Often when facing a life threatening illness – or really any significant health challenge – we busy ourselves fighting or resisting. We often get trapped in the fear of what might be, or in the sorrow of what we have lost. All the while we can forget to truly live and to connect with those things that make us feel most alive.
We all know that death is a part of life and imminent for us all. There is a time to die. And I don’t mean in the sense that we get to choose the time, at least not most of us. Mysteriously, there just comes a time when life leaves the body without always answering to, “why me, why now, why this.” Some are ready, and some are not. But for those of us whose time has not yet come, what really matters is living life fully. How do we do this? How do we stay awake? How do we live well?
I just returned yesterday from my father-in-law’s funeral. It was a beautiful ceremony and a celebration of a life well lived. Strangely though, I found myself not only grieving for the loss of this remarkable man, but also reflecting on life itself and on what it all means. I found myself wondering, “what exactly IS a life well lived?”
Facing death in this way felt like a strange sort of awakening. It’s as if pushing up against the edge of life brings more clearly into focus what it means to be alive: to have this body, at this time, in this place, and to be able to think, to feel, and to create. Among the mountain of grief, there was also a river of gratitude.
These moments of clarity felt almost like looking into a mirror. I could more clearly see what is most important in life: family, kindness, tenderness, contribution, beauty, forgiveness, joy, laughter. When we find these moments of clarity it is easier to let go of the insignificant chatter, the lists, and the daily anxieties.
The poet Rumi wrote:
“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!”
I imagine my husband’s father crossing that doorsill where the two worlds touch. The veil is thin here. We see that life is fleeting.
When I, myself, reach that doorsill, I don’t want to wonder where my life went.
I want to be awake for the whole lot of it.
I am not willing to live half-alive anymore. I don’t want to go through life’s motions, dotting all of my i’s and crossing my t’s, and trying to live up to what society deems is success. Indeed, my body no longer even tolerates this sort of half living as it once did. I used to be able to plow through at top speed, as if I were a stoker shoveling coal deep into the firebox of a runaway steam train. Busy tending the fire, I missed most of the ride.
Now I am learning to take my time. More often than not, I soak up the views as I move forward. I no longer take even my quiet breath for granted. This is a lesson I learned from illness… how to live better, richer, more fully present. Among other things, the profound reduction in my stress level that came from learning to live this way, undoubtedly contributed to my healing process. It was both an intentional unraveling of the patterns in my life that contributed to stress and “dis-ease” and a re-patterning of healthful ways of living and being that influenced my biology in a positive way.
I am not my old self anymore. I am different – lighter, less intense, less anxious, more willing, and open, and flexible. And though I am officially in “remission,” I still have mild and manageable symptoms today. These symptoms are invariably reminders of when I am out of alignment, half asleep at the wheel, or grinding through in a race to the finish.
Walt Whitman wrote in Song of the Open Road:
“Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,”
I now make a practice of inhaling great draughts of space. Doing so literally infuses my body with strength. I have to constantly seek out and regularly connect with that which makes me feel most alive. Whether it is joy, or sorrow, or laughter, or challenge… what has become most important is staying present to the conditions of my life, and wide-awake for all of it. Without this I wilt, both in body and in spirit. At some level, it feels like this is a process of tapping into my very life force. This energizes me and helps to nurture healing in my body on a regular and ongoing basis.
The work of healing, at this level, is not about attachment to a particular outcome, rather it is about living fully, living intentionally, and living well in this moment, despite the circumstances. It is about staying awake and present in the time that we have. That, I believe, is a life well lived.