Category Archives: death

It is home

A couple of weeks ago I wrote quite a long blog post on the subject of trust. As time goes on I am increasingly sure that what I said there is true:

Trust is fundamental to being human. Perhaps in fact it is fundamental to being alive, in whatever form of being we may find ourselves. It is a value that transcends culture, transcends opinion, transcends our reactions to our circumstances – even ones that strike at our very existential security, and, in their threat to future generations, strike at our evolutionary sense of purpose as inhabitants of Earth.

There is a trust that rests on a far deeper foundation that our frail lives. Each of us will die: that is the one thing of which we may be utterly certain. But our death, like our life, rests in the ground of being from which we cannot fall.

This short guided meditation from Jack Kornfield’s 2008 book The Wise Heart brings us to the heart of what practice is. The road to the encounter with our own true nature is long, and for some of us tortuous, but it is the road home:

Sit comfortably and at ease. Close your eyes. Let your body be at rest and your breathing be natural. Begin to listen to the play of sounds around you. Notice those that are loud or soft, far and near. Notice how sounds arise and vanish on their own, leaving no trace. After you have listened for a few minutes, let yourself sense, feel, or imagine that your mind is not limited to your head. Sense that your mind is expanding to be open like the sky—clear, vast like space. Feel that your mind extends outward beyond the most distant sounds. Imagine there are no boundaries to your mind, no inside or outside. Let the awareness of your mind extend in every direction like the open sky.

Relax in this openness and just listen. Now every sound you hear—people, cars, wind, soft sounds—will arise and pass away like a cloud in the open space of your own mind. Let the sounds come and go, whether loud or soft, far or near, let them be clouds in the vast sky of your own awareness, appearing and disappearing without resistance. As you rest in this open awareness for a time, notice how thoughts and feelings also arise and vanish like sounds in the open space of mind. Let the thoughts and feelings come and go without struggle or resistance. Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, pictures, words, joys, and sorrows—let them all come and go like clouds in the clear sky of mind.Then, in this spacious awareness also notice how you experience the body. The mind is not in the body. The body sensations float and change in the open sky of mind. The breath breathes itself; it moves like a breeze. If you observe carefully, the body is not solid. It reveals itself as areas of hardness and softness, pressure and tingling, warm and cool sensation, all floating in the space of awareness.

Relax. Rest in this openness. Let sensations float and change. Allow thoughts and images, feelings and sounds to come and go like clouds in the clear, open space of awareness. As you do, pay attention to the consciousness itself. Notice how the open space of awareness is clear, transparent, timeless, and without conflict—allowing for all things but not limited by them. This is your own true nature. Rest in it. Trust it. It is home.

Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: Buddhist Psychology for the West

Everything changes

Shunryu Suzuki is said to have replied to a student who asked if he could put the Buddha’s teachings in a nutshell with the words, “Everything changes”.

Everything does. The weather, the leaves on the trees, our own bodies. And the things we make change too: human society, relationships, artifacts, language. Change is inescapable; impermanence is the one constant.

Just as we cannot escape change, we cannot escape sadness. Love and change lead inevitably to sadness. The death of a friend, of a beloved pet, the passing of summer into autumn. Rain clouds cover the sun.

It seems to me that we grow up to fear change and impermanence. Children need to know that their parents will always be there; as they acquire things, toys, little collections of found items, favourite clothes, they naturally long for these things not to be lost, not to break or perish. But they do. Toys are lost or damaged, favourite clothes are suddenly too small. Children grow fast, and even with the most reliable of parents, their relationship with them changes. Love is tested by change, always.

It might be natural, then, to grow up not to trust, to fear and expect loss and yes, betrayal. Things, and especially people, change, and if you rely on their remaining static, you will feel that change as betrayal.

If you cling to static forms, whether made things or living, you will lose. If you try to avoid sadness, you will avoid love, too. What can you do, except trust the love that is the essence of sadness, that is the heart of change?

You have no alternative anyway but to trust; when you die, what will you do? What else could you do, except trust in the vast field of light and life into which you will dissolve, into which you will return in peace? Sit still, and the field of awareness will open, the ground in which all things come to be will hold you. The light and the land are one; beyond is no thing, and the life becoming just what is.

Trust

It is becoming a cliché even to say it, but we are living in exceptionally difficult times. We are just emerging, with hesitant and uncertain steps, from a global pandemic that has asked us all to accept, often on unsure pretexts, unprecedented restrictions to civil liberties and public services, to find ourselves on the brink of a world war – some would say already engaged in one – instigated by the lethal idiocy of a country whose leadership has made a career out of disinformation and untruthfulness. The economic ravages of these two circumstances are now beginning to cause real suffering (especially, as always, to the poorest among us) as inflation rises to a level many of us have not seen in our lifetimes. And all this under the umbrella of an increasingly urgent despair concerning the process of anthropogenic climate change and its effects on all life on our planet, human and otherwise. The very tools we might use to help us combat such devastating circumstances, from artificial intelligence to globalisation, are now often perceived as their causes rather than as potential means for their healing.

Distrust has become a civic virtue, it seems. We feel we cannot trust our politicians, nor the politicians of countries we have for long regarded as our allies; we feel we cannot trust the business organisations that can generate the wealth we need to overcome our difficulties; we feel we cannot trust the technological systems that allow us the ease of communication that we so desperately need to help each other think this through; we feel, we deeply feel, that we cannot trust each other. Anyone, friend or mentor, son or mother, might be a traitor in a rebellion whose causes are as muddled and uncertain as the things that caused them, might at any moment step across the shifting line of right and wrong – right and wrong as defined by whom? Certainly by no one we can trust…

Radhule Weininger writes:

Soften your gaze and connect with the world around you. Trust what you feel. Even when our world is being gravely damaged by climate change and war, we can rely on our intention to trust in a wider perspective, as well as on our dedication to open our hearts to all suffering beings. This intention and dedication situate us into our heart space and allows the energy of the heart to radiate outward into our world. Resting in the felt sense of our heart space allows us to feel calm, warm, and connected. Trust reminds us that there is a bigger context in which we are embedded. Trust allows us to relinquish, to surrender, to let go into uncertainty, while holding the faith that doors will eventually open for us. Trust allows us to go beyond our personal sense of being in control, especially in times when control is impossible. Trust allows our little heart to drop into the great heart of the world.

Tricycle magazine (April 19, 2022)

In a world whose values are defined by Twitter and Truth Social, this is culpable madness. But what if there are other values? Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, argues that there are:

[Q]uestions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too… compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (introduction)

Trust is fundamental to being human. Perhaps in fact it is fundamental to being alive, in whatever form of being we may find ourselves. It is a value that transcends culture, transcends opinion, transcends our reactions to our circumstances – even ones that strike at our very existential security, and, in their threat to future generations, strike at our evolutionary sense of purpose as inhabitants of Earth.

There is a trust that rests on a far deeper foundation that our frail lives. Each of us will die: that is the one thing of which we may be utterly certain. But our death, like our life, rests in the ground of being from which we cannot fall. Radhule Weininger continues:

Resting in this way situates us in a much wider perspective than in our personal, often fearful, little heart view. The Isha Upanishad of the Indian Vedas tells us, “This is full, that is full, from that fullness comes this fullness, if you take away this fullness from that fullness, only fullness remains.” If we allow our personal hearts to rest in the limitless, boundless, knowing fullness of the universe, then we can anchor ourselves in a reality that is inexhaustible, that does not shut down, burn out, or get overwhelmed. Resting our hearts in this inexhaustible field of awareness provides the security, the psycho-spiritual container, to hold our suffering…

Acceptance of what is allows us to let the reality of the world in, even though it may be harsh. Acceptance, here, does not suggest whitewashing or the condoning of wrongdoing, but, rather, it means seeing clearly. People can experience the feeling of acceptance when a skillful doctor tells them compassionately the truth about a difficult prognosis. The individual then has the chance to spend the rest of their life with what is essential to them. In a similar way we may be able to accept knowledge of a possibly devastating future with openness and a peaceful heart when we are held in compassionate and loving awareness.

Radhule Weininger, ibid.

In our practice we touch the centre of not merely our own lives, but of what it is to be. Awareness, the simple stillness of open awareness, can see that we are not other than that ground itself: tat tvam asi.

Harris again:

Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206

One Mind

[D]o not let the idea that your body will scatter into the four elements make you feel that everything is pointless. Instead, you should understand the principle that everything continuously scatters and then gathers together again. Practitioners do not see this world as futile, because they realize that the very impermanence of the world enables them to awaken to the truth.

If you think that, in order to know the Buddha-dharma, you have to throw away your body because the flesh is worthless, then this is an extremely misguided thought. If there was no body, what could you see and hear with? How could you encounter the world, how could you think, how could you broaden your wisdom?

Because the son exists, you can know that the father also exists; through the existence of the servant, you can see that the master exists. By understanding visible phenomena, you can come to know the invisible essence, the non-material foundation, that gives rise to and animates all visible phenomena, and which always works together as one with all things. The body is not an eternal entity, but because you have a body, you can know the workings of the foundation, the source of life and all phenomena.

Daehaeng, One Mind: Principles

Open awareness, the still acceptance of our intrinsic nature in silence, quietly reveals that the ground of being, the very foundation of all that is, is not other than itself. We do not somehow land on the ground of being like metaphysical helicopters: we exist, so we are not other than that from which we arise. There is nothing to find, nothing to become. We are already that open, bright and boundless space within which all things become.

Begin again

There are so many things that hover at the edge of our conscious attention day in and day out – whether we are eating, going to sleep, waking from sleep, reading, writing an email – the shadows of war, famine, pestilence, extinction. The horsemen of the apocalypse seem to be our daily companions.

And yet this moment, this place of clear stillness, is what it always was. Hopes and fears, dreams, nightmares and reflections, they all rest in the ground of being that holds our planet, and our sun, and on beyond to before things began. We are not separate, any of us, from being. Even on this earth we are not invaders; we did not arrive from somewhere else. Each of us was born of parents who were born of parents too, and our bodies are formed from the stuff of this world. Our minds too. What we do, great or small, healing or harm, is part of the great pattern of cause and effect that holds our planet in its orbit. We may die – each of us, soon enough; our race too, eventually, however long we manage to hang on. Things do. There is nothing that is not impermanent.

This is not a call to passivity. It is a call, as Paul Kingsnorth pointed out recently in Tricycle, to witness. To sit still in this moment is the only place to begin. We cannot know what our place is in time until we realise that we cannot know. Things weave together, and each of us is woven into what comes to be. It isn’t, really it isn’t, given to us to choose the colour of our thread or its place in the pattern. What we do, though it may cost us all we have and are, is not within our free will, whatever we think that is. Only in the deep stillness of our unknowing shall we know how to act, and in that moment our action will not be a choice, but only where we are. Sit still, and touch the earth.

Lost in hope

Hope, in the conventional sense, is, as we have seen in the last couple of posts here, generally tied to a sense of outcome. We hope something will turn out all right; we hope something else will not happen. Cynthia Bourgeault points out that what she terms mystical hope is not tied in this way. It has a life of its own, “without reference to external circumstances and conditions.”

I have noticed myself that, at least after some years of steady contemplative practice, the experience of what we think of as “loss” – serious accident, illness, bereavement, loss of livelihood, money, or status, for instance – is not accompanied by a loss of hope at the deepest level. Of course, hope in a good outcome is lost – the worst has happened, something is irretrievably broken – but underneath it all there is what feels for all the world like some kind of certainty. Beneath the quicksand is a solid ground, the bedrock of what is. As the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk saw (Habakkuk 3.17-19) though all else fails, at the end there is something more like presence than anything else.

In a long article in Tricycle Magazine, Kurt Spellmeyer reminds us that the Buddha’s illumination came only after the most profound experience of helplessness, when he was so starved and dehydrated that had a passing village girl not brought him rice and milk, he might very well not have lived the night. This, like Habakkuk’s prophecy, may or may not be historical, but it contains as profound a truth: only at the very end of conventional hope, even in our own survival, can we find that which is beyond any result or outcome, beyond any thing whatever.

This brings us, of course, to the thought of our own death. Here is the ultimate helplessness: at the end we shall be bereft of everything, even of the ability to draw the next breath. There will be no more chances, nothing to decide. Richmond Lewis, in a coma from which he was not expected to recover, had a vision of his own death very similar to experiences I have had of being close to physical death, which he memorably described as “dissolv[ing] into light”.

What could this mean? Is it a comforting(?) illusion? An artifact of failing neural circuitry? It isn’t possible, of course, to answer such a question in a way that would satisfy a scientific researcher. We are describing an experience, a “something that it is like to be”, in Thomas Nagel’s words. It does not admit of experimental verification, or if it did, the experimental subject would be in no position to report on the outcome of the experiment! But as an experience, it is as definite and actual as any: far more so than almost any other. But an experience of what?

The nearest expression of it that I can find is that it is an experience of absolute unknowing, of pure isness.

Tara Brach writes, of “the open, wakeful emptiness of awareness”:

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

It seems to me that that “vast and shining presence” is not only the light into which we dissolve, but the ground of our being itself – and our death merely the letting go into what is seen. I hope so.

Hope against hope

I had been intending to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Hopeless?, when it occurred to me that I had written just such a post five years ago, on my old blog, covering the same subject, using some of the same sources, almost exactly, if you will make allowance for rather more overtly Christian language that I would probably use today. It is worth remembering, in this context, how closely parallel the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu are, as I suggested yesterday. Here it is:

——

In her luminous little book Mystical HopeCynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: “I hope I get the job.” “I hope they have a good time on holiday.” “I hope Jill finds her cat.” “I hope the biopsy is clear…” If we are dependent on “regular hope”, she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope “that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the ‘upbeat’ kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.” She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Habakkuk 3.17-19

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more “hopeless” the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya… But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal – out of time. “For some reason or another,” she says, “the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days… and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself.”

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the “last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates” (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination – they are pure grace – nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God’s hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the “white martyrdom” of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, “hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice… consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray” (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


——

I wrote the above text at a time when I was beginning to be seriously ill with a heart problem, and it seemed to me to be as clear an answer to my own questions as I could find. I would still stand by it today. Hope lies in the emptying of self, the abandonment of “regular hope” in the “objectless awareness” (Bourgeault) of contemplation. Perhaps Pema Chödrön (see her passage quoted in Hopeless?) has a point after all.

Hopeless?

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes,

Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness…

It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope…

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

This brings us close to what has become for me a key issue in practice and in experience. Chödrön goes on to point out that this sense of hopelessness, of “nowhere to turn” and no one to turn to, lies at the heart of non-theism. There is no cosmic babysitter, she explains: “In a non-theistic state of mind, abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.”

Now, there is a decided attraction in such a point of view. For all the relinquishment of the sense of “a solid, separate self” it is fatally easy, down this road, to see oneself as some kind of Raymond Chandler anti-hero, hat pulled low, collar turned to the rainy night, face starkly outlined by the light of a match held in cupped hands. “There’s no hope now, baby. And y’know, that’s okay…” The End.

The Buddhist opposite, I guess, is shinjin. Here the practitioner is giving up not hope, but self-reliance. She abandons her self to the tariki, the “other-power” of Amida Buddha inherent in the nembutsu, the core practice of Pureland Buddhism. As Jeff Wilson points out,

The nembutsu that we say, that others can hear, is only the tip of the shinjin iceberg; the nembutsu we recite is only the most visible sign of the working of Other Power within the shadowy ego-self. That inner working of shinjin may show through as nembutsu, but it can also show through in a hug, a gift, a kind word, laughter.

Nembutsu is a vital avenue for expressing our faith, but it need not be taken for the whole iceberg. There’s really no limit to the possibilities of expression of the trusting heart….

Humility and trust go hand in hand, forming the second part of the true trusting mind. Shinjin is another name for this development of humility-entrusting.

Jeff Wilson, Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness

The issue of humility is one, of course, with which I had continually to struggle during my long years as a Christian contemplative. My practice was always the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – a prayer repeated in very much the same manner as the nembutsu, formally for regular periods each day, and spontaneously from time to time for the rest of the day – and night, too, given the way it tends to pop up whenever one turns over in the night, or half-wakes to look at the clock.

The Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer are both ways of abandonment: not of the abandonment of hope so much as the abandonment of self-will, of giving up not hope but self-reliance, of giving up oneself into the continuum of something not other but utterly interpenetrating. Jean Pierre de Caussade puts it solidly (in Christian terms of course) in his title Abandonment to Divine Providence or The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The fall out of self is the fall into now, into the ground of being, that isness that is always now and in which all beings rest.

The more I go on, the more fundamental this abandonment seems to be for me. However threadbare devotional practice can be, however compromised and compromising the religions we humans build around our moments of clarity and truth, there is no way past the frailty and limitation of the self, its littleness and its bombu imperfection. All its struggles for self-validation will sooner or later have to be given up in death anyway. To let it dissolve in light is no loss, but limitless grace.

Who Am I?

​Our generation’s short time is falling away. We’re moving into new terrain. There is a measure of effort involved in coming to some equanimity with the implications of our own aging.

There are the aches and the sags, as we are no longer at the peak of our physical strength and agility. We need, also, to find peace in the new landscape of superfluity, as we no longer are at the peak of our engagement in the world.

Adjusting our views of ourselves can take some time. Adjusting our views of our place in the world and of our further direction can also take some time. The contemplation of these necessary adjustments is meaningful. Our views determine our experience.

New questions emerge, often clamoring for attention. Who am I beyond the functions I’ve served? Who am I when the habits of a lifetime are stripped away? Who am I beyond the persona I’ve presented to the world and to myself? Who am I, bare?

It can be a bit sobering, sometimes even stunning, to realize that there is far less time before us than time behind us. There are fewer full moons whose light we can sit in than full moons whose light we have sat in before. There are fewer pale green springs and autumn’s falling leaves, fewer quiet blanketings of snow, fewer ion-charged moments before a fierce summer storm unleashes itself.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

The other night I awoke, overwhelmed by losses. I was suddenly aware not just of the loss of so many dear friends and more from sometimes years back, people who in some sense are always with me, but of the loss of “the functions I’ve served”, the things I’ve done, or meant to others. I use the word “overwhelmed” thoughtfully: the sensation was like being flattened by a wave, the same sense of one minute being safely swimming, and the next of being beneath tons of salty green, seemingly from nowhere, with all breath gone and the power of the undertow dragging at your back…

The next day I was cravenly tempted to try and claw back something from the passing years, to recover something from the outgoing tide. It took Susan’s insight and courage to bring me back, unwillingly, to some sense of the truth, to begin to see where the steady light of time has taken me.

All that is needed, really, is to let the tide do what tides do. The sea is faithful, and the open ground of the long waves beneath that steady light will hold the swimmer who will only float. We are frail and temporary things, appearances only, even to ourselves; it is the light that goes on, and our practice is only to dissolve in light.