Becoming Fully Born: How Facing Mortality Completes Our Birth
The problem that many people have with mortality is less about death, and more about having been born in the first place. There is something about accepting having been born that is scary for many people. Take a look at how many people live their lives either mired in thoughts and emotions about the past, or racing ahead to a nonexistent future that is being constantly constructed in their mind. Anything seems preferable to actually accepting their present state of existence – right here, right now. This inability to exist completely in the present (rather than in one’s imagination) is another way of describing the state of not having completed one’s birth.
It is difficult to transform the world if one is unable to fully and completely be in the world. Transformation takes the kind of fully present focus that one sees from a surgeon in an operating room: the Bach (or rock) is blasting, the sweat is dripping, the back is aching and there is nothing more than that moment. One can also see it with lovers who are lost in the sea of their own existence, where nothing is imagined or desired, and nothing is regretted. Everything in the present is what they need. One can feel it in the wonder that hangs in the moment that a baby is born, the wonder that accompanies something truly new and transparent becoming revealed in the world.
Creating transformation is like the work of that surgeon; the unity of those lovers; the birth of that baby. One is eliciting, welcoming and illuminating the divine essence of another human being. One is creating revelation where before there was concealment. One cannot do this trapped in the past or fleeing towards the imagined future. One cannot do this while stuck on the wheel of desire and dissatisfaction, seeing only what you want others to become, rather than as who they (in their divine greatness) already are.
So for our sake, and for the sake of those who we want to transform, how do we allow ourselves to be fully born?
One of the most useful tools to do this is a simple (but powerful) thought exercise concerning our mortality. (For a more complete explanation of this topic, please see the very excellent book One Year to Live by Steven Levine.) Imagine for a moment that you have been having some mild and almost unnoticeable symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath or slight dizzy spells. You mention it to a friend who is a doctor. Your friend urges you to go and get yourself checked out. Even though you think it is nothing, you get a checkup and some tests are performed. Imagine your state of shock when the physician running the tests calls you into his or her office and solemnly informs you that you have a fatal illness that has been spreading undetected throughout your body. It is much too late to talk about a cure. Even though you are in no pain or even extreme discomfort, the doctor tells you that you have, at most, a year to live. You walk out of the doctor’s office in a state of stunned silence.
After the initial shock and sadness wears off, you feel a paradoxical feeling taking over you, a feeling of lightness. At first you cannot understand why. Why would you be feeling this sense of floating on air as your impending mortality stares you in the face? Then you realize that it is because so many burdens that you have been carrying around with you every day have been released. All of the burdens of the past are gone. There are no longer feelings of judgment caused by past losses, hurts, angers and disappointments from memories that haunt you. Everyone you once knew and everything you ever experienced is now simply accepted and released, disappearing into the void. The ghosts (and demons) are gone. All your plans for the future are gone as well. The urge to do more and more (because you feel like you’ve never done enough) is gone. It is with a shock that you realize that you are fully alive in the present moment for the very first time. Now that the desires, fantasies and obligations of your future goals are gone, all that is left is the sense of being right here, right now – and that it is (for the first time) actually absolutely beautiful and absolutely enough.
Warning – this thought experiment may be difficult for some people. It is hard to suddenly let go of all of the dreams, goals, memories, thoughts, fantasies, obligations and desires that we carry around in our heads. The silence can be deafening. For some people (especially for those who are very driven) it can feel like a freight train hitting a brick wall. Ouch. There may be a period of real grief once one realized that the very real prospect of mortality renders much of what we thought important in our lives to a moot point.
But it also allows us to become fully born into the world, perhaps for the very first time. It brings us into full presence and to full acceptance of what is. We gain a full experience of those around us, without the desire to change them, fix them or use them to meet our future needs. Even once the thought experiment is done, one wants to keep the feeling (forgive the expression) alive. We want to keep the vision of our death sitting like an angel on our shoulder, and by its very presence, it gives the entire world as a gift.