Notes on a Buddhist path

Leonard Cohen, may I have this dance?

January 29, 2012 By | 12 Comments

Be ignited or be gone ~ Mary Oliver

The other day I realized I may never have sex again.

Or learn to play the cello. Or ride the Orient Express. Or drink Dom Pérignon. I may not squeeze in one more visit to California or spend those six months in Paris living over a bakery or win a Pulitzer, Tony or Academy award.  When you reach my stage in life a lot of the things you thought would have happened by now haven’t and things you thought would never end now have a looming expiration date. You start to see a dim light seeping through the canvas of your life and lengthening cracks in the veneer of this faulty facade you’ve painted of yourself.

At a certain point on the timeline of life there’s a shift from firsts to lasts. When we’re young everything is new and a smorgasbord of possibilities lies ahead of us. There’s the first day of school, the first report card, the first kiss, the first apartment. The idea that this life will ever come to an end rarely enters the mind’s eye. All it sees is a vast landscape of firsts lying before it: verdant promises of a succession of new people to meet, new experiences to have, new dreams to fill in where the last ones left off, all of which will continue over the horizon of time.

Age, although not always bringing wisdom, does eventually tap us on the shoulder and asks us to turn our gaze from the landscape of the future to look behind and see the host of firsts lying in the wake of our past. In addition to the fond memories laden with nostalgia are the items in fine print from the menu of youth (the first heartache, the first disappointment, the first betrayal) that now lie in heaps along the side of our stained life path. The vista of memories and regrets brings forth the realization that the endless list of firsts is quickly shortening as well as the time to accomplish them.

About half way through a century of sleepwalking a crisis of clichéd proportions rears its gray, and perhaps balding, head. Suddenly the living of life becomes a bucket list of what you want/need to do before you die. An urgency arises to take knitting lessons, learn to skydive, see the pyramids, get a tattoo. The multitasker inside of you tries to find a way to check off more than one to-do at a time: maybe a cooking tour of Antarctica, sailing and watercolour painting, tango lessons with Leonard Cohen. An angel, perhaps, tiptoes up behind you and whispers in your ear that you will never run that marathon or climb Mt. Everest or fit into your prom dress ever again.

All of these maneuvers and sidesteps can be traced to one unyielding affliction: death happens to someone else; never to us. We slather ourselves in anti-aging creams and drive too fast in red sports cars. We enter a plastic surgeon’s office as if it were Delphi and seek absolution in yet more more diet. We say “She looks good for her age” or “He didn’t age well” as if we breathing, passionate, living beings were a bottle of wine or a pungent cheese. How often have we heard someone say “I don’t want to get old”? Or the equally avoiding response, “Well, it’s better than the alternative”? Is it any wonder we cling to the relentless quest to stay young, to continue our string of firsts until we reach the final first: death?

Our mistake was in thinking we had a deal with life; that we would have plenty of time to do, to succeed and to get what we wanted in our time allotted when in truth life never made that deal. What we’ve been doing in all our doing is sidestepping the fact that death is very much a part of life.

There is a story told of Ajahn Chah, the famous Buddhist monk from the Thai Forest Tradition, in which he holds up a lovely crystal glass to those at the monastery.

“Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. But when the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks or if my elbow hits it and it falls to the ground I say of course. But when I know that the glass is already broken every minute with it is precious.”

To live each moment with such presence as to witness it as a first and a last is to live fully in the moment. There is where the lesson lies and where suffering meets the thin red line of our life’s blood.

How do I feel knowing that I may not see the spring leaves swell on the bare tree branches just outside my window or feel a lover’s lips on mine again? Truthfully, a bit sad, but there’s also a “oh, yeah” quality in the realization that all of this is so impermanent, so fleeting. All I have now and at any moment is this moment. The sound of the keyboard keys tapping, the comforting blanket of grey in the sky above me, the feeling of fullness in my belly after eating a warm, wonderful meal with a friend.

As for my bucket list, it gets shorter every year, mainly because I feel less of a need to accomplish more to feel alive. If I were to die right now, this second, my life would be so full it would crack open my heart with a sea of joy. But Mr. Cohen, if you read this, I’m still up for a tango lesson or two.

What I Have Learned So Far

by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

“What I Have Learned So Far”, from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, copyright 1993.

Ajahn Chah story from PBS, The Buddha, a film by David Grubin.

Image credit: Last Tango in Paris by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE

Comments

  1. greetingsfromcoupeville says:

    May your last-first kiss be that of the beloved.

  2. Wow.

    You raise the issue that is the elephant-in-the-room of all of our lives; young, old, and in between. You are indeed a brave soul.

    And an invaluable teacher.

    I’m not much of a bucket guy, and I gave up on my prom dress years ago, but you think it might mean never running again, much less a marathon? Throw in all those other everyday activities and personal unmentionables, and you’ve got a sobering thought indeed. Best to just let it all go, and look forward to this moment, and to what lies beyond. Our first spurfle!

    A heart cracking open with the joy of a life well spent. Even the angel of death might share a smile with us on that.
    _________________________________________________________
    “To live each moment with such presence as to witness it as a first and a last.” Wise Sayings

  3. Thank you, David, and for pointing to the everyday elephants we don’t want to see. It’s hard enough to fathom losing the dreamy future, but the idea of never having another meal, another breath, another dream can get us all wrapped up in paralyzed balls of flesh hiding under our desks.

    Setting it all down seems like the only way to go and a whole lot less baggage for where we’re all headed.

  4. As always when reading your posts something jumps out at me. “Our mistake was in thinking we had a deal with life; that we would have plenty of time to do, to succeed and to get what we wanted in our time allotted”

    You have a way of saying what many cannot find the words to. Time is a precious gift –

  5. I’m humbled Nicole. Thank you.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Perhaps my visceral propensity towards solitude is why I hunger for long meditation retreats. At times I see myself as a monastic, floating on the tender surface of silence and non-doing. Yet I would miss heading out amongst the masses for a movie and a latte or meeting a friend for a walk along the ocean. What would I do without the sensual pleasure of fresh, wet produce and slow loving food at the weekly farmer’s market? And then there’s Leonard Cohen and tango lessons. […]

  2. […] Perhaps my visceral propensity towards solitude is why I hunger for long meditation retreats. At times I see myself as a monastic, floating on the tender surface of silence and non-doing. Yet I would miss heading out amongst the masses for a movie and a latte or meeting a friend for a walk along the ocean. What would I do without the sensual pleasure of fresh, wet produce and slow loving food at the weekly farmer’s market? And then there’s Leonard Cohen and tango lessons. […]

  3. […] Perhaps my visceral propensity towards solitude is why I hunger for long meditation retreats. At times I see myself as a monastic, floating on the tender surface of silence and non-doing. Yet I would miss heading out amongst the masses for a movie and a latte or meeting a friend for a walk along the ocean. What would I do without the sensual pleasure of fresh, wet produce and slow loving food at the weekly farmer’s market? And then there’s Leonard Cohen and tango lessons. […]

  4. […] pondered the idea of never having sex again, yet back then the concept was more of an awareness of my fleeting life and the impermanence of all […]

  5. […] I’ve never seen Leonard Cohen in concert. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will.  […]

  6. […] I’ve never seen Leonard Cohen in concert. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will.  […]

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