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“Don’t grow old without it.”
—Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom
“Let Kathleen Dowling Singh be your guide in this extraordinary period of life—
a time of celebration and a glorious opening to gentle wisdom and peacefulness.”
—Larry Dossey, MD, author of One Mind
“The Grace in Aging is a practical guide into our psycho-spiritual dynamics that can be
helpful at any age but is especially tuned to the later stages of our life. Kathleen leads
us forward with such dignity and resolution that we become convinced that this phase
of life holds a promise and a potential unlike any other. ”
—Rodney Smith, author of Lessons from the Dying
“This wonderful book helps us to face and embrace the hard truth of the
precarious nature of our life. Through Singh’s skillful guidance we come to see that
aging can be a time of grace and great aliveness.”
—Frank Ostaseski, founder, Metta Institute
“Kathleen Dowling Singh’s insight and wisdom are compelling, readable,
and life changing (death changing too!). This book is indeed grace.
It is both preparation and deep liberation.”
—Richard Rohr, OFM, author of Falling Upward
“Wise and remarkably clear, The Grace in Aging can be a comfortable, easy,
and peaceful fit for our deepest and heartfelt seeking—
and a wonderful space for our impermanent minds to explore.”
The Grace In Aging
—Jean Smith, author of Now: The Art of Being Truly Present
demand speaker and teacher. She is the author of The Grace in Dying: How We
Are Transformed Spiritually As We Die. A mother and grandmother, she is old
enough to be eligible for Medicare. Kathleen lives in Sarasota, Florida.
Kathleen Dowling Singh
KATHLEEN DOWLING SINGH is a Dharma practitioner, psychotherapist, and in-
ISBN 978-1-61429-126-8 $17.95 US | $21.95 CAN
Wisdom Publications • Boston
Produced with Environmental Mindfulness
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Awaken as You Grow Older
Kathleen Dowling Singh
Wisdom Publications • Boston
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Wisdom Publications
199 Elm Street
Somerville, MA 02144 USA
© 2014 Kathleen Dowling Singh
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photography, recording, or by any
information storage and retrieval system or technologies now known
or later developed, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Singh, Kathleen Dowling, author.
The grace in aging : awaken as you grow older / Kathleen Dowling Singh.
pages cm
Includes index.
ISBN 1-61429-126-8 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-61429-150-3 (eBook)
1. Aging—Religious aspects. 2. Aging—Psychological aspects. I. Title.
BL65.A46S56 2014
ISBN 9781614291268
Ebook ISBN 9781614291503
18 17 16 15 14
Author photo by Barbara Banks. Cover design by Judith Arisman, inspired by a design
by Bethany Singh. Interior design by Gopa&Ted2.
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With healing the hallmark
of each and every step,
and grace the tender reward.
—Ken Wilber
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An Invitation
The Special Conditions
Withdrawal: Liberation from Habits
Silence: Liberation from Illusions
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Solitude: Liberation from
Attachment; Release into Sufficiency
Forgiveness: Liberation from Aversion;
Freedom from Anger and Judgment
Humility: Liberation from Pride
and the Illusions of Perfectionism;
Release into Ordinariness
Presence: Liberation from
Frivolity and Other Inessentials
Commitment: Liberation from Deception
Life Review and Resolution: Liberation
from Our Story; Release into Freedom
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The profound spiritual teacher Wei Wu Wei calls any conversation about awakening “the most important discussion to be had.”
This book is an offering to that conversation, “not because you do
not know the truth . . . but because you know it already”(1 John 2:21).
My wish is that your reflection on the questions posed throughout this book will stir and deepen whatever longing you may ever
have had to awaken, to reach the deep, still heart of the great mystery we call life. It can be illuminating to pause with each question
and explore and contemplate our own unique answers. The “Questionnaire on Aging,” the appendix, offers an additional opportunity for some deep reflection as to how you wish to spend the last
years of your life.
I have tried to speak ecumenically, in broad strokes, to underscore
the one Dharma, the one truth underlying all wisdom traditions.
If you are far along a particular path, you will note where some
words or sentences are not quite accurate or resonant within the
view of your path. Translate. Use the words here lightly for inspiration and the words of your own tradition precisely for progress.
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My endless gratitude goes to all of the kind teachers who guided
me toward making my life such a rich one. In particular, Rodney
Smith’s penetrating insights have been enormous gifts.
My gratitude also goes to my children, grandchildren, and brothers for all of the support and love and joy that they have always
given me. To my sangha, dear circle of spiritual friends, thank you
for all you have meant for all of this time.
I also want to thank all of the aging and dying and grieving and
growing people who have shared themselves with me and taught
me so much.
To my generation, especially now as we enter our last chapters:
may we all grow in the beauty, peace, and grace of awakening.
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The Grace in Aging approaches a topic that is, like death and dying,
both difficult to contemplate and to experience. Aging and dying
are topics that we tend to resist exploring in any but the most
superficial of ways. We quite often hold them at arm’s length or
keep them hidden away or view them as somehow relating more
to someone else’s future. The truth, which many of us would prefer to resist, is that both aging, if we live long enough, and dying
are inherent, inevitable aspects of every human life. The energy
involved in resisting the truth of both aging and dying can keep us
confined in a limited experience of living, a limited experience of
the simple joy of being here now.
Dying is a naturally transformative experience in a human life.
In the process of dying, we are freed from our confinement in the
sense of self, the very source and site of our suffering and our
separation from the sacred. In that freeing, awareness previously
held in limitation, in self-reference, is released into awareness that
is radiant and complete and holy. There is something undeniably
powerful and sacred in either being a witness to another’s dying or
being the one in the process of coming close to death.
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Although the dying process holds hope for deep, natural psychospiritual transformation, we cannot necessarily find hope in the
process of aging in and of itself. It is certainly possible to experience aging with some real measures of denial or unmindfulness.
There are many who enter the end of life, at ripe old ages, untapped
and unexamined and filled with virtually as much confusion and
unease as they were throughout all of the decades of their lives.
There seem to be a number of reasons why this is so. Aging moves
more slowly than dying; it is a bit more muted in its urgency and
a bit more imperceptible. It lacks the focus and sharp, compelling
sequentiality of the process of active dying. Although it becomes
a little bit harder to do so each day, aging still permits us to evade
the truth of our own impermanence in a way that dying does not.
Such evasions obstruct awakening.
Aging simply does not have the gathered intensity of dying. That
gathered intensity, with all of the accompanying special conditions
it engenders, is a crucible for transformation, for awakening. Simply aging, simply becoming an elderly person, offers no such transformative crucible. There is nothing in the process of simply getting
older that, in and of itself, is going to make our eventual decline
and illness and all of our losses either transformative or hopeful.
Whatever transformative experience we have of aging is dependent upon our own intention.
There are many ways to deal with living our older years. There
are seventy-nine million of us in our generation just in the United
States. Many ways to approach aging will be chosen, either deliberately or by default. Some ways will have more wisdom and will
lead to more peace than others; some ways will lack wisdom and
will lead to more stress and hopelessness and bewilderment, the
phenomenon psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego despair.”
The Grace in Aging speaks directly to those who have been stirred
in their lifetime by the wish to awaken, to live in more sane, more
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kind, and more peaceful minds, to live in a more deeply sensed connection with the sacred. Hundreds of thousands of those of us who
are aging have dabbled in awakening practices, flirted with them,
perhaps even made such practices and the longing that drives the
practices a real and present part of our lives.
This book is directed at all those who recognize that these older
years are all that remain of our time to commit and devote to awakening. This time of our life can be seen to offer, to all of those who so
choose, an opportunity to move our desire to awaken from a peripheral aspect of our lives to a central place—and on, even, to being the
very reason for and experience of our moment-by-moment living.
The Grace in Aging comes from the perspective that with some
outer vistas closing as we age, we would do well to recognize that
inner vistas, peaceful and joyful and beautiful beyond imagining,
can open. These inner vistas have always been within, available to
us; we often just didn’t have the time to explore them in any depth
while we were immersed in the busy-ness of our lives to date.
Aging can offer us the time to deliberately reorient ourselves
toward the inner life, an infinitely more reliable refuge than anything the world can offer. To open these inner vistas is to enter a
time of awakening, to lighten our attachment to self, the cause of
all of our unease. We have the opportunity to, first, recognize that
living attached to our own sense of self is a small, confined, and
stressed way to live and, then, to wholeheartedly engage in practices that will free that myopic attachment.
Lightening our attachment to self is the only thing that is going
to get us through the decline, illness, and loss that we will, almost
inevitably, face from now until we die with some equanimity and
peaceful sanity, rather than with weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
Using these last years of our life as a time to awaken can help us
cope and even grow in love and wisdom as we confront decline,
illness, and loss. There are other benefits. We can give ourselves,
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finally, the experience of freedom and illumination and grace while
still in the midst of life. We can, also, with our own spiritual ripening, offer all those younger ones who follow behind us in our
spiritually impoverished culture the witness that awakening is
Because the process of aging each day does not provide the circumstances that facilitate awakening, we ourselves need to create
the causes and gather the conditions to do so. These causes and
conditions are revealed in the dying process. There is much that the
living can learn from the dying. These causes and conditions are
skillful means, taught in all authentic spiritual traditions. Creating
the causes and gathering the conditions of transformation in these
later decades of our life will enable us to reveal and experience
our own essential nature, to open into the grace of awakening far
before we die.
We can, if we so choose, dedicate these last years to waking up.
Many of the words and thoughts in these pages offer an overview of spiritual practice that is appropriate for a person of any
age. Viewed through the lens of aging, though, they take on a sense
of both urgency and invitation. Each chapter is a contemplation,
offering views to consider and steps to take—for those who wish
to do so—to make the most of our remaining time and use these
last few years wisely.
There are many challenges awaiting us as we age. To the degree
that we feel lost in our own small self, separate from others and
from spirit, we will find those challenges difficult. To the degree that
we are trapped exclusively and unexaminedly in self-­referential
awareness, in form only, we will live the rest of our days missing the sacred potential of formless awareness, always beckoning,
always already here.
The indications for practice offered here present a way to grow
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in wisdom and peace and connection. They offer an invitation that
can call meaningfully to us at this point in our lives, that perhaps
can call to us more deeply than ever before. This is an invitation to
enter a noble path and finally awaken. All those of us who have,
throughout our lives, been stirred even occasionally, even slightly,
by such a longing might be able to now receive the invitation with
a grateful and timely sense of personal welcome.
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Meditation on Death
The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been . . .
Our hair turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
—Wendell Berry
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We cannot speak about aging and awakening without speaking about death and dying; it certainly seems to come up at every
turn. We need to confront our mortality.
Although there probably occurred deep transformation, deep
release, for those Inuit elders who, on their tiny islands of ice,
floated away from their villages and their loved ones, this isn’t a
call to “hop on an iceberg.” Perhaps we can think of it as a call to
the iceberg experience.
Meditating on death opens us up deeply to the precious gift of
this life and the boundless gift we can make of it. It begs us to look
at what remains frivolous in our lives, what remains careless. Most
of us have lived so many decades on the surface of being, whistling
around the outskirts of awareness.
We rarely pause to question, to look. Where have I not forgiven?
Where have I not apologized? Who have I not loved well? Who
have I not thanked? Where do I still cling? What fears do I still harbor? Such deeply and thoroughly honest contemplation allows us
to change what can be changed and die with less regret.
Meditating on death is one of the special conditions that facilitates spiritual transformation, illumination. Wisdom traditions
have employed it as skillful means for millennia. It is, at the end of
life, one of the most powerful of the special conditions that facilitates the grace in dying. When we are deeply aware of our own
impermanence, every fleeting moment is recognized as precious.
Our desire to be present in each moment amplifies. Contemplating the fact that we truly do not know if we will still be alive in
this human body with the next breath, we can witness a stunning
decrease in our attachment to and interest in anything but now.
Presence begins to blossom.
Meditating on death instantly calls us to question on the deepest
of levels. What am I doing? What do I want? What does this all
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mean? What is it all about? What is spirit? What is self? Who or
what is the “I” that is asking the questions? Our desire to explore,
to inquire, to see, intensifies in urgency.
We have no idea how much time each of us has left to clearly
see—which is to say, awaken.
Contemplating our own mortality, taking in the fact of our
mortality, our precariously impermanent existence, can call us to
complete and thorough accountability. It can call us to instant reordering, a rearranging of our priorities and our intentions. A deep
opening to our own mortality brings us to our knees and down to
the nitty-gritty. It blocks off all of our habitual detours into denial.
It forces us to face the way we’ve lived our lives, the choices we’ve
made, the polestars we’ve chosen.
Contemplating our own mortality can spur a sense of urgency.
The urgency is not to panic and try harder, squinching up and exerting and striving. The urgency is to become more earnest, more sincere, more aligned in our spiritual intention. The urgency reminds
us to become less frivolous, to remain mindful of our deepest intention, to not allow our experience of being to sink so carelessly into
The Pali language has a word, samvega, that refers to the urgent
need to practice, to engage in awakening practices. It denotes a
healthy desire that can arise out of a heightened sense of our own
mortality, our own ephemeral impermanence.
Meditating on death allows us to take the conceptual understandings that we will die and that the time of our death is uncertain to
the level of our heart. That distance—from head to heart—is a long
journey with many roadblocks, many obstacles, many bumps in
the road.
Meditating on our own death allows us to open to a truth. Opening to the truth, we marinate in it. We allow understanding and
insight into that truth to percolate and permeate our being, pruning
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the old neural connections of mindless habits, and allowing new
neural pathways, new and more beneficial habits of mind, to come
into operation and flourish.
Contemplating our own mortality can bring concept into direct
experience. It is a journey from nodding intellectual understanding of the concept of impermanence to the experience of it as a
moment-by-moment reality. To take in that we will die and that it
is uncertain when—that it could be anytime, even this moment—at
the level of our heart is an understanding of the whole being that
can actually affect and transform us.
If we keep the fact of our mortality at the level of conception, in
our head, it remains as just another piece of information, like the
number of calories in a dish of ice cream or how to plant a tomato
seedling. When we take it into our heart, the truth of the recognition knocks every cell in our being with the shock. We get it. It is so.
We cut off a lot of recognition at the level of our neck. We block
the very truth that will set us free.
There is nothing that can keep us from death. No pleading, begging, or bribing. The world offers no shelter from death. There is
no one who can protect us.
When we die, the world our mind experienced will be swept
away. It does not endure, just as this passing phenomenon we call
“me” does not endure. When we die, all of our thoughts and concerns, all of our prides and attachments—our universe—will cease.
Our eyeglasses will be useless to anyone else. The objects we so
loved will be priced for a tag sale, a penny on the dollar. Someone
else will access our accounts and sell the car we dreamed of for so
long. Someone will cut down the roses we planted so many years
ago and tended so carefully. Someone will paint the house a different color or maybe even raze it.
Everything that we are concerned about in this very moment will
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not matter at all: bills, quarrels, sensed inadequacies, the sale at the
mall, fears, vanities, hopes for the stock market, what to have for
dinner. They will not matter at all.
Although we have been a slave to craving and aversion for all
of these decades, when we die we leave every illusory object of
craving and aversion behind.
We leave self behind. It was always a fiction—allowing functionality certainly, but a fiction nonetheless. We mistakenly took
everything personally. Death is a letting-go of this sense of personalization, of self-reference. Our liberation occurs in a larger
We’ve lived in the unease and the difficulty of taking everything
personally. We have spent a long time fretting over, defending,
preening, despairing over a sense of self that has always been both
a deeply invested concept and an illusion.
You have enclosed yourself in time and space,
squeezed yourself into the span of a lifetime
and the volume of a body. . . .
You cannot be rid of problems
without abandoning illusions.
Let’s change this before we die.
It is the nature of selfing to find life problematic. With that
view, a new problem, like another wave on the ocean, will always
arise. We’re now old enough to recognize that it is not relief from
problems that we want so much; we have a growing sense that
relief is only a temporary respite. It does not last. We want the
experience of unshakeable peace in the face of any arising, every
new wave. We want the grace that only lies in awareness freed
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from self-­reference, self-grasping, self-cherishing. Such awareness
is freed from reactively personalizing each wave.
Ken McLeod, an American Dharma teacher, has said that at every
stage of practice, there is a price to be paid for increased clarity and
greater freedom. The price, he says, is the loss of another illusion.
It seems helpful to think of our illusions as tokens for the ride. We
grieve our way to awakening, paying our way with the release of
all of our cherished and convincing fictions. We drop them one by
one, the footsteps of our path.
Jesus bore witness to the truth of awakening from the dream
of self. In Gethsemane, he shared the human being that he was—
aware of his own singularity, aware of self. Even with the depth of
his realizations and the magnitude of his love, he experienced the
angst of his own impending death.
Jesus prayed, in Gethsemane, for his passageway through the
chaotic minds of clinging and reluctance. Surrendering, arms wide
open on the cross, he entered the dying process and emerged as
Christ consciousness, transcendent.
There is profound beauty in the view, the example, of Jesus’s
offering, his surrender.
The immensity of his act is worthy of deep reverence and respect,
even awe. It doesn’t, though, need to cause us to back away from
the spiritual journey as if the journey and the arrival hidden within
it are beyond our capacity. His was an encouraging act, not a discouraging one. It would be a mistake to contemplate the meaning
of the act and arrive at the conclusion that the journey is something
for others who are more “worthy” or “braver” or more “evolved.”
We don’t need to climb a cross to attain this degree of liberation or
spend thirty years in a cave. Nothing so dramatic. Wisdom traditions
abound with such inspirations and examples because it takes a lot to
inspire us. It takes a very loud wake-up call to rouse us from sleep.
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We’re all ordinary beings, and it is completely possible, with
intention and effort, to free ourselves from the confines of selfing
in our ordinary lives. It is possible to do this in a completely, beautifully, ordinary way. We can do it in our house, on our street, within
our family. Still voting, still cooking, still waving to the neighbors,
shouting “fore” before we swing, and stopping at the stop sign.
One of the biggest spurs for our journey can come with deep and
regular contemplation of our own mortality as a focal point, as an
ever-present truth to hold in awareness. It, more than just about
any other contemplation, forces us to ask questions at a level of
depth from which we may never have inquired before. Where am I
most deeply attached? Where am I most deeply anxious? What will
be lost? What is it that dies?
A friend, at seventy, accepted that her last lessons might well
come through her body. Having given up all else, she said, that
will be the learning lab. Perhaps that's true for all of us. There are
questions to explore. Am I this flesh I sense and perceive? What is
the nature of my relationship with this body I call “me” or “mine”?
How does mind impute “I” on fleeting sensations?
We can practice meditating as though this body were dying, a
profound and skillful way to practice. We can come to intimately
know the unfolding stages of chaos, surrender, and transcendence
in a frequent contemplation of our own mortality. Saint Augustine
recognized this when he counseled all who sought his heart-felt
advice to “die daily.”
When we sit to meditate on mortality, we can think that this may
be the last time we may ever be able to do this. The power of that
thought lies in the fact that the statement holds truth. We can sit
to meditate with the intention to imitate death. We can sit to meditate with the intention to let it all go, inspired to explore what lies
beyond self.
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We sit deliberately, with noble posture and noble intention.
We mindfully breathe, allowing ease to arise. Progressively, we
free our awareness from sensations. We free our awareness from
the “I” we imputed upon the sensations and the “mine” with which
we tried to claim them. We relieve ourselves of all of our mistaken
Breathing, we let go of the survival-based need to label all arisings. Dog barking, wind blowing, me meditating. We let go of the
labels. Each gives rise to a story and a teller of the story.
Breathing, we relieve ourselves of the mental images with which
we’ve formed and colored the arisings. We relieve ourselves of the
clinging and aversion to the mental images of our own creation, the
mental images which we believed to be external and thought would
fulfill our neediness or hold our fear at bay, the mental images we
hold responsible for our own reactive feeling tones.
Breathing, we relieve ourselves of our preconceptions and
assumptions and beliefs, self-invested words we’ve imputed upon
neural firings.
We completely let go of all that chaos and our attachment to and
identification with it. We relieve ourselves of illusion-chasing and,
cleared of all the congested weight of selfing, we enter surrender.
We just die into silence. Die to the past. Die to the future. Die to
the breath. Completely let go. The silence reveals itself as refuge,
as awareness that can be trusted, tender and resounding with the
luminous quiet of mystery.
This silence is the practice of absorption, unruffled by even the
breath of self, taught in all traditions. To practice it with the recognition that it is similar to the process of dying—to the impersonal
process of leaving behind, becoming secluded from body and conceptual mind—is to amplify its power.
We will see clearly all of the places where we hold back, all of
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the places that bind us. This meditation is about letting go, surrendering. Each letting go is a death, an acknowledgement of the
moment just passing, the moment that is no longer. We practice
letting go with a deep understanding of why it is so important to let
go. Releasing every prop, we let go into freedom. Releasing every
fetter, we enter the quietly blissful relief of peace.
We engage in this practice in order to becoming familiar with the
freedom that lies beyond grasping to self. It prepares us for dying
and it opens us for living.
We will see, as we practice the meditation, the quick little mind
of the ego looking for a loophole, any loophole, where it might
continue, just as it is.
The sense of self believes it owns, is the possessor of, sensations,
thoughts, feelings, and patterns. Just the reverse is so. Sensations,
thoughts, feelings, and patterns give rise to the illusory sense of
self. When they cease, so too does the sense of self. It will kick and
scream, though, like a toddler being put to bed, mad at missing the
Engaging in the practice, over and over, on a frequent, rhythmic
basis will allow us to become familiar with the laying down of
self, with the surrender of pretense. It is wise and compassionate
to do so.
This special condition of confronting our own mortality will
be jet fuel for our practice. Buddha’s observation was that meditation on death—confronting our own mortality, allowing ourselves
to experience awareness without any reference to self—makes the
deepest imprint on our minds, just as the elephant’s footstep makes
the deepest imprint on the ground.
To know awareness beyond selfing is to experience being without fear, perhaps for the very first time. Our fear of death is the
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same fear that keeps us so limited in our living. They are the same
fear, the fear of death and the fear of living.
To know awareness beyond self, beyond its anchors of sensation and conception, is to be free from ignorance. With illusions
undone, we are no longer separate. Fear disappears as we rest in
communion. May we all experience the blessing of unselfconscious
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