Courageous Facing

We face the fact that we are, we exist. Here we are: animals, vertebrates, mammals, apes that we are.

I spoke two weeks ago about Paul Tillich’s 1952 book, The Courage to Be. The courage to be is the courage to face existence, to affirm our own being in spite of those elements of our existence which conflict with our essential self-affirmation. To face being, however, also means facing nonbeing.

There is what feels like the little non-being: which is that we change. Birch spoke last week about the courage to change – to face change. We may choose change: decide to go to school, or go back to school, or switch careers, move to another city, move in with your love interest – or move out from who had been your love interest – join the army or join a commune. Big decisions. Then there are changes we don’t choose: a tornado blows down your house, you win the lottery, the stock market crashes, your love interest leaves you, you’re offered a big promotion out of the blue, or your neighbors decide to elect fascists.

Whether it’s the change you choose or don’t choose, you face the fact of change and of adapting yourself to the new reality. Change is a confrontation with nonbeing: what was, is no longer; what wasn’t, now is. Becoming is the interplay of being and nonbeing. Life changes – even big changes – feel like the little non-being compared to the end of life – the big non-being, or so it seems.

Unitarian minister Rev. Forrest Church spoke often of these twin truths to courageously face: that we are alive now and we will die. He wrote: “Death is central to my definition of religion: religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” When Dan Cryer wrote a book of the Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, he titled it: “Being alive and having to die.” Our religion, indicates Rev. Church, consists of our response to these two truths, the meaning we make of life on the one hand and of death on the other. It is how we courageously face being and non-being.

To explore this, we begin with the story we heard this morning, “I am Courage” (by Susan Verde). Faith read the lines:
“When my mind tells me ‘I can’t,’ I look inside myself and find the strength that lives deep down, and I tell my mind, ‘Yes, I can.’”
Sure, positive self-talk can sometimes bolster confidence and resilience, helping you take action, persist in the face of obstacles, and seek solutions. You’ve probably also learned along the way that it’s a good thing to know your limitations, that prudence sometimes dictates that you cut your losses; abandon an enterprise rather than continue to pour time and energy into something that’s not worth it. But how do we know when to persevere and when to cut bait?

The problem is, the voice of prudence may get misappropriated by a self-defeatist skeptical voice, and when you self-talk, “yes, I can,” your inner skeptic has some ammo for saying, “You sure about that? Maybe you can’t.”

I do not have – I don’t think anybody could have – an across the board, all-purpose answer to the question of when to push on and when to switch to something more likely to be rewarding. Nor should there be any sweeping general answer. Different people will have different proclivities for persevering versus trying something new – and it’s a good thing that we have that diversity. The same person will, in different types of activities, or at different times in their life with the same activity, persist more or persist less – and that variability is a good thing, too.

But I do have a twist to propose for the self-talk, something to help a little bit to guard against the possibility that a defeatist voice may be prematurely masquerading as the voice of prudence. It’s a point I share with you that I heard at a dharma talk during the six months I was in residence at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Oregon during 2019-2020. A day at Great Vow Zen Monastery, for the monastics and the residents there, often involved a total of a few hours of meditation in half-hour increments, and the rest of the day we carried out work assignments – in the garden or in the kitchen, or cleaning or fixing something. But for a 7-10-day stretch out of every month, we had sesshin. During sesshin, the meditation (or sitting in meditation posture, sometimes changing sutras or listenting to a dharma talk) bumps up to 10 hours a day. After about the second day, it can feel grueling. Knees hurt, back hurts – mind wanders – and what it’s apt to wander to is, “I can’t do this.”

One of the monks there, Soten Lynch, gave the dharma talk one day during a sesshin, and he addressed the “I can’t” voice. I happened to end up with the text of his talk, so I can quote Soten. He said:
“When the present moment is so appalling that you need to quit, that you need to die, that the thought of continuing is absolutely terrifying – when it’s crystal clear that continuing is not an option, when you have lost all ability to remain present, when hearing a teacher say ‘Be alert. Be alert. Return,’ is really [effing] agitating --the way out of ‘I can’t’ is not ‘I can.’ ‘I can’ is a useless, patronizing self-pat-on-the-back. The way out of ‘I can’t’ is ‘I am.’ The way out of ‘I can’t’ is awareness of the fact that I am doing exactly what it is that I am telling myself I cannot do. What you think you can't do, you are doing. You think you cannot handle this life? You are living. And if you stay put and if you continue and let the sangha hold you -- be it this sangha or the universe itself -- a willingness to experience what you're already experiencing can arise.”
That’s what Soten said. So when your mind says you can’t, well, you can try telling your mind that you can – and sometimes, maybe, that’ll be enough. Your inner skeptic, however, may have it’s doubts. “Can you?” it’ll say. “Where’s the evidence for that?”

But if, instead, you tell your mind, “I’ve gotten this far,” there’s solid evidence that indeed you have. The answer to, “I can’t” isn’t “yes, I can.” It’s “I am” -- “I am” in the sense Soten explicitly indicated of “I am doing the very thing that an inner voice is saying I can’t,” and also “I am” in wider sense “I exist.”

It’s that courage to be that answers the “I can’t” voice. When the mind says, “I can’t,” first, notice that you are. The universe has brought you forth – by accident, by fate, by cosmic design, doesn’t matter. (I lean toward “highly unlikely fluke,” myself, but however it happened, it happened. Here you are.) Courageously facing the fact of existence – which we do by simply, wholly, bringing awareness to our being – is enough. At least for today, our being persists – so, at least for today, we may persist in the projects to which we have set our being.

Our projects of becoming, though, are always projects of nonbeing as well as being. They are the projects of change and thus of the death of the person you used to be. How we face change (chosen and not) is integral to how we face our ultimate bodily death.

Here’s a story. Something happened to me in 2006 on my 47th birthday. When these markers of another year of life gone by come around, like many people, I reflect, take stock, review the time passed, and what might be left. That particular year, I was a half-time minister in El Paso, Texas and also half-time 300 miles away at our congregation in Midland, Texas. My thoughts that day were not particularly dark or depressed. I was sitting in the minister’s office of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Midland on a Thursday mid-morning running over the inventory of 47 years gone by: I spent a lot of years going to school, getting degrees. Had a couple kids. Had some years as a philosophy professor. Divorced, remarried. I’d started practicing Zen almost 5 years before at age 42. Was coming to the end of my second year as a Unitarian Universalist minister. What did any of that, or all of it, mean?

Soon my life would all be over. What did that mean?

Right about then, I don’t know why, something inside me clicked. Something let go, and I had the sensation of a weight falling off me. “I’m going to die,” in that moment felt like such good news. Not that this was actually news -- but that it was a good thing felt like news. What a relief that I won’t live forever! I’m not responsible for eternity. I don’t have to get it figured out. No matter how hard I might try, I can’t succeed at immortality. Life is just a little ffft. I might live another day, I might live another 47 years and reach age 94. That doesn’t matter -- it really doesn’t. Either way, it’s still a little ffft.

As I was growing up, whenever the inevitability of death came up, my parents used to say, “No time soon, we hope.” Now, I’ll grant you that if your spouse has been putting off going to the doctor, and you mention this, and he shrugs and says we’re all going to die anyway, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Honey, let’s not let that be any time soon.” Sure. Why not take reasonable precautions? Take reasonable precautions and at the same time, there’s an entirely other awareness that can be present, even in the midst of taking reasonable precautions. That’s the awareness that hit me on my 47th birthday.

It was suddenly so clear to me that “no time soon, we hope,” was beside the point. Whether life lasts a minute more or 50 years more, it’s still a little ffft. So relax. There’s nothing I can do about this – thank god, or else I’d have to deal with the temptation to do it. There’s no way out.

As I looked around that minister’s office, the objects around me had a sharpness they hadn’t had before, a kind of poignant yet majestic quality. All of them were as temporary as I was, and they seemed so beautifully self-sufficient being just what they were just at that moment. Understanding the fact of death – not just cognitively knowing it, but living with that continual awareness, makes life ineluctably, ineffably sweet. This runaway train is headed for the cliff, and there’s no way to stop it. It made me love the scenery on the ride.

The ecstatic quality of that moment passed. But I have carried with me for the last 18 years now an abiding gratitude for my mortality. We are not given tomorrow, and that makes having today such a joy, such a delightful, beautiful joy. The more we hold awareness of our own death always in mind, the more life feels sweet and vibrant and real. The more life feels . . . alive.

Something happened in my neurons, no doubt, and what happened changed my life. It was a break from my past patterns where death was something I didn’t want to think about, something I distracted myself away from paying attention to. It’s not that I had been afraid of death. I wasn’t afraid of it – how could I be afraid of it when I rarely thought about it all? Now I have the awareness of death as my constant companion.

What I realized on that day, others have also realized, as I have since discovered. Native American novelist Louise Erdrich writes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”
And the Scottish novelist Dame Muriel Spark wrote:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”
Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote:
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
Does that make sense to you? If I’d read that when I was 42, it would have been a bit murky. Ever since 47, it has made perfect sense. Of COURSE to practice death is to practice freedom.

We all know that all things are temporary, right? But we often don’t act like we know it. We keep going after achievements and acquisitions as if we thought they and we were permanent. We go after that job, or that promotion, or that partner, or that house, and we know, if we stop to think about it, that these things are temporary. Thing is, we don’t much stop to think about it. So we live as if we thought that getting them would be some kind of permanent fix.

As Larry Rosenberg says:
“We know in our heads that we will die, but we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.”
Then we will know how to live. And when we have grasped that, certain other truths come into view.

For one: My thoughts are not me. I don’t choose them: my thoughts are just something that happens to me, like the weather. The story I have about myself – the narrative the mind creates of a hero – me – nobly sallying forth like Don Quixote to do good things, encounter obstacles, and heroically surmount them, is just a fabricated story – not particularly true or even particularly interesting. The mind creates an illusory self to be the hero of its story, but all of it is in constant flux – no part of it is permanent, and the line between self and non-self is very blurry.

What you are, is not that story your mind continuously fabricates -- the story with you as the hero. What you are is . . . well, everything. The courage to be, then, is ultimately a property of the universe as a whole.

A young Canadian, age 22, was a soldier in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis in Denmark, charged with smuggling arms, and sentenced to death. On the evening before his execution he wrote his final letter. He wrote to his mother:
“I know you are a courageous woman and you will bear this [news of my pending execution], but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it. You must understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere – in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile.”
That young man saw that the real him was everything: trees, people, smiles -- and also weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and tears -- the whole catastrophe.

Death means that one brain stops fabricating a story about itself. The true you, isn’t that story and isn’t limited to that one brain. The true you is "mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun, and the moon, and the stars" (Dogen) -- and everything.

Another truth that comes into view concerns the future. I am, like many of us, curious about the future. What new technologies will come along? Will we end war, end hunger, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the Blessings of Liberty? Or will we descend into authoritarianism for a thousand years? What new artistic creations will come? I have wanted to live a long life just to see as much of that as I could. I wanted to be there when the future came.

But now I understand that I will be. I will be there when any future comes, because if anyone’s there, then that’s me.

And it’s also you. And the courage to face eternity condenses into the courage to face just this moment, to bring all our awareness right here, on what is, exactly as it is. Amen.

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