I’ll be turning 70 in just 2 months—yipes! And I’m definitely noticing a gradual change in the tenor of my life. In former decades, it was all about births and weddings and exciting possibilities. Now it seems to be about funerals and hospital visits and wondering when my first major health crisis will hit. If this sounds like a bummer, it should. But actually, it’s not such a big problem because I have a practice.
The mind and body eventually deteriorate but apparently one’s practice just continues to grow ever stronger and clearer. My mind seems to be declining in a linear fashion, whereas “my mindful” seems to be growing exponentially.
For me, that practice provides direct contact with the forces of life (Expansion) and death (Contraction). There are two sides to this:
(Expansion and Contraction gush out and gather in simultaneously)
(Expansion and Contraction mutually cancel out into Gone).
Being formless, these experiences are a kind of death but a good kind of death…a death in the service of life.
Goethe (following in the tradition of Heraclitus) describes it in his Holy Longing poem:
Sagt es niemand, nur den Weisen,
Weil die Menge gleich verhöhnet:
Das Lebendge will ich preisen,
Das nach Flammentod sich sehnet.
. . .
Keine Ferne macht dich schwierig,
Kommst geflogen und gebannt,
Und zuletzt, des Lichts begierig,
Bist du, Schmetterling, verbrannt.
Und solang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.
Tell it to no one but the wise
For most will mock it right away
The truly living do I prize
Those who long in flame to die.
. . .
Distance cannot slow your flight
Spellbound through the air you’re borne
Til at last mad for the light
You are a butterfly, then…gone.
And until you know of this:
How to grow through death
You’re just another troubled guest
On the gloomy earth.
Once you know of this, it very much changes how you think about your own physical death. I recently found myself summarizing this change with the laconic (and perhaps to some enigmatic) sentence:
The more dead you are in life,
the more alive you’ll be after death.
(Understanding that dead here refers to the enlivening death you experience when you melt in the formless Fountain of Youth.).
These phrases translate nicely into Chinese (read the right column first):