My Unitarian Universalist colleague, Karen Johnston, has graciously agreed to post on The Way of the River. Her wisdom and compassion—born of a committed Buddhist practice—consistently impress and inspire me. I commend her to you and hope you will check out her blog, linked at the bottom of the page. Blessings!
As this sound passes, so shall the spark of life pass from this body.
As this sound passes, so shall this body pass into the earth.
As this sound passes, so shall all human recollection of this existence.
To end my sitting meditation practice, I recite a petition to cultivate the ten paramitas (virtues) of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition (in Mahayanan Buddhism, they have six paramitas; my sense is that they are cut from the same cloth, but into different shapes).
After that, I recite a brief version of the Metta prayer. There are so many versions. This one is strongly influenced the one spoken at my wedding.
Then I strike the chime on my altar, once for each of those phrases at the top of this post.
I developed this practice years ago after reading Larry Rosenberg’s Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive. It was co-written by David Guy, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all time. Living into the Light… is a book I long to re-read but don’t have the time. Sometimes I do sneak peaks and find gems like
Death isn’t waiting for us at the end of a long road; it is with us every minute.
The fact that life is impermanent and uncertain does not mean that it is worthless. Seen correctly, these facts make life more precious. They show us that every moment is a gift.
I am not sure where it is in the book, or whether the book actually suggests this as part of a meditation practice. However, as I came to know that befriending death was part of my spiritual practice, I knew that this three-part reminder would be one way that I could grow my comfort with this fact and be aware of death’s every-minute presence in my life.
When I first started this spiritual practice, I would say those lines differently. They still started with the chime and “As this sound passes…,” but then I would say, “so shall the spark of life pass from my body,” or “so shall my body pass into the earth,” or “so shall all memory of my existence.” My, my, my. I felt like a toddler, following those irascible toddler rules of possession.
That seemed, well, counter to the whole non-clinging element of Buddhism. Subverting the whole point of learning the practice of letting go.
So now I say these three lines. As I do, I try to feel them. I try to get out of my head and into my whole body. I bring my attention to which one causes just the slightest twinge of regret…or an all out silent aversion reaction that could be depicted by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch.
Because this is about befriending, I notice and say, “Okay, today it’s fear of being forgotten that is my company on this day,” and I welcome her, instead of shutting her out, or shaming her into the shadows.
Tomorrow it may be about how my body will decay…is decaying as we speak, as I write this, as I breathe. (Yours, too.) These are the days I try to bring my appreciative eye to the natural world and all that it offers of evidence that fullness wanes, moisture dries up, metal rusts, wood rots, and it all—as do I—belongs here.
Another day, it may be that first phrase—spark of life will pass from this body—that evokes the moment of death that reminds me that this spark, this energy that animates me, is borrowed and as such, is a blessed gift that I hold precious while it is in my keeping.
Mine, mine, mine. Until it is not.
Yours, yours, yours. Until it is not.
May we find compassion, not fear, in these places where we meet.
Karen G. Johnston is a Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry. Originally from Oregon, she has lived in Western Massachusetts for several decades. Her spirituality is informed by her participation in Insight Meditation. She writes a blog which can be found at irrevspeckay.wordpress.com.