Does Conscious Living Lead to Conscious Dying?

05/29/2014 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014


There is a story told about a Zen master who, on his deathbed, handed his death poem to one of his disciples, then promptly sat up and yelled, "I don't want to die!" before falling back on his pallet and expiring. Now, on the face of it, this seems like a wasted life -- a Zen master who clings to his life at the moment of his death. Or, is it the final koan of a great teacher, leaving his students to wrestle with the paradox of one hand clapping?

One of the more fascinating aspects of human nature is our unswerving belief that we are immortal. This is likely due in part to something called an optimism bias, where we consider the negative experiences of others and see ourselves as less likely to have the same outcome. Roll in a bit of good old-fashioned denial and the prospects of living forever seem pretty good. The one problem with that perspective is the house always wins.

This, then, leads us to something of a conundrum. We hear a great deal lately about mindfulness and being present. If we are, however, in a fair state of denial about our imminent demise, are we then wholly present in our lives? Moreover, if we set our intention to be fully present in this moment, are we not setting ourselves up to ignore -- or at least avoid the thought of -- the inevitable, again undermining our presence?

Conundrum number two: How do we stay in the present moment and simultaneously maintain an awareness of a future event so as to have our experience of the present be complete? Simple: We live backwards in time, which is a notion Deepak Chopra introduced in his book The Way of the Wizard.

The essence of this teaching is that living in the here and now as if it were the future provides us with the opportunity to be fully present. Maintaining an acute awareness of our own impermanence as material beings allows us to live every moment as if it were our last and, in doing so, we get to squeeze the juice out of each and every one.

This leads us back to the inscrutable wisdom of our hapless Zen master. The sound of one hand clapping is silence, or, more properly, emptiness. It is not the bowl that is useful, but, rather, the hollow of the bowl that makes it so. It is not the doorway that is useful, but rather the space of the doorway that allows us to pass from room to room that makes it so.

With his outburst, our Zen master acknowledges his utter humanity -- all that he is. This is balanced against a life of understanding all that he is not. So what appears to be a moment of undoing is actually a moment of completion, revealing a wholeness and presence poised between what we are and what we are not.

Bringing this kind of awareness and balance into our every day practice, whether it be mindfulness, meditation, martial arts, yoga, or even just a simple heightened attention to the activities of our daily lives, we then come to a place where we are no longer living a half-conscious life, but a whole life. We become both the hand, and the silence.

© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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Photo: Phra Ajan Jerapunyo, Abbot of Watkungtaphao, Thailand by Tevaprapas