And then he started using words like nyingma and shentong and I became more interested in my beer than anything else. Zen is a neato thing to talk about but depending on who’s doing the talking, it can get a bit too stiff for me.
But I perked up when he said the most rewarding thing he’s ever done in all his years is to sit and contemplate his own death.
I was in an expat bar in Chiang Mai on trivia night and an informal lecture had broken out. Half the room was shouting out answers to sports history questions, and the other half was gathered around a once-American philosophy professor, listening to him talk about Zen. I was trying to do both.
We chatted on the balcony later, and I asked him about what he said about death. I drank and nodded as he talked and smoked cigarettes.
“When you’re sitting there long enough that you finally see that unbroken line between here and your grave, that you really are that grave every bit as much as you are sitting here… you’ll never feel as free as that.”
The night was long (three bars long) and full of conversations, but that’s the one that was in my head when I was nodding off that night, and in the shower the next morning.
For the next few weeks I kept having these spells where I’d see something super ordinary — a stranger yawning at a bus stop, or something — and I’d get the sensation that I was looking back on it, as if I was visiting it from a place where that doesn’t happen.
It culminated on a beach in New Zealand a few weeks later. I had another spell, and realized what was happening. I was being repeatedly overcome by the simple fact that I was here. That doesn’t sound like an astonishing revelation, but it was, and that had something to do with being simultaneously aware that I will one day not be here.
Understanding those two insultingly simple facts — that you’re definitely here, and that you will definitely one day not be here — combine to form something beautiful. The professor called it anicca but we can call it impermanence. It’s irrefutable, and we kill ourselves trying to refute it all the time. Things change constantly, and when you insist they don’t, you suffer. When you can learn to go along for the ride, ordinary moments become compelling.
The professor’s death-contemplation hobby is certainly worthwhile, but it’s just not something many people are going to do. Too formal, too weird, too Buddhist.
But you can experience the beauty of impermanence in a much easier way, every time you’re in the presence of people you’re close to. I’ve written about it before, when this blog was much smaller, but it’s such a reliable way to create that staggering kind of gratitude that I can’t recommend it enough.
When you’re with a group of people who are important in your life, take a step back and look around at what’s happening, and consider that there will be a time when these people are gone.
Life is a solo trip, but you’ll have lots of visitors. I say this a lot and always will. Your life is one long unbroken experience, and you’re the only one who’s there the whole time. Visitors will come in and out of your experience. Most of them are short-term and you won’t notice when they’ve made their last appearance.
In fact, even with the long-term visitors, it’s rare that your last moment with a particular person is one in which you’re aware that it is.
Every relationship you have is a chance overlap that begins one particular day and ends on another. You have little control over when either of those bookends appear. There is nothing worse than having nobody important in your life, yet we easily take for granted that this precious, fleeting overlap is happening right now in the room with you.
There are probably hundreds of acquaintances that you haven’t thought about since the last time they were right in front of your face, and maybe that was years ago. Those bit players are gone in the truest sense, but the people who matter are the people whose absence you can feel when they’re gone. The person who’s no longer beside you when you wake up. The pet whose nails you no longer hear clicking on the hallway floor downstairs.
One of the greatest things you can do for yourself is to learn how to feel that feeling while these people are still here.
Here’s how I put it before:
When you’re with your spouse, significant other, a good friend or a close relative, picture the moment, in all its mundane detail, as if you’re looking back on it from a point in life where that person is no longer around. No need to imagine any upsetting explanations for their absence; the part of your life that includes that special person is just over, and you are happy to have been with them while your lives overlapped.
Observe them as if you’ve been shipped back from the future, to see them once again on an ordinary day, with absolutely no reason to take it for granted.
You just have to recognize those moments in which you’re with another person you know and love, and for most people these happen constantly. Then consciously take a step back, and watch the moment as if it’s a memory.
There’s no feeling like it when something ordinary is happening, and everyone’s being ordinary, and yet in your private mental space you’re seeing it all from way down the road, after these wonderful people are gone. An ordinary moment, adorned with such irreplaceable people, is so rich and perfect that you’d give anything to be right back in the middle of it. And then you realize that you are.
It’s surprisingly easy to just watch the outside world do its thing for a second. You might be alarmed to realize that the world would carry on just as freely without your particular brand of opinions and witty comments. Believe me — and I mean this in the most encouraging way possible — it doesn’t need you at all and you’re lucky to be here.
It doesn’t need your friends either, but it seems to be accommodating the lot of you, for the time being anyway. So see all you can while the door is still open.
Photo by Joseph Leonardo