I am 5 years old, lying in bed at night, remembering what we learned in school about volcanoes, about earthquakes. My mother tries to re-assure me: there are no volcanoes in Pennsylvania. I tell her I am afraid of earthquakes. She tells me earthquakes only happen in California. This doesn't help. I am afraid of dying.
I am 24 years old. I am in California, I moved here to attend seminary because I still don't understand how to live knowing that I will die. I had thought that maybe if I spent a few years studying the wisdom of the world religions I might finally understand this mystery; I might finally find some peace. The Bay Bridge has only recently been repaired from the Loma Prieta earthquake when the top level collapsed onto the bottom level, killing those trapped on the bridge at that unlucky moment. I white knuckle my way across the bridge at least once week. I am afraid of death.
I enroll in a Buddhism class without knowing what a good idea this is -- to start my inquiry with a tradition that looks directly in the face of death. I mean this figuratively, but also literally. Our teacher is a Theravadan monk, and our textbooks are not from American Buddhism, but Buddhism as it is practiced Malaysia. In that land when a person dies, the professor Bhanti explains, they are not buried under ground, but laid out to decompose. We read in our text Buddhist Meditation: In theory and practice about the Asubha Bhavana, a meditation on the ten stages of the decay of the body after death. The text explains in great detail the preparations leading up to the meditation, and the many things that should be noted during the meditation on a dead body decaying in the graveyard. I am shocked.
I don't, actually, meditate on a corpse, but I do imagine what it would be like not to jerk my eyes away when I see a squirrel lying on the ground. What if I could just breathe, in and out? What if I could cross the Bay Bridge, knowing that earthquakes do happen here, and that bridges do collapse, and I could just breathe. I encourage myself not to run away from the idea, I don't push it away but I allow it to be present, and then without grasping let it fade. I develop the habit of mind of looking at my fears as unflinchingly as I can. It makes me feel braver.
I take the required systematic theology class, and have the good fortune of studying with Bob Kimball, who is a very wise man and who exposed me to the writings of his teacher, the Theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich says that there is only really one source of anxiety, and that is the anxiety of non-being. “The ontological question, the question of being-itself, arises in something like a “metaphysical shock” – the shock of possible nonbeing.’ (Systematic Theology p. 163) I recognize that metaphysical shock from when I was a little girl with anxiety- induced insomnia. Tillich writes “Finitude in awareness is anxiety…” We attach that anxiety to real things, like earthquakes or volcanoes and they become fears, but really at the root is this anxiety of non-being. “A danger, a pain, an enemy, maybe feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent” (p. 191) And finally I understand why as I tossed and turned grappling with my own non-being when I was just a little girl my mother couldn't comfort me.
And what is it that does assuage this anxiety? Courage, the “Courage to be." How do we find the courage to be, knowing that our lives are finite? Tillich uses an “ontological argument” which means that if we can conceive it, it must exist; Because we can imagine the courage, it already exists in us.
Tillich writes “In order to experience his finitude, man must look at himself from the point of view of a potential infinity. In order to be aware of moving toward death, man must look out over his finite being as a whole; he must in some way be beyond it.” Tillich’s language is difficult, and I slog through even the smallest reading assignments. But Prof. Kimball is patient, and passionate about the power of Tillich’s work, and I challenge him and challenge him across his desk during our seminar which gathers weekly in a small circle in his office. Some courage begins to grow in me.
I am researching a paper and I read these words by the psychologist Erich Fromm, and copy them into my journal: “The common suffering is… the awareness that life runs out of one’s hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived.” This is it; my greatest fear here in this book. Finally I understand what I have to do. I have to live. I have to live passionately, creatively, vibrantly right now, living a life so full that when it comes time to die it will have been enough.
This is the heart of what I want to talk to you about today. I believe that whenever we realize that we are mortal, whether it is because of something scary the doctor finds during routine tests, or just because the reality of our fragility comes fully to mind, it changes how we see our lives. It changes what seems important and what seems urgent.
So I want to invite you to join me in a moment of meditation. This meditation is by our dear Thich Nhat Hanh meditation from Blooming of the lotus
(Exercise 10 p. 50-51)
When we dare to become present with our own impermanence, what thoughts rise? What is that comes to mind when you allow into your awareness the reality that each of us will die? That you yourself will die?
[pause for meditation]
What things in your life surge to importance when you look at your life from that vantage point? when you look back at your life today, as if there might be no tomorrow for you, what parts of your life are you most proud of? most grateful for?
[pause for meditation]
The next is a more difficult question- when you look back at your life as if from the end, are there things you feel are missing from your life? Lost opportunities or dreams? Some of these lost dreams that come to mind we can only grieve: if we turned away from a path we regret never taking, if we wish we had spent more time with a loved one who is now deceased. It is healing to take time to grieve these losses, these parts of our life that never were. To grieve and let go of that which will not be, even if that takes time and patience, lightens us for whatever is ahead.
The greatest gift of facing the reality of our death is that we can make choices about the time that remains for us. If you learned today that your remaining life had a discreet number of days, what would you do?
Would you reconcile with long lost friends or family?
Would you forgive or ask for forgiveness?
Would you finally live out an old dream- to hike the Appalachian trail, to go back to school and become a nurse?
[pause for meditation]
Now I am Forty-something, and it has been many years since I laid awake at night anxious about my non-being. I do, occasionally, face my own mortality, or more often I face the mortality of people I love so dearly that I know their death will leave a hole, a scar in my spirit.
Our state of mind when we face death is different than our ordinary state of mind. On any given day, our priorities may be to get to the grocery store, to finish a project at work, to finally clean out those gutters, to play bridge with friend. But death gives us a different perspective; it makes us think of life as a whole piece. It helps us clarify our values. Being present with our own mortality sometimes helps us let the dinner dishes sit if it means we can spend time in conversation with our family, it helps us take the time off work to see the sun set over the pacific. We put off raking the leaves to get our will in order, to make sure our family is taken care of after we are gone.
Buddha, the enlightened one, was once stopped on the road and asked by a man, "Sir, are you a god?"
"No." Said the Buddha.
"Are you a demigod then?" asked the man.
"No." replied Buddha.
"Then are you great man?" asked the passerby. "No." replied the Buddha again.
"Then what are you sir." The man final asked.
"I am the one who is awake." Replied Buddha as we went on his way.
The realization of our own death comes to us as a wake-up call. Sometimes it nudges us to be fully present to this very moment, even to our fears, because the more we are present the more we will know that we are really living. When we face death this precious moment, the way it is, fully lived by us is enough. Sometimes our fear tells us that we are afraid of dying un-reconciled, unfulfilled. When we face death we realize how lucky we are to still have time to reconcile, to connect, to fulfill our dreams. Death robs us of complacency, but shows us what it means to live.