Riding the Crest of the Wave
“In subtle and in more obvious ways, the experience of birth and death is continuous," says Judy Lief. "All that we experience arises fresh, appears for a time, and then dissolves. It is as if we were riding the crest of a wave in the middle of a vast ocean. That arising and falling of experience is our life; it is what we have to work with.”
We could look at our life as a whole as a journey from our birth to our death, but we should not stop there. We could take a closer look.
What is our experience of life right now? What is our experience of our life moment to moment? When we look into our immediate experience, we realize that not only is our life as a whole bounded by birth and death, but each moment within that journey is also bounded by birth and death. So it is not just at the end of our life that we encounter death; we are confronting death at every moment.
Death begins with ourselves. It is a part of our life, a part of who we are. Much as we try to keep them apart, death and life cannot be separated; they are completely interwoven. So the boundary between life and death is present all the time, not just when we gasp our last breath. This may not be so hard to grasp intellectually, but experiencing it personally is another matter. It requires that we change our whole approach.
Cultivating an awareness of the immediacy of death is a threat to everything we hold dear. It is a threat to our self-image, a threat to our attempt to make our world solid, a threat to our sense of control, and a threat to our desire to keep death as far from our life as possible.
We have this notion of me and my solid life: “Here I am, ‘me,’ in my solid life, and somewhere on the border of that is this threatening thing called ‘death.’ There is this ‘me’ that I know and love, and then there is ‘death,’ out to get me.” We think, “At some point—but not now!—I am going to have to relate to this thing because I know it’s out there and eventually it’s going to catch up with me.”
It is as if our life is a line that grows longer and longer over time. Inch by inch we fight to extend it until eventually the Great Scissors comes and—Chop!—that’s the end of our particular line. We know it is a losing battle, but we are afraid to let down our guard. As a result we freeze up, like old rusty engines in need of oil.
We maintain that frozen approach to life by distracting ourselves from our immediate experience. When we are not just zoning out, we keep ourselves occupied with thoughts of the past and the future. Over time we keep adding more stuff, and we are afraid to let go of any of it, just like a bag lady with her shopping cart. By holding onto those memories, we try to keep what is already past alive. When we are not busy thinking about the past, we are speculating about what’s going to happen in the future. By speculating and planning we try to make future possibilities a reality.
To make ourselves feel more solid and real, we continually blur the lines between past, present and future. We try to force all of that into one airtight package. Although it is a struggle to maintain, we prefer this struggle to the tenuousness of the present moment—and for the most part, it hangs together pretty well. But in fact our life is not one solid thing from beginning to end.
At any given moment, one part of our life is already gone and the other part of it has not yet happened. In fact, a great deal of our life is gone for good—everything up to this very point in time. If you are thirty, for example, that means that your first twenty-nine years are dead and gone already. They will not be any more or less dead and gone in the future, at the time of your physical death, than they are already. As to the rest of our life, it has not yet happened, and it may or may not ever happen. The boundaries of our life are not so clear cut. The distinction between life and death is not black and white.
We do not actually live in either the past or the future, but in that undefined territory where past and future meet, on the boundary of what is gone and what is to come. That boundary is vivid but not all that substantial. It is the cutting edge of our life and death. The past is at our back, just an instant behind us, nipping at our heels; and the future is totally questionable. Directly ahead of us we see our death closing in on us. We are caught between those two throughout our life, from our first breath to our last.
It is as if we were riding the crest of a wave in the middle of a vast ocean. What is immediately behind us is constantly disappearing as we ride the edge of the wave; and as we are propelled forward, we can neither turn back nor slow that wave’s powerful momentum.
The practice of mindfulness is a way to become more familiar with that undefined territory where past and future touch. Through meditation practice, gently, step by step, we learn to make friends with death as it arises in our immediate experience. We begin to reconnect with the immediacy of life and death here and now. On that cutting edge, death is our constant companion.
Practically speaking, if we want to be more at ease with our own death and better able to help others as well, we need to develop our awareness of this moment-to-moment encounter of life and death. Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool for doing so.
Birth and death are close at hand, not just in the distant past and the distant future. They can be seen in the birth and death of each experience as it arises and dissolves. At first it is difficult to stick with the experience of the immediacy of death; it is a little too close for comfort. But as we become more familiar with this experience, our awareness begins to expand so that our personal experience of the reality of birth and death is ongoing rather than sporadic.
Mindfulness practice starts very simply, with what is most close at hand, the breath. What is our experience of each breath, as if comes and goes? The breath is our most simple, and perhaps most profound, connection with life and death. Our life begins with an inbreath and ends with an outbreath. So our breath has weight; it is fraught with meaning. It is not just dead air. With each breath we can feel that contrast of life and death, that slight edge of discomfort. When our breath goes out, it just goes; it doesn’t come back. Every time that happens there is a subtle threat, a tiny flicker of doubt: “Wait, I’ll hold a little bit of breath back, in reserve, just in case. I need you. Don’t just go!” And when we breathe in, we think, “Thank heavens! You’ve come back! I’m still alive!” It couldn’t be more basic.
As a byproduct of the cultivation of mindfulness, we begin to notice similar boundaries and meeting points throughout our experience. We begin to take note of our thinking, for instance, as a process rather than just a collection of thoughts. Thoughts seem to arise out of nowhere: by the time we notice them, they are already there—we don’t know how they got there, they are just there blithering away. But as we settle down and look further, we begin to see that they come and go too, just like the breath. Thoughts go through a cycle of birth and death, just like we do. Like people, thoughts arise from nowhere, they hang out for a while, and eventually even the most stubborn thoughts fade away.
In subtle and in more obvious ways, the experience of birth and death is continuous. All that we experience arises fresh, appears for a time, and then dissolves. What we are experiencing can be as subtle as the breath or the thinking process, or as dramatic as losing a job, getting a divorce, or losing our life. That arising and falling of experience is our life; it is what we have to work with. As we go about our lives, and especially in working with the sick and dying, we should never forget that we too are dying.
Acharya Judy Lief is strange indeed. You’d think after all these years she would actually have learned something useful, but oh well. Fortunately she has lots of friends to keep her occupied and lots of irritations to keep her freaked out. She’s getting pretty old now, but who isn’t? Her favorite food is Irish whiskey and she loves to hang out at the Lower Deck. Please read her article, because otherwise you will hurt her feelings. [ed.: Judy Lief is a senior teacher (acharya) in the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions. She is the executive editor of Vajradhatu Publications and editor of the Dharma Ocean Series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.]