June 23, 2014

The Grateful Dead

I’ll be turning 70 in just 2 months—yipes! And I’m definitely noticing a gradual change in the tenor of my life. In former decades, it was all about births and weddings and exciting possibilities. Now it seems to be about funerals and hospital visits and wondering when my first major health crisis will hit. If this sounds like a bummer, it should. But actually, it’s not such a big problem because I have a practice.

The mind and body eventually deteriorate but apparently one’s practice just continues to grow ever stronger and clearer. My mind seems to be declining in a linear fashion, whereas “my mindful” seems to be growing exponentially.

For me, that practice provides direct contact with the forces of life (Expansion) and death (Contraction). There are two sides to this:

Formless Doing
(Expansion and Contraction gush out and gather in simultaneously)
Formless Rest
(Expansion and Contraction mutually cancel out into Gone). 

Being formless, these experiences are a kind of death but a good kind of death…a death in the service of life.

Goethe (following in the tradition of Heraclitus) describes it in his Holy Longing poem:
Sagt es niemand, nur den Weisen,
Weil die Menge gleich verhöhnet:
Das Lebendge will ich preisen,
Das nach Flammentod sich sehnet.
                     . . .
Keine Ferne macht dich schwierig,
Kommst geflogen und gebannt,
Und zuletzt, des Lichts begierig,
Bist du, Schmetterling, verbrannt. 
Und solang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde. 
Tell it to no one but the wise
For most will mock it right away
The truly living do I prize
Those who long in flame to die.
                   . . .
Distance cannot slow your flight
Spellbound through the air you're borne
Til at last mad for the light
You are a butterfly, then…gone. 
And until you know of this:
How to grow through death
You're just another troubled guest
On the gloomy earth. 
Once you know of this, it very much changes how you think about your own physical death. I recently found myself summarizing this change with the laconic (and perhaps to some enigmatic) sentence:

The more dead you are in life, 
the more alive you’ll be after death. 

(Understanding that dead here refers to the enlivening death you experience when you melt in the formless Fountain of Youth.).

These phrases translate nicely into Chinese (read the right column first):

Looks a bit like something you might see in the neiye.


  1. I’m eight years in age behind you, Shinzen. I do appreciate that “gone” emerges with increasing frequency and lightness over the years of practice. With the deterioration in mental faculties that comes with aging, I fear a possible corresponding loss of capacity to recognize discursive thought, to not be lost in narrative. While for me the recognition comes without the applied effort that was required at one time, since this capacity to recognize discursive thought is trained, it would seem then that this capacity is a mental factor. Correct? If it is a mental factor, it too then is subject to the deterioration that comes with aging. Maybe it all depends: depends on the stability of recognition; depends on one’s health, day to day; depends on the circumstances of one’s life, day to day. Maybe there is no bright line on whether one’s mindfulness “grows exponentially” or succumbs to entropy. Your thoughts.

    Christine Johnson
    Tucson, AZ

    1. Over my long career, I've been privileged to have contact with many Asian masters, some of whom were quite senile and a few of whom had advanced Alzheimer's. As far as I'm able to tell, the practice was still present for them at a "cellular level"--a kind of ease and grace, literally a second childhood or, perhaps more appropriately stated, a second infancy, but this time without tantrum, trauma, or freakout. I've noticed a similar effect among my students who have become senile or even severely demented due to age. These observations have disabused me of many concerns.

  2. I appreciate it, Shinzen. Thank you.
    Christine Johnson
    Tucson, AZ

  3. Shinzen, I've just listened to your "science of enlightenment" and I've just been meditating for the last month every day. I've never done this before. The changes in my life and in my relationship (my partner has started doing this also) have been nothing short of phenomenal. I'm 40 in a few months and never once could I have said honestly that I have been happy. Until now. If mindfulness can do this after 20 minutes a day for a month, I can only imagine how incredibl it is going to be as my basic practice evolves. Thank you, I love your words.

  4. Loved this post. Could you clarify what you mean 'The more dead you are in life, the more alive you’ll be after death', is this related to cessation and/or no self? Do you have any fear of death? What is best to emphasize in practice to achieve this?

    1. This is a great question. I'm going to write an entire blog post in order to answer. Check back!

    2. http://shinzenyoung.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-grateful-dead-follow-up.html


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