A Year to Live: Starting Off

As I mentioned in the previous blog, I recently started A Year to Live practice based on the book by Stephen Levine. It probably goes without saying that I’ve been asking myself “what if this was my last year to live?” I’ve asked myself a version of that question off and on throughout my life. The difference is that now I am trying to bring more depth to my responses and keep it at the forefront of my awareness on an ongoing basis. As a friend said, “bring more imagination” to the reality that it really could be our last year, week, or even day to live since everything is uncertain anyway.

Initially, my personality responded with more mundane and superficial ideas. Things like: Since it’s extremely unlikely that I’m going to reach nirvana/nibbana, liberation, or even sotapanna any time soon, why not throw in the towel now and head for the tropics? Do I really want to spend the last year of my life in the shadows of clouds, cool weather, and the rain of the Pacific NW? Of course, there was also the chiming in of rationalizing the non-beneficial habits: Why give them up now? And, the planning kicks in. But, those lines of reasoning quickly gave way to deeper issues.

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As I attempted to dig deeper into the issue, the first thing that came to mind was: Start where you are now. Anything else is grasping and attaching to the past or future, so not only is it unmindful, but it’s ignoring the pink elephant in the room. How do you do? Nice to meet you, I’m going to die soon. How about you? Excuse me; I’m heading for the door to run away.

I’ve always been intrigued by synchronicity. I think it’s amazing to watch the dance of our lives, personalities, and so on move with the flow of what the universe presents at any given moment. Sometimes it’s joyful. Other times it’s dukkha (stress or suffering). Always, it’s a gift if one is willing to recognize the opportunity and hear the message. Shortly after our first meeting and having started this practice, my husband was rear ended on his way home from work. It was a very minor incident, and the person who hit him immediately took responsibility. To us, it’s interesting timing, especially given that neither of us has had a driving accident in over 30 years. At the least, it was a strong reminder of how we are not in control of our external world or our bodies.

What caught my attention was the clear differentiation between my husband’s reaction and mine. Understandably, he was shook up. For me, I didn’t hear about the accident until he was safely home and standing in front of me. Consequently, it didn’t trigger fear and stress the way it might have in a different scenario. That made it much easier for me to observe and track my own reactions. Hence, the gift and opportunity due to an unusual circumstance arising. Unusual primarily because “normally” I would allow myself to be absorbed in his energy, and this is what led me to deeper understanding.

I ask the question again: What if this was my last year to live? Again, my response is changing. As it changes, I start to process through the layers of what I am trying to protect. I readily admit that I am attached to comfort. But, I also realize that there are roots and consequences to this hindrance that I am hiding from. For example, conceit fed by the delusion that I shouldn’t have to be bothered by another’s energy. More importantly, I allow myself to sense and see the armor that I have constructed around my heart.

Again, I ask the question. This time, my response is: I want to live with an open heart. I want to soften my defenses, allow the discomfort to rise and fall without denying or supporting it, to break free of the need to numb, protect, or prevent what arises, and to shed the armor. Of course I want to experience this as much as possible in the shared presence of those I love, especially my husband whom I cherish so deeply. For me, that is living well. However, my hope is to open to all beings everywhere. This is how I want to live.

There is a Pali word Metta which has a variety of translations including loving kindness. Another translation that I’ve heard from a respected senior monk is “everything belongs.” I appreciate that interpretation. Everything belongs: Nothing is more or less, nothing to push away or grasp and cling for, and nothing to hide from. We all belong. All experiences belong including aging, illness, and death.



© 2015 Sallie Odenthal

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