David Thomas on Buddhism and Looking Death Straight in the Eye (part 2)

Buddhism helped me replace the fear of death
peaceful acceptance

via Bristol Evening Post


Death is the ultimate human fear

– one we generally put to the back of our minds until we are forced to face it, but confronting our own death is probably the most difficult psychological hurdle we will ever face.
For 52-year-old Dave Thomas, who is terminally ill, his own mortality is a fear he has grappled with thanks to his powerful belief in his Buddhist faith and by using the meditation techniques he has developed over two decades as a practising Buddhist.

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  • * •.

“This dying lark isn’t nearly as awful as it’s cracked up to be,” the former Fleet Street journalist tells me, flashing a warm smile, as we meet at the Buddhist meditation centre he has attended for the past four years – the Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Gloucester Road. Amitabha is a residential and teaching centre,  housing lay and ordained Buddhists; including Dave’s meditation tutor Kelsang Chönden.  Chönden bristles with kindness as he comes out of the room in his full monastic habit to arrange the coffee.

A Bishopston landmark for the past 20 years, the centre, now based in an old vicarage, has trained more than 5,000 Bristolians in the ancient Buddhist art of meditation.

Amitabha Buddhist Centre

For Dave, the calming aspects of meditation came into their own after being told he had only a short time to live.
“I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis back in 2010,” Dave explains. “I had found myself getting increasingly breathless, and had no idea what was causing it. But the consultant at the BRI explained the condition to me – essentially the air sacs within my lungs are increasingly failing to transfer the oxygen from the air to my bloodstream. Sadly it is terminal without a lung transplant.

“That was a couple of years ago now, and as things currently stand the doctors believe I may have just a couple of months to live. Being told you are dying is an extraordinary experience. Suddenly you are facing the big one. It’s an awful lot to get your head around.
But the meditation has helped me enormously – both in terms of having already developed an accepting frame of mind, but also practically, in terms of helping my breathing as it increasingly fails.”

Dave uses a mobile oxygen canister, which pumps oxygen into his nose to assist his breathing, but when he meditates he doesn’t need to wear it.
“It’s not a psychological effect,” he explains. “I regularly visit Southmead Hospital to have the oxygen levels in my blood tested, and the consultants there have been able to actively see that the oxygen levels in my blood are improved when I am meditating.”

“Dying isn’t all bad”

–  he says. “From the moment someone tells you you’re dying, you see the world very differently. You value everything so much, it’s actually quite wonderful.
I was recently walking in some woods near my home, and it struck me that the last time I was there I was jogging through in a track suit.
This time I was shuffling through, struggling for breath, but because I was walking so slowly I was able to pay attention to things I wouldn’t previously have noticed – individual trees and flowers. The beautiful detail.”

Dave says he was “the typical old-school Fleet Street hack” when he first discovered Buddhism, while working on the Sunday People at the height of the Maxwell era in the 1980s.
“I had a wonderful time, doing a job I loved, and with a beautiful family, but I was conscious that for some reason, at the back of my mind, I was not contented. I didn’t feel complete happiness.

“I decided to give meditation a try – but I was a cynical journalist, and didn’t really expect to get anything from it. After about five sessions, I was all ready to pack it in. But then I had a big story fall down, and I found myself accepting the disappointment in a way that I would never previously have been able to – previously it would have at least ruined my week.”

Chönden and David

Meditation was changing my mindset – calming me

“I realised that slowly, subtly, the meditation was changing my mindset – calming me. So I carried on with my meditation sessions, and over time, together with the Buddhist teachings that have come with it, it has had a profound effect on me and my ability to find peaceful acceptance when bad things happen.

“At first I was ribbed mercilessly by my newsroom colleagues about it,” he says. “But slowly they too could see the powerful effect it had on me, and increasingly they became genuinely interested – some even took it up themselves.”

Dave moved to Bristol in the 1990s as one of the founders of news agency South West News Service, and later founded another media business, Medavia, but was forced to retire a couple of years ago as his health deteriorated. He has now reached an extraordinary level of acceptance as he faces the end of his life.

I thought I was hours from death,
but what is left is pure peaceful acceptance

“I have been admitted to an intensive care unit twice in the past few months, and on both occasions I thought I was hours from death.

“So I’ve been very lucky to have had two dry runs – so I know that through using compassionate meditation, that is, meditating on the sorrows of the people around me in the intensive care unit, I was able to focus my mind entirely away from any fear about my own death, and what is left is pure peaceful acceptance.

“What concerns me much more is the suffering I know it will bring to my family and close friends when I die.

“After my diagnosis each one of my children separately offered me one of their lungs, which was heartbreaking – it showed so much love, but concerned me that they were unprepared for my leaving them, even though I have been able to come to terms with my own mortality.”

Meditation takes away the fear of death

“I know I will feel sorrow about leaving behind my family and friends and all that I have worked towards in my life, but I also know that through meditation I will be able to take away the fear of death. Once you take that away, there really is nothing left to fear. Acceptance is tremendously liberating.

“In one way I’m actually sort of excited about the challenge I will soon face. The next time I am in an intensive care unit, it will no doubt be the big one. I am excited to be facing the final challenge of this life – to put into practice all that I’ve learnt through meditation over these past 20 years.”

Dave smiles that warm smile once more. He glances briefly at the enormous figure of the Buddha that dominates the room, and briefly at his meditation mentor, Kelsang Chönden. There is so much peace in his eyes, it is impossible to feel sad. I shake his hand, and he returns to his meditations.

* •.  

Upper images and text taken from the Bristol Evening Post, Weds 19th Sep ’12
(edited to make it more accurate and blog friendly)

See also David on Buddhism and Looking Death Straight in the Eye (part 1)
and Beauty is to be Found in the Moment  – images.

 Kadam Bridget Heyes is giving a free public talk on Modern Buddhism, at the Colston Hall, Tues 23rd Oct. Knowing the power of Buddhism to heal our minds, and society today, David’s paid for 10,000 card flyers to advertise it.
For more details, visit Amitabha Buddhist Centre, or see Kadam Bridget in Bristol!!  here.


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Send prayers and loving energy to David

22 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: David Thomas on Buddhism and Looking Death Straight in the Eye (part 1) « Cosmic Loti
  2. gnatseyeview
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 13:48:01

    Reminds me of reading “Staring at the Sun” by Irvin Yalom.



    • Jas Baku
      Sep 21, 2012 @ 16:28:49

      I’d not heard of it before… looks interesting though. Something we all must face, isn’t it. Buddha taught that realizing our own impermanence is liberating, as it frees us from being concerned with life’s trivialities.



      • gnatseyeview
        Sep 21, 2012 @ 16:41:57

        When personal mortality is first recognized without any cultural buffers, it is terrifying. However, since it is reality and therefore truth, surely it is eventually liberating. I confess to looking forward to the sense of liberation–I’m not there yet.



        • Jas Baku
          Sep 21, 2012 @ 16:59:23

          Jeez no, neither me. I’d just be miserable – who’d look after my furry babies? Where would I be re-born?! ‘Terrifying’ is a good word for it. I think I need more time to prepare; but will I ever feel ready?



        • Sonali
          Nov 18, 2012 @ 15:22:59

          Nope. Anybody and everybody can practice Zen Buddhism. There is no need for robes, idols, praying, etc Although you can do that if you would like. All you have to do is sit. (Zazen meditation) And when you sit, I suggest you focus on your breathing and on the rising/descending of your chest. When you do this, your mind will eventually become calm and empty. And when you experience this nothingness/emptiness, you are infinite.



          • Jas Baku
            Nov 25, 2012 @ 19:12:32

            I agree Sonali. Breathing meditation is a powerful meditative tool, which would doubtless help you at the time of death, especially if you were experienced at it.



  3. Jas Baku
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 18:14:50

    via Tumblr:
    Self Assassin – If you get a chance please read this! A very touching and inspiring post.
    via Facebook:
    Amitabha Buddhist Centre – So moving, thanks Jas x



  4. Luna Kadampa
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 04:11:53

    This is so very worth reading. I really appreciate you sharing it, and please send my love to David, thank him for his inspiring example of what happens if you actually practice Dharma.



    • Jas Baku
      Sep 22, 2012 @ 06:51:22

      Thank you Luna ❤ I hope to see him soon (we keep giving each other rain checks, but we really must do coffee soon…) He’s got the link to this, and I’m his named chaplain, so yes – hopefully defo.)
      Actually putting Buddha’s teachings into practice is what makes the difference, isn’t it.



  5. saymber
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 18:55:16

    I echo Luna’s comment and it’s so important to share stories like David’s and his making peace with what we all are born to face…our mortality. His fear is the same for me: “What concerns me much more is the suffering I know it will bring to my family and close friends when I die.” It’s always easier for us to depart than to be left! We are heading off to the next great adventure, whatever ours may be, and those we love and knew are left to miss our tangible presence and to wonder where and how we will meet again!



    • Jas Baku
      Sep 23, 2012 @ 13:02:58

      Agreed. The taboo our societies have about death prevents us from sharing healing tears, and making peace with our fears. I don’t want my little family to suffer either – it’s my biggest worry about dying. I’ve made many prayers that I can continue to benefit them, where ever we all end up.
      But you’re right, we are heading off to our next great adventure 🙂
      Onwards and upwards, isn’t it.



      • Jerico
        Nov 18, 2012 @ 22:32:44

        – you only loose what you cling too Well yes, you loose everything..eventually..Thats true, but also i think about all the love you would have never felt if you didn’t cling. I’d rather die knowing iv made the most of my life and making my hubby happy knowing he loves me.



        • Jas Baku
          Nov 22, 2012 @ 15:28:38

          That is beautiful Jerico, about you making your husband happy. I bet that works well, too 🙂
          But I don’t think clinginess is a valid expression of love. Pure, unconditional love just wants the other person to be happy, with less concern for ourself. Clinginess is a grasping mind of attachment, which is bound to be painful for all involved bacause it’s so selfish. Best just stick to that blissful mind of unconditional love, isn’t it.



  6. Jinxy
    Sep 23, 2012 @ 11:12:27

    Jas, why are you so scared while David’s so confident? What’s the difference?



    • Jas Baku
      Sep 23, 2012 @ 12:43:57

      David’s got a grown up family – they’re not dependent on his care anymore. It’s very sad, but they can understand what’s happening, and look after each other. Whereas I’d be too worried about my furbys – who’d protect and nurture them if I wasn’t here? That’s a definite pull back to samsara.
      ** Just got to make sure I die with a virtuous mind, which will throw me to higher rebirths, where I can continue my spiritual path.



      • Noemi
        Nov 18, 2012 @ 17:12:48

        meditation should become part of all human beings to gain higher self consciousness , the religious aspect is immaterial , self enlightenment is the important aspect of the meditation process, many suggest it is likely that meditation boosts the energy levels so maybe more important to those who have productive lives and also those who seek rest and healing , positive energy flows add to global awakening of the spirit , peace is an inevitable requirement of human existence .



        • Jas Baku
          Nov 25, 2012 @ 18:46:05

          I agree Noemi, meditation does lead to a higher self-consciousness, from which comes the peace we all need. Though I wonder how many even realize that we do all need peace? Meditation does indeed focus your energy, therefore boosting our personal resources; and those of others, because they’re connected to us.



  7. Trackback: Beauty is to be Found in the Moment « Cosmic Loti
  8. Trackback: Weekly Link Love #6 - Living an Authentic Life
  9. Trackback: Buddhism fear | Gofites
  10. Trackback: HAPPY NEW YEAR! * as the Old Year dies, can our own Demise make us Happy? « Cosmic Loti

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