How we live is how we die. For me, this is the most fundamental message of the bardo’s teachings. The way we deal with small changes now is a sign of how we’ll deal with bigger changes later. How we relate to things that are falling apart at this time foreshadows how we will relate to things that are falling apart when we die.
But we don’t have to wait for huge transitions to force us to reckon with groundlessness. We can immediately begin to notice the transitory nature of each day and hour, reflecting on Anam Thubten’s words about how we continually go through endings and beginnings, endings and beginnings, one mini-life after another.
At the same time, we can work through our general fear and anxiety that we are not in control. Most of the time, we would rather remain in the illusion of control and certainty than acknowledge how life and death are always unpredictable. In fact, I have often wondered, “Is it really a problem that we have so little control? Is it a problem that when we plan our day, it rarely turns out as we predicted? Is it a problem that all the plans are written in water?” I had my entire year scheduled when covid hit, and like millions of people, all of my plans were suddenly erased like words off a blackboard.
Over the years, people tell you little things that have a big impact. Someone once told me, almost in passing: “Life has its own natural choreography.” I thought about that for a long time and started to take advantage of this natural choreography and experiment to let it do its thing. I’ve found that most of the time, when I leave it alone, what comes out of that choreography is much more inspired, creative and interesting than anything I can think of.
Trusting the natural choreography of life is another way of talking about trusting reality. We can begin to build this trust by allowing ourselves to let go of small things. For example, when I teach, I like to experiment by allowing things to just unfold. Before giving the talks in this book, I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the bardos, and I took various notes. But when I got to the retreat and it was time to speak in front of people, I put down the notes and was curious if the words would come out of my mouth. I have found that my teachings flow better if I go into an open space and jump.
If we experiment, as best we can, letting things unfold naturally, I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised. We go ahead and make our plans, but we are open to seeing them change. As a result, our insistence on predictability can constantly weaken. Sometimes our old habit will still be too seductive and it will be almost impossible to trust the natural choreography. In such cases, the best advice I’ve been given is to simply notice the tendency to control and accept it graciously. This is very different from wanting to specify everything without thinking, without awareness of what we are doing and without a sense of its absurdity. It’s just a matter of seeing our habit and not criticizing ourselves for it. This kind of simple self-reflection will also give us empathy for all the other people who want control so badly, which is to say almost everyone on this planet.
Getting a little used to life’s basic groundlessness every day will pay big dividends at the end of life. Somehow, despite its continuous presence in our lives, we are still not used to continuous change. The uncertainty that accompanies every day and every moment of our lives remains an unknown presence. As we contemplate these teachings and pay attention to the constant and unpredictable flow of our experience, we may begin to feel more relaxed about how things are. If we can bring this relaxation to our deathbed, we’ll be ready for whatever happens next.
Of How we live is how we die by Pema Chödrön © 2022 by the Pema Chödrön Foundation. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. shambhala.com
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