The question we are exploring the month of May is: “How shall we live?” This is one of five ‘great questions’ that the world’s enduring faith traditions all explore. It’s a fundamental question we all ask: how do we focus on celebrating the time that is given to us?
We may think this question is a luxury, that only those with time, money and leisure have the space to ask themselves this question. But that’s not the case. We structure our lives and whatever is in our lives with every choice we make, every judgment we form. All of us have the freedom to determine how we shall live.
My research and inspiration for this talk comes from Wayne Muller, from his book entitled How, Then, Shall We Live? For those who don’t know him, Wayne Muller is a minister, author and speaker, therapist, and founder of Bread for the Journey, an organization serving families in need.
The 4 Questions That Frame Our Lives
In his book, Muller discusses four main questions that he believes frame our lives. These questions are: “Who am I? What do I love? How shall I live, knowing I will die?” and “What is my gift to the family of the earth?” It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking book, and I recommend it to you.
The question we are exploring today is “How Shall I Live?”, but that’s only a partial title of the chapter. Strange as it is to be exploring this question with spring exploding around us, the complete title of the chapter is “How Shall I Live, Knowing I Will Die?”
Stay with me on this, and let’s not give in to our immediate impulse to avoid the topic entirely. Give me a few minutes, and let’s see what this topic can teach us, how indeed it can lift us and help clarify for us more sweetly the beauty of our lives.
This topic has been on my mind lately. The last few months have seen an extraordinary number of deaths in my circle of family, friends and acquaintances. I have had to be present more with the passing of loved ones.
Muller writes that in the Bhagavad Gita the question is asked “Of all the world’s wonders, what is the most wonderful?” The answer is given, “That no man, though he sees others dying around him, believes he himself will die.”
Accepting Death is a Part of Living
I think we all know intellectually that we are going to die, but I sometimes think we don’t live as if we do. We live as though we have all the time in the world. I know I do – I waste a massive amount of time.
We spend our days in mindless stuff and often unproductive relationships. We tell ourselves we’ll make the changes we want to make when the kids are older, when we have more money, when a hundred other conditions are met. We live as though our time is unlimited.
It’s good not to live every day in fear of death, and I’m not saying we should. Death and dying shouldn’t occupy us. However, ironically, I think we become more occupied with death when we refuse to accept that it’s coming – when we run from the truth of it. When we accept it, that acceptance can change how we live our days because every one is precious and unreplaceable.
In his book, Muller tells the story of a young man named Paul, who was dying of cancer (149). Muller writes that Paul’s approaching death clarified his life. Through that lens, he saw what was true, precious, and valuable in life.
Being Aware of Death Helps Us Focus On What Matters
Many practices incorporate awareness of death in order to help us focus on what matters in our one precious life. Buddhism incorporates the practice of maranasati, or ‘death awareness’, reminding us that our life is impermanent and is to be treasured and spent wisely.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches: “Life is impermanent. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly.”
The Stoics focus on their practice of memento mori – remember that you will die. Not to be morbid or fearful, but to remember that every day is a precious gift. They realized that knowing we will die is the key to living life fully, joyfully and completely, and gratefully.
Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time. (Seneca)
We Can Change Our Focus Any Time We Want To
We often don’t focus on what truly matters, what really makes us happy, until circumstances just knock us off the rails of our normal life. Muller tells another story of a woman named Kirsten, who also was diagnosed with cancer. She assembled a team of doctors and other healers, she read and learned all she could about her illness. She had surgery, went through chemotherapy. She also used other healing techniques including herbs, acupuncture, and other techniques.
She also rearranged her life. She cut back at work, spent time at home by herself and with friends, meditated, worked more in her garden. She had always wanted to paint, and she started. She asked herself, if not now, when?
Muller writes that he and other friends looked on, and worried about her ability to weather this challenge. Then they looked again, and realized that because of her diagnosis she was doing exactly what she wanted to do with her life. He wrote that he and her other friends were actually feeling a bit jealous of her – here she was living her life in ways that lifted her up.
They then realized how crazy that was – their time was finite as well and there was nothing stopping them from making the same changes in their lives! He didn’t need any what he called ‘magical permission’ to create a life that brought him joy (155).
Kirsten fortunately survived, but she kept many of the changes in her life. She told Muller: “I am so grateful for my life. I don’t take anything for granted. Every day is a miracle. Before, I would just make it through the day, as if it was all just work. Now I feel such joy to just be alive each day. I am much happier, life is lighter. I only give my care and attention to what is really important – being loving, being kind, creating beauty, being grateful.” (155).
We don’t have to receive a terrifying diagnosis to make changes in our lives. And when we can make those changes, our focus changes. We celebrate the truth that every day we have is a gift.
5 Practices to Create Lives of Joy and Depth
In his book, Muller writes that if we know we will die, we also know fully that we are alive. This knowing gives rise to five practices he believes help us create lives of joy and depth.
Acceptance of the truth of impermanence is acceptance of the truth. It frees us to live each day with clarity and awareness, without attachment to outcomes we cannot control or even see.
We simply live each day present to the wonder that is in it.
Muller tells the story of Buddhist teacher Aachan Chah, who had a student ask him, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?”
He held up a glass and said: “Someone gave me this glass. I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and really glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow if off my shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. This glass is already broken. Even as I hold it in my hand I know it is already on the floor in pieces, so I enjoy it incredibly.”
Chan is living the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. In his example, he could enjoy the present reality of his beautiful glass, knowing it would break and be gone. He didn’t diminish his pleasure in the glass right now by investing himself in the delusion it would last forever. Such attachment brings needless suffering.
Does this resonate with anyone?
We search so hard for answers, believing that anything worth having requires a fight to get it. We push, and if we fall short we push harder, exhausting ourselves in the process.
Even with spiritual practices, don’t we? We set standards and berate ourselves if we don’t accomplish them. I should be doing better . . .
This is not what the great teachers taught. Jesus said: “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. . . . My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Buddhist teaching in the Dhammapada is that simple purity of thought will bring happiness that will follow us as reliably as our own shadow.
The Tao teaches the way of effortless action, or wu wei. Strength lies in natural action, actions in alignment with the flow of life. If you are pushing, you are not in the flow. Like water, resistance wears down the rock; going around the rock is in alignment with its own nature.
Lao Tzu said: “Whoever forces it spoils it. Whoever grasps it loses it.”
The lesson here is stop pushing, stop punishing yourself for falling short. Stop, listen, rest, and you will hear the right path and the right action. Stop pushing – your heart will tell you what you value, what you love.
Looking at each day as a gift brings an energy of the sacred and wonderful to everything in it. Remember, the world is a holy place — all of it.
One of my favorite wisdom teachers of the current age, Father Richard Rohr, teaches that organized religion sometimes makes the mistake, and people buy into it, that the world is divided into the sacred and what many call the profane, or worldly. We have our regular times during the week, and then on a particular day at the appointed time we go to church, temple, synagogue, or mosque, and we participate in the holy. When we’re done, we’re strengthened for our jump back into the worldly as we leave the building and leave the holy behind.
Not so. It is all holy, and we uncover that truth when we approach life with that awareness. As St. Teresa said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”
There is no distinction between the sacred and the rest of life. Martin Buber taught: “It is not the nature of the task but its consecration. That is the vital thing.”
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of doing dishes (one of my perennial chores!). He wrote:
To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it really is quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!
He challenges us to open our eyes and awaken to the truth that, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The world is in truth a holy place.” It is that awareness that moves us beyond theology, beyond theory, to practice, to real life, and to awakening.
Muller tells us:
A life is made of days. Each day is an opportunity to say something honestly, to make something more beautiful, to create something precious, to give a gift only we can provide for the family of the earth. To dedicate a single act to the healing of others is a day well lived.
Simple things add up to days well lived, a life well lived. Ecclesiastes teaches that, “There is nothing better for you than to find joy in what you are given to do, for doing is your lot. And none can see what the future holds.”
What is before you to do? It may not be grand gestures or newsworthy moments. It may be holding the hand of a loved one, comforting a child, tending a garden, caring for an animal.
Our days are filled with busyness, with rushing from one thing to the next. Our lives become so much richer, more textured, when we slow down, for one thing at a time.
Jack Kornfield and his family lived for a time in Thailand, and he wrote of his transition back to America. He kept losing everything, forgetting things, locking himself out of the house, and it concerned him. He finally realized it was because in Thailand they did one thing at a time, finished it and moved on to the next. In America we do four things at a time.
Gratitude is the energy of cocreation, of wonder. Brother David Steindl-Rast calls gratefulness “A spontaneous response of the human heart to the gratuitously given.”
To the gratuitously given – nothing we earn or buy. The wonder of life freely given – the smile of another person, a beautiful day, a flower in bloom. We don’t see them until we wake up to the knowledge that we are surrounded by them.
Living in gratitude changes the energy of your days – you see it all differently. And not because all is going so well – it may not be. Our lives are still transformed by gratefulness for the good things that are there.
Gratefulness is also the energy of connection – we see that we are tied into the fabric of the whole of creation. A traditional prayer before meals in many Buddhist monasteries is “72 labors brought us this food – we should know how it comes to us.” The monks teach themselves to be aware for the earth, the sunlight, the water, the laborers who tilled the earth, those who harvested and brought the food to market, those who prepared it – all those persons and elements that together brought this food to them.
Living in gratefulness keeps us aware of the wonders surrounding us.
This is not a talk about death – it is a talk about life. And about how you want to live the precious days in front of you, however many you have.
The heart of most spiritual practice is simply this: remember. Remember who you are. Remember what you love. Remember what is sacred. Remember what is true. Remember that you will die, and that this day is a gift. Remember how you wish to live. (Muller)
We can do that right now, and what a blessing that is. Thank you.
Watch Rev. Melanie’s talk now…[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fM30KyD_Jds[/embedyt]
Author: Rev. Melanie Eyre, Interfaith Minister
Spiritual Leader of One World Spiritual Center
Founder of North Fulton Interfaith Alliance