A month or so ago I attended the UU Ministers’ Spring Retreat. The program theme for the retreat was death. We talked together in pairs and small groups contemplating the end of our own lives, reflecting on the losses we’ve experienced, and grieving the violence in our nation that disproportionately takes the lives of black and brown men. And inevitably, we spent some time imagining what might happen to us after death.
Maybe sitting around discussing death for several days in a row sounds a little bit depressing. But it wasn’t at all. Instead it was delightful and clarifying. When I contemplate those last moments in my body – assuming I have the presence of mind to be aware of such things – I know that more than anything I do not want to have any regrets about how I lived my life. The retreat served for me as a reaffirmation and further clarity of my life’s priorities. It confirmed for me the choices I am making to be fully alive while I have the chance.
So today I want to talk to you about your life before death. I want to lift up the fact that you have the choice right now – and in every moment which you will experience as “now” – you have the choice to align yourself with the flow of life or to resist what is happening. You can make the choice to be awake and fully present to the experience of being alive or you can shift into autopilot and concern yourself with your various habitual worries. Every day you can decide to look your beloveds in the eye and really see them, right down to their dazzling, holy core or you can squander your precious attention on trivialities.
We are here on this planet for such a brief visit, friends. None of us knows when our life will be over. But we are alive now. What a tremendous miracle! And we have a chance in every moment to make the most of it.
Life is meant to be joyful and its purpose is Love.
The truth is that many of us, maybe even most of us, walk around a just little bit deadened, closed off, disconnected from ourselves and from others. Enveloped in a fog of fear. Choked by regret. Terrified of what the future holds.
We are afraid of some sort of Bad Thing happening.
But you know what? When I look back at my own life and I pick out a few of the “Bad Things” that have happened – events that at the time seemed unequivocally horrible – each of them provided me with a unique opportunity to grow and to learn something important that then helped guide me into the next phase of my life. My experience of life has been made richer because of them – even, or maybe especially, those times when my heart was broken and I thought all was lost. So it begs the question: are those events truly “bad” if as a result I now walk through the world with more appreciation for beauty and the simple gifts of friendship and love? Who is to say whether any particular event is truly good or bad? Anything that happens in your life, even loss, can be an opportunity to move into deeper connection and more love with the people around you.
Here’s the thing we all know. Fear strangles love. Anxiety scrambles our channels so we can’t think clearly. Guilt and shame bind us so tightly that we lose our natural ability to freely and easily reach out to one another in vulnerability and tenderness. Our egos are always on the lookout for danger. Bless their little hearts, they think the best way to protect us is by trying to get everything under their control.
If I could just get the pantry cleaned out… If only my finances were in order…. If only my kid (or my partner or my friend) would just make the right choice… If only the external world would just bend a little then I’d be happy and at peace.
But that’s not the way to peace, friends. Even if the house were spotless, and everyone you care about was making choices you approve of, even if everything you could point to in your life were in perfect order, it is unlikely that true and everlasting peace would descend upon you. The inevitability of change means that nothing stays the same. In time something or another will once again rear up and begin to vex you.
Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh writes, “We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds- our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.”
He says we need to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. But how do we do that? I think first we have to understand it. The urge for violence comes from the ego – it is a protective reaction based on its own delusion of separateness and isolation. It is the part of us that fears humiliation and rejection and abandonment because, ultimately, it is the part of us that fears death.
But there is also something within each of us that resides deeper than the ego. This more subtle part rests in the awareness of our connectedness – to one another and to the source of life and love – to the experience of the Holy. We experience this blessed part of our being when we bring our awareness into contact with the present moment.
The answer is not about controlling the external world. What most of us do most of the time is attempt to relieve our anxiety through all the wrong methods. As the queen in the story I told earlier discovered, it is be far simpler to wear shoes on our feet than to attempt to cover the world in leather. It is our own responses to the external world that will ultimately smooth the path before us.
The other day I was late to meet a friend at her doctor’s appointment where she was going to be receiving the results of a biopsy. I could see that there were two open parking places on the opposite side of the road so I drove up a little ways and made a U-turn in the middle of the street. When I got turned around and was about to pull into one of the diagonal spaces a man appeared there standing in the middle of the space. He yelled over at me, “Hey, sorry dude. But I’m saving this for my friend.”
Okay, whatever, I thought. There was still that other spot. As I began to back out of the first space and re-park in the next one over this other car zipped in from the other side of the street. I had my blinker on and was heading straight into that space. There is no way the driver didn’t know I was planning to park there.
So here I had a situation in which a reaction of anger and frustration would be entirely warranted. I could have gotten mad and felt completely justified in telling one or both of the people off. But I’ve been practicing noticing and letting go of my ego’s resistance to what is happening in the present moment. So this time I shrugged and drove on and found a place to park around the corner. I met my friend in plenty of time and all was well.
Let me tell you though, it was an effort to shrug it off. I felt the tug of all that negative energy – the seduction of self-righteous anger. It wasn’t that I buried those feelings. I’ve just gotten better at recognizing when my ego wants to throw a tantrum.
Without ego there can be no injury. If a tree had suddenly fallen across the spot I would not have been offended. I would have accepted it as simply what had happened. But my ego, always on the lookout for insult, felt the need to defend “my spot” from those who would take it from me.
If I had chosen to stand my ground, fight and win back the parking spot I might have been able to tell a victorious story of vindication. But the truth is I’ve gone down that road before. I know that engaging in a battle like that, no matter how triumphant I might have been, would have left me with some amount of poison in my system for the rest of the day. It just wasn’t worth my peace of mind.
What we do with our attention matters. My true goal was simply to park my car somewhere so I could go meet my friend. I could have indulged my ego. I could have given in to my inner resistance but in that moment I chose to go with the flow of life. And it felt so much better.
I am both inspired and challenged by these words from the spiritual teacher Adyashanti:
“What if you let go of every bit of control and every urge that you have, right down to the most infinitesimal urge to control anything, anywhere, including anything that may be happening with you at this moment? If you were able to give up control absolutely, totally, and completely, then you would be a spiritually free being.”
We can achieve a sense of peace not by gaining ultimate control but by realizing that true harmony is in the letting go.
Peace comes when love, and our sense of connectedness with the Source of Life, God, loosens the grip of fear. We can have faith that even if it doesn’t go well, even if we get hurt by taking the risk, there is a deeper safety that we can trust with our whole being.
Listen to this poem I love by Rashani called The Unbroken:
There is a brokenness
Out of which comes the unbroken,
A shatteredness out
Of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is sorrow
Beyond all grief which leads to joy
And a fragility
Out of which emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness
We are sanctified into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
Whose serrated edges cut the heart
As we break open
To the place inside which is
Unbreakable and whole.
Friends, no matter what you believe about what happens after we die, what a tremendous blessing it is to have this one brief lifetime together on the planet.
If we are going to uproot violence from our hearts, this is how we begin. Start to notice in your relationships with your friends and family when your defenses kick up, when you are clinging, resisting, or hiding. You can decide to look past your ego and its seductive defenses, look below your inner resistance and see instead what is actually happening. You can choose anew each day, and in each moment to see into the hearts of those you love. But we need one another’s help, we cannot do it alone.
I imagine hell to be a place where beings writhe and moan with dissatisfaction, mired in fear, seeing no way out. Those times I’ve gotten stuck in my ego defense felt like being stuck at the bottom of a deep well. I was aware that I was in it. I could just barely see the light at the top of the well. But I couldn’t seem to get out on my own. I’ve found that when someone who loves me is willing to see past my ego’s struggle and fight to my true divine and loving self – and they reflect that back to me – I can begin to climb back up into the light.
I imagine heaven to be a place of peace and fearlessness. Here, now with these other beings we get to practice loving, forgiving and seeing beyond the ego to the spiritual truth of who and what we really are. I believe in my heart of hearts that life is meant to be joyful. That happiness is our natural state. We are here to learn to let go of our resistance and simply love one another. Let us choose heaven over hell!
May it be so, Amen, blessed be, peace
 Thích Nhất Hạnh, Living Buddha, Living Christ