"We never know which will come first:
Our next breath or our next life."
As Halloween, Dia de los Muertos and Samhain approach, and we in the Northern Hemisphere enter into the darkest time of the year, it is a perfect season for remembering, affirming and embodying the light of our true nature to aid us in honoring and learning from the darkness. In this blog post we are moved to explore these themes as a source of inspiration for how we may embrace the light, darkness, and mysteries of our lives with ever-deeper wisdom, compassion and wonder.
From the view of many of the world's great wisdom traditions, the notion of death in the sense of utter annihilation is an impossibility. A person who dies is no more regarded as having been annihilated than a person who has simply stepped out of one room and into another. Though one may wander unconsciously, compulsively driven by habit from room to room, moment to moment, or life to life, at the most fundamental level of every living being is a sublime continuum of consciousness or presence.
While many people associate such views with Eastern spiritual traditions, this view was also widely held in many Western traditions as well. In our research on the nature of human consciousness over the past 40 years, it is clear that there is no universally held or proven theory of the nature of consciousness. Considerable evidence suggests that the true nature and dimension of a human being is far more vast and mysterious than can be fully explained by the brain. Properly understood, consciousness is likely more like "the cloud" or the network, than the mere laptop we use to access it. As we begin to discover this continuum of being that we truly are, we glimpse a vastly expanded spectrum of possibilities encompassing conscious living and conscious dying.
Over the past 40 years, we have been fortunate to study with many revered wise elders from the world's great contemplative traditions and we've learn from them a myriad of perspectives and practices for embracing death with greater wisdom, realism, reverence and compassion.
Sufi teacher Pir Vilayat Khan would often remind us that, "If you learn to die before you die, then when you die you won't really die." In a very real sense this is what meditation is about, changing our view from a solid, separate, isolated person to a vivid sense of being a streaming, interdependent, radiant node of energy-information flow, pulsing in receiving and radiating in the vast web of life.
In some spiritual traditions, the practice of meditation is viewed as the supreme vehicle for developing a presence of mind subtle enough so that at the time of your death you can die consciously and can thus "navigate" and make choices as to the trajectory of your consciousness. It is taught that the primary training ground for being mindfully present at the time of death is to learn to be mindfully present, or lucid, in your dreams. The training ground for being mindful in your dreams is to develop greater mindfulness in the "waking dream" of your ordinary life. Properly understood, the practice of mindfulness is very deep and profound. As you become more present to what is going on within and around you, you will discover doorways to greater freedom in every realm and dimension of your being.
Here are a three ways to develop the mindfulness that you bring to investigating, understanding, embracing and transforming the complex, mysterious, subtle and sometimes unsettling experiences of your life. As you become more adept at these practices in your ordinary waking life, you'll be more likely to be able to bring them into the more subtle realms of your consciousness as well.
One practice is to anchor your mindfulness in being aware of your hands as you move through the many activities of your day. Notice what you are touching and the movements of your hands. Since so much of the brain is devoted to the hands, the hands are an excellent anchor point for your mindful awareness. Then if you are able to become lucid within a dream at night, be mindful of your hands within your dream and raise your hands to the sky.
Another practice is to be mindful of thoughts as the display of your mind's creative potential. When people tell us that they aren't very creative, we'll often ask "do you know how to worry?" Most people are quite adept at worrying, and as one of our Navajo teachers would often say, "Worryin' is just prayin' backwards." Learning to be mindful of how your creative mind manifests as waking dreams or mental stories is another powerful practice. As you learn to be more mindful of your thoughts as creative "stories" you can then begin to distinguish between self-sabotaging mental riffs, and patterns of thinking that are potentially more beneficial. One way to do this is to be mindful of your thinking and when you notice a thought that is not helpful, to say to yourself, "Ah, this is a story that doesn't need to happen." For example, if you are filled with fear about a medical test results, or concerned about how a presentation will be received, when you become mindful of those fears, say to yourself, "and this is a story that doesn't need to happen." Similarly, when your creative mind is projecting scenarios of thoughts that are more favorable or constructive, such as imagining a good response to your presentation or favorable test result, say to yourself "and this is a healing story." Developing these mindfulness skills can help you to develop greater confidence in managing your mind.
A third way to develop and deepen your mindfulness is by using the following formula:
Clear presence, embracing the flow of experience, with great compassion. To put this into practice, anchor and activate the sense of clear, mindful presence by reaching up and touching your heart, in a gesture of really being in touch with yourself and present in the moment. In a similar way, allow your mindfulness of the flow of sensations of your breathing to help you embrace whatever experiences -- thoughts, perceptions, emotions, mental images, etc. -- are arising and dissolving in the clear space of your awareness. Allow a gentle smile in your heart to hold the tone of great compassion as your clear presence embraces the flow of your experience. If mindfulness sometimes seems a bit dry, sterile, or hyper-objective, adding a smile to your mindfulness can help protect you from becoming too self-critical or judgmental, and keeps your heart more warm and open with a greater sense of mercy, compassion and curiosity.
With practice, these perspectives and meditations will develop your capacity to clearly observe and stay with any experience -- no matter how complex or scary it may be - -with a sense of open- heartedness and intuitive intelligence, rather than lapsing into overwhelm, confusion, or fear. Learning to meditate in this way can help open our hearts and minds to more fully embrace the joys, sorrows, gifts, griefs and mysteries of our lives with greater clarity, confidence and peace.