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The Sacred Art of Living and Dying

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Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. --Anonymous

I was six years old and it was the first time I saw Nothing. One day, there was a long stretch of seasons spent in the embrace of the giant willow at the center of the world, its perfect cupola of weeping branches arcing from the sky back to the ground-- And the next day a midnight storm of the kind you get in rural Ohio had dropped a thunderbolt of the kind only a Norse god could throw so accurately at the base of the willow, blowing it into several million tears. I was six years old, stepping out the back door to see the vast fluttering presence of the willow only to find shocking emptiness. I could see the outbuilding and hills from the doorstep that had always been hidden by the tree. I could see the horizon and sky that had always been obscured by the tree. I could see the incomprehensible empty space that had all my life been filled by the tree that had always been my second home. I could see Nothing. The moment is still vivid more than half a century later. I remember precisely what I felt. It wasn't sadness. Or anger. Or grief. Or even confusion. It was awe. As great as the giant weeping willow was, as intimate a part it had played in my life, as much as I loved it, there existed something far greater, something suddenly far more intimate, something new I loved far more. For the first time in my life, I had encountered the invisible and utterly unforeseeable power to change things forever. And it looked exactly like Nothing. What I experienced was a moment of profound clarity: I was witnessing the greatest magic act of all time. The world I had always counted on to be solid and predictable and nameable was transformed in that moment into a world of unknown causes and dreamlike effects. The reassuring world of parents and family and school was suddenly replaced by an even more reassuring world of invisible doors just waiting to open and let some miracle through. And despite its physical presence, the only name that seemed fitting for this unnamable absence was Nothing. Not because it is "nothingness" but because it is "no-thing", something so real and yet utterly impossible to turn into a "thing", a word, a concept, a description of an ineffable experience.

Nothing is more real than Nothing. --Samuel Beckett


I see this Nothing, too, when I travel to another country whose culture is so different than the one I am used to here in the U.S. I step into another culture for a month, say in Mexico as I did recently, and I come face to face with the physical absence of my familiar world. But it runs deeper than that because I can't help changing as I am immersed in the language, customs and worldview. As I adapt to my new surroundings and respond to people as they respond to me, I come face to face with the psychological absence of my familiar sense of self. Even the inner world of this supposedly solid and continuous sense of I, therefore, proves no more substantial than a veil ready to part and let in a different I that is no less real or authentic than the one it replaces.

And I see Nothing in death.

Seven years ago, I had a massive heart attack while in the emergency room and was fortunate enough to be revived after being dead for two minutes. As with many others, it was a life-changing event.

How natural that has come to sound: death is a life-changing event.

Medical science has advanced to the point that it is pulling more and more of us back through death's door, creating an entire new subculture of revenants whose experiences reinforce and amplify those of the age-old mystical traditions. Religious authorities and lifelong practitioners of spiritual disciplines increasingly find themselves on equal footing with a growing cadre of those with first-hand experience of the transcendental.

In my previous post, I spoke about A Lifeway of Flower and Song, which presented the ancient Mesoamerican worldview of deep appreciation for all life as both sacred and dying. I'd like to follow that up here with a brief contemplation on the need to turn that awareness around and see ourselves as both sacred and dying.

How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back? --Chuang Tzu

While there is no point trying to find a new name for this Nothing we encounter, we can keep in mind that it has long been called things like mind, essence, spirit, soul, and so on--concepts that universally point at something experienced that cannot be destroyed by the death of the body. And we can keep in mind that the first-hand experience of it has for ages so changed people's perceptions within the space of a single indescribable instant that their behavior and attitudes were permanently and radically transformed, as if their lifelong personality was brushed aside to reveal some hitherto unsuspected core personality. And, furthermore, it's worth recalling that such transformations are for the better, leaving us with a more patient, loving, and content human being. What was your original face before your parents met? asks a Zen koan. Likewise, Chuang Tzu asks us to suspend belief in conventional wisdom and the consensual reality of the five senses. And he asks this question a couple thousand years ago, before we had instruments sensitive enough to discern the subatomic realm of quantum physics: we still see matter as solid even though our minds know it is mostly empty space occupied by the occasional energy wave behaving in the most unintelligible manner. Yet here we are, not only mysteries to ourselves, but aware of the mystery within which we find ourselves. And the only beings we know of that are aware of their own mortality. That's something worth contemplating: of all the things in the plant, mineral, and animal kingdoms, we alone are aware of our inevitable death. Why should things be arranged so? And why, if we alone are so aware, why do we spend so little conscious time thinking about it? To the contrary, as we all know, we spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to repress exactly that awareness.

Of all mindfulness meditations,
That on death is supreme.
--Buddha


To think about my death is to contemplate the end of all my attachments. Whether that means things I love or dislike, it drives home the ephemeral nature of my relationship to the world. It makes me question just how important many of the things in my life are. Death, in other words, clarifies my feelings by revealing the truly important things in my life, allowing me to concentrate my energies on what is truly valuable. And let go all the rest.

The thing to do when you're impatient....is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. --Don Juan to Carlos Castaneda


Death helps us stop trivializing our lives. Treating it as a real physical presence that is with us always allows us to let all the meaningless nonsense pass without raising a ripple--and reminds us to treat each moment as if it were our last. It is not just that everything else is passing away before my eyes--so too is my own life, and that awareness drives me to make the most of every moment.

Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. --Norman Cousins

Who of us has not witnessed the wide-open gaze of an infant's wonder and joy--only to see that same child five or 10 years later, the light of delight and astonishment gone from their eyes? Is there any real justification for our open-hearted innocence and curiosity to be buried beneath a social veneer of self-interest and competition? What will it take for us to create a civilization that treats the true self arising from childhood as sacred? What will it take for us to recognize that this artificial self of big-fish-eat-little-fish, dog-eat-dog is a trivialization and waste of human life?

Being and Nothing give birth to one another. --Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Of course, a strong positive balance of attending to life and death makes the most sense. The problem is that we are decidedly out of balance today, ignoring the good advice of mystics and philosophers and spiritual adepts and great artists by trying to consciously avoid contemplating our own death with real sincerity and curiosity. Paradoxically, letting go of life allows us to appreciate it more deeply!

While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die. --Leonardo da Vinci

This quote by da Vinci resonates most strongly with me. I found that the spiritual studies I had undertaken for most of my life were actually preparing me for the moment of dying. Living as if one is holding the reins lightly in hand, holding all things as sacred but no more sacred than one's own heart, throwing oneself into the moment fully, even the moment of dying--all this made it possible for me to stay conscious, reverent and joyous as I moved from life to death and back to life. From where I stand today, it seems that the art of living and the art of dying are indeed the same thing.

Death is just infinity closing in. --Jorge Luis Borges


Chuang Tzu called it the Beyond when he said, Leap into the Beyond and make it your home! just as Beckett called it Nothing and Borges called it Infinity. Whatever name we choose to give it, it surrounds us on all sides, bringing us into this world and taking us back again without our knowing where or when. The art of living consists, in large measure, of seeing each moment as the site of our dying. In this way, we experience each moment as a springboard into the Beyond, a set of circumstances that, paradoxically, can be let go of more easily even as its meaningfulness impacts us more profoundly: gratitude is the first gate, gratitude is the last gate and gratitude is every gate between.

Today I wander round a pond in a wildlife preserve. The cacophony of hundreds of Canadian geese honking from their nest sites is nearly deafening. Red-wing blackbirds flit between cottonwoods and blackberry vines. A pair of green-wing teals drift to shore, sifting the mud expertly for breakfast. A great blue heron glides by, dragging one foot across the surface of the mirror pond.

I am six years old again and the world has become a weeping willow My second home. And it constantly blinks in and out of sight, the greatest magic act of all time: now you see it and now you don't, an awe-inspiring Nothing of invisible doors just waiting to open and let some miracle through.

~

I am deeply gratified that The Toltec I Ching has been selected a Silver Winner of the 2010 Nautilus Book Awards. My deepest gratitude extends to my co-author, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and our enlightened publishers, Larson Publications.

The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Click here to go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.

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