There Are Few Things We Can Go Back To
This third year of practicing living as though this is my last year to live is drawing to a close. I find my days soaked in noticing transitions. Maybe it has something to do with listening to the great teacher Ken McLeods’ podcast series Death: Friend or Foe (www.unfetteredmind.org). Transitions; seeing things as fluid; experiencing things as they change. It stands to reason that since life is, continually, about going through transitions then it may behoove us to learn how to go through transitions skillfully, without turmoil. Afterall, Death is but another transition.
So what? Well, Ken says: the adept practitioner anticipates [change] earlier and navigates through in a more skillful way without getting battered.
And how? Well, we can always go back to the fundamental practice of developing skillful ways. The fundamental practice of ‘noticing the breath’. As soon as one uses time to, simply, notice the breath going in and going out, one becomes more skillful in noticing change. We can always go back to the breath until there is no more.
Step Two – where the fun really begins!
In honor of this anniversary, all those who may aspire to a Mindful Dying, and Living, and, the one and only Stephen Levine, author and practitioner of A Year To Live, an excerpt from an early chapter of his book: “Noticing”:
What we describe as “our life” is not the sum total of what has passed through our hands but what has passed through our minds. Our life is not only a collection of people and places, it is a continuum of the ever-changing feelings they engender. As one practitioner said, “even our past has a life of its own. It isn’t only what you’ve touched, it’s what you’ve felt of what you touched.”
To know your life is to know intimately what you are feeling. Or, to put it another way: to be aware of what state of mind predominates in consciousness. This noting of mental states encourages a deeper recognition of what is happening while it is happening. It allows us to be more fully alive to the present rather than living our life as an afterthought. It enables us to watch with mercy, if not humor, the uninvited swirl of “mixed emotions” not as something in need of judgment but as a work in progress.
The mind is in a constant state of flux. No thought, no feeling, no sensation lasts more than an instant before it is transformed into the next state, the next thought, the next sensation. Our life lasts only a moment. Note those moments. Acknowledge to yourself, silently in the heart, the various states passing through. Call them by name. Note ‘fear’, note ‘doubt’, note ‘compassion’ as these states pass through. Let this naming of states be a gentle whisper in the heart, not a grasping at conceptual straws in the mind.
Notice anticipation, note disappointment or expectation. Watch the process of mind unfold moment by moment, thought by thought, feeling by feeling. As they pass through, note such states as confidence, bewilderment, effort, trust, pleasure, discomfort, betrayal, boredom, devotion, inquiry, anger, desire, desire, desire.
This technique becomes refined through practice. To begin with, close your eyes, focus the attention inward, and count how many states of mind come and go in just five minutes. At first we may notice only a dozen or so. But as the method of relating to those states, instead of compulsively reacting to them, develops, they no longer distract us from our observations and they are gradually exposed to inquiry, joining the line up with all the other suspects.
…Eventually, we may notice literally hundreds of subtle changes in those five minutes… When Socrates suggested we should know ourselves, this was the level he was referring to. When we recall the statement “Physician, heal thyself’, this is where the healing begins… It allows the healing in. And as we observe the appearance of things, we more easily acknowledge their subsequent disappearance, and so come to an appreciation of impermanence.
This practice of self-awareness that began with just five minutes of noting passing states initiates a noting that continues throughout the day. At first we notice not so much what the state is but simply that a change has occurred. Once we can see the major shifts from opened to closed, from liking to disliking, we will be able to acknowledge them before they gain momentum. At this stage we perhaps notice fear sooner than kindness. As the process becomes more refined, we are to note subtler arisings more quickly, until we come to recognize the states before they can even clear their throat to speak by the unique pattern each generates in the body.
It can be hard to die when we have forgotten so often that we are alive. Noting is a remembering of the present. It creates a living trust
How many states of mind in five minutes? How often has our life passed unnoticed? How soon will we accept this opportunity to be fully alive before we die? “
And Be Fully Alive As Our Last Great Transition Begins
May we each, and all, become skilled at navigating transitions. Go back to the practice and it will be different every time. No reruns.
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P.S. The photo of The Angel of Death was found on ‘bsamedigede.tumblr.com via Pinterest. It was taken in Stagliano, Italy and is an example of the increasing amount of art depicting Death as beautiful, peaceful, and kind.