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Lessons From Life's Last Moments

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Recently I received the sad news that a college classmate had taken his own life. The occasion put me back in touch with my freshman-year roommate, and we had a nice exchange of e-mail notes. In one of them, he related something I said to him the day we graduated, which was the last day we saw each other. He wrote that I exhorted him to live so as to not regret having realized any passions or ambitions when the moment of death finally arrived, and that he thought often about this and had tried to live that way ever since.

I was more than a bit startled to hear that I had said such a thing all those years ago, all the more because I use this construct as a tool nearly every day in my life as a writer, teacher and coach. The way I express this idea now is to ask students to imagine that they have been hit by a bus and are lying on the hard tarmac with life leaking away. The sound of the siren is so distant it's obvious the ambulance will not arrive in time. Lying there, what can you think of that you wish you had done? Who do you wish you had spent your time with? Where do you wish you had traveled? What do you wish you had accomplished? The best answer, of course, is that the ache of unfulfilled dreams does not fill your heart and that you achieved all you wanted and experienced all you wished to. The lesson is to start doing as much as you can right now.

Taoist friends have suggested that there is too much driven, Western compulsivity to this model, which is sometimes expressed by the cliché question: "What would you like to see written on your tombstone?" The mind is ever capable of concocting new desires and longings, those in my spiritual cohort report, and new goals, new yearnings. Many of these inclinations are the result of weapons of mass distraction, surreal and superficial media portrayals of life as no flesh-and-blood human being lives it. At best such fantasies remove us from the here and now. At worst, they make us feel we are not really living. The Taoist model eschews such emotion, my friends tell me. Rather, it has us going with the flow in accordance with the Taoist term wu wei,, which is often, and incorrectly, construed to mean floating along as so much flotsam on the surface of the river of life, passive, non-judgmental and doing as little as possible.

As a Taoist monk, and one who has recently -- in an example, I suppose, of life imitating art -- "died" in an ambulance and been revived, I have a different interpretation. This interpretation speaks to the urge that I've had since childhood, an urge that the seekers among you out there no doubt share. The urge is to get to the bottom of life's mysteries, to live as fully and enthusiastically as possible, and to plumb the depths of our own psyches as a means of reaching an ever more profound understanding of the workings of the universe. There are various brands of religious doctrine that would have us believe that death answers all questions about the nature of human existence -- and, of course, what lies beyond -- but this is not the way of philosophical Taoism.

That way, that Way, is indeed wu wei, but not the mistaken vision of passive, non-interactive observation that has led some people to think of Taoists as dispassionate and lazy. Indeed, as Lao Tze -- the author of the Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism's primary texts -- would have us understand, wu wei is a description of the behavior of water. Water does not expend effort -- so indeed the notion of "pursuing" life is a bit too active a description -- but on the other hand water is also capable of generating tremendous, even overwhelming force, and of moving very swiftly indeed. It can, and does, cut through rock canyons and shape the face of the planet. The "version" of wu wei that I connect with living life in a satisfying way has much to do with following passion the way a river follows its bed. Please think about this for a minute. Follow your passions. Feel them as the very engine and pulse of life, those energies without which deathbed regrets are a certainty, and yet do so in a way that neither countervails the overall course of your life nor interferes with the lives of others.

Of course these last two are the rub. Finding your truest, deepest passion is not always easy, and is the object of many meditative and mind/body practices. More, identifying a way in which we can interact with others so as to serve both passion and compassion is often difficult too. It is a major tenet of Taoist thought that when we are unsure of a compassionate course, we are better off doing nothing at all; remember, doing nothing is often doing something.

Where does this leave us? Well, it certainly shows us that to live a fulfilled life we must be aware of the desire to do so, and make our best guess as to how. It leaves us eschewing nihilism and defeat (suicide too, or course) and embracing the challenge of imbuing what we do with meaning rather than trying to find meaning in what we do. This imbuing is at the core of wu wei, which relies on passion for the energy to live and move and act, but also requires the sensitivity to feel the contours of the riverbed below. Passion and meaning are thus intimately intertwined. Perhaps this can help us find a way to be satisfied upon encountering the last few moments of life.