My new Buddhist practices begin with twenty days of contemplation, and two of the topics are the preciousness of human existence, and the impermanence of all phenomena.
“Ha!”, I think to myself, “I know all about this”. Loss has certainly cracked me open in both areas, I am now more present for the poetic and beautiful moments in my life than I was a year ago. So I begin to meditate on preciousness, and immediately realize that I’m screwed, and I have no choice but to sit in the loss, allowing it to flower to fullness. I’ve been good about following my feelings and grief, but it’s quite a different thing to sit and meditate on it, for an hour or longer. It seems somehow ironic that, after dutifully tending to this garden of tears for months, I’m now directed to spend hours and days sitting in the garden.
And it is a garden. At first, it’s hard for me to separate the two contemplations. I consider how precious my existence is, and within a few minutes I land in my feelings about Nancy. After swimming in loss for a while, my heart aching, I feel a surge of love and deep joy, that I get to be here, in this body. I love being alive, much more so because I’m acutely aware that I will end one day, at least, the incarnated “I”. Something will continue when I am gone. As I swing back and forth, empty and full, day after day, I become more and more aware of the preciousness of each moment, the vast gift of being alive. A tender, delicate place, like a baby oak coming up in the spring.
This is a different way of learning. The contemplation instructions are very specific, carefully worded and refined over 1500 years. They are simple, and land in my awareness like a seed. As I sit with the contemplations, they grow and deepen and flower into a very personal experience. Remarkable. I’m starting to see that the deep teachings are like this, just as meditation is a very personal gateway that cannot be taught, but must be cultivated within each of us.
Some moments are quite intense. Each morning, I drive to work past the Golden Gate National Cemetery, where my father-in-law Richard Jones was buried last February. From inside my practice, the view of more than a hundred thousand tombstones stuns me, perfect geometric array stretching into the distance. All these souls, their incarnations complete, leaving behind whatever joy and pain and love that they left, now reunited with the infinite. Most were WW II and Korean war veterans, had fired weapons in combat, known the fear and adrenaline and exhaustion of battle. My own father-in-law shot up dozens of Japanese trains and boats, downed several aircraft, as a P-40 pilot in China in 1943. All those lifetimes now gone, all that experience fading in our collective memories.
All that I am, all that I love, all that I’ve done will one day be gone. I remember how these thoughts would induce a kind of existential crisis in my younger self. Now it brings me here and now, reminding me that we are precious, I am precious, and each instant of my life is an opportunity for gratitude. Even visiting The Colonel’s grave today. Dick, we all love you, wherever you are.