One night I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. When this happened, I was in a beautiful, calm, and mostly fearless state of mind—you could almost say, of meditation, having already had two meditation sessions that very day—so when I nearly died, maybe this is partly why I lived to talk about it. An EMT sitting next to me in the ambulance ripped my new shirt, walloped my chest, and I returned from where I had gone to. He warmly welcomed me back–one of the few who completely recover, though we are forever changed.
During the winter after this happened, I decided to live the rest of my life with four principles up front. As often as I can, I try to keep them in my mind:
Have no fear.
Inhabit your life.
Maintain your belongings.
These have seemed to work very well for me for the past several years.
Number one is fairly easy to parse. Be grateful. Like love, gratitude is an emotion that is never a waste of our time. I take the humble position that I have so much to be grateful for, and this has an unmistakably positive chemical/electrical effect upon the body, like taking a deep breath. Or like meditation.
So, think about thanks.
And thank about thinks: in other words, be grateful for the gift of consciousness. Especially if it is ever taken from you and then given back.
As a writer, I have memorable moments of pure gratitude when an unexpected image, a metaphor, a turn of phrase, leaps into my mind from some indeterminate place. The only appropriate response, I feel, is a mixture of surprise and gratitude.
Number two. Have no fear. You can be cautious; you can act with care and good judgment, but never out of fear. Fear closes, or nearly closes, every clear window we have, for looking out at the world. So you must examine those moments when fear seems to motivate you, figure out why, and try to move past that. If you can control this tendency, think how much more effective you could be as a peacemaker, or as a stakeholder determined to transform a conflict you yourself are caught up in. Think of how you might resist a leader or group who might exploit this weakness in you to achieve his own ends.
The third–Inhabit your life—is really about desire, envy, or haste, or that feeling we may carry around, of always looking forward to the next thing. I have tried to relax and be here, in my life, my house, my marriage, my work, and my town, not rushing through these, not regretting, not craving some other life, not thinking about change, and not looking forward to some imagined better moment. The idea of “living in the present” is very trite, but perhaps that is because it is so embedded in every variant of mindfulness practice, or because it’s something we frequently need to be reminded of. We also need to be reminded to live our life to the fullest, perhaps to think of it as a room that we are stretching and expanding into, touching every limit, every corner–not confining ourself to a tiny space within it.
Strangely, number four has been the richest vein—Maintain your belongings. Not just what belongs to me but also: what I belong TO. Taking intense pleasure in cleaning out a drawer, fixing a broken anything, organizing your desktop, deleting old messages, bringing a box of clothes to the thrift store, getting rid of books, taking the time to PLAN maintenance too–and taking quiet delight in visualizing all the important steps that maintenance will require. This may be the easiest way to invite quality into your life. You donʼt have to wait for someone elseʼs schedule. You can follow your own.
The most amazing things happen when you concentrate on number four:
I decide to mend a hole in a dear old cashmere sweater. I decide to go to the marvelous fabric store in downtown Brattleboro to find just the right color thread. When I enter the store, Jan, the owner, is leaning over her counter listening to a beautiful piece of female music. She is crying. I lean over and listen too. When the song ends, she says, “do you want to hear it again?” I say yes, and we listen. We become friends who now share taste in music as well as in cloth.
When we decide to live in a different manner, taking the time to take care of what belongs to us or what we belong to, we also open ourselves to a revolutionary way of being in the world, which flies directly in the face of the history and politics we grew up in, our North American conquistador/ militaristic materialism. Since pioneer days, we have moved on to new fertile ground after we have fouled the place we’ve been. We leave our unportable junk behind. That’s how we behaved in our forests, on the prairie and the frontier, and also in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, El Salvador, in so many places…
A great feeling of peace comes over me when I stop and say, I could fix this, I could maintain this, I could even work on my relationship with this acquaintance I see coming down the street toward me. I could sort through the boxes of papers under my bed. I need to tie up the pea plants: instead of trying to hack apart this garden string with a shovel blade, I could lean the pea plant against the fence, put the string down and go into the kitchen and get a knife or scissors. I could walk slowly and breathe deeply while doing this. I could stop in the kitchen and have a drink of water on the way–a mindful, moving, nourishing, maintaining moment.
The other key word is “belonging.” I imagine all the different aspects of that word. Picturing the whole web of relationships we belong to, we open ourselves to the idea that building and keeping relationships may be the most important maintenance that we can do.
It’s become a whole new way of living, for me, since that night. I don’t have to retire my ambition, in order to be this way. I donʼt have to aim my sights lower or accomplish less. I have to take the time to consider quality in my actions, visualize it ahead of me and behind me in my traces along the path I have taken, in the same way that I try to consider non-violence and quality in the words that come out of my mouth, before they are spoken. I check every impulse to do otherwise, Practicing compassion and generosity in speech and action: this is the way I want to live.