Sitting one morning recently, watching my breath, watching thoughts and feelings, something occurred to me: that when I die, I’ll be leaving more emptiness for others who have already had more than enough loss in their lives.
And I won’t be able to do anything about it. Even if I can then feel the distress that my leaving has caused, I won’t be able to reach out a comforting hand. Whatever remains of my consciousness may be feeling its own depressed aftermath of recent embodiment, as it floats around in some intermediate state; feeling apprehensive that the next life will deliver more desperate encounters with confusion, alienation, and an inability to carve out a place in a world that only begrudgingly notices most of us.
As far as I can tell, this is what awaits me in the bardos of dying, darmata, and becoming, unless I finally learn–in these dwindling opportunities of my current embodiment–to appreciate the gift of this present human life.
Who would have thought that so much could be riding on my finally, so near the finish line, opening to the great harmony of joy, love, compassion, and appreciation for a balance that runs through all things.
I realize that these exotic, Buddhist ideas about reincarnation and karma–about how life and its cessation might be joined in a greater whole—appeal to me in the absence of any homegrown theories or visions, since I have not incorporated any. In fact, it’s only recently that I have given much thought to what may occur at the end of life, since it never seemed to serve a meaningful or urgent purpose within the life I was living.
Simply because something in me has been disturbed–into wondering what comes next for me and for those I love–isn’t in itself a good reason for blindly believing something that someone else holds to be true–no matter how venerable those beings may be.
However I still remember a realization I experienced decades ago: reincarnation doesn’t require me to have unverifiable faith in the reports of reincarnated beings about what happens at death or how successive lifetimes oblige us to keep working on our uncompleted karmic tasks. I can verify within the context of present life that I feel better when I pay attention to my present challenges. And I can see now that life opens new possibilities—begins new life phases and new incarnations of opportunity and possibility–in which old challenges are replaced with fresh ones.
So, without feeling especially intimidated by the prospect, it seemed like a good idea to act as if karma and reincarnation are characteristics of life; especially if, but not only if, that process continues through the vast reaches of time and space. And now I’m feeling something similar in anticipation of the inevitable arrival of death: that although I have no verifiable reason to believe that my consciousness will sail off into the bardo or that I will then look back at this present life as the preparation for what comes next, I’d like to have some positive momentum going if I can.
Even if personal annihilation awaits or Great Nature will reabsorb my individual being– often so lost and fragmented in this present embodiment—I can still wish to be welcomed into a greater wholeness. What Buddhism calls the “Four Immeasurables”–love, joy, compassion and balance—feels like the home I yearn to return to; and what better resource to have in the midst of this present shattering that will continue to visit so many of us before we are done here?