Almost Unbearable

We are all going to die but don’t know when. Life is precious. These truths are traditionally contemplated to motivate a spiritual seeker to persist, with patience and trust, during the work of uncovering and then embracing the resistance that seemingly separates us from each other and our true selves. Our woundedness then is no longer overwhelming.

The extraordinary events of life – love, death, survival, tend to deepen practice. Yet again and again in the ordinary activities of daily life, the scores of emails and telephone calls and little tasks that appear each day, we lose ourselves and forget to live what we know to be true. How can you and I each find the motivation to put into practice that which we know, that which in other moments our hearts have embraced?

A few days ago a friend told me she regretted all the time she had wasted in her life, time in which she had not been fully alive. But perhaps in those moments anxiety and fear were unbearable. Distracting herself had been her only possible response; she had not been ready to look nakedly and directly at the truth of the moment. Yet the suffering of all those distracted moments brought her to the awakening of her regret. In truth, not a moment had been wasted. Can we have compassion for that part of ourselves that so often has turned away from the preciousness of life, from our humanity?

Many of the people I know who found the deepest spiritual realization have been motivated by a profound crisis earlier in their lives, often even resulting in a breakdown. For those of us on a more gradual path, finding ongoing motivation in the preciousness of life and the certainty of death seems to me essential. Do I really know that I am going to die, that I am dying? Can I be humble enough to go back before the beginning of practice and be touched by the preciousness of life? I work with those facing death not just because I want to help people, but because I want to know in the core of my being that I am going to die, possibly even in this next moment, and hence be fully alive right now.

When I accept my mortality I feel particularly vulnerable, raw, exposed. If I directly feel this moment might be my last moment, then my relationship with the notion of self is radically transformed. Receiving spiritual truths at only an intellectual level is far too easy and comforting. If we see nakedly the fragility of life, see that everything is dying each moment, how can we not love and care for other beings and for ourselves? Then, as zen master Dogen puts it, we live with passion and intensity as if our hair were on fire. Walt Whitman said, “Sometimes touching another human being is almost more than I can bear.” If I know that you and I might die in the next moment, how can our touching be less than almost unbearable?