“Two-thirds through an imaginary life” – A Project for 2013

From my blog today: http://www.storeylines.net/2013/01/04/two-thirds-through-an-imaginary-life-a-project-for-2013/#

  "On the other side of fear lies freedom."


Last year, one particular book with a somewhat odd title helped me in ways I never expected. The book, How to be Sick, by Toni Bernhard, raised quite a few eyebrows as I carried it with me during my hospital stays and showed it to nurses and doctors – and I’ll confess, sometimes I flashed it just to see what their reaction would be. One frequent response was, “Well, I’d have thought you already knew how to do that!” When I explained that it was about learning how to live with chronic illness mindfully, with insight and grace and humour, some of them got it, and even wrote down the name of the book so they could find it and read it. Some just nodded, said “Huh,” and then went on. And that’s okay – we are not all ready to deal with the same things at the same time. The book happened into my life at just the right time, centred me, helped me be less afraid of the changes my illness forced on my body and my life – and through it, I’ve also made some amazing friends, people who also found the book at the right time. Synchronicity is wonderful, isn’t it?

This year, I’ve found another book to be my companion for the year, and it has an equally eyebrow-raising title. A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last by Stephen Levine – also with a Buddhist perspective, also about being mindful. I’m not sure if this means I am slowly edging away from being spiritually anchorless and heading towards Buddhism; we’ll see. Right now I see it as more of a need for mindfulness, for becoming aware, alive, and functional in a way I have’t been in a long time, even before becoming sick.

I’ve mentioned before that I am ready – or at least want to be ready – to move from surviving to thriving. My therapy starts next week, and I am so hopeful and excited about that, it almost scares me. That fear of inevitable disappointment that’s been my lifelong companion keeps rearing its ugly head, but I’m working on banishing it.

But besides that work – and I know therapy is going to be difficult work, if I want to change certain things – I recently discovered A Year to Live and decided it was, for me, the perfect “sequel” if you will to How to be Sick. Same idea, really: live more mindfully, be more aware of what you’re feeling and experiencing, take another look at priorities. It’s not about being pessimistic, or resigned, or morbid, or fearful, or even about being dying, really. I’ve come very close to dying twice in the last three years, and to my surprise, it actually has made me feel freer, less afraid of that passage. Instead of being terrified at the prospect of a world that would actually keep on going without me, knowing that I’ve come so close to the edges of my own mortality has made me more concerned with what I’ve accomplished in this world before I leave it.

And that is really the point of Levine’s book – when death is a nebulous “someday” event that doesn’t seem quite real, our first instinct as humans seems to be to deny it, to do anything we can to avoid it or not think about it. And thus it dominates us, controls us, has us under its power. But if we can truly accept it, acknowledge it as a passage that is as sure as our birth and just as important, a peace comes, the fear somehow falls away in a transformation that is just as real as it is hard to explain. Getting ready to die becomes getting busy living, for “the work to be done is to be done before we drop the body.” (Levine, p.10). You certainly can’t do it after you’re dead. And I’ve decided I don’t want to live “half-unborn” anymore.

Levine says that one of the things that inspired him in the writing of this book was something the Dalai Lama said on his fifty-eighth birthday, that he felt it was time to complete his preparations for death.

I too am fifty-eight years old, two-thirds through an imaginary life (one third of a lifetime from an imaginary death). When a journey is in our future, it is never too soon to check out the travel guides and customs, and to learn the language of the world approaching. And it’s never too late to complete our birth.

Fittingly enough, I’m going to be fifty-eight this year, too. So I think it’s time to complete my birth, so that I’ll be truly ready for my death. I’m looking forward to reading and exploring this book and its practices, and I’ll post about my journey occasionally, as it unfolds. We’ll see where it leaves me at the end of my last year.

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