Let me respectfully
life and death
are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by
and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken. Take heed.
Do not squander
--- Zen Meditation
We are sitting in a circle in the dome. Natalie Goldberg has just rung the bell. Silence descends upon the group and we begin to watch our breath, breathing in and out.
Outside, the wind crosses the Sangre de Christo mountains in whispers, rustling the grasses below the window at The Lama Foundation. Five minutes pass and then she begins to chant. Her voice is other-worldly: a monosyllabic chant that fills the dome with a deep and steady vibration.
"Let. Me. Respectfully. Remind. You . . . . Life. And. Death. Are. Of. Supreme. Importance . . . . . . . Time. Swiftly. Passes. By. And. Opportunity. Is. Lost . . . Each. Of. Us. Should. Strive. to. Awaken . . . . . Awaken. . . . . Take. Heed. . . . . Do. Not. Squander. Your. Life. . . . . . Awaken. . . . . . . . Awaken . . . . . . . Awaken . . . . ."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I had arrived on the mountain broken, grieving the loss of one of my dearest friends -- my travel companion and professional colleague-- who had taken his own life less than two weeks earlier. I had known of his mental anguish; he had shared with me his struggles with the dark shadow of depression. But I thought he had it mastered. Not long before his passing we listened to Big Band music and laughed and watched dancers swing around the dance floor. Not long before his passing he sat on my couch and cracked jokes. Not long before his passing he opened my fridge to look for a Coke. Not long before his passing he said to me, "Have you signed up for that writing workshop you wanted to attend?"
Why hadn't I seen it coming? I never suspected that he had formulated a plan --- that he had resolved to carry out his intent to end his own life. Like a wave of tar, dark and incapacitating, the void that was left in his wake was a great emptiness -- a numbness that reached deep into my bones. To cope, I shifted into professional mode, playing the role of the teacher and showing up to work. I even traveled to another country to attend a professional conference.
But by day four I could no longer hold up the image of normalcy. Early in the morning, without warning, while sitting alone at the linen-clothed table for a six a.m. breakfast at the conference hotel, I broke down and wilted into a puddle of tears. Before me sat a plate of scrambled eggs, fruit, and hot coffee. But it all seemed meaningless. Going through the mechanical actions of lifting a fork to the mouth, chewing, and then swallowing, seemed a ridiculous act. Couldn't everyone see that my friend was DEAD? That life as we know it would NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN? I stared at the coffee, steaming before me. It appeared to be from someone else's life-- a projection of a film, on someone else's table. Everything around me --- the palm trees outside and the restaurant tables, along with the distant chatter of hotel guests --- seemed to be happening to a stranger. What was happening before me had nothing to do with me. I was going through the motions of another person's life.
And then the sobbing started. Not the soft whimpers of a gentle grief. No, not that. These sobs were the deep sobs of the toddler, the kind that well up from deep in the belly, and escape unfettered- loud and unrestrained. I felt a hand on my arm. Looking up through my tears, I could see the concerned face of a colleague. "Are you okay?" she asked. But once again, I felt as if I were acting in another person's film and I couldn't answer. I couldn't speak. I couldn't even feel embarrassed. I could only feel the waves of grief wash over me like a great sea. Nothing else mattered than crying this grief... than letting it out before it burned holes within me. I stumbled up to my room and continued to sob uncontrollably for hours. I thought there was a considerable chance that I was losing my mind-- that this is what happened to people who went wild with grief and never returned from the land of sorrow. Perhaps I needed to be admitted to a hospital somewhere.
And then I slept. And then I woke up and sobbed again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
One week later my grief brings me, wounded and tender, to the The Lama Foundation, and to this sitting meditation, to the sound of the bell. The words strike a chord within me, resonating with my loss, urging me to use my time wisely. To not squander this time -- this precious life. I had thought my friend would be alive, to travel and laugh with, for many years to come. And he's gone. His death: a reminder that this life is short. Honor the time you have with your loved ones. Tell them that you love them. Often.
My legs are crossed on the zafu. My back is straight. My eyes are closed as Natalie's words fall over me like a warm and prickling waterfall. I am no longer numb. I am awake. I am alive. In this moment, I really GET what Emily Dickinson means when she writes that she knows she is hearing poetry because it makes her physically feel as if the top of her head were taken off. I am moved, and something much like water fills the void.
Wisdom -- like art, like poetry--- reminds us that we are part of something bigger. We are fish swimming in a wide, immense ocean. We are small and our life is short and our time here is ever so brief.
* * * * * * *
The next day I travel to town, and visit my friend NJ. On her bathroom wall, in a glass frame, I see the very same words of the meditation that Natalie has just chanted on the mountain. I take out my cell phone and snap a photo of it.
Hours later, while reading the "Zen Mountain Monastery Liturgy Manual" at Wired? Cafe, I see that there, on page 47, are the same words in "Evening Gatha", shouting and laughing with me in all its black and white print glory.
When the same message comes to you in three forms in less than 48 hours, you take note.
You take out your cell phone, once again, and snap a photo of it over the cafe pond that holds the fish.
Synchronicity is one way the Universe says, "Awaken.... Awaken....Awaken...."
A fish in the water's not thirsty.