Monthly Archives: September 2017

Lynn Woodland’s Seasons of the Self | October: the Dying Season

As fall deepens and light fades, nature is now showing us her “dying” season. In areas where seasons are dramatically distinct, nature goes out with flashing glory before winter gives the landscape a rest. We humans are a bit more apt to go out kicking and screaming.

Many of us fear terrible, painful or lingering deaths over which we’ll have no control. But, the more aquatinted I become with people at the end of their lives, the more I’ve noticed that we tend to die in a similar fashion as we’ve lived: according to our temperament and much more in control of the process than we think. I’ve come to believe that the time leading up to death, far from being just the necessary end to life, is a profoundly meaningful time during which we resolve and complete the deepest lessons of our lives.


Even those deaths that seem like random, cruel blows of fate unbefitting the dignity of a person’s earlier years hold unexpected gifts and, perhaps hidden purposes. Alzheimer’s is one of the “tragic” endings many of us fear and I know of a man whose father developed it shortly into retirement after a lifetime of hard work. He supported five children and devoted himself to a company that didn’t reciprocate his loyalty, firing him when he was nearing retirement age and had been “used up.” Alzheimer’s seemed like a sad finish to the life he’d lived and the person he’d been. It wasn’t long before his middle-aged son had to take care of him like a child.

During these years of illness, the son spent many days taking his father along with him wherever he went and said it was the first time he’d ever felt close to the man. Once he even took his father to his weekly therapy session, and was amazed by his father’s sudden and unusual moment of lucidity: when asked by the therapist if he understood why he’d been invited to the session he responded, “To show my son that I love him.” Then he lapsed back into forgetfulness.

Here was a man who’d never been affectionate or emotionally demonstrative, who devoted himself to what he thought were his duties: working hard for his family and his company. Maybe Alzheimer’s enabled him finally to set down the role of provider and allow some softness into his life that he may never have accepted in his “right mind.” Perhaps, in the end, this was his perfect retirement.

One of the most fearsome aspects of dying is its capacity to plunge us into unbearable pain or disability. I had a close friend who died in her thirties from a life-long degenerative disease. She feared death for much of her life because the course of her illness left people progressively more disabled and in pain. For many years she secretly held a suicide plan for taking her own life before she became too disabled to do so.

She never resorted to it, however, even though her disease did progress as expected. Somewhere along the way she just stopped fighting the pain. Instead of trying to control death from a place of fear, she allowed its mystery to unfold; trusting herself, trusting the process of life. Toward the end, she had many experiences of leaving her body and meeting with “angels” who gave her encouragement and instruction. She also had many deepening experiences of love with the people in her life. She found that in spite of growing pain and physical disability, she loved life more with every passing day. She once reflected in horror that her fear of the unknown had almost compelled her to end her life prematurely, cutting short this richest time of all.

She called me once in the middle of the night and said with much excitement that her increasing shortness of breath, which initially had frightened her, was starting to feel like the beginning of being born—she just needed to push a little harder and she’d be “out.” She imagined her favorite uncle, who had passed away six months earlier, waiting on the other side to catch her as she popped out! The next day, after enjoying her favorite meal of chocolate doughnuts with friends, she easily passed away.

If death is something you think about reluctantly and only with foreboding, consider going into this time of year-the dying season-more deliberately. Decide to become the creator of your death, not its victim. The following exercise is a start.


Exercise: Your Dying Season

Write a story about yourself as a very old person nearing the end of your life. Write this as someone who’s experienced a deeply fulfilling life. As you look back, you see how even the failures and disappointments had a purpose, teaching you something you needed for your next step. You have the perspective of an older, wiser person and can acknowledge your accomplishments, accepting that they didn’t all match your hopes, plans, and expectations. You feel warmth and gratitude for the love you shared with people and, now that many of your loved ones have died, you look forward to making the transition they have already made.

Picture yourself as healthy and vital, even at an advanced age, and your life filled with love, meaning, and serenity. Describe what you do in a day, what you think about, what gives you pleasure.

Continue on to the event of your death. Picture it as you wish it to be. See who is with you, where you are, what the cause of death is, and what the final moment of letting go is like. Describe the experience of releasing your body to a wonderful sense of freedom and joy. Finally, tell how the people who love you celebrate your passing and imagine your funeral or memorial.

Don’t wait passively for death to swoop down on you like some fearsome predator. Instead, choose to go out with the flourish and easy letting go of a fall leaf. Start now, expecting and creating nothing less than the perfect finish to your well-lived life.

September | Embracing Change

Seasonally, September is month of great transition. It’s the end of summer and the fall equinox, which falls in the third week of the month, marks the point at which darkness exceeds light for another six months. Fall encourages a shift in attention from outer directed activity to a more inward focus.

In the growing cycle, fall is when the harvest is collected,the fruit eaten or preserved, and the seeds extracted, while the lush greenery of summer fades. We may want to cling to the last vestiges of summer yet know we can’t keep the dark and cold at bay for long. Change is forced upon us, ready or not, and many of us catch colds in this season as our bodies struggle to adjust.

Psychologically, even though the spring phase of experience, with its rush of births and new beginnings, creates just as much change and stress in our lives as the fall phase of dying away, we tend to associate “birth” with joyous emotions while “death” evokes feelings of fear, sadness, and loss of control. Birth fills our thoughts with wonderful possibilities but death requires true vision and faith to see that, just as every birth leads to death, every death leads eventually to a new birth.

The inner work of fall invites us to look at our relationship to change, our adaptability, and our comfort with endings and loss of control. The spiritual potential of going willingly into this six-month descent into darkness and the symbolic underworld it evokes, is that when we meet our deepest fears head on, we emerge with the deep knowing that, in truth, there is nothing to fear.

September, which merely hints at the darkness to come, is the perfect time to prepare for the descent into winter by shoring up our physical well-being, as the adjustment from warm to cool adds stress to our bodies. Giving some attention to our physical health now can help us through the winter season of colds, flues, and darkness-related depression. What’s more, physical symptoms can give us tremendous insight into our ability to flow with change if we’re willing to understand them as well as treat them.

Even at times we don’t consider ourselves ill, we may still have a symptom or two: chronic allergies, a tendency toward headaches, a pain or weakness in a particular body part, or a susceptibility to certain kinds of illness. Whether we’re dealing with the experience of serious illness or simply the occasional minor symptom, listening to these physical manifestations of dis-ease can uncover levels of meaning and purpose to them that we may never have realized were there.

Our physical symptoms communicate to us in a language filled with obvious metaphors. If we’re willing to pay attention, they tell us a great deal about our needs, imbalances, and our path of healing. The very metaphors we use in speaking often mirror the physical symptoms our body manifests.

I became especially aware of this when I was Director of a Center for Attitudinal Healing in Baltimore and worked extensively with people dealing with physical illnesses. I noticed how people’s pet expressions had a way of literally describing their illness. A woman with cancerous tumors in her leg frequently used the expression, “I can’t stand it!” Someone with food allergies continually said, “I can’t stomach it!” and a woman with skin cancer spoke of things “getting under her skin.”

A good way to understand the language of your own physical symptoms is to consider the metaphorical meanings of the affected body parts and functions. For example, hands are for handling things. If you have pain in your hands ask yourself: are you holding on too tightly in some way? Are you trying to “handle” everything yourself? Do you have difficulty “reaching out” for love and support? Are you having difficulty “grasping” something? If your neck and shoulders hurt are you “shouldering” more than your share of responsibility? Are you being “stiff-necked,” and overly rigid in how you are seeing things? If you are a woman with tumors or pain in your breasts, have you been suckling the world until there is nothing left for you? Do you feel in need of nurturing yourself? Do you feel in some way inadequate about yourself as a woman? If you have heart problems, have you felt “heartbroken”? Have you closed your heart to warmth and love? Have you lost your joy and passion for life? See which metaphors best fit the way you feel.

Addressing the situation indicated by the metaphor can powerfully support and sometimes even alleviate the need for other treatment. For example, during a time when I felt sorely burdened by the pressures of life (“shouldering” more than I could carry, so to speak) I developed a painful “frozen shoulder” condition for which a medical professional prescribed several months of physical therapy. I “treated” my emotional condition of feeling burdened by clearing many projects from my plate and giving myself a highly uncharacteristic several-month break from work. I played more, worked less and made relaxing a priority. As I felt less stressed, my shoulder improved so quickly that I wound up not needing the physical therapy.

Illness is a wonderful catalyst for change. Rather than being an indication of something we’ve done “wrong” as is sometimes suggested in a new-age distortion of mind-body psychology, illness has a way of helping us meet unaddressed and perhaps unrecognized needs for growth. Just like the fall season, it forces change upon us, ready or not. Whether we resist these changes or meet them willingly, illness often gives us permission to explore positive and much-needed options we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to consider otherwise, ranging from slowing down a bit to completely and permanently restructure our lives.

We can, of course, choose health and embrace changebefore a physical condition forces it upon us, and this can be the best form of preventive medicine. This month, consider beginning the descent into the dark cold of winter by paying closer attention to your body. Let your symptoms tell you when you need to take a “health day” or reach out for help, or ponder the bigger ways your life may feel out of alignment with your highest good. Choosing health in this way usually requires a stretch out of the “comfort zone” of familiar behavior but the pay-offs are well worth it.