Contemplating death and impermanence
– All that arises passes away –
Out here in nature the great secret is revealed all the time. Out here, death is not concealed and swept under the rug. What dies here in this dry environment doesn’t quickly blend into the invisible background of coming and going. The lifeless structure, the empty shell of a body remains for a long time, telling brutal, wonderful, ordinary stories of the great mystery called Life.
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We think of life and death as opposites, life as what happens now and death as something that will happen at the end of the road – preferably a long road. For most of us it seems unnecessary, even life devaluing, to be aware of death all the time.
It is really only our Self that is afraid of death. It knows darn well that in the moment of death all its life-long efforts to exist will have been in vain. We seem to do everything we can to keep death out of our awareness. We put almost all of our energy into acquisition – acquisition of knowledge, prestige, admirers, friends, lovers, and most of all material possessions. We think that we want these things for themselves, but we are really using them to continuously create and enhance our sense of Self. We believe that this life of acquisition will shield us from the fundamental realities of aging and death. “Our things” become who we think we are. Although this phenomenon of perpetually creating Self seems objectively helpful to improve our chances to survive, it still is devastating to our ability to find happiness. In our culture life is too often viewed as something possessed, won, or deserved; it’s not really lived. Life appears only as a means to live.
By living in fear of losing our lives we easily miss out on the most crucial aspects of being alive. We may eventually confuse living with surviving. The truth is we are not really living in the sense of having individual lives, we are life. ‘We are not the stones over which the stream of the world flows; we are the stream itself‘. We are Life taking place, happening in a form that contains the amazing illusion to be individual, unique, and self. Only by living fearlessly in full view of death – not in the shadow but in the light of death – do we begin to be realistic about life, only when we never forget a few apparently hard rules of life, the most basic facts of our existence:
Consequences are unavoidable: We are helplessly embedded in an “unknowably” complex web of cause and effect, a mysterious law that appears absolutely merciless and incorruptibly fair at the same time. We are the free authors of our future but at the same time irrevocably the heirs of past actions. We are utterly free, but nobody ever gets away with anything. Absolutely no exceptions!
Loss is unavoidable: To have even the dearest thing is only one half of the story, the other half – inseparably, unnegotiably connected – is: losing it again. In the midst of pleasure and joy we must know its impermanence.
Illness is unavoidable. Aging is unavoidable: We inhale and then exhale – we can’t have only inhalations.
Death is unavoidable and final: All that arises passes away.
These are not exactly the most cheerful facts of life, and there are plenty of others, but they may be the most challenging ones. We all know these facts and know death, but we often waste most of our lifetime rebelling and denying them. We are slaves to the habit of confusing our desire to live with the experience of life. Death is not the opposite of life, it’s the end of it and therefore a part of life as essential as birth.
To live with these rules, to live in the presence of death means to look at life as a serious matter, I believe, a matter of life and death; not at all in a scary way, but from the perspective that we are always at risk, in every moment, for missing what is deepest and richest in our lives, what is ultimately true. Material benefits of this world are fleeting, and clinging to them causes suffering; one must look to a deeper source for happiness. The profound sense of urgency that rings in these rules is the message to wake up and take life seriously. When we disregard these rules we are simply unrealistic about life, we are naïve, irresponsible, and ignorant.
To really live is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.
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Live your life as if every day might be your last one, is a commonly praised attitude. It calls forth the awareness of the present moment, however, such sense of urgency can also lead to mistaken carelessness, to restlessness and evasion.
It was the unhappy deep thinker Nietzsche who suggested: We should live every moment of our lives as though we were sentenced to repeat it over and over, for all eternity. This would certainly sharpen your attention and cultivate a sense of mindfulness, but it sure has a heavy, gloomy taste to it.
Victor Frankl, the guy who found enlightenment in the hell of the holocaust, said: Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now. This has a more constructive, kinder ring to it.
However, these are all just ideas. It all depends on how and when you apply them.
And the only time to apply them is right now.
To keep death in sight, to keep the simple truth of impermanence in view makes every ordinary day extraordinary.
* * *
I see drops
on the deck,
staying there for a while,
and rolling off,
merging with the ocean again.
The osprey circling above us for a while
suddenly swoops down,
splashes into the water,
and flies off
with something silvery
flapping in his claws.
A drama of beauty and death,
over in seconds.
I see Old Blue the heron
standing in silence,
lidless, unblinking, passionless,
looking at nothing but seeing everything,
his omniscient eyes
giving away nothing.
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Klaus Jan. 10. 2010