I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Henry David Thoreau, Walden
We all die. Of course, everyone knows it, but rarely do we stare death in the face and open our heart to the magical gifts that it has to offer. Perhaps we hear about a plane crash, or some other calamity, and for a moment, we think – “wow, that could have been me”. Do we then shudder in fear and bury our consciousness back into our fast tracked life running ever onwards towards our imagined destiny? Or do we embrace our mortality and step for a moment into the eternal now – the “deathless” as it is referred to in some traditions.
When will your moment of death come? When will mine come? And when it comes, and it’s definitely getting closer each moment, will we look back and discover that we have really lived and learned? There is a saying – “we die the way we live”. If we live with mindfulness and awareness, kindness, contentment, love in our hearts – then that is how we die. Or if we live on autopilot, we die switching channels with the remote. Our life has many channels. The remote is also a metaphor for our memories of the past, and our plans for the future – remote from this moment, this eternal now.
Living in the world is walking balanced upon a high wire. We have our dreams, our goals – the new career, new job, the big project, the marriage, our kids, our pet, the business, the next vacation or meditation retreat, food, sex, parties. The list is endless. Our life is a never ending merry-go-round of making plans, acquiring stuff, watching it slowly get old and break, the elaborate and well laid plans taking us down a completely unexpected road. Our worldly existence is one end of the balance stick, awareness of the deathless is the other end of the stick. Perfectly balanced, we walk across the canyons of sorrows, the pinnacles of joy, experiencing everything fully and aware of the transient nature of all things which arise due to conditions.
I left Seattle this morning for the woods – to touch that magic now, to live deliberately. Arriving at the trailhead at a few minutes past seven, I set out emptying my thoughts and filling my breaths, slowly ascending the switchbacks through the forest, reaching the snow in about two hours. Though I longed to look into death and beyond, I had no desire to physically go there just yet – I had left a trip plan with a friend, telling him I would phone no later than 7pm. In my pack, I carried extra food, clothes, and water, and a rain jacket (you never know in the Northwest).
Nearing the pass, I slid down the snowy saddle to the shore of Virgin Lake, but with the snow still several feet deep, I had lost the trail. No matter, I thought…I had read the route description several times and it was only a half mile down to Blanca Lake – my destination. But a map would have come in very handy just then! I reasoned that the water flowing out of Virgin Lake and down the far side of the pass, would take me there. Wrong! I dropped down about a hundred feet in elevation. It was getting very steep, and still no sign of a trail. I paused, momentarily wondering if I should turn back.
Venturing onwards, I stepped over a log and the hem of my pant leg hanging just above my knee caught a snag as I stepped over the trunk. My upper leg jerked back, even as the lower leg continued forward. The hyperextension sent a jolt of pain through my knee like a lightning bolt. Off trail, deep in the wilderness, alone, and possibly injured. Not a very good situation. I sat down and rubbed my knee for a few minutes, gathering my composure, then limped back up to the pass. The knee started to feel better so I hiked up a nearby peak to get my bearings. Ah – I had walked around Virgin Lake on the wrong side. Life is like that – sometimes you have to get lost or fall down before you can find your way again, back to the present moment, the eternal now, the deathless. From then on, the day was magic. Best of all for you, the reader, it’s not absolutely necessary to pound your knees all day up a mountain to get to a more peaceful, awakened state of mind. Sometimes an acupuncture treatment can do it. Or a breath. See you soon. May all beings be peaceful and happy.