Yet, in mainstream society today, it seems that most of us assiduously avoid bringing that aspect of the journey into the our awareness. Until our boat (or that of a loved one) is about to sink, we don't seem to want to rock that boat -- and face that sinking feeling that may emerge. Yet, at a fundamental level, it seems to me that until we do, we will not be able to engage our lives fully and directly with an open heart and clear mind.
Buddhism makes no bones about it. In the Theravadan tradition, Asian teachers still cite the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Canon and send monks off to meditate on corpses at the charnel grounds. That may be a bit hard core for Western practitioners who, unlike their Asian counterparts, are generally shielded from the reality of death and dying. Yet, even the Mahayana traditions that practice here in the West call for some focus on death. A recognition of the inescapability of death is one of the Four Reminders in the preliminary contemplations seen as necessary to begin the Lojong Trainings of Tibetan Buddhism, and is one of the Five Remembrances chanted regularly in Zen services.
So what is the deal here? Why is an awareness of our inevitable demise so important?
I think we can turn to the Shaman Don Juan as chronicled by Carlos Casteneda years ago for one insight. Advising Castenada to keep an awareness of the presence of death accessible all times (over his left shoulder, in fact,) he went on to say, "An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you. " If you truly embrace the magnitude of death, accepting the absolute finitude of our lives, the exquisite preciousness and importance of each moment becomes clear. The present moment is our only opportunity to get real. It's the only place we can bring to life that which we most value.
That's the Deal.
In each moment, we can choose to open our hearts, relax our grasping (and the tightness in our jaw) and turn to face our lives with as much kindness, care, compassion and skill as we can muster -- or not. As we take on the Practice, we come to see that it takes time and commitment to actually be aware of -- and let go of -- the layers of armor that surround our heart. Conditioned as we are in a world where support for Love (as opposed to romantic desire) is in short supply, we have all tended to shield ourselves from actually feeling the tender vulnerability and accepting spaciousness that resides in our heart of hearts. We've learned to toughen ourselves, again and again. Then the congealed fears, judgments, and graspings of a lifetime, like ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, operate to protect us from actually experiencing our connection to the One Love in which we are immersed.
If we take the time to actually feel our hearts, if we make the commitment to explore our own moment to moment experience with courage, curiosity, gentleness -- and patience, we will have the opportunity to see directly that our lives, as fragile and finite as they may be, are our direct link to the incredible majesty and infinite miracle of Life itself. Face to face with an ineffable but undeniable Presence, we realize that although who we think we are will certainly die, who we are actually shines on throughout space and time.
It just takes Practice.
Oh yeah. Happy Hallowe'en!