In her new book, Alive Until You’re Dead, Susan Moon helps us confront our fears around death and shows us why we should be grateful for our own mortality.
The subtitle of writer and lay Zen teacher Susan Moon’s latest book may be “Notes on the Home Stretch,” but the wisdom on aging, and more to the point, death, in Alive Until You’re Dead is important for readers of any age. Weaving in personal stories, many about confronting the deaths of close friends, Moon turns her lived experience into tributes and guidance for facing mortality. She also brings a lightness to the subject that so many people fear above all else, but that Moon says actually brings meaning to our lives. Tricycle caught up with Moon to hear more about the intention and writing process of the book, and for further advice on facing death at any stage of life.
Why did you want to write Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch? I wanted to write about my ongoing concern with what it means to be mortal and the idea that our condition of mortality and impermanence, which we are constantly fighting against, actually gives us life. Death is very hard and painful but it’s also what gives meaning to our lives. I really wanted to talk about how we actually can be grateful for our mortality, and that the fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.
You wrote this book during the pandemic. How did that unique time impact your work? I think of it as my pandemic book, in a sense, because the pandemic provided me time and space and simplicity of life to write. I’ve been on writing retreats, I’ve been to writers’ residencies, and weirdly, this horrible tragedy was also kind of a perfect writer’s retreat for me. But at the same time, I think all the tragedy and fear added to the relevance of my subject in a way. I have to add that I’m grateful to my sister and brother-in-law who live with me and who supported and encouraged me as this was going on.
Early in the book, in a story about a friend of yours who died in the hospital after suffering a stroke, you say that “the Grim Reaper metaphor is all wrong.” Can you explain what you mean by that? Death is not one separate thing that’s coming after us. In Buddhism, birth and death are kind of conceived as a hyphenated thing. Life is the realm of birth and death, and there’s a sense that before we were born into this body, and after we leave this body, there’s this other realm of the absolute, which is a mystery to us. People often worry about what will happen to them after they die, but we never think about where we came from before we were born. We don’t even think about that as a parallel thing.
Though you don’t shy away from the hard parts of aging, you also describe the upsides. Referencing a dharma brother who gave a memorable talk at Berkeley Zen Center, you write, “In his old age, it came naturally to him to put himself aside and not think about what he needed all the time.” How have you experienced this? It’s about letting go of self clinging. I’m not building a life anymore so there’s some freedom there to attend to the needs of others, like my own children and grandchildren. How can I just be present with loved ones? I love the example in that essay when the man said when he was playing with his grandson, and they would build a tower, his grandson would knock it over again and again, and they would just laugh and build it again. You don’t have to worry about building a tower that stays up.
But letting go of self-clinging is appropriate for anyone at any stage of life. If you’re grasping for your own happiness at the expense of others, that’s not going to bring you happiness. I really feel that the path to joy is to let go of self-clinging in whatever way you can, and I think Buddhist practice has been helpful for me in that. But there’s many other routes, like being in community and continually remembering that we’re all in this together, we’re all interconnected, and your happiness isn’t separate from anybody else’s happiness.
“The fact that we’re going to die gives us the opportunity to make our life meaningful.”
Throughout the book you reference beautiful moments with your grandchildren, who you connected with frequently over Zoom during the pandemic. These stories speak for themselves, but you also talk about the term “grandmother mind.” Can you explain what that means? It’s connected to letting go of clinging. Dogen uses the phrase when he tells a young male monk, who is different from a grandmother in every possible respect, that he won’t be able to have a mind of compassion and be a true Buddist practitioner unless he can develop “grandmother mind.” Dogen is speaking, I believe, about what he calls “the mind of great compassion.” So it’s that spirit, but I think as I’m using it, it’s also about a certain kind of love. If you’re not one of the grandparents who are raising your own grandchildren—an amazing thing that a lot of people are doing—and you’re able to just be a grandparent and not be responsible for all the hard parts, the kind of love that you can have for your grandchildren is unencumbered, unconditional. I see “grandmother mind” as an obligation to apply that feeling to all children. All of us need to have “grandmother mind” about children.
On the subject of death, you say, “When I deliberately consider my own death, I feel more alive,” and you offer some contemplations on death. Could you describe one of them? One that pops into my head—it’s not harder or easier, or more important or anything—is walking in cemeteries. To walk in a cemetery, and to actually look at the gravestones, read the names and think of all these people who have died, to look at the dates and think about the generations, gives me a sense of how there’s a flow of time and generations. For some reason I’m comforted by the thought that I am a leaf in the generations of leaves that keep turning over. I’m part of the turning over. There are many people who were born and died before me and hopefully there will be many who are born and die after me. I’m just one person and I’m not all that important. It’s just amazingly fortunate that I should be walking there, alive and looking at some bird singing in a tree, and life is going on. It’s the same feeling I get from looking at the stars in the sky and thinking of the vastness of the universe, or by reading about physics or cosmology. It’s the idea that there’s this vastness of time and that my life is just a little blink, and I don’t even know what part of the great cosmic consciousness my life is, but it’s a miracle that I have this consciousness in this one little tiny person on the planet. Here I am, and what a great miracle.
Do you think it’s wise or essential to prepare for death? What about preparing for the death of loved ones? When I think about it as a practice myself I resist it because it feels unnecessarily harsh. But should we prepare for the greatest moments of suffering? What I realized when I was writing this book—and I realized it before when thinking about my own loved ones, and particularly my children—is that accepting my own death is a hard job, but accepting that the people I love will die is even harder. Having people leave you is terrible, and then the worst possible fear of all would be to have your children die. I can’t imagine anything worse. I remember when I first became a mother, all of a sudden when I read the newspaper and the war in Vietnam was going on, I would see these pictures of children in the war and the whole thing took on a different meaning. It was much more personal to me, and it became unbearable. It’s the same even now, when I think about the war in Ukraine and the children there.
I think preparing for the death of loved ones is something that one can do. You can prepare for the death of somebody who is old, where the death won’t be such a tragedy. You can just try to appreciate the person and have so much gratitude for this person being in your life. You can try to help them see that their life has been full and rich and help them find some peace. And for children, take as much joy as possible in what’s going on. Don’t let fear rob you of your joy.
I also think that we can trust that sometimes people who are dying find a way to accept what’s happening. Maybe they’re in pain, maybe they want to be released, but it’s important to know that while your pain and your loss is so real and acute, you don’t have to take on their suffering, because you don’t really know what they’re suffering is.
A friend of mine, who I loved very dearly, died of cancer in 2018. I miss her terribly. She was a Buddhist, and she knew she was dying for quite a long time. At first she was still functioning well and then she needed to care, and I was one of the people who took turns to help her at home, making meals for her and things like that. Then she was in some pain and I said, “How do you do this? How do you tolerate this?” She said, “I just say to myself, ‘This is how it is right now.’” This is how it is right now. That became a kind of mantra for me that I bring into a lot of other situations in my life. It’s about being present in the moment, accepting things as they are and then moving from there. It’s not resigning yourself, but being present with things before you go on to the next thing. It’s knowing, thanks to impermanence, that things won’t stay this way, for better or worse. I think that is very helpful.
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