Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on October 15, 2017.
There is a story of a Sufi master who was known for his open heart and mind. He died in the fullness of time and found himself at the gates of heaven. An angel challenged him, saying, “Go no further O mortal, until you have proven that you are worthy to enter this paradise.” The Sufi master countered, “just a minute, first, can you prove this is really heaven and not the wishful fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?” Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gate shouted, “let him in, he’s one of us.”
This story works on more than one level. It doesn’t have to be about dying and going to heaven. The story can suggest being open to life and challenging our perceptions at the same time. Any good story or myth can work at many levels.
For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide to helping the recently deceased navigate through the confusion of death into their new birth. But that’s not all. It’s also a ceremonial way to grieve. And it’s intended to instruct anyone who gets stuck in the Bardo. The Bardo is a sticky place where outdated or maladaptive patterns delay transition.
The Bardo described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is the mythical place between lives where challenges can delay our journey into the next life. The Bardo is a bit like the Catholic Purgatory, except that we are encouraged to use skillful means to more easily navigate through our unfinished business and whatever nightmares have persisted. The Bardo is a state of confusion experienced in the midst of transitions.
Used as a guiding myth, the Bardo is that stuck-state of confusion that we might experience during this life. The goal is to move through difficulty using skillful means, seek insight into unnecessary suffering, and seek renewal.
Transition is the movement from where we were, to where we are. We experience daily transitions from day to night and night to day, from work to rest and rest to work. I can remember coming home from work and feeling that my job was still stuck to me. The challenge was to transition into my at-home self by not acting out the burdens of work, by letting it go. Some people have rituals of transition, such as changing out of work clothes into more informal at-home clothes, or shifting focus to an at-home project, person, or pet.
We also come into a state of transition whenever the old life has come full circle and a new beginning is appropriate. Moving through transition may involve letting go of an old story that no is longer serving us. Or, we may find ourselves in transition when our life is changing and we need time or space to catch up.
Then there are seasonal transitions. Spring is the time for new seeds and renewed growth. Summer is the time of turning light into food. Fall is the season of harvest. And winter is the time when the earth rests in stillness, preparing for the next cycle of life.
Now we are well into fall, a time for harvest and preparing for winter. We can feel change in the wind. Falling leaves remind us of impermanence. When we are aware of impermanence we tend to move more smoothly through the transitions of our life, letting go and allowing ourselves to experience the present.
Before exploring impermanence, I’d like to tell few jokes.
Three elderly men are sitting together and discussing what they want their family and friends to say when they are lying in their casket at their funeral.
The first man says, “I want them to say I was a great father and a great friend. I want them to say I could always be counted on.”
The second guy says, “I just want them to talk about how much I changed the world, and how I left it a better place.”
The third man says “I want them to look right at me and say: ‘Look! He’s moving!‘”
I’m going to tell another joke in order to delay the bare truth about impermanence.
A new business was opening and one of the owner’s friends wanted to send him flowers for the occasion.
They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, “Rest in Peace.”
The owner was angry and called the florist to complain.
After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist replied, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, you should imagine this… somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, ‘Congratulation on your new location.”’
Humor is a nice way to ease into the topic of impermanence.
Here’s the bare truth that many in our culture try to avoid, or grant as something that happens to others but not themselves. Eventually, if we live long enough, we lose everything – money, power, fame, success, perhaps even our memories. Our looks will diminish. Loved ones will die. Our body will sag in non-Olympian fashion, and slowly feel like it’s coming unglued. Everything that seems permanent is in truth impermanent and subject to loss. Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. The bare truth is not a subject of morbid obsession, but an honest tool to motivate us to wake up. Waking up means seeing this life with clarity. Impermanence can inform our choices, so that we focus on what’s really important. When we stop taking our time for granted we are more likely to appreciate the shine in each moment. When we realize that we really don’t have forever, our priorities can shift to match what is truly most important.
Beyond the bare truth is sacred ground.
Because right now, in this very moment, you stand on sacred ground, for that which will be lost in the future has not yet been lost right now. Realizing this simple thing is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you.
The universal law of impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heart-breaking gratitude.
A traveler was passing through town when he came upon a huge funeral procession. The Sufi sacred fool, Nasrudin, was on a corner watching the people pass by.
“Who died?” the traveler asked Nasrudin.
“I’m not sure,” replied Nasrudin, “but I think it’s the one in the coffin.”
When I hear that story, I wonder if maybe the wrong question is asked – a bit like asking what someone does for a living, as if that alone would define them as a person. There are questions that can open us to the mystery of a person’s life and death. There may be opportunities to share what it means to be human. Perhaps more important than trying to script the perfect question is to become more open to the invitations that living and dying present.
Here’s a long quote from a book called The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski, who was the co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project.
Life and death are a package deal. You can’t pull them apart. Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don’t have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve sat on the precipice of death with a few thousand people. Some come to the end of their deaths full of disappointment. Others blossom and step through that door full of wonder. What made the difference was a willingness to gradually live into the deeper dimensions of what it means to be human. All of them were my teachers. These people invited me into their most vulnerable moments. In the process, they taught me how to live.
The five invitations are my attempts to honor the lessons I have learned sitting bedside with so many dying patients. They are five mutually supportive principles, permeated with love. An invitation is a request to participate in an event. The event is your life. End quote.
- Don’t wait: Don’t wait isn’t a scramble to complete our bucket list. The invitationis to attend to what’s essential in our lives. Every momentis a doorway to possibility, an opportunity to express the mystery of being alive. Every moment is a doorway to change. Nothing is permanent. This idea can both frighten and inspire us. Can we be inspired to arrange our priorities so that our time feels open and full? Can we act with courage when standing on sacred ground? Can we let go of what is not essential? Can we learn to stop holding our opinions, desires, and even our own identities so tightly?
When we realize that our time is precious, we might say, “I love you” more often. We become kinder, more compassionate, and more forgiving.
- Welcome everything, push away nothing: Welcome everything, push away nothing begins with learning to welcome changing conditions and moving beyond our preferences. It’s about acceptance, the ability to turn toward you’re suffering with awareness.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that we have to like everything. It doesn’t mean that we stop standing up for important issues in the world. It doesn’t mean we stop setting appropriate boundaries. It means that we are willing to meet with the circumstances of our lives and learn from them. It means that we are willing to see and to meet what comes to our door, hopefully with insight and compassion.
We don’t know what’s going to be the thing that wakes us up. To welcome everything becomes becomes an act of love. Carl Rogers states: the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
- Bring your whole self to the experience: Maybe you’ve heard the expression: don’t be a role, be a soul. In other words, try to be authentic. Sometimes it might be more comfortable to shield ourselves from witnessing painful experiences. Health practitioners do this, they might become the persona of their role. We may sometimes need to defend ourselves from the onslaught of suffering, but if it becomes a habit we will not be able to bring our whole self to an experience.
Bringing our whole self means that we’re willing to be human, with human vulnerabilities. Our vulnerabilities are a window into suffering and a door to compassion. When we recognize our own suffering and treat it with kindness, it becomes easier to recognize that same suffering in others and feel instinctive compassion.
- Find a place of rest in the middle of things: Do we need to be sick or hobbled to slow down? Cultivate healthy ways to take a time-out from a taxing schedule before you burnout your resources. Try to find moments of ease or well being throughout your day.
We often think of rest as something that will come to us when everything else in our lives is complete: At the end of the day, at the end of the week, or on holiday. But rest is something that happens in the space between actions, in a moment of pause or recognition. Discover what sanctuaries or practices nourish you. If you can pause, and become conscious of your pause, you will feel your spirit returning.
Become more intimate with whatever attracts or requires your attention. With intimacy, pay attention to the rhythms of your experience — requirements to speed up and opportunities to slow down. With intimacy, pay attention to what you are doing, and let it go when that activity is done for now. Becoming more intimate with your life you may discover love and kindness while in the middle of things.
Throughout each day, take timeouts to check in with yourself. If you can’t slow down, perhaps you can hurry more slowly, finding calm in a flurry.
- Cultivate Don’t Know Mind: This one is very Zen, so here’s a Zen story. The master asks the disciple, “Do you understand Zen?” The disciple timidly replies, “No master, I do not.” Then the master says, “Neither do I.” The master is comfortable knowing that he can’t conceptually understand Mystery.
Don’t know mind is the same as beginner’s mind – the mind that is open to new knowledge or experience. The expert may think they know it all, whereas the beginner knows they have much to learn. There’s a saying: a mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it isn’t open.
Don’t know mind is the mind that is open, the mind that helps us to navigate an ever-changing world. Don’t know mind helps us to bridge differences – to have insight into the experience of another, and to allow differences.
When our heart/mind is open we escape from the contracted self. Then, we may discover that the world is sacred. Don’t know mind stays open to the wonders, Beauty, and innocence that are possible in life.
Even cultivating one of these invitations could enliven a life.
So let’s take a moment to contemplate the first invitation: don’t wait. Remember, don’t wait isn’t about a bucket list or material possessions. It’s about expressing the essential qualities of being human. It’s about nurturing relationships. It’s about discovering unexpressed potential, our gifts to Life.
What might you do differently if you only had a year to live, or if someone important to you only had a year to live. How might you arrange your priorities so that your time feels open and full. What would it be like to be separated from those we love? What would it be like to express your unique talents, with love?
Don’t wait. At the sound of the bell I invite you to contemplate how impermanence can inform your choices. For the next minute, eyes open or closed, I invite you to explore how you might sweep away unnecessary distraction and make room for what is essential — nurturing the gifts of life, love, forgiveness, and compassion. Or, just relax if you’d like.
Bell: With discerning kindness, contemplate how impermanence can inform your choices. If you, or a loved one, had a year to live, how might that inform your time together?
How can you clear away distraction to make room for what is essential in your life? What qualities of life should not be ignored? End Bell
A hospice doctor, Ira Byock, wrote a book about the four things that matter most to people who are dying. These four things can be summed up in the four phrases: ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’. At the end of the day, these might be the most powerful things we that we can say to each other. Why wait for the end of the day?
I’d like to end with a very short quote by Mary Oliver
“So every day [everyday]
I was surrounded by the beautiful crying forth
of the ideas of God,
one of which is you.”
Thank you for your kind attention