Buoyancy, A Curious Japanese Ritual, and Admitting Confusion

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Today I hurt.  In pursuit of my timid triathlon quest I lifted weights yesterday, so today it’s harder to lift anything else.  And once I finished the round of weights, I went down to the pool to swim laps for the first time in over a decade and made an awkward discovery.  Most people probably already know this but it turns out fat is really buoyant.  I mean really. There are about sixty pounds or so standing in between me and my old fighting weight and, gauging from the way my body responded to the water yesterday, I think most of it is in my butt.  I may as well have had a life-preserver strapped to it.  Or an inflatable boat.  No matter how deep I dove or how hard I kicked to stay down there, my rear-end inevitably led back up to the surface like a drowning person seeking air.  It was embarrassing.  The self-delusion I’ve clung to over the years took a critical (necessary?) hit and now I’m forced to admit there is nothing, nothing, sleek left about my body.

The poor dear.  I owe her big time.

And now on to what I really wanted to talk about in this post.  There was a powerful insight I had while watching the Japanese  film “Departures” a couple of weeks ago but the problem is, I’m still not exactly sure what it was.  (Actually, I feel kind of like a quote I found once in a whole oats forum: The answers we found only served to raise a whole new set of questions.  We’re as confused as ever, but we believe we’re now confused on a higher level and about more important things.) Please bear with me here while I struggle to explain this.  For starters, there are a few things I do know about the insight.  For instance, it was a big one.  It felt like it might explain a lot of what I’ve been trying to communicate about dying in this blog.  It’s also continued to eat at me because I suspect understanding this one insight could go a long way toward easing the excess terror a lot of people feel about dying these days.

But what is it exactly?  Well, to explain that I need to describe three of the scenes that triggered the insight.  But Spoiler Alert:  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, these scenes will give a major part of the plot away.

Ready to go ahead anyway?  Okay.  Here we go.

The first is a scene where the main character, Daigo (who’s taken employment as someone who reverently prepares the bodies of the dead for cremation) meets an old childhood friend on the street.  The friend has his family with him and Daigo stops to greet them.  But the friend gruffly sends his wife and child on up the street without introducing them, telling Daigo that he knows he’s working with the dead and therefore wants nothing to do with him.  He ends the encounter saying something like  “get yourself a decent job” before walking away.

The second scene involves the death of this old friend’s elderly mother.  Daigo is asked to perform the “encoffining” ceremony for her; an exquisite, formalized, Japanese ritual of bathing and dressing the deceased in front of the watching family.  By the time this scene arrives in the movie, we’ve already witnessed the profound and often healing influence this ceremony has on the families, so we’re expectant that something similar is about to happen to Daigo’s friend.

And we’re not disappointed.  True to form, as he watches Daigo not only restore the dignity to his mother’s body that death stripped from it, but also elevate it to an almost transcendent state of beauty, the friend’s perception of  Daigo’s work transforms.  We all watch as the childhood friend finally “gets it.”  He’s moved.  He weeps, and he thanks Daigo for the gift he’s given his whole family.

Then, in the third scene, Daigo visits the recently deceased body of the father who abandoned him in early childhood.  He stands in a strange room gazing down at a body he doesn’t recognize and with which, other than anger, he feels no emotional ties.  Suddenly, two men hurry into the room hauling a cheap coffin.  They set it down, seize the shoulders and feet of the body, and start to heave it into the box.

We’re all shocked.  This time there is no beautiful, reverent ceremony.   No respect for the family standing in observance.  No restoration of dignity to the body or anything else for that matter.  Quite the opposite.  The actions of the two men only deepen the natural horror that always goes with the violent severance of life.  They treat the body as a “thing.”  As so much trash or waste to be collected, dumped, and burned.  Far from providing healing, this callousness threatens to increase Daigo’s trauma.

Needless to say he’s outraged and this heat transforms his wound.  He stops the men mid-transfer, and drives them away.  Then he kneels down beside the body to perform the ceremony of encoffining, and in so doing finally finds the healing for himself that he’s provided for so many other families.

These scenes were aching, beautiful, and real for me.  I recognized the peculiar transformation of healing that can come through deep pain, because I often saw the same thing in my work with hospice.

And…suddenly…I’m realizing I’ve misunderstood what the source of that healing really is.  All this time, I’ve thought it was caused by the power of the dying process itself, but it’s not.  It’s more than that.

Dying generates an enormous, surging wave of energy that sweeps through the lives of everyone involved.  It’s like a tsunami of upheaval, destruction, and change; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.  The sheer magnitude of the energy involved inevitably wrenches and devastates to some degree, even with a relatively benign death.  The natural, physical violence involved as a body dies dictates that.  Dying as an energy is a lot like nuclear power or the roiling energy of the sun.  It’s an elemental force of nature.

I’ve mistakenly assumed that the positive transformations portrayed in the movie, the kind I often saw in my hospice work, were built into the dying process itself.  But now I’m thinking not so much.  The energy of dying is neutral.  It doesn’t care how we feel about it.  It doesn’t care whether it traumatizes us or not.  It doesn’t care if we face it with courage and respect, or run away from it horrified and screaming.  Healing us is not its job, anymore than it’s the sun’s job to make sure our houses are warm.  The power dying generates has the potential to heal, of course, but it probably won’t unless we learn how to harness  and direct it.

In Departures, Daigo shows us one way to harness it; with respect, willingness, humility, compassion, and tremendous courage.

The movie puts a concrete face on the beauty, dignity, grace, and healing that can accompany dying and death, something that I’ve been trying to describe in this blog for a while.  (With questionable success.)   And the movie does so without romanticizing or hiding the gruesome, gritty realities that are also involved.  There are a couple of graphic scenes (skillfully deployed with humor) which add something critically important.  The truth is that dying and death are primarily energies of destruction.  Yes, they’re still crucial to the world if there’s going to be enough room and resources left for all the new life yet to come, but that fact doesn’t tend to make the graphic nature of it all easier.  It’s important to learn the tools we can use to manage the graphic elements involved, things like humor, reverence, and building a bigger context.

There’s a deep paradox embedded in our nation’s perspective about dying.  On the one hand, our national eyes look at it through a scientific medical paradigm through which we’ve increasingly grown to see dying as a failure and a waste.  Now, I don’t in any way mean to dismiss the profound gifts that medical advances have brought to our lives or suggest that we should ever return to a world without them.  However, it’s important to understand that the lens of technology we’ve adopted has created a growing distortion in our expectations about death.  In attempting to reduce it from a universal force of nature to the level of a technological glitch, we’ve objectified dying in much the same way that the two men in the third scene objectified the body of Daigo’s father.  These days, in both medical research and public awareness, we increasingly see death as a mess and a waste, and we tend to treat it with a corresponding aggressiveness, disrespect, and callousness as we attempt to conquer and eliminate it.

But something else entirely is taking place on the individual level.  While our societal consciousness reels in a kind of perpetual horror of dying, I’ve met so many individuals whose lives have been touched in a beautiful, dignified way by the death of someone they loved, usually because of the help and guidance they received from a hospice or other agency that (in direct opposition to the scientific medical view) perceived dying as an incredibly valuable time of life.  These people I met had been through hell, no question.  But they’d also learned how to see what was happening through eyes of respect.  During their difficult journeys they were allowed and encouraged to unleash the fullest extent of their love, even in the face of unalterable and permanent separation.  To varying degrees, they had each tasted what it was like to rage, to long, to grieve, to laugh, to tremble, to hope, to ache, to collapse, and then to survive and come through a deep, irreparable loss within a circle of respect and safety, holding the hands of others who didn’t minimize, dismiss, or pull back from their experience.

This paradox between a technological perspective and a reverent one is, on a deep level, tearing us apart.  Our scientific determination to conquer death is engaged in a ferocious battle with our deep human desire to die a peaceful one and, even though we know deep down that we can’t have both, we still throw all our considerable resources at the first goal, and then bitterly fight over what policies to set that can guarantee the second.

It’s made us a little schizophrenic.

I don’t pretend to know what the solution to the conflict will be.  That’s something that only time, growth, and group wisdom can reveal.

But I do know what’s helping me climb out of the clash.  In a lot of ways I felt like my job with hospice was similar to Daigo’s, only I did mine with the living.  I bathed and dressed and prepared them, too, with as much reverence and respect as I could muster, and I did my best, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, to restore the people who were dying and the people who loved them to a sense of their own dignity, courage, and strength.   I know it was something I never would have learned how to do without the help of my mentors…the experienced hospice staff who taught me…and I also know that I really want to figure out some way to pass their gift to me downstream.

Which is why I recommend this movie so highly.  Because I think it can help.  If you ever get a chance, give it a look.  Departures.

copyright 2011 Dia Osborn

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9 responses

  1. As always, your posts leave me reeling and dazed. You put so much into them, so many hidden truths lurk within your words that I find myself coming back to them and thinking about them for days and weeks to come. Your topics are not party topics. One doesn’t walk up to a new acquaintance and begin describing the process of dying….usually.
    Funny, I have this movie, “Departures,” in my Netflix queue. I keep putting off watching it. I think I want to watch it alone, without having to worry about how it may affect another person or how another person’s presence (and possible nervous comments ) may affect my appreciation of the film.
    What I love most about your blog, Dia, is that you have this marvelous ability to draw us, your readers, into your topic by tying the topic to your own (thus our own) everyday life. (The sore muscles, triathlon, swimming endeavors) If you ever decide to publish in book form, I would recommend an owner’s manual in which you counsel readers to read only one chapter at a time and to sift through what was contained there before moving on to the next topic.
    Here’s what surprised me today: You referred to dying as a physically violent process comprised of “roiling energy.” Yes…in cases of protracted illnesses, I can see that. But I also think of my ex-husband who died completely unexpectedly in his sleep. His death was violent for the woman who woke up beside him that morning and to his many friends who were left reeling in shock. But for him, I can’t imagine how it could have been violent. Perhaps I misunderstood what you were trying to say here.
    Something that really touched a chord for me today: You talked of the transformative process of dying. Dying is an individual process, not a given. And I think that sometimes, “coming through hell” is like Alice in Wonderland, coming through the keyhole to a whole new perspective on reality. Unfortunately, maybe we need the hell part in order to reach the transformed reality that awaits.
    BTW: Our “group” has changed venue. Let me know if you need the new address and schedule. We still meet 2 times per month.

    • Hey Linda…shit. I just spent half an hour trying to answer this and then accidentally deleted it. Aaaah!! I’ve gotta run now but just wanted you to know I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, where the movie is concerned it’s not a really heavy one. Sorry if I communicated it that way. It’s handled with a brilliant lightness of touch, lots of humor, beautiful cinematography, engaging characters and really uplifting scenes that makes the difficult subject matter really approachable. There’s a reason why this movie was so popular world wide. I’d watch it with anybody. Dia

    • Hi Linda! Finally getting back to the other part of your comment…sorry for the delay. You probably forgot about it at this point! Anyway, I wrote this post late and didn’t have time to rewrite so some points were garbled. When I spoke about the violent energy generated in the dying process I was referring (in an unclear fashion) to both the physical process AND the impact that dying has on everyone in the surrounding environment. I think of it like an earthquake. There’s the epicenter where the earth actually shifts, then there are the violent waves of energy created that pass out through the surrounding area.
      You’re right in that it’s not always a violent physical process for the person who dies. There’s a small percentage of people who die both suddenly and peacefully and it sounds like your ex-husband was one of the lucky few. In a case like that the full brunt of the shock waves tends to hit those left behind. While most of us dread it, one of the benefits of a longer dying process is that a lot of resolution and closure can take place between the dying person and their loved ones. A sudden death, especially a benign one like you describe, is physically much easier for the person who dies. The bad news is that the bereavement process tends to be longer and more complicated for their loved ones.
      That’s all I really meant to say. I hope that makes more sense now?

  2. Hi Dia- I followed your recommendation and watched Departures yesterday and found it to be one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. It does help.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Dia, I finally got the opportunity to watch Departures. The film is everything you said it would be. It “puts a concrete face on the beauty, dignity, grace, and healing that can accompany dying and death,…”

    There was much to appreciate about the movie. For me, Diago’s performance of the Kohl Nidre (though faked) was particularly meaniful. This was the last piece of music that I learned, memorized completely, and performed for a critical audience. The piece’s context is perfect for this movie and for a scene which portrayed a holy night…as was Beethoven’s 9th appropriate in the opening scenes.

    Thanks for encouraging me to watch this film. I loved it and plan to see it again and again. There is much to absorb.

    I loved the aspect of finding our individual destiny that the film portrayed. And I loved the allusion to the casketeers as gatekeepers to the process of dying as transformation to something we, the living,
    have no ability to understand.

    • How funny…I just replied to your old comment above then scrolled down and found this! I’m SO glad you loved the movie. You’ve mentioned things here that I don’t remember so clearly it’s time to go back and watch it again already. 🙂 I know what you mean about there being much to absorb. I think it’s like water…revealing something different every time I come back to it.
      Did you play the cello? You didn’t mention that in your awards blog…
      Dia

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