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  July - August / 2007
Karma Yoga and the Art of Dying
In memory of Linda Kinkel, 1952-2006

Article and photos by Jeffrey Pears

One of the most profound spiritual practices I have found is karma yoga, “the yoga of action,” as a path of realization and specifically as it relates to serving the dying. Karma yoga transcends all religious boundaries and touches the heart and soul on a deep level of divine love. It connects us with each other and allows us to drop our mask, our facade--even momentarily--as we sit, listen and serve a person who is dying. Offering a presence of acceptance, love and compassion to a person who is slowly letting go of health, attachments and family is like extending a beacon of light and hope, a spiritual lantern that you help them carry until their final breath. And at that moment when they die, nothing else matters. Time stops. And you realize the room is full of peace and love beyond all description.

Over the past five years I have had the privilege of serving the dying, being present at the moment of transition for many and witnessing spiritual occurrences that cannot be explained rationally. Most importantly, I have learned a great deal from the dying about how to live life with greater meaning and purpose. Karma yoga has become part of my sadhana (spiritual path).

According to the Bhagavad-Gita, “Karma yoga is a mysterious process that reveals its true nature only to those who pursue it.” I believe that serving the dying as a hospice volunteer is karma yoga times ten, and is probably one of the most spiritually fulfilling ways to enter into this mysteriousness.

Serving those beautiful souls in hospice who are nearing the end of their physical existence and preparing to enter completely into the spiritual is a unique honor and opportunity. It’s an honor to witness and affirm their personhood, beliefs and life experiences and an opportunity to connect with them and their family on a core level of honesty, integrity and compassion.

As a hospice chaplain and volunteer coordinator, I serve hospice patients who have life-limiting illnesses and their families, and I train volunteers to do the same. I have ministered to hundreds of people and have witnessed dozens of deaths. And as each life is unique, so is each death. One unique life story and death that I (and her family) would like to share with you is that of the beloved Dr. Linda Kinkel.

Linda grew up in a loving, supportive family with her sister, Nancy Gamss, brother, Eric, and parents, Chris and Arlene Kinkel. After high school, and inspired by her grandfather John Rieck, Linda studied biology and ornithology, earning a Ph.D. in avian behavioral ecology from Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 1988. While pursuing her advanced degrees, she taught at Kishwaukee College, a community college in Malta, Illinois, NIU and Leelanau School in central Michigan and was an assistant ecologist to ENCAP (a project to develop new pre-combustion CO2-capture technologies and processes for power generation). In 1988 Linda taught at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora and went on to participate in environmental impact studies for the City of Chicago and for the environmental bale-fill project in the town of Bartlett. During her career, she was a well-known contributor within her field, traveled to different parts of the world discovering, studying and collecting bird species for various grant projects (and Chicago’s Field Museum) and published many professional articles as well as her own personal poetry.

Then at the age of 41 years Linda was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). For more than 13 years she tried conventional and alternative therapies to treat this disease (bee sting therapy, various diets, oxygen therapy, vitamins, a variety of drugs, physical therapies and finally a treatment that could hopefully reverse her MS: stem cell replacement primarily used to reverse blood cancers such as leukemia). During this period, her body was slowly succumbing to the disease, which paralyzed the left side of her body and weakened her immune system, but her mind was as sharp as ever.

Linda and I talked about a number of things during the five months we knew each other, both philosophical and practical. Practically, I helped her to let go of past regrets, grieve the losses in her life (her health, her dogs, her home of 15 years and others) and find meaning and purpose. We laughed together; we cried together. Philosophically, we connected with her Buddhist faith, which began in college when she read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, a novel based on the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the supreme Buddha. Siddhartha was a prince who gave up his material life and became an ascetic, hoping to escape the human suffering of old age, sickness and death, but soon he realized that was not possible. After many years of meditation and following different paths, he attained enlightenment--became omniscient (one who knows everything)--and subsequently led many others to the enlightened, immortal state of consciousness.

Linda (like Siddhartha) for many years had been searching for answers concerning illness and pending death. She had connected with physical nature all her life and was now connecting with her Buddha-nature. She spent many hours taking refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma (teachings) and the sangha (community--the Buddhist practitioners who would visit and practice with and for her). She practiced silent meditation and received visits from a Buddhist priest, Lama Lobsang Palden Rinpoche (a direct disciple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists worldwide). The lama provided many blessings, spiritual purifications and sacred prayers as well as gifting Linda with a sacred prayer scarf and prayer knot blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And following her death, the lama carried out a daily prayer ritual for Linda for the traditional 49 days. Shortly before Linda died, the lama told me she had already left her physical body.

Thus, within the last few months of her life, Linda moved from fear of dying to acceptance of and preparation for it. She specified final wishes and actively embraced a number of Buddhist practices that brought her great peace: Tonglen practice, whereby she selflessly dedicated her illness and suffering to the relief of all others in the world who are stricken with the same disease; a forgiveness ritual of mentally bestowing forgiveness upon oneself and others; and Loving Kindness, enabling her to extend compassion to everyone in her life, past and present, including all family, friends, nurses and anyone who visited her at bedside.

Linda lived for 54 years showing us how to live with zest, powerful striving and love. And she showed us how to die with peace, acceptance and contemplation while serving others (even in her physically incapacitated state). Thank you, Linda Kinkel, for your gifts of laughter, love and courage. Thank you, Linda's family, for allowing me to share her story (sadly, Linda's mother died approximately two months after Linda) and thank you, Lama Lobsang Palden Rinpoche.

Poetry books by Dr. Linda Kinkel: The Kaleidoscope of Life (2006) and The World Within and Around Us (2000) are available at her brother’s Web site,

Lama Lobsang Palden Rinpoche can be reached at

Jeffrey Pears can be reached at
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