It is often only when we are dying that we begin to reflect on the big questions, looking for the meaning of life or for meaning in the ordeal of our last days to give us new life. Stephen Jenkinson, coming from a background in Theology, worked as a counsellor to dying people for over twenty years. He writes:
“Suffering, learning how to suffer, is how you make meaning out of what seems random, chaotic or pointless...Meaning comes from this kind of wrestling (with life).” ('Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 113.)
The fact that holds the greatest potential to change that meaning is the fact that we will all die:
“Dying (or the fact of dying) changes what life means if you are willing for it to be so.” ('Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 91.)
We could say that this willingness is the essence of the Buddhist path, the contemplation of impermanence. The Buddha urges us not to wait until we are dying but to begin this enquiry earlier in life, seeing in it the potential for liberation from suffering. In the worldly way of desire, searching for what we want, our purposes in life is what gives it meaning. If we feel we have no purpose then life is meaningless. In the spiritual path meaning becomes purpose. We see the world in a different way and this view in itself is what drives us. There is no purpose in the same way, we are following an internal compass – our conscience, rather than an external one – our desires. Or we begin the spiritual path by looking outside, but if we focus on our desires we can lose sight of the realities of the world, Stephen Jenkinson writes simply:
“When you focus on how you feel about things in the world, then the things of the world slip from view.” ('Die Wise' by Stephen Jenkinson, North Atlantic Books p. 367.)
In addition to the conscience our body is a source of wisdom. The body will always tell us the truth, the mind will always delude us. And what then is the truth of the body? Death is the truth of the body. See that with a peaceful mind and you will see the deathless. This can all sound a bit heavy but the experience is actually the opposite, it is extremely light, let's play:
He entered the room, both literally and metaphorically. He had become a symbol unto himself. There was a profound meaning in every gesture and movement and yet nothing was out of the ordinary. In fact he was more grounded in normality than ever before. He truly, simply knew his own body as a body, right down to the very bones. Yet it was as if this experience were the word of the Lord from on high. How so? Death was there in full sight yet there was no fear, no grief or longing. There was peace and joy, freedom of heart. Such was the message, just this. It was enough. It was the end of suffering.
Then the more we look at the world with the body in mind is such a way, the more the barriers begin to break down between one kind of phenomena and another within our experience. We realise that we had been experiencing the body as a self and that this had been defining our relationship to the world. It had been defining what in the world was me or mine. Without this sense of self entering in to all our perceptions we see the world in a more impersonal way. This is very beautiful. We form a simple, unified picture in which we can feel at home, in which we can, in fact, find our real spiritual home and the true heaven, right here in a transformed experience of the world. This is mindfulness coupled with wisdom.
Try this picture: The mind is both the giver and receiver of meaning, of true life. The greater mind is the unity where all the layers of meaning can come together. The earth is to us like the greater body: we can see a greater mind that forms out of the meaning inherent in the Earth. Perhaps we can think of an ancient stone carved with runes as a meaningful and sacred thing; yet every stone has its meaning, carved into it by the wind or the tides. This meaning is the sacredness and true life of that stone just the same as the true life of the mind lies in the meaning or truth it contains. But is a stone really alive?
We can unconsciously also be defining what we call life as having a self, as having some independence and control over its destiny. However, the belief that we are somehow in control of our lives is an illusion (this is the truth of 'anattā' in Buddhism). This illusion is usually only exposed when we find ourselves no longer in control, even of our own bodies and minds and we panic. Actually the body teaches us that our relationship to the world, to our minds and to our bodies is the same – this is the essence of their unity, their shared meaning. Within this relationship there is an automatic process going on that we can and must guide, as best we can, in the right direction. And through this process life needs to 'break us in' for us to grow up and enter into a true relationship with the world where we wrestle with life; where life can guide us as we guide our life between those stones.
And the superficial meanings of time and place will arise and pass away but the deeper meanings will live on as the giver of new life – life in Dhamma. If we can see and experience meaning as life then we can follow a universal meaning through the universe. For there are truths we can ride on that need no eyes to see them or hand to write them down. There are truths completely within the mind that can talk to each other, see each other. These are the stuff of heaven and beyond.
I offer this for your reflection