mindfulness amidst uncertainty
Mar 25, 2020
It's a relief to note that in this era of social media we're once again appreciating what paper has to offer. Who knows, some of us might even return to the ancient art of book-reading. If so, I'd recommend Bhante Gunaratana’s
From the moment the pilot had announced that the engine was on fire, everyone in the cabin seemed to be seized with fear of death. Some started crossing themselves, couples clutched to each other and kissed, others wept or looked tense and anxious. I thought, “If this is my time to die, well I will die anyway, whether I am afraid or not. Let me keep my mind clear.”
First, I recalled my intellectual understanding of what death is. I considered that death is inevitable, and that this would be a good time for me to die for I had been doing good deeds, and I had nothing to regret. Then I thought about the likely sequence of events. “If the plane falls quickly from a height of thirty-nine thousand feet we will be unconscious before the plane hits the ocean.” I do not know whether this is scientifically true, but that is what I thought at the time.I exhorted myself: “I have to keep my mind very clear, very pure before I lose consciousness. This is the time to use my mindfulness to realize the inevitability of death. If I die peacefully with a pure, clear state of mind my future life will be bright. Perhaps I will attain a stage of enlightenment through seeing the truth of impermanence. I must not block my mind with fear or confusion. No matter how strong my attachment to life, I must let go of that attachment now.” Thus I made the effort to prevent any unwholesome state of mind arising in the face of death and encouraged wholesome states of mind to arise.
I was just too stunned to feel afraid, and felt no fear, I actually enjoyed watching the flames coming out of the engine at thirty nine thousand feet! The flames were blue and yellow and red. You seldom see such blue flames. Sometimes they were streaming out; sometimes they were low. They looked like fireworks, or the Aurora Borealis. While I was enjoying the drama the three hundred or so other passengers from time to time saw the agony they suffered from the very thought of death. They seemed almost dead before they died! I noticed, however, that the little children did not seem affected. They kept laughing and playing as they did before the crisis. I thought, “Let me put myself in their place in a child-like mind.”
We did make it back and the plane made an emergency landing. We went out the emergency doors as instructed, sliding down the chutes. Going down the chute was an entirely new experience for me. Perhaps everyone else on the plane had at least gone down a playground slide in their childhood, but I had never done such a thing in the poor village where I grew up.
Right up to the end I enjoyed it all very much.
What do we learn here? First up, you're going to die. You don't know when but your time will come. So maybe use this time to reconsider your approach to its inevitability. I’m not intending to be morbid, just practical. Gunaratana, being the Buddhist teacher that he is, reflects upon “the truth of impermanence”. For him it's paramount to “keep my mind clear” so as not to tip into “fear or confusion”. That’s the big learning: not falling into the autonomic toll of reactivity. His detachment allows him to reframe experience. Upon doing so he starts enjoying watching the flames ripping out of the engine, imagining them as being like the Aurora Borealis. He also notices the children laughing and playing, thus drawing this lesson: put yourself in a 'child-like mind’. Be inquisitive, be playful.
Of course, Gunaratana probably has Olympic athlete levels of awareness. But what's worth taking from this reframing of experience is the notion of possibility contained within each circumstance of our lives. This isn’t easy to do, but it is an available option: to see the beauty in things when the engines fail.
A detail worth appreciating is when he notices the agonised adult passengers ("they seemed almost dead before they died"). This seems to imply that by not being present with your experience you're dead in some way. Of course, who knows what we’d be like in such an extreme situation, but that is also the point: train your attention, live your life in such a way that you savour what’s happening now, because you never know when you are going to need to deploy such focus.
There is overlap here with The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi where we learn that It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. Would it be a stretch to say that eternal life can be found in this present moment? It’s interesting to consider that you have no choice other than to accept the choiceless-ness of now. Things might ease up for you if you do. The problem is the ego. We think about what we want to accomplish in life. We think about the legacy we want to leave behind. We're often living in a time and space known as 'there then', rather than 'here now'. But we know that 'here now' is all we've got. ‘Here now’ is our legacy.
The Stoic – the one who pulled in a day-job as Roman Emperor - Marcus Aurelius, put it like this, You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. But even within that compass of control you need to navigate the present moment; a moment not best served by ego. For Marcus compass is simple:
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.
That’s it: ‘be’. But to ‘be’ takes some training.
Ryan Holiday, who writes a lot of good practical wisdom about Stoicism, would probably agree with Bhante G’s perspective. In a recent interview with Peter Attia, he had this to say,
we don’t judge the quality of the existence we have very much. There are a lot of people who are alive who are basically dead anyway. They’re sleepwalking through life. We think that death is something that lies off in the future but actually death is something that is happening right now.
Referencing the Stoic approach, Holiday explains that most of our time already belongs to death because things that have happened in the past are dead. For instance, if you’re going to get caught up in resentment you’ll be dying all the time: every second that passes you don’t get back. The Stoics would say something along the lines of you’ve got a finite amount of time so decide which part of it you are going to control. Feeling resentment, or any other number of negative thoughts, extinguishes the moments you have in the very moment you’re having them.
What seems to distinguish these people is that they are prepared to be with - and be curious about - what it is to suffer. COVID 19 doesn’t have a monopoly over this: suffering is here with us all the time. It’s just that now we have the time to consider it. So, consider this: there is suffering beyond the suffering that comes with a virus. It's the suffering western societies turn a blind eye to. Then there is the suffering further compounded by lockdown, for instance those experiencing a terminal diagnosis. The terminally ill are being marginalised by these events. They are having to get on with being terminally ill on their own. Their consolation of the comfort that may come with dying whilst surrounded by family and loved ones has been taken away from them.
Our condition is terminal too. For Bhante G such realisation means the opportunity for playful reframing. But for many of us that’s a reframing too far. Until, that is, you read Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air. Here's a summary:
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
Maybe use lockdown to read Kalanithi’s memoir: learn what it means to be truly alive. For Kalanithi the learning is this: There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment. It seems to me that this is a worthwhile legacy. I invite you to listen to the interview with his wife (at 5:30) and take in what is meaningful about choosing to suffer.
Paul Kalanithi's inspiring coda connects us in real-time with the true essence of Buddhism, Stoicism and Christianity.
Use time wisely.
Connect with this moment now.