You know those days where you ask yourself, “what is the point of all of this?” Maybe you need to have more of those days.
Why is it only when we are on our deathbeds that we finally get it? In my late teens, when I was a certified nursing assistant working in a nursing home, I sat at many different bedsides with people who were on their way out. Many stories had different words, but the narrative was typically the same: “I wish I spent more time with those I loved and with those who loved me. I worked too much when I was alive and worried about stuff that really doesn’t matter now. I held grudges. I let myself forget about the little things. I lost a lot of quality time. If I could do it differently, I would have lived every day the way I see things today.”
Maybe it is only because we feel free on our deathbed that we allow ourselves to finally let go. We realize this “I” that we perceive to be us will soon be gone, and then suddenly, like a zephyr upon a still moment, we feel a soft enlightenment emerge within. Only then do we realize that no matter how much money we earned, how much worrying we did to control our environment, that this moment here was still going to happen.
Death is your only obligation. When you think about it, everything else in life is optional, because none of it is really going to matter. You’re still going to live a life. You’re going to suffer. You’re going to grow old (hopefully). You’re going to get sick. And yes, you, me, and everyone we know is going to die.
What if we lived every day like we were on our deathbed? What if every day, we reminded ourselves that so much of where we direct our attention and focus is misguided? What if we opened our eyes to the experiences in front of us, the people in front of us, the people we tell ourselves we are but aren’t? Then what? What would be hold onto? What would we renounce? What would be left?
WE’LL GO ANYWHERE BUT HERE
We live our lives like a hand making a tight fist. A great deal of time is spent worrying about stability. We carry stories (read: bullshit) about what a good life is supposed to look like. Our minds are constantly going over these stories, trying to devise a plan so that the story works out just the way we want it to.
We worry about the stability of our homes, and whether or not some new kitchen appliances or television would make us feel more modern. We worry about the stability of our self-image, so we redesign our lives through social media and watch the way we carry ourselves around others to make sure that everyone else is comfortable (except us, of course). We worry about the stability of our relationships and whether or not they’re going to last, and so we make demands of our partners and how they should behave. We hold onto grudges, because we hold onto stories. But are we really living each day then?
Are you really here, in this moment, right now living when your face is buried in your phone, when your mind is wandering somewhere else but is not really here, when you’re “should-ing” yourself and others about how to live a life? There is a difference between existing and living; a difference between being present and just being there.
In this life, there is no stability. Truthfully, you could die today. Nothing is permanent, and yet we live each day as if permanence were possible, as if worrying were going to somehow reduce our suffering. We are really, really good at bullshitting ourselves. Brad Blanton once said, “The mind is a terrible thing. Waste it.”
OUR BRAINS ARE JUST DOING WHAT THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO DO
We are attached to our thoughts, and our brains LOVE it! The brain is imprinted with early memories and stories about who we are and what the world is about. We cannot help this, and we cannot undo it.
Our brains are really just doing what they’re supposed to be doing (see, don’t you feel better now?). This is why no matter how hard we try to “should” ourselves into not having certain thoughts about ourselves and others, even if we’re successful for a time, we always find the same insecurities, doubts, and fears creeping back up. It’s also why we repeat the same relationship patterns all throughout our lives. Wherever you go, there you are.
Most of the time, we don’t notice that our minds are not here. We just sort of go with the flow (or the undertow, depending how you look at it). It’s like how every day gravity is pulling on us, but we don’t notice it. Even when our phones fall out of our hands, we say “oh no, I dropped it,” rather than seeing it as us letting go of the phone and gravity pulling down on it (not to mention that we freak out because we like to use our smartphones to avoid being present). The flow of our minds is just like that. We don’t notice that what it’s doing is something we’re not even in control of, but we think about it as if we are.
It’s really not our fault that our minds are always thinking of anything and everything but this moment here in front of us. Not only is the brain just doing what it does, but on top of that, we are always interacting with a culture and economy that thrives upon capitalizing on our mind’s preference for inattention. This is why we’re all addicts in some way. You might think of addiction in the form of illegal substances, but the mind too is a substance – the most addictive one of them all. And you’ve got to admit, we’re pretty addicted to the way that we think. We are our own worst enemies.
WE’RE AFRAID TO LET GO
As I often say, there’s a difference between knowing and feeling. Some of us know that our minds are doing some crazy ninja-like moves that are out of our control, that we’re enslaved to our minds. We may even unconsciously fear the feeling of not being controlled by our minds and so refuse to give up our stories…just like how a drug addict feels enslaved to their addiction and wants to stop, but fears the withdrawal and uncertainty of life that comes with not being addicted, and so continues to use in a vicious cycle.
We don’t want to let go of who we think we are and what we think we should do with our lives, and yet we still want the feeling of letting go. We chase this feeling in all types of destructive ways, without ever really letting go, paradoxically.
To really let go is to be in this moment. To be in this moment is to be uncertain. To be uncertain means that we might just come face-to-face with the same truths about life that the sick old dying person does on their death bed. Maybe the difference in their acceptance of life’s truths versus our resistance of life’s truths is that they know they have a way out just around the corner, and we don’t! Or do we?
WE CAN’T CHANGE WHAT THE MINDS DOES; WE CAN ONLY CHANGE HOW WE RELATE TO THE MIND
The reason that we resist letting go of our attachment to thoughts and worries is because we don’t want to let go of the stories that weave the fabric of our identity. We don’t want to suffer from the fear and uncertainty of what is here in front of us without those stories, the here-and-now. But virtually everyone would agree that our addiction to our minds also causes suffering.
Suffering is innate to human experience. We spend most of our lives trying to resist suffering; hence our attachment to thoughts and worries, and our indubitable fear of letting go. Those on their deathbeds know that there is no longer any point in resisting suffering, and so only then does enlightenment become possible.
But what if instead of resisting letting go of our mind, instead of resisting suffering, we simply get curious and let our minds do what they’re going to do, observing the whole process as it happens? Does this not immediately change our experience? Does this not directly place us into the here-and-now? Does this not transform the experience of suffering into one of observation without being attached to suffering?
When we practice noticing our minds running the scripts and strategies, we become self-aware. When we become self-aware, we are no longer driven compulsively to respond the usual way. We have created some space, some new options for how to be in this moment. And if we don’t know what to do, at least now know what not to do – to not stop observing our minds doing what they’re doing. In continuing to observe our minds, we can disidentify with the mind, we can challenge its reflex assumption that we are what it tells us we are. We will begin to reflect rather than simply reflex.
Werner Heisenberg, one of the main figures associated with quantum mechanics, once said that “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Although Heisenberg was theoretically talking about quantum mechanics, this adage applies just as equally to self-awareness. Think about it. We are asleep! Even the most enlightened of us are NOT experiencing life directly as it is 99.9% of the time. We are relating to our minds as if our minds ARE us. A mind is a terrible thing. Waste it.
Committing to this moment and this moment only can never increase our suffering, for we are accepting and attending to what is truly in front of us. Only then can we begin to experience some semblance of truth, of what life means, and of the beauty to be found within its brevity. And like the old person who is about to pass away, we too, in that moment, die. But the key difference here is that we can die before it’s too late!
In order to find yourself, you must let go and lose yourself.
FINAL THOUGHTS (NO PUN INTENDED)
There is a greatness to be discovered in the realization that death is our only obligation, and that the everyday thinking we do in our efforts to have “stable” lives paradoxically creates a very unstable life. And in the end, it will all be for nothing. When you are on your deathbed, none of it is going to matter except for that moment. That moment is a choice we can pursue today, right now.
You might as well start using your mind now before it continues to use you. Life is short. Why wait?