As a personal development junkie, it’s no surprise that I found myself drawn to a lecture with a Qi Gong master who was visiting from a highly regarded monastery in China.
This man had spent his entire adult life in a monastery, which I found incredibly admirable. And I was excited to wrap my heart around some new wisdom from someone living such an enlightened life.
I arrived at the open-air bungalow where the Qi Gong master would teach the class. When he entered, the whole class fell silent. He assumed a spot at the front of the class, and simply stood there, in a state of serenity that I have yet to see matched in anyone else.
Silence filled the next ten minutes or so.
Finally, the master opened his mouth and asked us to tell him how old we were. Strange first question, I thought to myself. We came up with an ideal average age for the class, which was 30.
Then, the master started to break down life into numbers. Assuming that we live to be 75 (which is more ideal than anything), and accounting for the time we sleep, we as a class came up with the number of days, on average, we had left in our lives.
The number was about 16,000. This made us all stop and pause. “We think our lives are infinite, but 16,000 is not an infinite number. It’s actually quite a finite number,” he explained. More contemplation amongst the class ensued.
And the craziest part about that number was that it did not include the amount of time we spend driving, traveling, working, eating, cooking, and other mundane tasks that makeup life. Once you subtract all of those from the 16,000 days left in our lives, we came up with the number 3,000. Only 3,000 days to LIVE our lives, without obligations, without work, without logistical components!
When we were finished with all of the mathematics, we all went silent. You could feel a sort of fear fill the air.
The master sensed that fear and asked us to take a deep breath.
“Ahhh, doesn’t that breath feel good?” he asked us. We all nodded yes. “This is what it is to be alive. Just breathing. Remember that you are enjoying the gift of life with every breath,” he concluded.
And then, the class was over.
“That was it!?” I thought to myself. I was angry. I left feeling hopeless. Wanting to grasp for more days, more time, more… life. And it was in that moment that I received the teaching.
I remembered a Buddhist teaching that essentially described life as getting into a boat that is just getting out to sea to sink. The teaching was simply to embrace our mortality, and use it as a vehicle to live consciously, and presently.
But is it really that easy? Many spiritual practices and teachers encourage us to take our own death seriously, but it is truly amazing how difficult it is to let that sink in.
Isn’t it funny that the one thing in life that we can truly count on, ends up being the concept we keep furthest from us in everyday life?
This isn’t to say that we all deny our death, but I can say that I am guilty of thinking that death will just come… “later”. And that’s natural, in a society that fears death and hides it from us, to place it so far from us.
But from what I’ve learned in my journey of life, we can never truly hide from death. It’s always a faint whisper away. However close or distant, it’s always there.
So does that mean, in order to end suffering, we could try and embrace death on a smaller scale? The moments of death in everyday life?
That idea really struck me, and so I gave it a try. And through it, I realized that death is more present than we might notice.
I slowly began to see death in many parts of life. Many moments. I found that death is present when things don’t work out. When relationships fall apart. It’s in the process of change. It’s getting old. Getting sick. It’s lost love. It’s failure. Losing the job. Disappointing someone. Letting yourself down. It’s the end of the day. The out breath. The things we don’t want, right in front of us.
Death is everywhere, and, it’s just as natural as the seasons change.
Having a relationship with death in everyday life means relaxing with insecurity and uncomfortability. It’s not jumping to ward off a problem the moment you sense it. It’s not escaping. Not hiding. Not filling the hole. Not reaching for comfort.
It’s coming to terms with the sand slipping through our fingers.
And once we start having an honest and direct relationship with death in our everyday lives, we start to gain the ability of hopelessness or giving up hope of better alternatives. To not hide from the inevitable, or push it away.
When we do this, we open up our capacity to truly live our lives in the present moment. We begin to understand and make friends with the underlying reality of impermanence.
And the more I do this, the less attached I feel to outcomes. The more detached I feel to my expectations. The more I embrace death as a part of my everyday life, the more freedom I feel running through me.
When I embrace death in my everyday life, I am giving myself true liberation. It’s not a destination. Just a practice. And one I encourage you all to try.
I’ll end with the who inspired this post, Pema Chodron, who says, “suffering ends when we let go of the belief that there is anywhere to hide.”