Monday, February 16, 2009

Learning How to Die is Learning How to Live

As of this writing, I have approximately four and a half month left to live. Much of my practice has been devoted to my life review, in which I am primarily focused upon the past.. sorting things out and bringing them to mind so that I may meditate upon them with gratitude, forgiveness, and so that I might treat each encounter with those who have shared my life's journey for some period of time with finality. In each case, I say goodbye to them with the understanding that this is very likely the last time we will ever meet in this life.

More than anything else, this practice of 'parting as though it is our last meeting' has had a profound effect on me, on my way of thinking and approaching my life, and, truthfully, on what and who I am.

There are experiences and practices that alter our understanding, perhaps by increasing or refining knowledge.

There are experiences and practices that alter our emotions, perhaps by enabling us to either release them or to control them... according to our particular need.

There are experiences and practices that alter our behaviors, perhaps by offering some type of ethical guidelines, a moral compass, or some other 'benefit' ( I am thinking now of the military, perhaps incarceration, or a monastic vocation -- each of these are likely an amalgam of the aforementioned experiences, however... they are different somehow.)

Lastly, there are experiences and practices that change a person on a fundamental level. (Now that I sit here and let my thoughts go where they will for a few moments... the three examples in the previous paragraph/parentheses actually qualify to live in this paragraph, but, I am going to leave them just where they are... ) In any case, the practice of treating each experience with finality is just such a practice. At least for me. Treating each meeting with another person, each meal, each day, each breath ... as though it is the very last time it will be experienced, adds a vibrancy, a poignancy, and a degree of gratitude and appreciation that makes behaving otherwise seem colorless and devoid of meaning.

If I take nothing else from this practice, I will take this.

As it turns out, I will take much more from my Dying Practice... as a matter of fact, I have been slowly incorporating a great deal into my way of living. In many cases this was deliberate, and in a great many more cases I hadn't realized I was doing so until I re-read my journal, or otherwise found reason to review 'pre-dying practice' time period and compared it to the present time period. Not in one case have I found this to be unwise, unpleasant, or unwelcome.

Life review practice is beginning to enter the time period where my monastic practice began to flag, everything was in doubt, and I started making less than wise choices. In a few cases, where I made some of the worst judgment calls and biggest mistakes of my life. Happily, there was enough of 'me' left in those days that I was able to curtail my journey down that particular path of unskillful behavior, unskillful thought, and harmful effects. For me, this way is better. Maybe better for those around me, too. You know, people have said things to me on more than one occasion along the lines of 'well, you monks are sacred, you are different from the rest of us... its easier for you! You never do anything wrong...', etc. Well, that is very far from the truth. We are no different from anybody else on a fundamental level.. meaning the building blocks of what we are.... we are human, and we have all of the facets that every other human being has. What may be different is that we choose with each and every breath, to behave in a certain fashion, in a non-harming and morally upstanding way.

In Korea they have a proverb that translates, roughly, as; Garbage human beings become monks, garbage monks become Zen students, garbage Zen students become Buddha!

What this means is that only a person who self-examines, identifies a shortcoming, and is willing to put forth the effort to change will change and improve. We need problems so that we can learn whatever they offer to teach us in the very act of our solving them.

Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk, was once queried as to why he had become a monk. But the tone of the question was, "You think you are so special, you are putting yourself up on a high pedestal." Merton's response was "I became a monk because I am just exactly like everyone else."

What does it take to become a monk? It takes exactly what has brought all of us to practice: our minds have gotten stuck on a question or problem. Unable to find the answer in our minds, we have reached a dead end. That is why we become monks. That is why we practice.

This was the problem that the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama (Shakyamuni) faced, and which ultimately resulted in his awakening and enlightenment, and true of his axial age contemporaries around the civilized world. It was and remains a human problem.

The reality is that we do not become monks in order to run away from life... but to run towards it. Indeed, there are many different paths and methods for embracing life, and my way is but one, and most likely a somewhat peculiar method. My Dying Practice is merely an offshoot or augmentation of my monastic practice... but, I am finding that they compliment one another in numerous, previously unlooked for and unexpected ways.

One such way is what I would like to discuss here today.

We all live, breathe, wake up, go to work, seek some form of entertainment or leisure, and go through our lives either leaning towards things that make us happy or give us joy, and leaning away from or averting from those things that cause us discomfort or make us sad. Time passes, and either, we die, leaving behind a few wonderful memories and a lot of wasted time. Or, we run into a figurative wall, take stock of what we are, what we have become, or where we are headed... and we find it to be less than satisfactory. We realize that we are not living life according to our values. That we have no values. That we are living life according to some other person's expectations, or some other similar situation or circumstance that leaves us feeling cold, dissatisfied, or out of tune with our heart, mind, and spirit.

This causes us to suffer. When we suffer, we bring suffering into the lives of those with whom we interact. It is a vicious cycle of sadness, disappointment, regret, guilt, and anger.

So. What do we do with that? How can dying practice help? Does this mean that everyone should become a monk or a nun?

Firstly, it does not mean that everyone (or most people... or even a significant number of people) should become a monk or a nun. That is not a path for the vast majority of people, and for good reason. Those of us who do have such a vocation are very much aware of it, most likely would not choose to have it, and would not willingly inflict it on others. But, if it exists, it is there whether we welcome it or not. And so, we are pushed to answer whatever burning question that drives us. For the rest of you.. if there is no question, there cannot possibly be an answer, so... why would you choose to go through the difficulties and discomforts of monastic life when there is no valid personal reason for you do so?

Perhaps many of you might benefit, however, from some form of daily spiritual practice. Whatever that translates to in your particular case. Much time is spent each day caring for your hair, teeth, fingernails, skin, clothing, belongings, dwellings, etc. With this in mind, it is mystifying to me that so few people will take the time to care for their inner self with the same level of care and attention. It is not my place to tell others what they should or should not do, or how they should live their life. But, perhaps it may be my place to simply let them know that some other path may be available in the event that they might one day decide that it is needful, or may offer some comfort or direction in their lives.

Dying practice is a temporary practice, though it does not have to be. It is only one practice of countless others. Most such practices however share many things in common. After all, they all address human lives, human concerns, human problems... and they all help us to discover human answers for our human questions. In quite a few cases, they even help us to formulate the questions to begin with.

For those people who feel that life is missing something, or is simply not satisfying. And, also, for those people for whom life is missing nothing, and is greatly satisfying.. but who are prepared to deepen their life experience, a daily spiritual practice is an appropriate and wonderful thing to incorporate into one's life.

I don't think that any such practice will give you the answers to your questions... you are always the sole party to discover answers which are relevant to your own life. Only you can inject meaning and purpose into your life, and only you can find the appropriate answers to the questions that you hold.

What a spiritual practice will do, is to help you to refine your life experience, focus your energies, maintain a sense of balance, centeredness, serenity, and tranquility.

Why is serenity, calmness or tranquility important?

My answer is that silence and calm abiding are the underlying commonality that we all share... every conscious being has, as its legacy, a simple quiet awareness that underlies everything that comes afterward; all of the facets of our 'individual personality' that overlay who and what we really and truly are.

This calm, abiding, silent awareness is the root of consciousness... of the sense of self, and of the sense of a world that is 'out there' somewhere.

We all share this. It is what we are. And we are all precisely that.

When we reconnect with it, and bring it into our daily life, we find that whatever we are called upon to face, whatever confronts us, no matter what it may be, we will do it better with a calm, clear, agile, and tranquil mind than with a mind that is disjointed, filled with strife and upset, and distracted.

In order to find out what we are, we must re-discover the silence that is at our core. This is what a spiritual practice will offer. But, that is not all that it offers; Once we have rediscovered this calm, centered, tranquil, silent aspect of our inner self, we begin to look outward once again with a clear perception of truth and authenticity.

What does this mean? What is authenticity and why does it matter?

Well.. for many, life consists of running around each and every day doing whatever is necessary to amass more and more material wealth, regardless of the cost to themselves or to others. They buy the 'things', and they expect that happiness will somehow spring from this. Each day is filled with a yearning, a desire, a hunger for 'more, bigger, better, shinier, harder, NOW!!'

But how long can this go on, realistically? How much 'stuff' must one own before happiness sets in?

I cannot deny that some level of financial viability is necessary in our life in order for us to be happy... we are physical beings with physical needs. But, how much do we REALLY need?

What I have learned is that the huge open mouth of desire can NEVER be satisfied. It doesn't matter how much you pour into it... it will always want more. So.. what can we do?

This is where a daily spiritual practice and the concept of living an authentic life comes in. This is precisely the purpose of Dying Practice. This is precisely the purpose of a monastic vocation. And, most likely this is precisely the purpose (the original untainted purpose) of any religious practice, at least before human beings, filled with these self same desires, have turned and twisted religious practice to serve their own ends.

On a personal level, however, we all need harmony and balance. We all must find our place in the world, and learn to live with all of the other beings that share the world with us without killing and hurting one another. We all want to be happy, and we all want to avoid suffering. Even an insect will run away from something that is hurting it or threatening it. It is part of our nature to do so.

In order to get someplace. Anyplace. We must have three bits of knowledge. We must know, firstly, where we are. Secondly, we must know where it is, precisely, that we wish to go. Once we know these two things, we can begin to figure out how to get from one to the other.

A spiritual practice helps us to study and learn who and what we are. To discover our own inner truth. It may offer some guideline that may help us to discover where it is that we wish to be. And, in most cases, it helps us to figure out how to negotiate the world in order to get wherever it is that we are heading.

One of the greatest benefits of such a practice, Dying Practice included, is that we sharpen our perceptions, and we habitually seek out the truth; of whatever it is that we are confronting or engaging.

Falsehood, delusion, illusion, fantasy, lies, deceit, and other assorted facets of bullshit and fuckery are confusing to us in the best case, causing us to chase our tails, waste time, and become disoriented... and in the worst case, they result in wasted, unhappy, and perhaps harmful, toxic lives that bring only pain and suffering to the one whose life it is... and to everyone and everything with whom they come into contact.

These people end up being shunned and disliked by others, rather than loved... and it only gets worse.

The truth is that we all share the same sacred underpinnings of life, and silence, and consciousness... and only compassion, tolerance, and kindness can break through and access the true nature of the person that is hidden beneath all of the layers of pain, hurt, sadness, and other afflictive emotions that have built up as a result of living an inauthentic and delusive lifestyle.

So. I have rambled on about 'authenticity' and the living of 'an authentic life'. But, what does this mean? How can you possibly live an authentic life if you aren't sure what an authentic life is comprised of? And if you were to pose such a question, it would be a fair and appropriate one.

I will list ten facets of an authentic life below, but please be aware that this is in no way a complete or exhaustive all-encompassing and 'correct' answer. We each live our own life, we are all slightly different in our definition of purpose, happiness, and many other things... and so this is a highly personal and subjective thing. This list therefore only poses a guide. A fairly accurate guide... but, a guide nonetheless. Enjoy!

1. Discover a Purpose for your life. What is your path? We mostly inject meaning into our own lives, and it is very important that we do so! Are you wandering through life with little direction – hoping that you’ll find happiness, health and prosperity? Or, hoping that it will somehow find you?! Identify your life purpose or and you will have your own unique compass that will help to keep you moving in the proper direction even when it is difficult to discern.

2. Identify your values. What do you value most? Some examples are kindness, honesty, integrity, security, freedom, family, spiritual development, learning, etc. As you set goals for your life and your immediate future – check your goals against your values. If the goal doesn’t align with any of your values – you may want to reconsider it or revise it. Every breath offers a choice - Do you act within the boundaries of your values? Or do you violate them? What are you going to do? In order to answer this question, it is important to be cognizant of what, precisely, it is that you value, and what kind of person you wish to be.

3. Identify your needs. Unmet needs can keep you from living authentically. Grandiose or unrealistic perceptions of your needs cause suffering. It is important to find a 'Middle Way' between the extreme of self-denial, and self-indulgence. Take care of yourself. Do you have a need to be acknowledged, to be right, to be in control, to be loved? Honestly determine your needs and take action to see that you are able to meet them! Take care to identify only NEEDS.. as opposed to wants, wishes, hopes, or desires. They are not the same thing.

4. Know your passion. Honor those things that make your heart sing and your spirit fly. Bring your passion into the world in whatever form it takes. Arrange your life so that you will have the time and the ability to pursue this passion. Whatever it is, do more of it!

5. Live from the inside out. Increase your awareness of your inner wisdom by regularly reflecting and contemplating in silence. Commune with nature. Breathe deeply to quiet your distracted mind. Walk gently upon the earth, and plant kisses of peace and tranquility with each step, rather than stomping around in urgency and strife. Walk in harmony and beauty each moment of each day.. and remember that you carry the seeds of this harmony and beauty within you.

6. Honor your strength. What are your positive traits? What special talents do you have? Are you imaginative, witty, good with your hands? Find ways to express your authentic self through your strengths. Each of us has untapped strengh within us. It is a matter of choosing to find it and to put it into practice. You are the one with sole responsibility for your life, and for your well being. So, no matter *what* you do; stand up straight, on your own two feet, be courageous, give it all that you have got, every time, do the best that you can, never quit, and be a lamp unto yourself. Don't believe anything that you are told, or anything that you read until you have experienced it first hand, compared it to your own personal experience and wisdom, and have lived it FIRSTHAND. Don't ever be afraid to give. This is true strength.

7. Take time to play. Give yourself time to recharge doing things you love to do or by just doing nothing. When you breathe, you must both breathe in *and* breathe out. Study your breath... try to find the exact moment when the inbreath becomes the outbreath, and vice-versa... and realize that life is a never ending stream... it doesn't wait... it won't slow down for you. So, you must take the time for play... work it into your day. You are responsible for caring for yourself and for your own happiness and well being.

8. Be aware of your self-talk. Are you blocking your potential? Choose the kind of chatter that’s goes on in your mind. Become aware of the negative messages you give yourself. Gently catch them and turn them into positive affirmations. Thoughts will arise and they will fade... incessantly.... be mindful of your thoughts and responses. Thoughts are just thoughts... like bubbles... you cannot weigh one... you cannot touch one. Watch your mind, study it, learn how it works. When you discover thoughts that are self-defeating... gently set them down and turn your thoughts in more positive directions. Repeat as necessary!

9. Surround yourself with inspiration. Keep a journal. Create an altar or other sacred space where you live, work, or play. Place things that inspire you in this place. Make it a habit to visit this spot on a daily basis and reflect upon the things that these objects symbolize. Find ways to bring this inspiration into being in your life. Do something... even if it is small. No great thing is comprised of only a great thing... but of many small and seemingly inconsequential things. Allow your inspiration to direct you and to goad you into action!

10. Serve others. When you live authentically, you may find that you develop an interconnected sense of being. When you are true to who you are, living your purpose and giving of your talents to the world around you, you give back in service what you came to share with others. Never be afraid to give. In small ways, in big ways, in any way possible. If you have nothing to give materially, give of your attention and your time. Find some small thing that you *can* do... and just do it!

How long is your life? Can you stretch it? How much time do you have left? Can you afford to not live authentically? Can you?

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