The Great Equilibrium

The sun shines through the clouds over the Arctic Ocean Aug. 17, 2009.

Nothing inspires me to connect deeply with what’s going on around me, to appreciate it, to pay attention to it, to be at peace with it, quite like the realization that my life is happening right now and that it won’t last forever. It’s strange that this ever needs to be a realization. Who am I to think that I would live forever? But a realization (sometimes a sudden one) is exactly what it feels like every time it becomes clear. Often, it’s accompanied by a feeling of stepping out of a trance, a feeling of waking up and suddenly being immersed in my own life again. The brevity of life is so obvious a fact that I feel like it shouldn’t be so elusive. But the truth is, if I’m not consciously reminding myself of this fact, I lose touch with it extremely quickly.

You might wonder why I care about losing touch with the fact that I am going to die. Isn’t reflecting on it unnecessarily morbid and depressing? The reason is that, in my experience, being in touch with this fact has the uncanny ability to cause me to make the most out of my time instead of reacting habitually to my surroundings. When I say “make the most out of my time” I’m not talking about efficiency, success, or better reaching my goals. I’m talking about all of the things that are left when my goals aren’t in the way. All of the things that we consider to be deeply important to us that transcend all the goals that relate back to our life circumstances and who we want to be.

I’m sure we’ve all reflected on what we would do if we had one day, week, month, or year to live. If you’re like me, you’ve found that very little of what you truly want out of your life involves success in the conventional sense. It’s much more likely to involve connection with nature, relationships with loved ones, and deep personal experiences, states that are actually available to us in everyday life but are often uncharted territories due to concerns that are thought to be more immediate. I believe this sense of immediacy is an illusion. I think that deep down, we all have a sense for the states of experience that we ultimately want out of life and there are different levels at which we can connect with those states, but our lack of enthusiasm to face the truth of our limited time holds us back from engaging with our lives more deeply. I also think that by practicing a deeper level of connection with the truth of our lives we can genuinely transform our experiences for the better.

Many of the things that cause me hardship in life are rooted in the feelings that I have towards death and impermanence. When I experience loss of any kind, it triggers the same feelings of insecurity that underlie my relationship to death. I recently became aware of this, and it caused a huge shift in the way I’ve been relating to things that are out of my control. I’m starting to frame these things as a safe training ground for the more fundamental and ultimate things that are out of my control, namely aging and mortality. This accomplishes two things for me. Firstly, it gives context for why experiencing loss, even trivial loss like having a few bad days in a row, can affect me. It frames those negative experiences and makes me feel like the pain associated with them is understandable and natural. Secondly, it allows me to practice acceptance of uncontrollability in daily life situations in a way that gives me confidence for the less trivial situations that I will inevitably face.

Another reason that I feel so passionately about this subject is that I feel like it has the potential to be universally empowering. Bringing it to each other’s attention, not ubiquitously but not sparsely either, allows us to share the wisdom of this reflection that spiritual traditions have been pointing to for a long time while still having enough room for each person to interpret the implications for themselves. The question of how to be with life, given that it will end, is both deeply personal and profoundly universal. It aligns my thoughts, feelings, and actions with my intentions in a nearly effortless way, and I think that this process is the center of the bulls-eye when it comes to spirituality. When my thoughts, feelings, and actions are coming from this place they feel exceptionally genuine. With this feeling of genuine connection comes a deep sense of rest, a sense that I’m allowed to just enjoy what is happening without needing to make it any different.

I’d like to share three pieces of audio that I’ve been inspired by on this topic. The first is a piece called “New Beginnings” by This American Life, which is essentially the story of a man sharing his experience of living six months of his life as if they were his last. The second is the Waking Up Podcast episode “Lessons From Death”, where Sam Harris speaks to Frank Ostaseski, a long time Buddhist and end-of-life care practitioner who has numerous deep insights on the topic. The third is a talk given by Joseph Goldstein during a meditation retreat where he discusses what it really means to live as if you were dying, and I embedded the audio file below. These are ordered in terms of popularity, and ordered backwards in terms of how meaningful they have been to me personally. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to whichever of them interest you.