We never know what will happen next. The point of being alive is to be there for it.
— Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche
In one of my first creative journals, I captured this quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson: “What is real is the continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of transition.” The continual change of form has been on my mind as of late. Autumn’s colors are arriving. My home office of the past six years is shifting to a real office space, which is giving me living room – literally. And, I just turned 35. Considering all cells in the human body are replaced every seven years, this is my fifth new body. Time cycles by. It’s time for new furniture. Soon, the trees will be bare.
I’ve been thinking about the Bresson quote for the past week as I’ve been mulling over this newsletter, so I went to dig it up in the box where I stick my finished journals. There in the annals of that first hardcover handwritten edition, I found those words written sideways on a page spread next to these notes:
“The point is to learn to remember that we might have been otherwise, and might yet be.” – Donna J. Haraway
“Nevertheless, the illusion of self–created by our memories, mental conditioning, and sensory inability to detect our body’s constant state of change–helps give us the impression that we are “always” the same person. In fact, … we die and are reborn from instant to instant to instant.” – Jack Maguire, Essential Buddhism, p 101.
and this fragment from the Diamond Sutra, which is often read at memorial services:
“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream.”
At first glance, it’s all about transitoriness. But somewhere close, sifting through that mix of notes on those pages, was a celebration of spontaneity. It was tucked in there, next to the human desire to map things, and hold tight to the map, despite the fact that a ‘map is not territory.’
As a part and parcel of physical reality, sometimes I forget that this–this moment, this feeling, this body–is all temporary. Every moment is a snapshot of a larger transition underway, an arc with a trajectory about which I’m not entirely privy. I often forget that I am fluid and in flux, in a perpetual process of becoming. I consider myself to be a fixed and separate identity at times–one of the three tragic misunderstandings that creates dissatisfaction and suffering within life, as Pema Chodron notes in Comfortable with Uncertainty. The other two are: expecting that change should be graspable and predictable, and reaching for something else to ease the edginess of the moment, or looking for happiness in all the wrong places–all of which escalates our dissatisfaction.
Much like my opponent in boxing practice, sometimes I wish life would stand still long enough so I could land a punch and make me feel more comfortable. This wish to make life permanent and predictable is a sticky place for us humans in process. The wish to control uncertainty is really a denial of life as it is right now. Life doesn’t happen in frozen moments. Yet we suffer when we go back to the things we’ve frozen in time over and over, pine for them, cling to them and deny what’s happening right in front of our nose, right about now. As Pema notes, “We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart.”
Those zones of safety can sometimes be our exterior lives built to protect a sense of solid identity – or an external shell of it. Yet the perfect life on paper, or on the internet, is not always congruent with the interior landscape of one’s inner life. The inner happenings can be radically disparate from the glossy facades projected outward. That incongruity can cause great pain for an individual. It’s a quandary for being authentic. Parker Palmer refers to this as the divided life.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who authored a groundbreaking work On Death and Dying, once wrote “We run after values that, at death, become zero. At the end of your life, nobody asks you how many degrees you have, or how many mansions you built, or how many Rolls Royces you could afford. That’s what dying patients teach you.” Facades aren’t generative things to live for, but the vitality flowing through you is. When both inner and outer align, the values that you live for amount to a much richer life.
In one of the exercises we’ll sometimes use at bootcamp we will ask participants to write their own eulogies. It’s like a pre-mortem to expose one’s inner and outer incongruencies. More often than not, it leads to dramatic reprioritizing and a truing up of one’s inner life and outer experiences. The exercise begins with two questions offered simply as a little koan as food for thought:
What do you think you are living for?
What do you think is keeping you from living fully for the thing you want to live for?
It is your one wild and precious life. What do you love about what you do? What does life have in store for you that you may be shutting out by clinging to what you think you know or want for yourself based on external values which are unaligned with your deepest longings? What transitions do you want or need to make? What do you need to leave behind? What is ready to die? What is emerging for you?
The punch that most often lands for them in that pre-mortem sparring match echoes the Sakyong’s admonition: We can never know what will happen next. In a world where, as Hugh notes, “This is all temporary,” what choices are you making? In your leadership? In your work? In your life?