Has anyone ever told you that you take yourself too seriously? Or maybe you remember a past conversation when you confided to a friend, “Oh, he takes himself so seriously that it’s hard to be around him.” Serious people believe everything that they think and feel, even without examining what underlies their thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. Not questioning one’s answers about life can seem like a safe and secure way to live, but such an approach will not place you in touch with Reality.
Think of a time when you felt very serious. Wasn’t it accompanied by a sense of being constricted, tight, shut down? Then compare it to a time when you were feeling joyous. Didn’t you feel free and expansive? Individuals who take themselves very seriously bring up, for me, a visual of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, the monumental sculpture he created for a group work titled The Gates of Hell. There he sits all bent over, tensed up, chin in hand, heavily thinking with an expression that looks like Excedrin headache number forty-seven is pounding in his head. The work is so convincing you can almost hear him saying, “I’m a thinker, and I’m thinking my way into solving the mystery of existence.”
In contrast, it always brings a smile to my mind when I substitute that image with that of Siddhartha Gautama, who became a Buddha, meaning “awakened one.” There he sits, buoyantly floating on a lotus flower, a blissful smile on his face because he woke up to the Real—no quandaries, no seriousness. He reduced his awareness to the utter simplicity of Being. The weight of judgments, opinions, beliefs, and concepts were replaced by pure awareness of the Real. (Just writing this practically transports me into a joyous state of consciousness!)
The Nectar of Laughter
Speaking of the Buddha, I’m reminded of a story I heard about a Zen teacher who studied the dharma and meditated for many, many years. His students said that when he became enlightened he laughed for two solid days, developing such a spasm he nearly died from laughter. Laughter takes us out of time. For a microsecond, we become extemporal, transported into the gap, a timeless dimension of the Real where we aren’t caught, snagged, or snared by our narrow little perceptions, points of view, cherished beliefs, thinking our way into rationalizing, and justifying our existence.
Laughter is nectar that flows directly from the soul. It has nothing to do with our circumstances. When we laugh, we touch our inner luminosity. Laughter liberates us from the thinking mind and presents us with precious moments of spontaneous meditation where there arises a super-
aliveness. Laughter transports us back to an inherent memory of oneness with all life, before all of our conditioning into “normalcy” began. When our laughter is absolutely genuine, we can hear the whisper of our inner spirit assuring us that we may recapture our joy, that we may reclaim our original nature made in the image and likeness of Spirit and be a conscious co-creator, an artist of our own life.
Meanwhile, it is very healthy to be able to laugh at ourselves. If you have difficulty doing this, then ask a few of your friends what they laugh at about you behind your back. They aren’t being two-faced, because more often than not, these qualities endear you to them. If they’re really honest, they’ll tell you and give you a great opportunity to laugh at yourself.
Recently, Rickie, my wife, was playfully making fun of how I speak, claiming that I’m a media person’s nightmare. Then she began imitating my antics, like how I move around on the dais when speaking. “You run over here, you jump in the air, you dance. They’re even threatening to draw a circle on the dais floor to keep you within its parameters!” Someone who really loves you will help you to good-naturedly laugh at yourself and shake off, loosen up your all-caught-upness about your self-image. They also shine a light on those aspects of ourselves that we haven’t quite refined, where our potential has not yet fully actualized. Humor is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom introduces us to Reality. Excerpt from Spiritual Liberation: Fulfilling Your Soul’s Potential. Michael Beckwith is an ordained minister of Religious Science, and a New Thought leader. He is the founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center in Beverly Hills, California.
María Lorena Ramirez Hernández lives a pastoral life in Copper Canyon (land of Tarahumaras) except from when she participates in long-distance running competitions. Lorena has own dozens of marathons and ultramarathons world-wide despite running in sandals; however, her favorite place to be is with her family, in the prairies, running in the Canyon in silence.
Lorena, Light-Footed Woman is a 2019 documentary film directed by Juan Carlos Rulfo and starring Lorena Ramirez, Mario Ramírez (brother) and Santiago Ramírez (father).
1619 Podcast, emerged on the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American Slavery. A NYTimes collaboration that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” – We invite you to listen to Episode 3- exposing how “Black music, forged in captivity, became the sound of complete artistic freedom. It also became the sound of America.” (released Sept 6, 2019)
In July of 2020, beloved ServiceSpace friends Kozo Hattori, and Sue Cochrane, came together for a virtual conversation in the presence of community. Both were navigating stark realities with cancer. Their luminous exchange was threaded with laughter, insight, tender truths, poignant moments and profound life-wisdom. Kozo peacefully “changed address,” on March 1st, 2021. His transition came just weeks after Sue’s own passing. What follows is an edited selection of excerpts from the conversation between these two extraordinary beings. Though they never met in person, they were kindred spirits. Each left behind an incandescent legacy of courage and love.
Kozo Hattori: Rise up from the deep, deep ocean to the highest heavens. I learned this Hawaiian prayer the morning that my friend’s mother died. I was one of her caregivers and she passed about three hours after I left. I was sad and then I realized that this prayer was telling her soul to rise up from the deepest ocean. It was a very appropriate prayer. I did it at her memorial service and now in this moment I feel like the prayer is telling me to Rise Up —to the occasion, rise up and let your soul confront what it’s meant to. I thought it was an appropriate prayer for today.
We’ve been on quite a journey since our last conversation.
Sue Cochrane: A lot has happened since I last saw you and I think this topic is perfect. My scans showed cancer progression in the brain. Last time there was 14 tumors and the radiation department zapped all of them. This time there were 11, and 7 of them were very tiny, like little pinpoints and then 4 were larger. We radiated the 4. They recommended whole brain radiation and that’s when my attachment to my brain came up.
I love my brain. I’ve used it to live and I’ve used it in service. I felt this resistance. Everyone was worried. And there were also two new liver tumors– the immunosuppressive therapy was no longer working. I’m learning to use this experience as compost. My therapist once told me, “You’ve called me, and you’ve told me all these things — and something stinks — could you move that pile into the garden instead of holding it in front of your face?” (laughs) And I am thinking of that now. How can I compost these feelings in the garden?
I am in a better place now than I have been in this whole time. I wrote a post on Caringbridge, titled ‘No Mud No Lotus.’ I mucked around. I had sadness, I had fear. But that evolved into, “I feel ready to be living my fullest life right now.” Thank you Kozo for asking.
How are you?
Kozo: I had a test and one of the things in my gut was the same size it hadn’t grown. And the other grew .9 cm and it grew by 20%. It was kind of a mixed result because one grew and the other didn’t. They suggested chemo – not curative chemo it’s called palliative chemo, and it’s chemo to make the end of my life easier and once you start it you continue to the end. So that was kind of a mysterious test result. But I have the blessing of having some amazing healers in my corner — one of them is on the call today, this amazing intuitive functional medicine MD named Cynthia Li, and they all asked similar questions: “How are you feeling? How is your energy?” I was good! I was sleeping well, I was eating. I was playing with my kids. The oncologist asked me, “Have you been able to get outside?” And I said, “Yeah, I walk the dogs every day.”
Sue: That’s wonderful! I feel almost guilty that I feel so good. It’s a lot of spiritual and mental medicine. My qi gong teacher says there is no bad energy– there is only good, better, and best. And it sometimes is stuck in the wrong place so we need to move it.
Kozo: I’m reading this book that Anne Veh gifted me, it’s called ‘Angels in Her Hair’ by Lorna Byrne — when she was young everyone thought she was slow but she was actually talking to angels the whole time. She never told anybody. We have all these angels around us. In physical form — friends, family – but also spiritual angels– I have my Hawaiian ancestors, and also the archangels — I was telling Pavi, “I’m living life with all these angels around me helping me learn the lessons that are here and if I do pass, I am going to pass in the arms of angels.” It’s a win-win situation. I live with angels now and if I pass I am in the arms of angels.
I was reading that book this morning and in it the angels came to Lorna and said, “Your dad’s going to pass” and she asks, “Why are you telling me this?” And they say, ” Because you need to help him.” He passed at 56 on St Patrick’s Day. I had this intuitive sense —(could be wrong) — that that was me…I am 55 now. I feel like I’ve given them [my sons] what they need to continue. I just had that come up, and I am at ease with all the possibilities and the mystery.
Sue: I have focused on the question — have my boys learned from me what I wanted to pass on? Also there’s a quote that has freed me from worrying about them as much as I used to. Before I share it I want to share something that some of you may have heard before, I heard it from my meditation teacher who said, “Imagine the world is covered by water and there is one hoop on it being blown around on from north to south and east to west, and once every hundred years a turtle shows up — what are the odds of the turtle popping up exactly through the hoop? Those are the same odds of being born as a human.” The message of the story was: Don’t waste this precious opportunity.
Here is the quote that really helped me: “Neither mother nor father nor any relative can do as much good as your own well directed mind.” One of my sons says I’ve taught this to him, and one of my other sons says whenever he’s in a challenging situation he asks, “What would Mom do?”
Kozo: I think of Kahlil Gibran: Your children are not your children. They are the arrows that spring forth from our bows. As parents we need to stay firm so that the arrow will fly straight. I feel like all the work — actually sadhana is the right word — all the practices that we’re doing, our chanting, qi gong, our diets, our meditation and prayers, are causing us to be a stronger bow for our boys to launch. My boys are ready to launch.
Sue: I’ve seen you and your boys in that skate park video!
Kozo: [laughing] I’m just an old man out there. But to be outdoors for four hours with your children is such a blessing. It’s funny, I don’t know if you get this feeling but it’s almost like I am returning to my 12-year-old self. “The more childish you become, the more powerful you become,” is what one of my healers told me. I’ve been returning to that 12-year-old self in so many ways through skateboarding. For Father’s Day my sons and ex-wife gave me this t-shirt that said “Yoda Best Dad Ever!” I was a Star Wars nut — I’d go to the theater for matinees in Hawaii and I’d watch all the way till 5 o’clock. It was $1 for each show, I still remember. I saw the first one 45-46 times! It’s been beautiful– my whole life I’ve been looking for an Obi Wan Kanobi or a Yoda– a master to guide me in the ways of the force, and now at 55 years old I’ve found them but it’s not one person.”
And I think of that scene from Star Wars where Luke Skywalker says, “I can’t believe you just did that!” And Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.” So now I am starting to believe and I am really living into my Star Wars dream. Qi Gong is about learning to use the force. I used to dream of having a pencil come to me — like a light saber. Now rather than having objects fly to me I am learning to move energies in my body and dissipate energies in my stomach. These things are blossoming in my life right when I need them. It’s like you are walking towards a locked door and you don’t have a key, you don’t have a key, you don’t have a key — and then right when you come to the door latch there’s a key in your hand — appearing out of nowhere.
Sue: And there’s more than one door– it seems like it’s door after door. I wrote a memoir that’s out a little bit and it brought back all my music and art and puppetry — creative expression is what saved my life. What would I have been without that? I didn’t just start healing yesterday — at 27 I found out I was a full-blown alcoholic. It was the last place I wanted to be. My father was an alcoholic and destroyed our family. I had just gotten sworn in [as a family court judge] a month ago.
You know Gandhi was really shy as well – his first case he walked in and couldn’t say a word. He ran out the door, and I held that story as my sign of hope. You can do it. The 12-step program taught me surrender. I didn’t want to surrender to God — so they said, “Okay use a tree, a mentor, use a higher power.” Then I went into public service, and then I found Commonweal, and Common Ground meditation center. So I kept looking, but not desperately — things would just organically appear. Like I was listening to a Dharma Talk the other day, and fell asleep and I woke up to Joseph Goldstein saying. “Do you know the cause of all death — it’s birth.” Anybody could get hit by a bus is the cliché, and I have a friend who says, “Yes but the driver is gunning for me!” It’s true, we are on the edge of this experience.
I feel like I have found an opening to face the hardest things in my life and that makes me feel happy. We all need this. Never did I think I could be in such a good place right now. But if I could share one thing — I finally met Rachel Remen at the New School and after her talk I asked her if I could tell her something. And I told her my story — and she told me, “I prefer the word mystery to miracle, because miracle feels exclusive.” So since then I’ve looked into mystery more. And as a doctor she said they were trained to favor Mastery over Mystery and it was only after being a cancer healer she began to enter mystery.
It takes me back to when I got published in second grade in Highlights magazine. Years later, the minute I got diagnosed, I wanted to write, and I just started to write little stories. And then I put them together and thanks to my brother it’s now been professionally edited and is with an agent. You wrote a book too didn’t you Kozo? I loved it – what was the title?
Kozo: The Healing Grace of Cancer — that was before the return. I learned a lot obviously, but I’ve learned way more with the recurrence. I used to read Highlights magazine when I was a kid. So maybe I read your piece!
Sue: Someone saw that I had a little potential. I didn’t talk when I was younger. I was a mute in school, but somebody saw something and elevated that. Look at that — we’re really bringing our whole self here!
Kozo: I remember one day I showed up to school and all my friends are handing in poems for a poetry competition. And I was like, “Give me a piece of paper and I just put this haiku down and turned it in and the next thing you know I was announced as one of the winners and got published in a magazine.
Sue: Do you remember it?
Running through the fields
I see a green grasshopper, dead
Underneath my feet.
It’s funny –it had all the themes in it. It has the joy of running through the fields, the beauty of the green grasshopper, and then death is in there too– that I was responsible for.
To me it comes down to taking responsibility —whether it’s cancer or anything — everybody needs to take responsibility for their own life. Am thinking of Steven Jenkinsons who wrote this book called “Die Well.” And in so many other cultures, death is a part of life. For example they have the Day of the Dead in Mexico but in the West we don’t speak about death or show it and even when people are dying we don’t talk about it, and people try and fight it and they fight and fight until boom they die.
I’ve been offered an on-ramp to death, to accept and embrace it in a slow way. Even if the intuition about March is right — I’m on-ramping, and I don’t know how long it might be, but to be aware of it, and to walk it, and to not turn away from it is important.
Sue: Pema Chodron says when things fall apart we are just practicing with these things— we are practicing for our own death. This is a great opportunity to learn how to live. I shared a poster with you Kozo about all the things that cancer cannot do — it said things like, “What cancer cannot do — it cannot crush your soul, It cannot take your mind,” things like that, and then Kozo you wrote back and said, what you’d add is some of the things cancer CAN do: “Cancer can guide you towards your highest purpose; Cancer can double your friends; Cancer can lead you to a healing beyond the body. Cancer can strengthen your faith”
Kozo: Reminds me of talking to Jolanda van den Berg, she had an awakening some years ago. I was in a lot of pain when I interviewed her and after the interview, she stayed on with us for another hour, just talking to us. I asked her about pain. She said, “If pain is arising then, you can see the pain as life arising in you. And when you realize that, you are grateful for it. And if you can dig down through pain you can find it is actually love.” And in her world everything is love. Whatever arises in her life, that’s what she loves the most. It really shifted things for me. I could see pain as an honor, almost as a testament that I am alive. It’s deeper than the half glass full metaphor. It’s like the glass is always overflowing, but you just don’t see it. We see the emptiness as a negative — the pain as a negative that we have to get rid of it. But it’s part of the overflowing of life that is arising in us, and that brought me great peace. Jolanda was another angel who just popped up! She’s turned out to be this amazing Yoda in my life. So I totally feel that this is who we are, and this what we are meant to manifest, and everything that arises in our lives is meant to awaken us.
Sue: It takes a lot of courage to sit with what comes up. And I am not perfect — there are times I will say, “Oh pain — I welcome in the pain.” But there is also the thought that I don’t want this pain, I am sick of this pain — and then they taught me that I can notice anger or aversion. Pema has a thing called, “Stay There.” That’s the invitation — to raise our awareness and to not become the emotion or the experience. “She who is aware of the anger is not the anger.” One of the hardest things for me — anytime the phone rings and it’s one of my kids, I have this visceral response. [They’ve had a lot of intensity and challenge in their lives.] I get a little PTSD with those calls, but now I am practicing with opening my mind, and putting my feet on the floor. “Anything can happen anytime,” so to be prepared for that.
I tried to do the same sort of thing when I was a judge — I tried to do it outside the courtroom in a personal way. I’d walk in to meet clients and I didn’t know what was going to happen, and I’d try to open, open, open, and I didn’t know what I was going to say or do. I didn’t have the key to the door until the last moment, and what they needed was a witness not a judge. Nobody needs a judge. I was their witness. They ran the show. They told me what they needed. It was very holistic. That was my message.
Kozo: It’s a testament to who you are that when your kids go through tough times you’re the phone call they make. That’s a dream for me. That when my boys go off in the world– if they are going through tough times that they will call me.
Sue: You have a special bond with them from what I’ve heard.
Kozo: That feeling of, “I don’t want this” that shifts to, “let it in,” — it reminds me of Gethsemane where Jesus says, “Father pass this cup from me,” Jesus said, “All the things I will do you too will do and more.” And I’m like, “No way! How am I going to rise from the Cross?” But if you think about preparing your whole life through all these different things for the Cross — “Father why hast thou forsaken me?” And cancer patients can really go through that— but that shifts to, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Out of that shift from victim to empowered actor of forgiveness you rise to a new life in a different form.
Father Richard Rohr calls it the Second Half of Life. The first half is building your healthy ego and the second half is shifting into service and healing. I’m not talking about time — you can have your second half at 98, right before passing.
Sue: I am glad you went to that story because for me it made Jesus more human. There’s that line…They who give up their lives receive eternal life, they who don’t– die. The message was basically, that it all worked out extremely well. He was both divine and human. I love that- it gives hope that as humans we can get somewhere.
Kozo: Beautiful. Yes, and I want to get to the point where rather than pain or bliss or cancer all I say [in the final diagnosis] is– Love — Chronic Love!
Last night I had a dream and I was back at UC Santa Barbara and going to take my girlfriend surfing – in the dream, this woman was an amalgamation of all the women I’ve loved in my life. The surf was big so we were going to go to Campus Point, my favorite surf spot. There were all these obstacles and when we got there I was like, “Oh my God! I don’t have a surfboard and I don’t have a wet suit!” And oh the person that I was with in the dream, we weren’t a couple. When I reached over, the person was like, “No, we’re just friends.” And what I realized was, that this dream was showing me the truth of my life. I had desires– to go surfing, to be intimate with someone, and the universe was saying, “No.” Then I came a point where I was like, “I’m really okay with that. It’s nice just to be standing on this cliff looking at the surf, I don’t need to go in the water. And it’s nice just to be standing next to someone I love. I don’t need more. I’m happy.” And it struck me this was kind of like the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. There is suffering in life, suffering is caused by desire, get rid of desire you get rid of suffering. It was a beautiful dream on a beautiful night.
It’s funny, thinking about this call in the morning, I thought, “I am going on this call to talk about a test result that’s not positive, but even with that and whatever the prognosis is, I’m okay. I’m happy, and excited just to be here with everyone.
Sue: That’s beautiful. I’ve read this little story— you know how we say the sun rises in the morning and sets at night—but that’s not really true is it? it doesn’t go anywhere. It sits there, and we spin. Right? We see our lives–like we are born (that’s the sunrise) and then we die (sunset). But what if we are really this huge eternal light, and we can’t see it because it’s just blocked right now by our mind, what if we are that light just sitting there? So I am thinking our life is much more than we see — it’s through the glass darkly, we can’t see it now, but someday…And on some days we get a glimpse. Like, you’re in the light right now Kozo— you’re shining!
Kozo: That’s what skateboarding does to you.
Sue: Does it?
Kozo: No I’m joking. (laughs) …
We’re all walking each other home right? I’m with you, and you’re with me.
Often, when he came to visit, my grandfather would bring me a present. These were never the sorts of things that other people brought, dolls and books and stuffed animals. My dolls and stuffed animals have been gone for more than half a century, but many of my grandfather’s gifts are with me still.
Once he brought me a little paper cup. I looked inside it expecting something special. It was full of dirt. I was not allowed to play with dirt. Disappointed, I told him this. He smiled at me fondly. Turning, he picked up the little teapot from my dolls’ tea set and took me to the kitchen where he filled it with water. Back in the nursery, he put the little cup on the windowsill and handed me the teapot. “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen,” he told me.
At the time, I was four years old and my nursery was on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan. This whole thing made no sense to me at all. I looked at him dubiously. He nodded with encouragement. “Every day, Neshume-le,” he told me.
And so I promised. At first, curious to see what would happen, I did not mind doing this. But as the days went by and nothing changed, it got harder and harder to remember to put water in the cup. After a week, I asked my grandfather if it was time to stop yet. Shaking his head no, he said, “Every day, Neshume-le.” The second week was even harder, and I became resentful of my promise to put water in the cup. When my grandfather came again, I tried to give it back to him but he refused to take it, saying simply, “Every day, Neshume-le.” By the third week, I began to forget to put water in the cup. Often I would remember only after I had been put to bed and would have to get out of bed and water it in the dark. But I did not miss a single day. And one morning, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.
I was completely astonished. Day by day they got bigger. I could not wait to tell my grandfather, certain that he would be as surprised as I was. But of course, he was not. Carefully he explained to me that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. I was delighted. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” I asked him. Gently he touched me on the top of my head. “No, Neshume-le,” he said. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”
This was perhaps my first lesson in the power of service, but I did not understand it in this way then. My grandfather would not have used these words. He would have said that we need to remember to bless the life around us and the life within us. He would have said when we remember we can bless life, we can repair the world.
Excerpted from Rachel Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessings. Her groundbreaking curriculum, the Healer’s Art is now taught yearly in more than half of American medical schools and in medical schools in seven countries abroad. [Passage picked from Awakin.Org.
I shall not ever easily forget,
My heart shall fill up with life,
Even in death, lies hidden
That endless life
In the lightning and thunder, your flute plays,
But that is no ordinary tune,
I shall wake up to that tune.
May I happily weather that storm,
Even on the verge of lifelessness,
Across 7 rivers, in 10 directions,
Make us dance with your tune.
Poem by Rabindranath Tagore, a famous Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. The music composition was written by Garry Schyman, a professional film and TV music composer. The singer is Palbasha Siddique, an American pop singer who was born in Bangladesh. The dancer and producer of the video is Matt Harding, a guy who went around the world dancing and posting videos of his dancing.
South Los Angeles (aka L.A. in California, USA) may conjure images of vacant lots and liquor stores; gangs and drug dealers. Yet a burgeoning movement of urban gardeners is working to change that perception, as well as the food, health and environment for the many who live there. This documentary tells the story of four unlikely gardeners who grew up in the poor neighborhoods of South L.A. The movie also features Ron Finley, the original South L.A. urban gangsta gardener, who was cited by the city for growing a food forest on a sidewalk. To learn more about Ron Finley and his pay-it-forward urban gardening crew, watch his TED talk.
We invite you to a very unique evening of Meditation & Mindfulness. Our special guest, Carlos Mora, will guide you on an experiential journey of the senses with Mindfulness techniques he has learned through 20 years of blindness and meditation.
Carlos’ life took a difficult turn 20 years ago upon becoming blind taking him through depression, confusion, and anger. However, Meditation and Prayer opened his heart and mind to an ample view of life’s opportunities for wonder, joy, kindness, and love. In his own words: “Thanks to losing my eyesight, I can see and feel plenty more”
Carlos’ newly discovered inner-strength motivated him to seek asylum in the USA moving away from a difficult lifestyle in Venezuela. He arrived in Minnesota knowing 5 words in the English language; yet, a few years later earned a Master of Science in Clinical Psychology at John Hopkins University and currently works as a Psycho-Therapist at San Francisco General Hospital. He has been a regular contributor to Awakin Oakland for two years, and he’s always contributing to his family in Venezuela. Carlos’ kind heart is always expanding! A very modest lifestyle allows him to send money to his mother in Venezuela and remain connected with all of his family & friends. Furthermore, he has sponsored tuition and lodging for 3 nieces and a nephew at universities of medicine and dentistry in Latino America.
Carlos’ kindness is felt locally as well. He provides free consultation and coaching skills to friends, friends of friends, and clinical services in various clinics and hospitals to homeless people, LGBT groups, the Spanish speaking, and underserved populations in the Bay Area.
For this particular evening, Carlos would like you to join this mutual experience of mindfulness, by using a blindfold and participate in a dark and quiet place. The zoom session will be auditory only for the first part of the session. It will be a healing sensory experience.
It’s dark. You are standing in a field, far from the house. This is the midnight sky of your younger, wilder days. It is ablaze, aching with stars. It is the vault of heaven, indigo sea of time pierced by light from the other side. The horizons are gone and the Bridge of Sighs, the one they say the dead walk to leave this world, dazzles you. Dew settles on your shoulders and you’re atremble, no longer full with comprehension and certainties. Every idea you have seems too small for the world. The blessings tumble. You lived long enough to see a night such as this, and you’re stilled by it. There are unlikely companions in the field with you, everyone quiet. Someone looks up into the night sky and says, “You see that star right there? Could be it isn’t there anymore.” All conviction is sent reeling. Nothing is truer than this. The mysteries roll. You are welcome. If that didn’t quite happen in your earlier days, it has now. If it did, then it’s happened again.
You need witnesses for wonder. Some things in life are too hard to see by yourself because they take up the whole sky, or because they happen every day, unwinding above your busyness, or because you thought you knew them already. Wonder takes a willingness to be uncertain, to be thrown. We have a lot of information these days, and few are enamored of imprecision or subtlety. But starlight traveling a bewildering distance for so long that there is every chance that it doesn’t even exist anymore, and all of that having already happened, and you standing there, your face blazed in the dark by a starlight gone, seeing it all, what is and what isn’t there enthroned by your witness: That is a marvel, and surely that is how awe is born in us. With somebody there alongside you in the darkness, you can think unauthorized thoughts. You can see what’s gone, or whether it’s gone, or both. Fantastic.
A book about dying is a book awash in the great mystery of what is to become of us, and so it is a book about time. A book about dying should wonder again and over again whether the river of time and life flows toward the future and the not-yet and carries us there, as most of us are taught, or toward the past and the known, toward all who have been, as some of us suspect. The night of wonder must be a long one, and sometime before dawn it will come to this: When I die, am I past? Am I gone? Lost?
This is when the midnight sky, riven by all the light givers that have been, starts whispering. You can see something that isn’t there anymore, and you have more proof than you need that the past is not quite passed. So I am counting on this possibility: That out of that encounter with confounding starlight could come marvel and gratitude for being here, alive, for now, and with them come the beginnings of an answer to that bewilderment, that human-scaled mystery: What will happen when I die? I’m counting on more: The times of dying, of real and proper sorrow, could be woven by a gratitude for being around long enough to be overwhelmed by something that happens every day, by ordinary awe. And each of us could be gathered in by the raveling covenant of sorrow and thanksgiving as our days end. Here’s what happens every day: The past has tangible presence and isn’t gone. People are born, and people die, and there are signs.
Gratitude needs practice, though. Gratitude for the things that don’t seem to help, that aren’t sought out or welcome—that’s a demanding kind, and it is needed in hard times. A book about dying should have that kind of gratitude in it, bleeding through from the other side of sorrow. Drink enough of the sweet, strong mead of grief and love for being alive and it isn’t long before you’re sending a trembling, life-soaked greeting out to everything that came before you and to everything that will follow, a kind of love letter to the Big Story.
You’re even willing to include yourself and your days going by in the roiling mystery of it all, not as alone as you once were. And this willingness is a gift for those who see you trying to pull it off and for those who are coming after you who might hear of your one bewildered human example. It’s all they’ll need, a sign of how a human can live his or her days. All of this from looking into the night sky and seeing what’s mysteriously there to see, what is there and what is gone, with witnesses.
Maybe this swirl of awe and marvel and good intent for the world and gratitude for ourselves in it is where all the religions came from. That is where our feel for the sacred in the world is conjured, surely, the ordinary, staggering mystery of where it all comes from before it is born here among us and where it all goes after it dies away from us, the starry midnight courtship of the heart that whispers, “What is gone is “still with you, still here. As you will be.”
–by Stephen Jenkinson except from his book “Die Wise”
Krister Stendahl, former dean of Harvard Divinity school, told a reporter shortly before his death in 2008, “In the eyes of God, we are all minorities. That’s a rude awakening for many, who have never come to grips with the pluralism of the world.”
From my limited perspective in a small college classroom, I believe that increasing numbers of [youth] are coming to grips with pluralism — embracing it, even — though they are getting very little help from their elders as they think through what it means to be a person of faith in community with people of other (and no) faiths. No preacher has suggested to them that today’s Good Samaritan might be a Good Muslim or a Good Humanist. No confirmation class teacher has taught them that the Golden Rule includes honoring the neighbor’s religion as they would have the neighbor honor theirs.
Come to think of it, I do know one preacher who tried something like that – from the pulpit of a cathedral in a major city, no less. I do not remember what the subject of her sermon was, only the response to it. She must have suggested that the Christian way was one among many ways to God (a wave and not the ocean), because afterward a man came up to her and said, “If God isn’t partial to Christianity, then what am I doing here?”
I wish ordinary Christians took exams, so I could put that question on the final. As natural as it may be to want to play on the winning team, the wish to secure divine favoritism strikes me as the worst possible reason to practice any religion. If the man who asked that question could not think of a dozen better reasons to be a Christian than that, then what, indeed, was he doing there?
An old story is told about Rabia of Basra, an eighth-century Sufi mystic who was seen running through the streets of her city one day carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to burn down the rewards of paradise with the torch and put out the fires of hell with the water, because both blocked the way to God. “O, Allah,” Rabia prayed, “if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”