For the second year in a row, I spent New Year’s Eve at a Buddhist mediation center with friends. This is a tradition that I never really consciously initiated, but one that I highly recommend. It is nice to enter a new year in the silence of meditation or following the rhythmic drone of prayer in a softly lit room while people are lighting fireworks or firing guns or generally acting like madmen in the dark outside.
The monk was funny. After talking about resolutions (regular flossing, fitness) and the power of the mind, he recommended a meditation that appealed to me: “I may die today.” “Or,” he said, looking out at the hundred or so people filling the tiny hall, “it’s likely that some of you might die this year. Not everyone will make it back here next New Year’s Eve.” This focus on death is designed to help us remember what’s important, which in Buddhism is resolving to become a better person and through this discovering some sort of peace which we can share with others.
Later Connie, Gail and talked about the countdown to my descent in the shark cage in South Africa in June. I made jokes about dying in the shark cage, because to joke about death is to at once acknowledge it and ward it off. It would be too perfect, too absurd for me to be eaten by a white shark when the whole point is to live to tell about it, to describe what it’s like to meet this old friend, this old fear, this dream human face to conical snout.What do their eyes look like, really? What’s the exact nature of their blackness, or up close are they really pure black at all?
Today I took down my brand new calendar and filled in all the numbered days until my shark trip, my uneven purple digits scrawled over the white space of unlived time, dwarfing the sensible preprinted numbers of the calendar. What are the odds, I wondered, that I won’t live until June? What is the numerical value of certainty or uncertainty? I thought of the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”: “Every step of the way/We walk the line/Your days are numbered/So are mine.” And I thought of my favorite piece of Buddhist scripture, “The Five Remembrances:”
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.
Sometimes I think that more difficult even than death itself (which promises, at least in my view, a degree of contentment, which brings with it the fulfillment of work that here remained unfinished, which is a state of perspective and unity), is the fourth remembrance.
Inescapable change, the separation from people and places, things that I am sometimes fooled into believing are permanent simply because they endure for twenty or forty years. Maybe later I will decide that the infirmity and indignity of old age is tougher, or that facing death whether it comes in the form of a shark, or dark, rapidly dividing cells, defies my attempts to tame it with philosophy. I don’t know.
But I do know that in a world in which everything dissolves and departs, we have to have some ballast, be it a prayer or tradition or the habit of matching every day with a number to make life feel at last, real to us.