River

Last night a dark feeling squeezed down on me as I slipped from wakefulness to sleep. It was a feeling of the end of life, a wondering what happens when consciousness ends. To sleep, and disappear, and not reappear? The thought has always shocked me, even when I was a child.

After all, the only way we know that we were asleep, is that we awaken again. If we don’t awaken, what then? Is every sleep a tiny death, preparing us for the time when we will close our eyes for the last time, and say farewell to this life we had?

Many spiritual practices have death-embracing rituals. Most of them come down to accepting death… accepting that life could end at any moment, and living as if this is a very real possibility. Which in fact it is. After all, there is nothing guaranteeing that we make it to tomorrow…the world is full of random tragedy that cuts life short. The odds are we will live until tomorrow, that we will live another 30 or 50 years, but the chance remains that a freak accident will claim us, and all the things we wanted to do will remain undone.

I even developed my own visualization about this. Sometimes, at the end of a meditation, I let myself slip even deeper into a silent, restful state. I imagine my bones literally resting on the floor, as heavy as stones, held no longer by muscle or will…my flesh dissolved. My bones have become simple objects, all consciousness gone.

Then I imagine time racing forward, days passing every second, the sun racing across the sky, and the bones and body that once were me rest on the earth in silence. Eons pass, the sky changes, beings live and struggle and die, and the future recedes into history. And all of the concerns I had, the struggles I engaged in, my ego, my wants, my victories, my defeats, are passed over and long forgotten, all of it meaning nothing in the end.

When I imagine that this very day could be my final day, that the next time I close my eyes in sleep could be the last, I ask myself, what would I do? What would I do, if tomorrow all of my concerns will pass into the hands of others, and my needs and desires will vanish from the earth?

And the answer to this question…what will I do, if this is my final day?…always involves three things: giving something to another person, leaving something good of myself behind, and connecting with the people I love. My daily concerns of what to do next and how to improve my position simply vanish, and in the end I only want to release the best of whatever I have to the people who can use it most.

And in the end, time is a river that flows on, sometimes even rushes on, from a source we can’t see, to an ocean we don’t yet know. To ride this river can be a joy, but the river is ever changing, and for most of us it won’t be our fate to alter its course, except by the smallest fraction.

We are not the river, we are not the path of the river, we are not even the stones it touches.

But perhaps we can be, for a moment or a day, the sunlight sparkling on the surface. You, me, our friends, our connections…each of us a beautiful flash of light, there for a moment, dancing on the surface, creating a mesmerizing pattern of beauty on top of the cool, flowing water. And for that moment, seen by whatever eyes watch us from above, to know that we existed together.


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