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Dharma Connect: Lou Reed's Meditative Death

Laurie Anderson -- performance artist, meditator, and wife of Lou Reed -- wrote an extraordinarily beautiful description in this week's Rolling Stone of her husband's death. The couple were students of Yonge Mingur Rinpoche and had studied Buddhist teachings on how to prepare for death -- and how to live when one spouse has a terminal illness.

After Reed became sick with liver cancer and then other diseases, Anderson writes, "We tried to understand and apply things our teacher Mingyur Rinpoche said – especially hard ones like, "You need to try to master the ability to feel sad without actually being sad."

As his death approached, he came home from the hospital:

As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou's as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn't afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.

At the moment, I have only the greatest happiness and I am so proud of the way he lived and died, of his incredible power and grace.

I'm sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives.

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Out of body

I am usually confused when I hear about paths that require so much sacrifice, effort, and such. For me life and death are a very simple experience. My first experience of the journey occurred early in my life. I accidentally used my body to ground out a 440 volt circuit. Knocked out of my body, the real me just watched from above surrounded by an amazing experience more real that my life had been. I was not ready to be dead, but that present alternative was wondrous. Like a tornado of brilliance I was put back into the shell I had seen from above. Once back inside, I was well aware of no breath and no heartbeat. Yes, I am dead. Seemed like ages, then from deep within creation came one very powerful breath, and I let in go with great relief. There was no guarantee that another would follow as I sat motionless. Eventually, another came and I felt as if I was a child being born. More came and they picked up the pace of creation renewing me. So stunned by the amazing feeling that came with each new breath, I had forgotten that my heart was still motionless. So it came as an indescribable surprise when my heart pounded out a powerful contraction. Slowly like the gift of breath, the heart began to function. I am alive. This was not to be my last adventure of life and death. I seem to have made a habit of requiring that journey. Basically, friends have told me I am on my second cats lives since I should not be here on more than nine occasions.
My path is very simple, but not easy.
My last journey out was for some hours as my skull was crashed into the pavement so hard that I now have TBI. They kept everything functioning, but from where I was I could see my damaged body and did not desire to return. Who would want to leave the lap of unconditional love to suffer through the pain and suffering of healing in a badly damaged body. I was home after all. My real home that is. So, once again I was flushed back into this body. It had happened so many times that I questioned the Creators motives.
Then it happened. Just a few weeks ago. The understanding came. I know why I am here, again and still. As I sit to go inside, I have no expectations. I have no tools. I have no ritual. I sit and accept as the infinite inside the depths of all my finiteness comes up from inside me bringing the amazing peace that all my being thirsts for.
I see clearly the limits of belief. There is the possibility of Knowing. Not knowing with concepts, but from having the feeling you already know that will come from within you.

The purpose of Preparing...

The actual purpose of the teaching is not to prepare for a rebirth, but to bring you into the present, to train your mind to focus on the body and its operations at the present moment. The practice is presented as a way to prepare for the bardo, but in actual fact, there is no bardo, there is not transmigration, other than the return of the consciousness to the stream of all consciousness, which we cannot fathom or comprehend anyway.

Most of us have a fear of death and this leads most of us to fear or have some defiance toward death. If we do not have some way to integrate death into the reality of our daily lives, we are at risk of engaging in the practice of fear, and hope. Fear is a projection into the future, which is merely a thought that is encountered in the present moment. Hope is merely a thought about the future encountered in the present.

The practice of "phowa". the ejection of consciousness, is misunderstood by most as a way to propel the consciousness, or soul into some future existence, possibly into a favourable reincarnation situation. When one actually engages in the practice with an open mind and intensity, one realizes the ultimate truth, with is the emptiness of all things and the dependence of all things on karma, which is interdependence.

The teachings of the bardo thodol (Liberation Upon Hearing - The Tibetan Book of the Dead) are not for the already dead, but for the living. It is through the experience and practice of acknowledging death and its role in the true cycle of life that we are able to appreciate the reality of things as they are....now.

Thank you

I very much appreciate your explanation.

I have a question about this statement: "there is not transmigration, other than the return of the consciousness to the stream of all consciousness." In that case, how do you explain rebirth?


Thank you

Thank you both for responding to my question. I am pretty new to this and appreciate the opportunity to learn from others' wisdom and knowledge of the teachings.

The purpose of preparing?

Hi Nancy,

Thank you for sharing this. Laurie Anderson's description of Lou Reed's death reminds me of several stories I heard from the experiences of hospice staff and volunteers when I trained as a hospice volunteer last winter. To hear examples such as these -- of a peaceful dying process, approached with conscious preparation and even a sense of beauty and wonder -- makes it feel possible to not be afraid of death, or at least to be less afraid about being afraid. Just a few weeks after I trained for hospice, my father died in a way that was sudden, confusing, and sort of chaotic. It was not at all the kind of dying process I had images of from hospice, and at the same time it seems as though my dad had been preparing even though no one could have predicted the particular circumstances of his death.

That said, I'm a bit confused about the purpose of the teachings on preparing for death. My simple understanding of it is that to recognize that the timing of our death is uncertain creates a sense of urgency or motivation to love well and be of service to others...it's the "if not now, when?" sentiment. It also creates some clarity about what really matters and what doesn't, what actually creates contentment rather than more suffering. But my impression is that the practice of preparing for death is not necessarily with the expectation that it will lead to a peaceful dying process of the kind described by Laurie Anderson. We are fortunate if that happens, but oftentimes it doesn't. And those who mourn the loss are left to grapple with that, maybe even trying to restore a sense of beauty - or, at the very least, mystery - to a dying process that really kind of sucked.

How would you describe the purpose behind preparing for death? I would love to hear any insights you may have and from others on this forum.


preparing for the bardo

in the Tibetan tradition, which includes teachings on karma that span many lifetimes, the teachings on death are meant to help us find our way to a favorable rebirth -- or to enlightenment (ie, no required rebirth). there are practices to train in ejecting the consciousness through the top of the head before the moment of physical death and practices to train for the bardo, the in-between state between death and rebirth, so that your mindstream doesn't flail around but knows where to go.

It's laid out in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, 

which Robert Thurman says gives "the deceased person ... explanations of what he or she sees and experiences and is guided through innumerable visions of the realms beyond to reach eventual liberation, or, failing that, a safe rebirth."

Since Yonge Mingur is a Tibetan teacher, they would have practiced those. That's the bringing the energy up from the belly etc

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