I had a bit of a shock last night when a long-time friend came over for dinner with her daughter. She's one of those friends we don't see nearly often enough, and when we do it's always a joy and we sit around wondering why we don't see each other more often... Well, we happen to have first met when she was a student of mine at the University of Southern California, and she reminded me that it was forty years ago. Forty years! Well, actually, not quite forty. Thirty-eight. But it seemed suddenly like both a very long time and a very short time all at once. You know the feeling. Forty years! So much had happened in our lives in all that time, and yet it seemed gone in a flash.
So that was the shock. And with it, of course, came the awareness of aging. I do not look the same as I did forty years ago. What was once dark brown is now silver-grey. The brow that once was a barely wrinkled is now scored heavily with lines. The same with the face. Flesh sags where it was once resilient. What once was trim and tight now bulges over the belt. And the various organs no longer function as smoothly as they once did. That's the naked truth.
Ah, and the same day, the same evening, comes news of several high school students killed in a tornado in Alabama. And this morning, news of a bus that crashed through a freeway bridge, killing more young people in Ohio. And--this thought may be lacking in originality, but it bears thinking anyway--I marvel that I have been permitted to live this long, while others, young people, children even, lose their lives before they even reach maturity. This morning, if compassion can do anything to help, I send it to those families. May they in due time find healing from their grief.
One of the teachers I have worked with along this path toward Buddhism required me to meditate each day for several weeks on the various ways in which my life might be snatched from me without warning, and to visualize in exquisite detail how it might occur. It did not take a great effort of the imagination to come up with a virtually endless supply of dreadful deaths, and the exercise proved a useful lesson in coming to the realization--at gut level, not merely in the brain--that the life I'm given is not endless, and cannot be taken for granted. The learning is to make no assumptions and to be ready for death at any moment. There is no guarantee that this morning will not be the last.
While this practice may sound morbid, it is actually quite liberating once you get past the initial impulse of denial. It may also prove to have some practical benefits. While we may not have tornados here in California, we do have earthquakes--and we certainly have traffic. I would like to think that the moment of my death will not be one of unbridled fury at the truck driver who causes it! Much better to make that last transition not in anger but serenity.