The Last Day

About 3 hours until the ball drops and we all sing Auld Lang Seins
and kiss someone close to us. This year had an early dinner, shared
resolutions and went through the ritual of ‘completing’ 2006. I notice
that staying up until midnight somehow isn’t what it used to be.
Nonetheless, this is a special day no matter how cavalier I may be
about it. Every culture seems to have a New Year. I suppose if you are
Jewish and Chinese, you could have three New Year celebrations. I
wonder if all cultures emphasize completing the past and creating the
future as the main point to the process?

I led a seminar last year called “Learning to Die”. The point of the
course was to see that if we can truly, deeply and profoundly accept
that we are going to die—not just as an abstraction—then we are free to
fully experience aliveness and the freedom to be ourselves. I think I
was the only one who really liked the title. I got it from something
attributed to Socrates who supposedly said that we can never have
wisdom until we learn to die. From my point of view, we are dying from
the day we are born …. So why is there so much fear and denial about it?

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says
people are terrified of dying because they don’t know who they are.
This makes sense to me. I don’t think a person needs to believe in any
particular religious dogma to realize a profound spiritual truth at
some point in their lives—I am not my thoughts and I am not my body.
I may not have a well-developed ontology for understanding who I am,
but I don’t need a PhD in philosophy to know who I am not.

This is the last day of the year. What if it were the last day of my
life? I would still be sitting here typing my blog and feeling happy
and grateful for my life. I would still experience love and still have
a pretty long list of things that I would like to accomplish or things
that I hope others will accomplish. I would hope I would be conscious
and serene and accept my parting with as much clarity as I have learned
to accept most aspects of my life and my world. If this is the last
day, I would want to celebrate the paradox of experiencing the serenity
that comes with acceptance and responsibility while at the same time
looking forward to whatever possibilities we can imagine for the day
after the last day.

In Zen, it is taught to live each moment as if it is the last. This
is the point I think of “Learning to Die”. It is obviously easier said
than done. People spend a lifetime learning to be that present and that
conscious of this mystery we all share. Whenever our last moment
arrives, it is also the first moment of whatever is next—for us and all
those who will share in our passing. Leaving the metaphysical
possibilities aside, I think George Bernard Shaw said it best in Man & Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a
purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of
nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and
grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making
you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole
community and as long as I can live it is my privilege to do for it
whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the
harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life
is no “brief candle” to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have
got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as
possible before handing it on to future generations.