An Invitation to Intimacy
“Dying is easy
It’s living that scares me to death.”
– Annie Lennox, from the wing ‘Cold.’
Because culture – and nowadays, the culture of modern science – has such an over-bearing influence on attitudes to death, I approach the concept of death in a way that steps out of the usual seemingly implacable restrictions of ‘now’ and ‘later’: “Now I’m alive; later, I’ll be dead.”
All the dulling varieties of reactivity that arise with this limited approach are plain to see. People attempt every conceivable escape from wakefulness toward death – from gross to subtle. We climb mountains, drink ourselves stupid, accumulate things, make war, get famous (or try to), explore our dreams, or we watch TV – simply to forget the big questions. We even use spiritual techniques like lucid dreaming, mindfulness or meditation to fool ourselves into thinking we are cool with death. There is nothing wilier in nature than an untended mind.
And, the popular ‘seize the day’ (carpe deum) approach is limited; not because it doesn’t have its benefits, but because it doesn’t take into account certain core human experiences. When used as a substitute for contemplation, it impoverishes us. When young I was in sympathy with a sense-based version of “carpe deum” – which added up to: “Feel good, as much as possible,” basically. Eventually, I asked myself: “Do you know yourself? If you don’t know the nature of mind, then do you know who is seizing what?”
If you have not understood the mind, on what basis could you be free of death? Surely, death is intimately related to mind? In later years, I reframed my questions: “Surely death has something to do with the dissolution of the sense of being the ‘experiencer’ (of experiences of all kinds, including meditation), right?” And the insight into life and death got subtler with this exploration. Understanding, as Sue Hamilton-Blyth put it, “the constitution of the human being,” is core to understanding life’s true value. So, is it dying that scares us about living?
So, it isn’t satisfying for me, to simply leave death for later, as if death is only an ending, and not something which is here, now and sacred; something which actually contributes to the big Life process. But I’m getting ahead of myself, here, aren’t I? I acknowledge that I’ll need to demonstrate such sweeping affirmatives as this, with step by step experiential grounding.
So, to be personal, to explore the ‘more’ of this territory, I need to experience as much about the innerly nature of death and deathlessness as I can, while I’m optimally strong and clear, and long before the dissolution of the body. And, you’d be wise to ask, “How has he done that?” Some have responded: ‘How can you experience death, while you’re living? That’s ridiculous. Get serious.” While others have said say, “Wonderful. Go into it with all your heart, now, while you can. Be serious: realise the deathless.”
As a slight ‘by the way,’ I notice that the people who have this second approach are (generally speaking) more positive, more vibrant, and less selfish, than the first group. And, crucially for me, they are not flag-wearers or wavers; they’re more likely to be ‘citizens of the planet.’ The way they live reflects the wisdom of their views. Admittedly, there is a portion of this group who have a life-denying tendency (I’ll examine that later); but, generally speaking, you find less cynicism in the “deathless” group. Why is that? What does it say about their inner experience behind or under their concepts of ‘death’ and ‘dying’?
I do want to be open about the matter of the ‘deathless’ – because, I don’t want to put ‘isms’ before reality, and that includes Buddhism – but, when I started to examine ‘what dies,’ it seemed to me smart to give vigilant or careful heed to this group, who showed more genuine independence from consensus opinion than the others did. (The Vietnam War was raging at this time, and so I was suspect of what went as established opinion.) There’s a theme, here, isn’t there, of guarding one’s authenticity.
But, back to my topic of ‘then,’ and ‘now.’ If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe or conceive about something which I haven’t experienced? So, how is dying ‘easy’?
Seeing the death of others mostly only means that ‘later’ thing. Later, like my dead relatives or friends, I’ll stop breathing, my blood will stop flowing, my body will go cold, my senses will cease functioning – things like that. I’ve seen that happen to others. This I can have no doubt about. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – death of this gross sort is certain. Death, in the ‘over there’ sense,’ will definitely happen; I’m not arguing with that. However, you’ll see it, not me; because I’ll be on the inside of it. One is, in an important sense – that is, experientially – alone in this.
It’s obvious that death, as an experience, is always a ‘now-here’ event, not ‘over-there.’ Experiencing is always Now. Without this deeper encounter, I can use the phrases ‘my death,’ and ‘my dying,’ and the words won’t carry the felt texture of being inside dying, and inside death.
So, beginning in the seventies, I asked myself regularly, “Is there any way that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on), and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life, that I can know something about the dissolving of personal life, and so live free of the burden of that thought?”
It’s this understanding that the wise speak about; so, a few decades ago, I began to engage with the kinds of sensitising practices which they recommend, so to make intimate this great matter. When I say, ‘contemplative,’ this is what I’m indicating.
And, this is why, in recent years, I decided to concentrate on what the earliest Buddhist teachings tell us about this real-life happening – especially in the Nikāyas. That’s a central theme in my project. These early teaching do speak about the challenge, and they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying: “Attentiveness is the place of the deathless; inattentiveness is the place of death.” (Dhammapada, 21) This approach is very simple, and very applicable to living now – it’s not just about the ‘later’ inevitable event. The other important thing for me is that this approach is very much a matter of ‘The work and its fruit is down to you.’
Not by means of [outward vehicles] can one go
To that place untrodden,
Where a self-tamed person goes
By means of a well-mastered, disciplined self.
– The Dhammapada, verse 323. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
Having understood this body to be [vulnerable] like a clay pot,
Having settled into this heart as if it were a citadel,
attack the King of Death with the sword of wisdom,
and protect what has been conquered by clinging to nothing.
– Dhammapada, verse 40.
Wisdom in our sorrowing world is urgently needed. How come we aren’t talking to each other about what it might be, and how it might be nurtured species-wide? Let’s entertain the possibility that wisdom is far more accessible than previous cultures have led us to believe. What if we discovered in this inquiry that every human body is wisdom?
Wisdom regarding death and dying can transform humanity’s unexplored anguish, which discharges itself in destructive emotions. The tensions wrought by unresolved core questions – those that every child encounters, and puts out of sight – make their way into our behaviour.
How come we aren’t asking, while we still have enough ‘nous’ to nurture the inquiry: “What kind of experience does the word ‘death’ point to? Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside? What’s death going to be like, anyhow?” Mary Oliver asks this, in her poem When Death Comes: “(W)hat is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Most adults have seen what it’s like from the ‘outside.’ A verse from the early Buddhist teachings puts it this way:
All too soon will this body will lie in the funeral home:
useless, without mind, like a meaningless stick of wood.
– Dhammapada, verse 41.
We see this fact, with the bodily eye; but the heart’s eye – longing for depth, not surfaces – intuits the possibility of insight into death, and the ending of anguish. Zen teacher Aitken Roshi used to speak of ‘dukkha’ (a name for the most fundamental human suffering) as ‘anguish.’
This Dhammapada ‘stick of wood’ verse, by the way, is even more stark in its literal rendering: “This body will lie on the ground,” it says. In the Buddha’s time, the body might simply be taken to a charnel yard, and be left to rot and disintegrate out in the open. ‘Discarded,’ the original verse says. I changed the context to reflect a common process in Western countries – funeral homes and crematoriums – but, to be matter-of-fact about it: at some stage, our bodies, too, are discarded – understandably.
It’s interesting, also, to reflect that ‘charnel’ means ‘flesh’ (carnal). Charnel grounds and houses are (or were) about the meaty side of death. There certainly is this side of things – the surface layers of human life. It would appear that there are few ‘flesh grounds’ these days; but, even so: this body is still (in some respects, at least) “like a clay pot.” It’s fragile. It’s breakable. It’s vulnerable to all kinds of misadventure. That is not fresh news, of course; but, how little – oh, how little in our entertainment-obsessed world – have we penetrated to the true significance of this, all the way to the heart of birth and death!?
So, how come we aren’t wondering more openly, together, “Who or what in us dies?” (Who Dies? by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books.) We can’t lose, by this inquiry.
Who has done her own work –
Being endowed with virtue and insight,
firm in the Dhamma and a speaker of truth –
people hold such a one dear.
– Dhammapada, verse 217.
Well… that is: can’t lose anything but our fictions; which I acknowledge we mightily cling to, as to a damn good novel plot. However, do allow, please, the possibility of not clinging, realizing your true nature, and “settling into this heart as it were a citadel.” Entertain the possibility of being thereby being better equipped for the meaty dénouement on the final page. If you have experienced the citadel aspect of awareness, you’ll know that it is rock-solid – wondrously, beautifully immovable. And, it’s unconditional. It is beyond corruption.
Insight into death can not only penetrate to the heart of birth and death, but can establish the citadel, and secure the heart’s gains, because:
For one whose heart is without affliction and perplexity,
who has abandoned good and bad, who is awake, there is no fear.
– Dhammapada, verse 39.
I’m working in this project at unpacking – in contemporary terms – a remarkable possibility present in all of us: that when we meet the essence of death we find a jewel – one aspect of which is the citadel.
(All translations from the Dhammapada are translated from Pāli by Christopher J. Ash, unless otherwise attributed.)
“Insight (εἴδησις, seeing, understanding) we take as a fine and worth-while thing..”
– From the opening passages of Aristotle’s ‘De Anima,’ quoted in Gendlin, Line by Line Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Bk 1.
Because my topic is how we think about death and dying, and how we can best benefit from these facts of life, this work has insight as its primary topic. My OED gives, as a definition for ‘insight’: “The fact of penetrating with the eyes of the understanding into the inner character or hidden nature of things; a glimpse or view beneath the surface.” I want to look into the not-so-obvious dimensions of death and dying. Insight, from a Buddhist perspective, is about care, growth, and precision of understanding; hence, it is about more life, and that can occur even while one is dying.
A further major theme in this work is the exploration of the kind of thinking which fosters insight into death and dying; and, not only the how of that particular thinking, but the how of any thinking freshly. It sounds funny to say, because we adults think we know how to think. Yet, we are get along in our day-to-day thinking by relying on a mode of thinking acquired before the age of… say, mid-teens? Early, anyhow.
Death did figure in our thinking early in life, but we hardly got on top of the topic, did we? If so, why is there not peace abounding? We didn’t master a training in death-thinking, nor in thinking in general. In respect of death, we fell in line with our cultures, and adopted a ‘don’t-think-the-unsayable’ strategy.
A student recently came to see me shocked that her life-long friend died accidentally, unexpectedly, in the midst the friend’s routine daily activities. When this happens, the mourners find themselves without ground. They’ve mastered much else – engineering, medicine, building, creative arts, therapy, driving, or whatever – but they haven’t mastered the process of insight, which alone can light up the ‘space’ where death matters the most. People die in innumerable ways, frequently unexpectedly – and we are shocked. Why the shock? You might say it’s normal to be shocked. Is it? What do you mean by ‘normal’? And, if it is, maybe ‘normal’ is not optimally responsive to life’s powerful moments. Can we learn from death, when we are in shock?
I heard of a five-year-old who cried in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” That little one had seen it; he had commended that he will in fact die. From the point of view of the growth of insight, and of wisdom, that’s a precious moment. How do we carers respond, when that occurs?
There’s a YouTube of another five-year-old, inconsolable because she realizes that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she wails, keening before the event. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute.” She’s seen the fact that no matter how much she loves him – he won’t stay the way he is. She seems to Intuit that none of us will be here forever, because next she bawls: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!”
I was uncomfortable that someone – presumably a parent – was making a video of her so interior moment, but seeing the video did get me thinking about other times, of other cases, when I have heard of children having this particular anguish. I think that most of us (if not all) have a child somewhat like that in us, a child who once said, or thought: “I don’t want to die.”
Tragically, if asked, the adults around us didn’t know what to say, except for the usual conventional, distracting platitudes. Things like: “Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about it – you’ll go to heaven and meet Toby” (or whatever our pet’s name was – or the grandparent’s name). You know the kind of thing. At best, the carers whom I’m talking about – the parents and teachers of curious or bewildered children – are thrown into a sea of loving pain, upon witnessing the anguish of these innocents; but they still can’t respond in a grounded way. Apart from platitudes, they might treat the child as cute (as in the YouTube video); or they might be embarrassed at their lack of capacity to meet their child’s existential angst.
Of course, I’m generalising, but think back to your education. Most adults in our society lack insight into death. Insight training didn’t happen in their childhood, either. So, how can they help their children, when they weren’t trained to investigate the subtle dimensions of life? For, death, despite appearances is a subtle matter. It’s as subtle as ‘mind.’ WeWe aren’t trained to investigate our minds – as rigorously as a good scientist would – to investigate that which is less obvious than chemicals, organs, and nervous systems; that which is closer to us than breathe – our actual, interactional being-in-and-of-now.
Before the age of twenty-six, not one person that I meet in flesh and blood suggested to me that it was legitimate to question what the ‘mind’ is. Not one. And I’d gone through university by then. No educator had helped me get a practical handle for the territory of ‘mind,’ until I meet the Buddhist teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe, in 1976. Yet, can we comprehend death without penetrating the hidden mind of freedom? Where are we teaching this in our schools?
As a result, we are left to depend on, and we daily serve, the standard body of our culture’s thought. Presently, in the standard training, we are expected to believe that we are fundamentally made up of non-living things – sub-atomic particles, elements, molecules, and so on; and, that at death, we simply re-become non-living entities – food for worms, or dust – and that’s it. The rest of the standard story is that between birth and (that kind of) death, we simply muddle through, heroically making up whatever story we can about what this life is, and who we are in it – any story that will work. Since post-modernism, all stories are equally true. This is the dominant model, isn’t it?
While useful in the operating theatre (where, of course, I want my surgeon to have this view in great detail), such a version of human bodies doesn’t include the experience from the inside, and so it doesn’t include what is most important to you – your experiencing. And, isn’t it experiencing death and dying that we are afraid of? So, another central theme of my project is experiencing.
Isn’t it true that, in our English-speaking scientifically literate culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matter at the heart of their discovery of death; this discovery which, powerfully for them, includes the striking realization that death separates us from what is dear to us? More importantly, we don’t encourage our children to cherish the questions; a more important response than giving them answers.
To the extent that this lack of training was so for you and I, we got on with growing up ‘normal,’ and we learned to tuck the inconsolable doubts away for as long as possible, in a compartment the therapists call ‘the unconscious,’ far from the reach of insight. Does this seem a healthy and happy course? Perhaps instead we can turn toward death and dying, and find gifts in a fresh approach? Perhaps this is the next step in our development in the way to becoming truly homo sapiens – the wise human.
The Nine Contemplations of Atisha (982 – 1054 CE) are:
1. Death is inevitable.
2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
4. Human lifespan is uncertain.
5. There are many causes of death.
6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
7. At the time of death, our material resources are of no use to us.
8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
9. Our body cannot help us at the time of death.
Remember: “It is not simply about dying, but about the restoration of the heart, which occurs when we confront our life and death with mercy and awareness.” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
“What time is it?” he asks, forgetting:
shifts his pain in the chair.
I search, again, to answer; but sense
clock time isn’t what he really wants.
“I don’t know,” I murmur.
His bony feet in my hands.
The white ward wall, sun-splashed.
At thirty-three, he’s dying.
My hands are strong.
This morning: I breathed, stretched, enjoyed
the grass beneath my own – in a park.
Firmness of feet; earth supports.
Birdsong, a lyrical breath.
“It’s a very spiritual thing,
massaging someone’s feet,” he rasps.
“Scary, this… not knowing…”
We wonder. I begin to speak, but he’s saying:
“What’s going to happen, I mean…”
A sunlit curtain; a breeze.
And he asks again: “What time is it?”
The point, to me, of the poem in my last post is in those two words toward the end: “We wonder.” We wondered together. The young man was in a hospice. And, he was dying – of that, there was no doubt. Not long to go.
And yet, at any moment, it is still a matter of not knowing exactly when; and there is always the question of what it will be like. He couldn’t sleep at night for fear of it.
I was merely a few years older than he was; but, I knew his questions were mine, too – albeit less cogently. I was healthy, but I had begun to contemplate the inevitability of death. It wasn’t a matter of only one of us having the certainty of death, without knowing when.
What will it be like? Sometimes I’m plain curious, almost excited, like Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes:
“I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”
Now, decades years later, now that I’m old enough to die naturally, and after my cancer last year, I have been thinking more about what will death be like.
The practice of dissolution of the elements is a wonderful one, and I have no doubt at all about its helpfulness – not only because it nurtures a joyous, wakeful life; but because it goes a tiny, tiny bit of the way in meeting the unanswerable.
However, the event of one’s own will is intimate. I sense its breathy inscrutability. “What’s it going to be like?” This question is wake me up. I was healthy back then, but his question prodded at my conceit, called it into question, rousing me from the slumber that is there in the trance of youth, in the trance of health, and in the trance of one’s life appearing not to be threatened.
“There are, practitioners, these three kinds of intoxication. What three? Intoxication with youth, intoxication with health, and intoxication with life.” – The Buddha, quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya.
But, here’s the more impelling point: When I realise that death is not readable, I have no reason to believe it will be more readable when it comes. Why? I feel the presence of Nowness in my life as equally mysterious – equally unsayable. And each haiku-like perception is as immeasurable. No breath can be timed in clock-time. We are unable to measure our lives in ‘coffee spoons.’
The breeze in the curtain, the sun-splashed wall, these are not findable, not objects thrown over there.*
“Now” just as unfindable as death, while it’s intimately, radiantly ineluctable – the real doorway to the infinite. Death is this moment.
Every time he asked me what time it was, a perplexed clock stared at me – non-plussed, Dali-esque.
* My OED tells me that ‘object’ means literally: “thing thrown before or presented to (the mind or thought.”
The following steps for cutting through unhealthy thinking are adapted from the work of Stanley Block; as presented, for example, in his book ‘Coming to Your Senses.’ This process helps in bringing deeper, spiritual work into daily life. It can be good for establishing the freshness of a ‘now-centred’ place, when you feel overwhelmed by a sub-personality’s repetitive, stressful patterns.
From the clear place that comes from this practice, you may be able to then turn toward the troublesome patterns with compassion: “Hello, Panicking One. I know you’re here.” (However, though I credit Block, I’ve heavily tampered with his method, so I don’t say I’m representing his process, here.) Finally, do this process as though it is play. Be a playful master of your own mind. Enjoy your inner work.
1. Recognize that you’re having negative thoughts, or an ‘overwhelmed’ process. It’s a part of you, not all of you. Give the experience some space. Start from being aware of your breathing, because it is a present-moment happening. You could say something like, “I am here, there is this body, and there is this painful process.” Breathe and include your arms and legs, and the middle of your body.
2. Then, say to yourself; “My thoughts are telling me that…( and summarise the negative thoughts.) Or, “I am experiencing the thought that … (state your negative thought).
3. Recognise that the thoughts are thoughts, and you are more than these patterns, by saying (simply), in an accepting manner (like a grandmother, who is humouring her boisterous grandchildren): “Those are only thoughts. That’s just what they do. I don’t have to follow them.” In Block’s terms, this prevents that negative thought from crossing over the mind-body connection; that is, of being embodied. They are presenting just one possible stance. In neurobiological terms, this is abandoning old neural pathways, and laying down new ones.
4. Having identified the pattern, and acknowledging that it is only a pattern of thought, now:Listen to your environment, to the background sounds. Feel the fabric of your clothes against your skin, feel the contact with your seat, or the ground, or the solid element below you. Feel the warmth of your body, your breathing, and your feet on the floor. In short come to your senses. Let your breathing be felt in your whole body, if you wish. Listen, touch, feel, smell, taste the bigger implicit dimension, the Now.
4. When the body tension lets up (showing that you have rested your I-System), then you have stopped the sub-personality’s thoughts from organising your body. You’ve restored some calm. Let the whole body have the result of the practice. Take it into every cell of your body, and down to the molecular and atomic levels. Enjoy the result – giving your body-mind this positive feedback. (This is based on Rick Hanson’s Taking in the Good.)
5. Now – only if you wish to – you are free to deal appropriately with the original thought without being hampered by body tension. You might, for example, empathetically listen to it, as though it were a small child whom you love. Or, perhaps now you are strong enough to do some ‘inner judge’ work – disengagement – or you’re ready to do some Focusing, or whatever is needed.
6. Repeat, and repeat, whenever needed.
I intended today to write about regret; but in the early afternoon, I gathered my materials together and I painted. At first the process felt a little mechanical, but very soon I found myself absorbed.
Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalyptus stems in the painting. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, enlivening the whole canvas. I was now engaged, and seeing colours that were mysterious – like the blues which I invited into the black in the setting.
After I’ve painted, I find I’m sensitive to colours everywhere I go. Suddenly the rock-faces hereabouts turn up colours which I don’t usually see. The forests are showing a myriad of subtle greens, and tender reds in those same greens. The way the sunlight plays on the sandstone cliffs at sunset is fresh to me.
As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the unfathomable being of the world, something rose up in me: a felt sense without words.
Going inside the house, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to invite that sense, to ‘say hello’ to, that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt meanings, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was ‘nothing,’ or at least unpromising. It could easily be dismissed by someone not familiar with what Eugene Gendlin calls ‘a felt sense.’ Or, if such a one could at least respect it, they might be satisfied with calling it ‘mysterious’ or ‘ineffable,’ and enquire no further.
However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, in the way that I’ve learnt and practised over several decades, more could come there. Like a shy fawn, it could only peek out at first, but then come into view. The poet Ted Hughes has a piece called The Thought Fox that suggests the cautious, even wary, way a felt meaning emerges.
That’s why Gendlin called his practice Focusing – because when we give it the right kind of attention, this vague ‘something’ in the middle of the body goes from murky to clear (as when in the old SLR cameras the frosty circle of the centre of the lens went from blurry to clear when you got the correct focus.)
So, now, what came clear was an understanding which I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, painting, was an introduction to the radiance of being as it exists in my own body. It was revealed through the art of seeing. And, then I recalled that the artist Brett Whitely had once said that the only reason to paint is to learn to see.
I now had the words for the experience which occurred immediately after the painting session. “Radiance.” As I had come away from the studio, the radiance everywhere was intense. In one sense it dissolved all differences, revealing a deeper unity through the very ordinary miracle of seeing.
On the other hand, the radiance shone – from the inside out – in every leaf, every grass-blade, and even in the buildings about me. The pittosporum as I passed it; the concrete path where I walked; the tangled jasmine in the corner, the rough steps into the house were luminous.
I had intended to write something about ‘regret’: about the harmful things I’ve done, the hurts I’ve caused which I regret the most. Instead, I find myself back at the easel, marvelling at the black with phthalo blue, painted over a green-black underlay — at how the purples peek through, in the afternoon light. And, those tiny, yellow spots in the eucalyptus leaves. The red line around that edge, there.
Seeing is for developing the heart. It would also be strong, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life without having learnt to sense the wonder of the ordinary. All my learnèd philosophy would have been just empty naming, if I hadn’t embodied it, thus to see the world afresh.
When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!
– Basho, trans. D.T. Suzuki (Japanese ‘nazuna’ could be translated ‘shepherd’s purse.’)
My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.
So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.
Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):
“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”
I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.
The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.
I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?
And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:
These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.
I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”
Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).
A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”
David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.
I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:
Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.
May all human beings – through the gift of combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.
* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.
I could be writing about ensuring one’s legal will has been prepared; or, about the powers of attorney that might be needed. (In case you aren’t in your best mind at the end, someone who is competent may need to give permission to turn off your life support.) I could be writing about planning your funeral (and paying for it, now). You could choose some music and texts for that inevitable day; or, write your own message for those who will gather for your farewell.
Reminding you of these tasks is surely helpful, however, for me, practising A Year to Live primarily means living in such a manner that I am really here on planet earth, in the flow of how things are, now; so that I’m not just a bystander. Like Mary Oliver says in the poem When Death Comes:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
If I die today, I want to be as ready to leave as I have been to enjoy the day’s wonders; as ready as can be to open to that particular experience, an experience which is no less a ‘being in the flow of life’ than having breakfast. The gospel song asks, Are you ready? We can add, ‘..to be here today.’ “The readiness is all.”
Is it any wonder that when the Zen adept Ikkyu was asked for a calligraphy representing the highest wisdom, he picked up his brush and inked: ‘Attention.’ The no doubt disappointed petitioner said something like, “And that’s it?” So Ikkyu did another one for him: “Attention. Attention.”
In short, today’s imperative is to live such that if death should happen this day, my life would be in harmony with this planet’s touching destiny. It gave birth to aware organisms! That’s awesome. And, practising A Year to Live inspires me that the quality of my life be of some benefit to all life.
Of course, if we live this way, with this kind of attention, of course we do look after our last will and testimony. We look after others. We will get our worldly affairs in order. (Currently, I’m going through a de-cluttering process, which is partly for daily clarity, but also: so that nobody has to do it for me after I die.) All that is good and real. However, how painful it would be, to arrive at death’s threshold and feel like you haven’t lived!
Many people think that living means fulfilling a ‘bucket list’; as though on my deathbed I’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I should have gone to Kathmandu. I should have listened to more opera.” “Oh, shit. I didn’t get to see Old Faithful!”
I can visit those places, of course, and still not be there. I can fulfil my bucket list, but forget to be wake in the ordinary moments of living and loving day to day. It’s much harder, of course, to be awake than to book some tickets. “Oh, yeah. I went to Kathmandu, but I just worried about whether I was doing the right thing, or not.” I think of the tourists (in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends) disappointed that the geyser Old Faithful hardly lasted long enough for them to get their pictures.
Naturally, to be awake in this world includes encountering, and understanding how our selfishness works. Hence a lot of the exploration in this A Year to Live project investigates how we set up a fictional self. Freedom in life and death is aided by this investigation; because, when unexamined, the conventional, faux mode of being a person (that is, a way of being a person which is based in our self-image) obscures our relationship to both life and death. Our default mode distorts our understanding of this big life process.
Just as a parting irrelevancy: given how much water there is on the planet, and how much the atmosphere matters, who named the planet ‘earth,’ I wonder? What was the reasoning, there? How unexamined is this? Before we die, can we know the nameless planet of which we are? Are we ready for this ‘now’? Mary Oliver writes:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
– from The Summer Day.
You might be wondering where I’ve got to, so quiet have I been. However, I’ve been exploring a new passion. I’m impassioned about cultivating mindfulness differently. I’d like to share this with you: at thefocusingspace.com.au.
(I’m also planning a retreat in late 2018, to put this approach into effect. It’ll be in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, Australia.)