Now the Bad News: Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Death

A prince was so shocked that he went off to seek enlightenment. Now, birth, old age, sickness, and death is still the impetus for awakening.

Rachel Neumann  •  Stan Goldberg  •  Lewis Richmond  •  Brenda Feuerstein
1 July 2013
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer


By Rachel Neumann

I was four the first time I saw a woman give birth. It was early evening, at a commune deep in the Siskiyou Mountains of California. I remember straining on my tiptoes and the jostling of elbows as we children, barefoot and half-dressed, peered in through the window of a one-room cottage. The grown-ups huddled around the birthing woman on the bed. My mother, one of two midwives on the commune, was somewhere in that huddle.

My memory is colored yellow by the candles in the room and infused with the smell of the wood-burning stove and the urgency of the assembly. I heard murmurs and songs from inside, the gurgle of the nearby creek, hoots and rustling from the woods, and the whispering of children as we fought for prime viewing space at the window. Then, without warning, our jostling was silenced by an infant’s sharp squall. We stared at each other, unable to fully understand where that sound could be coming from.

Almost thirty years passed before I experienced labor myself. By then, my mother was a fully certified nurse-midwife who had delivered hundreds of babies in homes, hospitals, and rural clinics. I’d attended a handful of births with her, as impromptu assistant and note taker, and recently been at a good friend’s side during the birth of her first child.

I was certain that all this experience would translate into me having an easy labor. It had taken my partner and me years to conceive. When we finally did, I’d thought the hard part was over.

I was certain that all this experience would translate into me having an easy labor. It had taken my partner and me years to conceive. When we finally did, I’d thought the hard part was over. Brooklyn was a wonderful place to be pregnant. My favorite neighborhood restaurant delivered tater tots and chocolate pudding at 3 a.m. I reveled in the novelty of freely offered subway seats.

Still, when it was getting near time for the birth, I wanted to head home. My vision of labor as a communal, village event had been set by that first birth I’d witnessed. We temporarily moved back in with my mother, on the northern California coast. I wanted to give birth near the beach, so I could hear the waves. After our long New York winters, I loved the clear sunny skies and wild cliffs. I took long walks along the curving coastline. There was no late-night delivery but the grocery store on the corner was open late and stocked rice pudding, and I ate a container a day. Since I had a vision of birth as natural and easy, the only thing that could get in the way was my mind, and my mind seemed ready.

My due date came and went. I continued to grow. Days passed, then a week. Then, on a stormy day right before Valentine’s Day, I went for a particularly long and arduous walk on the cliffs near the ocean. February is breeding season for the California newt and they were everywhere. Their bright orange skin flashed in the dark mud, and I had to tread carefully to avoid wounding one underfoot.

At dusk, my water broke. I called my partner. “We’re having a baby now,” I told him. My mom called her co-midwife. The house filled with people. I went to bed excited and spent most of the night awake, stirring at the lightest contraction.

The next day, I took another long walk. The newts were nowhere to be found. Had I dreamed the whole thing? I meditated. I took herbs. A full twenty-four hours after my water broke, contractions slowly began in earnest. I lit the candles and listened to the waves. I breathed through the pain. I was in my body, but also still in my mind. I could see myself changing positions and trying out different breathing techniques as if on a screen. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ve got this.”

After a night of contractions, I was sure the baby was coming any minute. My mother checked. Not even close. The contractions weren’t strong enough.

After forty-eight hours my mother conferred with her co-midwife and announced that if the labor didn’t get moving in the next few hours, we would have to go to the hospital. This wasn’t part of the plan.

I concentrated as hard as I could, walking and resting, but the contractions had stopped entirely. We went to the hospital. They strapped monitors to my belly and gave me Pitocin to speed up and strengthen the contractions. Hours passed. The contractions were now plenty strong, but the baby had turned posterior and wasn’t in a good position for birth. I was beyond exhausted. Earlier, the contractions had been intense, but I’d been aware of my surroundings and the people around me. Now, there was no mind, just wave after merciless wave of sensation. The midwives suggested an epidural so I could rest. The waves of pain had pummeled away at all my visions of birth as a natural, intervention- free village affair. I agreed to the epidural and slept.

Two hours later, I awoke. More than sixty hours had passed since my water broke. The baby had turned anterior again and was ready. I asked the attendants to turn the epidural off. “Are you sure?” the anesthesiologist asked. “There will still be a lot of pain.”

I was sure. This time when the contractions came, I met them without resistance. I thought that experience and hard work would get me through childbirth, but what finally allowed my body and mind to come together successfully was the resting, the letting go.

An hour and a half of pushing later, my nine pound, twelve ounce baby was born and I heard the squall I had been longing for.

Time passed. A nurse poked her head in. “Congratulations,” she said. “Is it a boy or a girl?” It hadn’t occurred to me to look. I unwrapped the baby and glanced at the swollen chubby parts. “It’s a boy,” I smiled. I’d always known it would be. “Look again,” my mother said. I looked again. “Oh,” I said, and the last of my many assumptions about childbirth fell away as my newborn daughter nursed happily in my arms.

Old Age

By Lewis Richmond

Gratitude lies just beneath the surface of our experience, and our mind is always ready to find it. One of the contemplative exercises I teach is a walk in nature with the underlying intention of gratitude. As you walk, whatever you see, whatever you hear, think of gratitude and allow the mind to register its own connections to thankfulness.

Gratitude is a welcome antidote to aging’s inevitable losses, and recently—on the occasion of my sixty-sixth birthday—I decided to put the gratitude walk into practice. I chose a hiking path that bordered a marshland creek, which due to recent construction continued on a wooden walkway built over wetlands at the edge of San Francisco Bay. Starting out, I saw a blue jay burying some treasure, storing supplies for the coming winter. Blue jays can remember thousands of such hiding places; they have the best memories of any birds. I thought, “treasure,” and then I remembered: my social security payments would be starting next month. I was happy about that. I had worked a whole lifetime for my benefits and had weathered some serious illnesses along the way: gratitude!

Next, in the creek, gliding along with the slow tidal current, I saw a pair of mallards, male and female, swimming side by side. I suddenly remembered a time, thirteen years ago, when I lay in a coma from a dire brain infection. The doctors had told my wife that there was scant chance I would survive. But I did, and I like to joke to workshop audiences that luckily doctors don’t know everything. After I recovered, I asked my wife how she took that news, since it was painful for me to picture her having to hear it alone. She said she simply didn’t believe it. During the time I lay lifeless in intensive care, wherever she went, she would see pairs of birds. Outside my hospital-room window, she saw a pair of mourning doves on a telephone wire. Another time she saw two hawks in a cedar tree, one large, one small—female hawks are larger than males. Another time, pulling out of our driveway to come to the hospital, she saw two crows perched side by side on a nearby fence, watching her. To her these sightings were positive omens, signs that I would soon awaken. And of course I did. I hadn’t thought of my wife’s story for years, but seeing the pair of ducks in the stream reminded me, and again I felt gratitude.

As the path opened out into the tidal flatlands, I was looking for the white plumage of the egrets that often could be seen wading at water’s edge. Instead I spotted the slow languid flapping of a great blue heron flying by, so close that I could see its bright eyes intent on the water below. Seeing these magnificent birds is not an everyday occurrence in this area. They stand more than four feet tall, and seeing one is supposed to bring good luck. I took this one’s appearance as a birthday greeting and once again felt gratitude to be so close to great nature so near a great city.

I had one more reason to be grateful: I had just successfully lost twelve pounds, something my doctor had been prodding me to do for years. Though I had tried many methods and diets, I hadn’t been able to do it and was beginning to judge myself harshly.
With all my years of Buddhist practice, why couldn’t I do such a simple thing? But with new resolve, a calorie-counter app on my smartphone, lots of no-calorie Japanese pickles, and daily exercise, finally the pounds came off. At sixty-six, there’s a lot I can no longer physically do—a legacy of illness and the wear and tear of years. While my knees are still good (still able to sit cross-legged!), my joints are stiff, my balance is a bit shaky, and it’s been years since I have been able to run or ride a bike. But I could still lose some weight. Thanks for that.

I finished my walk as I started it: in gratitude for what I still had, for the good luck that has fallen my way when I’ve needed it, for a loving marriage of forty-six years, for good health after dire illnesses, for some financial security, for a sunny day at water’s edge, and for the beneficence of a great blue heron flying by.

Today is a good day. And why not? As an old Zen saying has it, “Every day is a good day.” That remark was not made by a young person. It is an elder’s secret.


By Stan Goldberg

It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and I was gazing through my kitchen window at the Pacific. I’d recently decided to retire from the university because of a chronic sleep disorder that resulted in memory problems, and I was reluctantly accepting the loss of an important part of my identity. My thirty-year-old title of “professor” would be swapped for “professor emeritus” and, as compensation for losing the status that went with the role, I’d receive a library card and a free lifetime email address. But I’d also finally have an opportunity to resume my woodworking and travel to exotic countries. Maybe even a trip to Tibet.

My thoughts were interrupted by a phone call.

“You have cancer,” the physician said to me. “And it’s aggressive. If you don’t have surgery, it will kill you. Even with surgery, the escaped cancer cells may still be fatal.”

I don’t remember what I said to him, but eleven years later I still feel nauseous thinking of his three words. He couldn’t see me for four days, so in the interim I reread my favorite Buddhist authors. I was hoping to learn from them how to tell my wife and adult children I might be dying and to find some comfort. Yet I found little consolation in anything I read and— despite the warnings not to—I grasped at my conditioned existence. There was a gap between what many of our greatest teachers wrote I should be feeling and what I was feeling.

As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” The writings of renowned Buddhist thinkers provided me with a map, but it didn’t reflect my territory. I took no solace in the concept of “letting go” or the ancient adage “draw closer those things you fear the most.” I couldn’t get any closer to my cancer; it was so close that I couldn’t possibly run away from it. And contrary to what I read, living in the moment wasn’t enlightening—it was emotionally and physically painful. I preferred thinking about a past pleasant experience rather than the pain emanating from the incision. Drawing the pain closer only resulted in needing more morphine. In the past, I’d been able to derive comfort by unquestioningly following the words of great Buddhist teachers. Why not now?

For me, it had to do with the severity of what I was experiencing. Though letting go of a publisher’s rejection of a
book proposal wasn’t pleasant, it was manageable since my life didn’t revolve around writing. But the stakes were entirely different when I would momentarily forget where I was because of the sleep disorder or exhaustion from the cancer treatments. Without asking me for permission, my body and mind had changed the rules for how I lived. I appeased them by no longer going into the wilderness alone and relying on my iPhone for remembering even long-standing, reoccurring appointments. Unfortunately, my cancer and sleep deprivation decided to be cute and began stripping away other components of my identity that I’d hoped were untouchable. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived with the sleep disorder and eleven years with cancer, I’ve learned that progressive illnesses are open-ended and dynamic. Just when you’ve accepted one change, another one occurs, then another, and on and on.

It’s natural for those of us who are ill to add guilt to our load when we believe (or hear others say) that it’s possible to isolate our thoughts from the physical effects of the illness through meditation and other techniques. Despite practice, I’ve found it difficult getting beyond the effects. “Trying harder” hasn’t made it easier to remember an appointment or play a better game of handball. Maybe committed lifetime practitioners or someone with an occasional headache can send the effects of their illness to the back room of their consciousness. But for others, life isn’t that simple. Illnesses change identities. As mine progresses, I ask myself, Am I the person today I was yesterday? And who will I become tomorrow? It doesn’t help hearing or reading that the “core” of my being is unchangeable. I interact with the world dressed in a history of experiences that’s as thick as a winter coat. I am what I do and believe. That’s my identity. It’s an amalgam of values, embarrassments, unskillful behaviors, defenses, triumphs, defeats, etc. Together it’s as complicated as a Texas chili.

Eventually, I realized I wasn’t doing to die, at least not soon, and my memory losses didn’t foreshadow Alzheimer’s. I thought I had two choices: graciously accept the loss of my abilities as just another part of living or remain miserable without them. It took me years to realize there was a third way: adaptation. Trying to find a direct substitute for the abilities or experiences that I could no longer enjoy wasn’t usually successful. For example, going to a nature preserve did not diminish my longing for wilderness. The thing is, I wasn’t grieving the loss of a specific activity but rather the feelings certain activities created. I discovered that if I could pinpoint the emotion a lost activity had generated, I could often recreate it in a totally different way. The feeling of serenity from being alone in the wilderness, for instance, was almost replicated by playing the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute. Similarly, although unscripted presentations were no longer possible, the use of PowerPoint was effective for conveying useful information. I adapted to each loss as it occurred.

My life is different now than it was before I became ill, and this reminds me a little of the Buddha’s experience. Within the confines of his father’s compound, he thought the world outside the walls was similar to what he experienced in the palatial estate. But when he left, he found that it was a very different place. Those of us who move from relatively good health to living with chronic or progressive illnesses gain a similar awareness. Living with an illness is very different than what we thought it would be.


By Brenda Feuerstein

Every morning we had a little ritual of going for a coffee and a muffin at our friend’s cafe, but as the summer went by it became more and more difficult for Georg to prepare himself for our daily excursion. Then, on August 16, 2012, our life took a major shift, and, deep down, we both knew it was our last time going for coffee together.

As we pulled up to the cafe on that warm sunny morning, my senses were acute. The sky looked so blue and the air smelled damp with greenness. I went around the car to help Georg out, but his body seemed heavier than usual. A friend of ours was sitting outside and came over to help me get Georg to a chair. The silence of that moment was deafening to me and I cried silently; my lover was beginning the journey that would separate our physical bodies forever.

Georg couldn’t finish his coffee and the muffin sat uneaten as we watched a small bee touch down on it. I took his hand, and we looked into each other’s eyes for what seemed like lifetimes until I saw a small tear roll down his cheek. We sat in the silence of deep love, then made our way home.

Later that afternoon I helped Georg to his desk so he could work on the novel he was writing and respond to a few students and friends. It felt odd to see someone make the conscious decision to work to a specific time and then decide it was time to prepare to let go of his physical body. I guess in some way the office work was part of that preparation, but at the time it seemed so unimportant to me. I wondered what I would do if I knew my time was drawing near.

The day came to an end and I helped Georg to his bed in the transition room I’d prepared. I placed our teacher’s pictures on
his night table, gently put his Tibetan rosary around his neck, lay beside him, and cried. I couldn’t believe after all our time together, “the now” also meant the end. I’d never thought of the present moment also being the last moment with someone.

Georg lay awake gasping for breath, while I sat beside him praying for some small miracle to happen. I even played with the idea of bargaining something for his life, but not believing in a savior I had no idea whom I’d offer that bargain to. I cried, I paced, I got angry, and then I collapsed into the realization that I was helpless in this situation. Nothing I could do would change the fact that my spiritual partner and lover was dying right in front of me, so I made the conscious decision to surrender and be acutely present for him, for me, for us.

Time became irrelevant as the days passed. People visited and left in the same way people drift in and out of one’s life. For days the air was filled with stories, food, laughter, tears, frustration, anger, and love. It seemed every moment was healing for people—except for me. I was left numb and not knowing how I was going to continue after Georg was gone. Everyone else seemed to be able to make peace with his eventual death.

Grief has become my friend.

I knew in my heart that I wanted to give my lover some gift, but what does one give the dying? I sat in meditation with that question, and the answer came to me very quickly. Georg spent his life thinking he hadn’t made a significant contribution to the world, even though I told him otherwise almost daily. I went to my desk and found the emails of Georg’s colleagues, friends, and other people he spoke highly of, and I emailed them with this simple request: “Georg is now in his final transition. I’ve been spending my days and nights holding him and reading letters people have sent. If you have a message you’d like to convey, please feel free to send it to me and I will read it with love from your heart through mine to Georg’s.”

Every person I contacted sent a message within a day or two, and the process of weaving a healing blanket of words began. Sitting on Georg’s bed, I read each letter and watched him transform in front me. At the end of the day, we held each other as tears flowed down our cheeks, and he whispered to me, “That was the most beautiful gift I’ve ever received. Thank you.”
My work was done. The only thing left to offer was my moment-by-moment love until our moments were gone.

During the days and weeks after Georg’s passing, people thanked me for emailing them and said it was a great gift to be able to convey their love and respect to someone who was dying instead of holding them in their mind and body until their own death.
Today, months later, I still invite Georg to sit with me. I dream of him and wonder where he is. Grief has become my friend. It’s carved me into someone who is often unrecognizable. I go to bed weeping and wake up smiling, then go to bed smiling and wake up weeping. Very little makes sense in the world of grief. It consumes me and yet it nourishes me.

Rachel Neumann

Rachel Neumann

Rachel Neumann is a literary agent and the director of strategy at Idea Architects. She’s the author of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic’s Journey to Mindfulness.

Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a professor emeritus of communicative disorders at San Francisco State University and the author of six books. His latest is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life.
Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond

Lewis Richmond is a Zen teacher and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice. His new book is Every Breath, New Chances: How to Age with Honor and Dignity, a Guide for Men.

Brenda Feuerstein

Brenda Feuerstein is currently writing a book and developing a workshop series on conscious dying and grief.