Michèle Salamagne and Philippe Cornu: Part 2 – Staying in the fullness of your humanity until the end of your last breath.

- through Fabrice Groult

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Second part of the cross interview between one of the pioneers of palliative care in France and the famous Tibetologist.

Daniel Chevassut told Buddhist News “Where there is suffering, sickness and death, the sacred must imperatively be present. What do you think of this reflection?

Philippe Cornu: When a person is leaving, this moment is indeed crucial and sacred. For the one who accompanies him, it is a question, according to the Buddhist approach, of putting himself in his place. And, by this compassion, not to invest a projection of oneself in the suffering of the other, but to be at his service. There is thus the goal for oneself and the goal for others, but the goal for others is the motor of the goal for oneself. The idea is not to indulge too much in the feeling of loss for oneself, but to go towards the other for himself. It is true altruism.

What do these words of sacredness, compassion and altruism mean to you?

Michele Salamagne: The sacred is the untouchable. Regarding compassion and altruism, it is essential, here again, to work as a team. Because if the affect that we have for a patient is likely to have consequences on the prescription, we must be able to pass the hand. To be alone and to think that one will do well is already to be in error. Hence the importance of the interdisciplinary approach as well. For example, I worked in conjunction with a psychologist and social assistance. And, for the spiritual approach, I was aware of being in the presence of a person who is both body and spirit. I measured the need to take charge of this being as a whole.

What do you think of Tonglen, this lay association with a spiritual vocation which uses the "tools » Buddhism to support end-of-life patients and their families ?

Philippe Cornu: In Tibetan, "tong" means to give and "len" to take. This practice of meditation, in full consciousness, engenders the feeling of universal compassion. It's about visualizing a sick or dying person in front of you and, through the breath, imagining taking, in the form of a dark vapor, their sufferings to dissolve them in our heart. In return, we imagine giving him our compassion and our energy of happiness, always through the breath, in the form of a white light that floods the sick person. It's like an energy exchange.

Michele Salamagne: I think this bundle of love is universal. The human being can manage to have this connection to the other, to be in unison with the one who is opposite.

Philippe Cornu: Even in human love there is the sacred aspect of the encounter. This unconditional love is the meaning of life. Great exchanges then take place. Like a window that opens onto the unconditioned. Something is completely loose. A spark occurs. A breach in our concerns and our usual way of functioning. Unfortunately, the breach usually closes very quickly, because of considerations of possessiveness and our mental projections...

How do end-of-life patients react to the imminence of their death?

Michele Salamagne: No death is alike. Some die very peacefully, as if falling asleep. Others are waiting: one last visit, one last voice on the line, one last face. They hold out until that time comes. There are those who wait, on the contrary, for their loved one who repeats to them “I love you too much, you can't leave me” to slip away for a moment to breathe and finally leave. And then there are deaths that go very badly, in a lot of turmoil.

Philippe Cornu: Death is an exhalation. In life, we breathe out, then we breathe in. Until the day it's over: it's the last expiration...

Michele Salamagne: Yes, there is no even number.

How do you explain that death is such a taboo in France and in the West?

Philippe Cornu: In our consumerist society of “everything, immediately”, we no longer want to hear about time or our finiteness because we are in too much of a hurry to make a profit. So much so that, even if we go straight into the wall, we don't want to see it. We are in an attitude of denial, of cognitive dissonance, framed by a narcissistic society favoring an economy of life project desire. We must always project ourselves into the future. All of this is favored by an economic context that is part of a deadly ideology. As we refuse to see death, we evade it. Just look at the ads: people always have wonderful young bodies there. We don't want to grow old let alone die. Moreover, nothing has been planned for old age. And it's hard for you to recognize a hearse: they're now all-purpose gray! At least in the past the signs of death were visible, like the catafalques outside the front doors with the initials of the person who had just died. There was still a ritualization of death and a time for it.

Is it for these reasons that you, Michèle Salamagne, co-signed the column "Let's fight against the isolation of people in mourning", published on February 12, 2019, in Le Monde¹? A platform launched, the initiative of the Empreintes association, so that mourning is finally recognized in France.

Michele Salamagne: Indeed, mourning is not recognized in our civilization. However, four out of ten French people say they are in mourning and one pupil per class is an orphan. Employees have 48 hours to grieve. Afterwards, they must return as effective as if nothing had happened to them. And if they are sad, they are told: “Go on, shake yourself up! ". There is no support for this time which is different for everyone. In France, if the management of pain has come a long way, concerning mourning, we are still in prehistory.

Philippe Cornu: In Buddhism, the mourning ritual continues until 21 or even 49 days after the death. Those who stay behind practicing for the benefit of the deceased then feel like they have done the right thing. And, instead of feeling guilty, they enter more easily into resilience.

In this forum, it is written: “Mourning is life”. What does this sentence inspire in you?

Michele Salamagne: I saw a wonderful film called And I choose to live. It is said: "The living close the eyes of the dead and the dead open the eyes of the living". After that, there is nothing more to add. When you are imbued with the truth of this sentence, we understand that those who want to be questioned by death must be able to do so, even children. It doesn't matter the age since everything happens in the heart.

Philippe Cornu: It's not deadly to think about death. It's part of life. One cannot fully appreciate the moments of existence if one does not think about death. It's very related.

What is the position of Buddhists on euthanasia?

Philippe Cornu: Death is the mirror of what one has been in life. And the time of life is related to the conditionings which produced this life. It is a karma, which is the fruit of previous acts. It is not a story of reward or punishment, but of putting energy into circulation. These conditionings make that there is an energy of life which will stop at a given moment, independently of our will. Death must come in due time. If you shorten your life, the amount of suffering you wanted to avoid will be carried over to the next life. All religions moreover strongly advise against euthanasia, there must be something behind this unanimity… Human beings are not demiurges and are not masters of life.

What does the scientist that you are, Dr. Salamagne think?

Michele Salamagne: I agree in the sense that there must not be unreasonable treatment, beyond what is possible. In this regard, people should be educated to write down their wishes concerning their end of life, this is called advance directives. And this, to avoid cases such as that of Vincent Lambert. I specify that a therapeutic abstention has nothing to do with euthanasia which consists in provoking death.

Have you yourself thought about your own end of life?

Philippe Cornu: The test, for me, is that of the plane: when I take it, I ask myself: am I ready at this very moment? At 61, the answer is still no! The road to letting go is long...

Michele Salamagne: As I age – I'm 77 – what used to be everyone's reality becomes my reality. For example, I distributed my jewelry for my granddaughters and I wrote my last wishes. Today, I feel quite calm.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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