A long time ago I sat 10 hours a day for a month in the Himalayas on a Tibetan retreat intensive with a high-level lama. I was the only western woman there. The theme was: “you are going to die”. Not very appealing.
I was 20 years old, brimming with passionate lust for life and an all-consuming fire to fully awaken. But why meet death now? I can do that when I am old and wrinkled, right? It made no sense to my mind, but deep down I knew I must attend.
When I entered the monastery high in these beautiful snowcapped mountains, enveloped in palpable stillness, I had no idea that we would meditate on death and the reality of impermanence every moment every day.
Alas, since I had committed to staying, I sat through these grueling meditations, slept on the bare floor wrapped in an old wool blanket, drank disgusting yak tea in the cold morning air at 5 am, and gave myself to this wild, weird death ride. Oh gosh, we had to prostrate not once or twice, but 50 times or more every morning. It got me warm at least, but out of breath, sweat-drenched I learned to swear.
At times I thought these smiling monks are plain nuts to engage in such a practice, where you imagine in great detail that everyone you love died (I wept for hours) that the people you don’t like died (that wasn’t so bad:)) And then you die, your flesh rots is eaten by worms… You had to feel every sensation, emotion, the terror, the survival grip, the thoughts to find somewhere safety, permanence, something to hold on to, an escape from this stark reality, the itch to run was full-on… But there was no way out, except to quit. Believe me, I was tempted.
Every day with the first sound of the immense gong these words were spoken: “you are going to die.”
I slept with them. I fought with them. I ate them with a bowl of rice. I couldn’t stay on a conceptual level, that would have been a waste of time. These words were like a blow to all the made-up stuff in my head. And they cut ruthlessly through pretty spiritual delusions. Sometimes I sobbed, was furious, or laughed, sometimes I felt a respite of stillness and rest. That crazy drama kept changing constantly. I don’t know how, but at some point, I was utterly emptied out, exhausted, I finally gave in and surrendered to the truth.
Because, what remains when all else falls away?
The gates opened. Freedom took hold of me, unlike anything I had ever known, a peace that surpasses all understanding, and a love… so big it swallowed me whole. There was more, way more. What remained was and is the greatest gift. But that’s for another time.
Why am I sharing this? Well, it’s that death thing again. There is a reason that in many traditions, especially in the root lineage of the feminine way, you meditate with a skull, you meet death before you die.
I look into the world and see how much is driven by fear- this incessant running away from the reality of impermanence, death, and having no control over life. But that desperate attempt to make it all safe makes us act insane. Because no one is exempt from pain, loss, and death. No matter how much you try – you won’t get away.
But there is true freedom and peace found when you meet courageously what is. When you look death straight in the eye and shake hands. And open, surrender to this truth of life. With that liberation takes hold, in the midst of all whats going on. Amidst the ugly and beautiful, pain and joy, birth and death, light and dark, unwavering a flame shines.
Forever and always.
That’s what we celebrate and honor at Winter Solstice, Diwali, Hanukah, and Christmas. We kindle it when we meditate, help someone when we stop for a second to face and meet who and what is here. When we walk the talk in real life, through challenges and good times, and remember,
This flame is the only safe haven there is.