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Until a few years ago, there were two extremely important things I didn’t know that I knew.
The first thing I didn’t know was that I was going to die, and the second was how much I love being alive.
It turns out, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, finding out the former had absolutely everything to do with discovering the latter.
Of course I knew intellectually that I was going to die. But until recently, it had only been a dreamlike concept. And even though I was already well into my 60s, it was the one that still felt far away.
The shift from fuzzy concept to imminent, unavoidable reality wasn’t due to any major life event, medical crisis, or anything like that.
The shift began following a slow accrual of minor losses of various physical and mental abilities—ones that I had always taken for granted—all of a sudden, it hit me: holy sh*t, it’s really true, I’m going to die soon!
Maybe not next week or next month, but stuff is happening to me that I can’t stop or fix, or even if I can fix this particular thing or that particular thing, it won’t stay fixed for long.
And there will be more and more losses, things that I won’t be able to do the way I once did, or that I’ll have to give up entirely, until finally I’ll have to give up everything—absolutely everything.
In a way this feels awkward and a little embarrassing to talk about, especially to complain about because it happens to everybody—every body.
At least for the moment I seem to be relatively fit and healthy. But screw it; it is a big deal and it is just a wee bit closer or further away for every one of us, regardless of our present circumstances.
So why not talk about it—even whine about it if that’s part of our reality?
I mean it sucks, right? Of course lots and lots of things suck in life, but the idea of losing life altogether really sucks.
There’s just no way I can get my head around it. I felt, and still feel at times, so terribly sad about it all, scared too, but mostly sad.
It seemed so odd at first, but I’m talking about really heartbroken, very much like the way one might feel about the impending loss of a loved one. And I guess, in a way, that’s exactly what it is.
But although sadness and fear were part of it for me, especially at the beginning, that’s far from the whole story—and that’s really what I want to write about.
It turns out that finally grokking the knowledge of my mortality in this gut-level way began a spontaneous inquiry that has not stopped to this day—an ongoing, self-generating, and deeply felt contemplation that has been heart opening as well as heartbreaking.
It has also shifted absolutely everything about the way I look at death and, more importantly, how I relate to life.
It seems that some deep and wise part of me understood from the very beginning how unspeakably precious this knowledge of my impending death would be and chose to keep it close at all times.
All my life, whenever I’ve felt insufficient or incomplete (which was most of the time), I would reflexively set off on one of my wild-goose chase searches for happiness by vainly attempting to fix or eliminate whatever I saw as inadequate or missing in me.
These days, whenever that reflex happens and that seeking begins (and I’m talking every single time) it’s as if the knowledge of my own death is right there, sitting on my shoulder, whispering gently, “Don’t forget Russell, you’re going to die soon.”
And this has changed everything.
This simple reminder stops me in my tracks every time. I’m not sure exactly how, and you wouldn’t think it would be enough, but it seems to have the ability to literally short-circuit my obsessive, lifelong efforts at self-improvement—at solving “the Russell problem,” fixing the character, overcoming the conditioning, or anything of the sort.
It just feels like I don’t have any more time to waste worrying about or fretting over this Russel character, his endless shortcomings, or attainments, even his desire to “grow” or “awaken.”
Nope, not one more second.
I’d rather be feeling my footfalls on the pavement as I walk to the hardware store, or sensing the rough edge of a picket fence on my fingertips as I run my hand along it on my way back home.
And it turns out that those footfalls and that picket fence and me just being here, exactly as I am, is enough—more than enough actually.
There are those moments when I really let go, that the most ordinary of things can become absolutely mind-boggling, stunning, and deeply poignant. And, paradoxically, the “character” seems to be flowering and unfolding in all of the wished for ways, far more effortlessly without all of the worrying and fretting—and without any sense of me running the show.
I imagine that living so closely with the knowledge of my own death will fall away at some point and the little reminder voice will fade, having served its purpose. But this voice has allowed me to experience being present to the simplicity of life, without trying to attain something in some imaginary future.
I’ve become conscious of how much I love to be alive.
The funny thing, and another thing I can’t explain, is that in becoming conscious of all of that, it’s also become clearer to me that I’ve always loved being alive. Even when I thought I hated it and even when I was so miserable that death seemed like a viable alternative.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.
I once had a close friend who, after years of horrible circumstances, misery, and self-loathing, decided to take his own life. He went down to his basement, tied one end of an electrical cord around a rafter and the other around his neck, stood up on a stool, and kicked the stool out from under his feet. He told me that the instant the cord snapped tight around his throat, feeling the blood cut off from his brain, and the air cut from his lungs, it hit him—he absolutely loved being alive.
The experience was unlike anything he had ever known. Even with all of the misery, pain, and confusion he knew—he still loved life, had always loved it, and would give absolutely anything for even one more moment of it.
He managed to haul himself up the cord, detach it from the rafter, fall to the floor, and loosen the cord from his neck. He told me later that he often felt as frightened, lost, and confused as he ever had, but that it never occurred to him anymore that he didn’t want to be here—some spark had survived.
I guess the point of all this, if there is one really, is that the fundamental way in which the knowledge of my death has informed my life, is in revealing that happiness requires nothing that isn’t here right now, in me, or my current circumstances.
If happiness or peace has any meaning, it can only be in the recognition in each moment. The simple wonder of ever-present aliveness endlessly expressing itself, in this moment, exactly as it is.
Along with this recognition, and somehow bound up with it, is a growing clarity that I am not a “someone” outside of aliveness that “has” a life or that life is “happening to” me—but rather that same, unfolding aliveness itself.
Within that infinite aliveness, that finite, conditioned character I had always taken myself to be continues to appear. But with less and less power to draw me into his dramas of insufficiency and lack.
At first it seemed (still does, and perhaps always will) as if there were fleeting moments of real clarity about this. That the sense of ease and openness would invariably accompany that clarity, and would come and go, alternating with periods of confusion and contraction. Inevitably, there would be resistance to the confusion and contraction, a longing for the ease and openness to return, and a struggle to try to figure out how to get that to happen.
Gradually, however, the understanding is beginning to dawn that confusion and contraction are, exactly like clarity and openness, equally valid, unfathomable, and miraculous expressions of this same, one aliveness.
This sense of clarity and confusion has come to seem less and less like a problem to be solved, and more and more like the natural flow of life—like high tide and low tide, or sunrise and sunset.
And it turns out that seeing contraction and confusion in this way is the clarity within. The clarity which my experience of those very states effortlessly transmutes—from resistance into the ease and openness that was originally longed for.
I’m not saying that contraction and confusion suddenly disappear, seem pleasant, or anything like that—that’s not the ease I’m talking about.
The ease I’m talking about is the relaxation of my constant and lifelong effort to resist and escape from so-called “negative” or unpleasant experiences (like confusion) and to grasp and maintain so-called “positive” experiences (like clarity).
That relaxation occurs whenever I recognize all experiences as equally valid, natural, and miraculous expressions of aliveness, whatever their shape, color, or flavor. When I remember that experiencing life itself is the miracle, not the apparent content of a specific experience I might be having at any given moment.
I never was and never could have been a someone or a something separate from my experience—any more than the ocean could be separate from, threatened by, or need protection from its own waves, regardless of their shape or size.
Of course, all of this continues to come and go, to seemingly be lost and rediscovered again and again. All of my habitual reactions of grasping and resistance persist, and letting go of my pretense of control still seems terrifying.
But there are early signs of a fundamental shift of some sort, a halting, an unsteady yet growing feeling of ease with the process, including the grasping and the resistance.
There just seems to be less of a need for any of it to be any different than it is right now.
Another welcome result of this shift is an emerging feeling of effortlessness and trust. It’s no longer about having to figure it all out and get it right, but rather another mysterious, fascinating expression of aliveness happening and unfolding all by itself.
I really am starting, at least occasionally, to remember that maybe, just maybe, it would be okay to actually stop for a minute, take a breath, and enjoy the show.
This whole direction is fraught with paradox, and here’s another one. As it becomes clearer that there can be nothing outside of this endless unfolding—that absolutely everything is both a part and the whole of this miraculous expression—then even in my need to have it all figured out, to make it work, to attain something, or get somewhere in order to be complete—even I can finally be allowed to be here just as I am.
And that feels like freedom.