to anticipate what she wanted. Somehow, my efforts to please her always failed.  I could never be the child she wanted.

Depression—anger turned inwards—plagued me until I was in my 40s, when I finally recognized that I had been an unfortunate bystander in her own personal tragedy … that it wasn’t “my fault” and I wasn’t a failure.  Only then could I begin to let go of my anger at her. Only then could I begin to live my own life instead of the life I thought she wanted me to live.

  • Recognize that anger is often a response to “old tapes.”

Letting go of my anger at my mother did not, unfortunately, erase 40 years of painful emotions or the automatic behaviors I had used to cope with her rejection. Over the ensuing decades, I have managed to break most of those old habits, but there are still times when something sets an old tape to running. A paralyzing anger is the default response.

As complementary personalities, my partner Kent and I occasionally set off old tapes.  Fortunately, we understand each other’s foibles and can usually recognize the pattern in time to head off an angry response. Even when we fall prey to the old tapes, though, we can usually figure it out within a few minutes and let the anger go.

It is not always so with friends, even some I know very well. I recognize the hurt … I feel the anger … but it can take days or weeks or months for me to understand how much of my anger is rooted in something that happened 50 or 60 years ago.

  • Recognize that we often impose a higher standard of behavior on others than we do on ourselves.

We all make mistakes.  Sometimes our intentions are good, but we just plain get it wrong.  Sometimes, we’re too busy and self-absorbed to see what’s needed. And then, of course, there are times that we do the wrong thing because we’re still playing out those old tapes of our own.

One of the benefits of maturity is the ability, when we make a mistake, to forgive ourselves, to move on even as we vow to do better the next time.  Too often, however, we do not offer the same generosity of spirit to those around us, responding in anger when someone we trust does something that is hurtful.

For example, I expect Kent to understand and be forgiving when I make a mistake that wounds him, but when he slips up in a way that is hurtful, my instinctive response is often anger alongside a quick march to the moral high ground. I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that he is terribly—and wonderfully—human.

  • Recognize that the need to claim the high ground is another name for being a victim.

I have long believed that most things in life—including what other people say or do to us or about us—are fundamentally outside our control.

From this perspective, holding on to anger gives up the one form of control we do have—the ability to choose our response to what happens around us. Holding on to anger allows someone else to control your identity, to define you in terms of their actions rather than yours, to further diminish your sense of self-worth.

In a recent blog on The Confidence Gap, I observed that whenever something diminishes your confidence level, inaction erodes your confidence further, while positive action serves to rebuild it.  Holding on to anger is a form of passivity and inaction.

Letting go of anger represents an active decision to take control over your own life.

How does residual anger left from old tapes affect your life and relationships?