mindfulness amidst uncertainty
Mar 25, 2020
It's a relief to note that in this era of social media we are once again appreciating what paper resources have to offer. Who knows, some of us might return to the ancient art of book- reading. If so, one book I'd recommend during this uncertainty vibe is Bhante Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English. In particular, I'd recommend reading the passage where he recalls being 39,000 feet up in mid-flight then noticing the plane’s engine on fire. I reckon that kind of realisation ranks pretty high up on the uncertainty barometer. So maybe we can use it to find some perspective in these times.
Then the pilot’s voice came over the intercom: the engine was on fire and we were turning back.
He told the flight attendants to give instructions on how we should exit the plane if we managed to get back.
I doubt anybody understood much of these instructions. From the moment the pilot had announced that the engine was on fire, everyone in the cabin seemed to be seized with fear of death. Some started crossing themselves, couples clutched to each other and kissed, others wept or looked tense and anxious.
I thought, “If this is my time to die, well I will die anyway, whether I am afraid or not. Let me keep my mind clear.” First, I recalled my intellectual understanding of what death is. I considered that death is inevitable, and that this would be a good time for me to die for I had been doing good deeds, and I had nothing to regret. Then I thought about the likely sequence of events. “If the plane falls quickly from a height of thirty-nine thousand feet we will be unconscious before the plane hits the ocean.” I do not know whether this is scientifically true, but that is what I thought at the time.
I exhorted myself: “I have to keep my mind very clear, very pure before I lose consciousness. This is the time to use my mindfulness to realize the inevitability of death. If I die peacefully with a pure, clear state of mind my future life will be bright. Perhaps I will attain a stage of enlightenment through seeing the truth of impermanence. I must not block my mind with fear or confusion. No matter how strong my attachment to life, I must let go of that attachment now.” Thus I made the effort to prevent any unwholesome state of mind arising in the face of death and encouraged wholesome states of mind to arise.
I was just too stunned to feel afraid, and felt no fear, I actually enjoyed watching the flames coming out of the engine at thirty nine thousand feet! The flames were blue and yellow and red. You seldom see such blue flames. Sometimes they were streaming out; sometimes they were low. They looked like fireworks, or the Aurora Borealis.
While I was enjoying the drama the three hundred or so other passengers from time to time saw the agony they suffered from the very thought of death. They seemed almost dead before they died! I noticed, however, that the little children did not seem affected. They kept laughing and playing as they did before the crisis. I thought, “Let me put myself in their place in a child-like mind.”
We did make it back and the plane made an emergency landing. We went out the emergency doors as instructed, sliding down the chutes. Going down the chute was an entirely new experience for me. Perhaps everyone else on the plane had at least gone down a playground slide in their childhood, but I had never done such a thing in the poor village where I grew up.
Right up to the end I enjoyed it all very much.
There are key learnings here: first up, you're going to die. You don't know when your time will come. So maybe we should use these uncertain times to consider the manner of how to approach this inevitability? Doing so may help you live with more ease; find your philosophy of life. You may have your own particular faith or code of living. That's great. It's probably a consolation. But make sure it's a code of living based on compassion towards others. If it doesn't contain that ethical dimension it ain't worth much.
Bhante Gunaratana’s perspective is the Buddhist practitioner's. He reflects upon “the truth of impermanence” and resolves to “keep my mind clear” so as not to tip into “fear or confusion”. Such detachment allows him to reframe experience: indeed, he starts enjoying watching the flames ripping out of the engine, imagining them as some Aurora Borealis. He also notices the children laughing and playing. The lesson he draws from this is: put yourself in a 'child-like mind' during such times. Be inquisitive, playful.
Of course, Bhante G - as he is affectionately known to his friends - probably has Olympic athlete levels of awareness. But what's worth taking from his experience is the notion of possibility contained within every circumstance of our lives: that we can reframe experience in the present moment. It isn't easy, but we can. It's an available option. It's where the work starts. You and I can use this experience we're going through now to notice the beauty of things. The beauty of things when the engines fail.
My learning comes from when he notices the agonised adult passengers ("they seemed almost dead before they died"), the message being: by not being in the present you're dead in some way. The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi puts it this way: It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life. Would it be a stretch to say that the eternal life can be found in this present moment? I don't think it is a stretch. This moment is your eternity. The problem is the ego gets in the way. We think of what we want to accomplish in a life; we think of the sum of life as what we leave behind. We're always living 'there then' rather than 'here, now'. But of course we know that 'here, now' is all we've got. Marcus Aurelius puts it something like this, You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. But even within that map of realisation you need a compass to navigate the present moment; a moment not best served by the ego. As Assisi reminds us, the self needs to die. For Marcus Aurelius such a moral compass is simple: Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one. Hamlet asks what it is 'to be'. Maybe the answer is simple: just to be. To be is inherently good because it is non-judgemental. To be is to be aware. Such awareness is eminently trainable. It is through training in awareness that we learn to work with the present moment. To work with gratitude and curiosity - as tools for finding spaciousness as much as anything.
What seems to distinguish the people we are considering is that they are prepared to share with us what it is to suffer. In these uncertain times there is suffering beyond a virus. But such suffering is compounded by its reality. Think of those with a terminal diagnosis. What are they going through? You may not want to contemplate it but their diagnosis is yours too. It's just not as immediate. Therefore being aware of death is not morbid, it's life-affirming. For Bhante G it is the opportunity for playful reframing. But for many of us the reframing is thrust upon us. Consider Paul Kalanithi's 'The Breath Becomes Air':
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.
Maybe we should practise the reframing now, so the reframe is not thrust upon us. Use lockdown time to lock on to learning about what it means to live. For Paul Kalanithi the Learning is this: There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment. He finds hope in the worn down details of living. That's Stoic. Listen to the interview with his wife (at 5:30) and take in what is meaningful about choosing to suffer. It's truly uplifting to hear the meaning of suffering reframed in this way.
Being dead before you die is not just about fear. It's about pushing away the worn down details of living. However, what we learn from Bhante G, Marcus Aurelius, St Francis of Assisi and Paul Kalanithi is that we can find our essence in what seems worn down.
We can find our mindful living.