Temperatures are still well below normal in California’s Great Central Valley. Though it’s the peak of a summer’s day, it’s warm but not hot under the fire-damaged sycamore.
After a small wildfire swept over the fields and jumped the creek about five years ago, the thin white bark of the great, bifurcated sycamore was extensively burned, and it has been slowly dying ever since.
Its output of large leaves, which provided plenty of shade in pre-fire years, has grown less each year. The year following the fire the old tree sent forth shoots at its base—signaling a passing of the torch of life, and marking the beginning of its slow death.
The shoots became saplings, and the saplings have thickened into little trees of their own. It won’t be many years before the mother tree dies, and its offspring compete with each other for the favored spot beside the stream.
I was in a funk when I arrived, which lasted for most of the sitting. A combination of ennui and enervation, I never did see exactly what the source of the feeling was. But holding it lightly and remaining with it, while undividedly watching the movement of life around one and the movement of thought/emotion within one, the condition lifted and dissipated.
A female mallard swoops in a foot over my shoulder and lands a little upstream. It doesn’t startle me; outwardly and inwardly, it’s as if I wasn’t there. A few minutes later I hear strenuous splashing below my line of sight. Sure enough, it’s taking a bath, the first duck bath I’ve observed. The mallard sees me when I stand, but nonchalantly crosses over to the other side of the creek to finish its bath.
At the end of the meditation, there is the feeling of one quietly and imperceptibly entering the house of death, where everything is at once completely empty and full, completely silent and resounding with the sacred.
There isn’t a trace of fear or darkness in it. On the contrary, when there is no center and no thought, one feels lighter than air, and death is experienced simply as the ground of life.
Death is the ground from which the universe sprang into being, and into which, in whatever way and however long, it will fall back. The basic processes of nature are the same everywhere in the universe, though the forms they take are undoubtedly far stranger than anything we can possibly imagine.
Someone I know talked recently with a 98-year old man in a nursing home. His body has given out on him, but his mind is still sharp. ‘So are you going to live to be 100?’ my friend asked him. “God I hope not,” he replied.
She then asked him if he had heard about the recent death of the oldest living man, at 114. Yes, he said he had. Apparently the fellow was pretty healthy to the end, and had people coming regularly to help take care of him. “Lucky bastard,” the old fellow said.
In actuality, death, however far we push it away, is just on the other side of the membrane. It’s sometimes said that right living is practicing for death, but that doesn’t quite capture it. In letting go of everything, and having a deeply quiet mind, we enter the house of death, where there’s not only renewal, but also paradoxically, creation and love.
When thought spontaneously stops in undivided attention to its movement, one feels, without fear, the omnipresent actuality of death. In nature, death is completely inseparable from life. It is a single movement. Only man separates death from life.
Socially sanctioned murder in war, and the wanton killing of animals by man, are not part of death. By the same token, the peaceful passing of a life is a beautiful thing, not something to be feared and dreaded.
We view death as the end, and associate it with personal loss and grief. Such feelings when a loved one dies are inevitable. But during life, while fully alive, it’s possible for us to have a relationship with death that is completely without fear or sense of loss.
When there is no thought, there is no time. And when there is no time, one enters into a dimension in which death, creation, and love are one.