Two brief stories, very similar, have moved me and lessened the inevitable anxiety around death—inevitable as we witness people we’re close to die and as we, ourselves, age and get ever closer to our own deaths.
I remember reading the first years ago in Tuesdays with Morrie:
The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air—until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. “My God, this is terrible,” the wave says. “Look what’s going to happen to me!”
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, “Why do you look so sad?”
The first wave says, “You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?”
The second wave says, “No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.”
More recently, I came across a similar story told by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki to his students in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He recalls looking at a large waterfall and sees how the water droplets separate from the river along their fall, before merging once again with the river at the bottom. This moment—where the drops separate—is like our lives. Brief and differentiated. “It is as if the water does not have any feeling when it is one whole river. Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling.” But then we merge back with the larger body of water.
Both are written from different perspectives and are not Gaian stories, but are very much Gaian in their natures. From the very moment of conception we start forming as separate and (eventually) conscious beings out of the elements and energy of Gaia. We differentiate and with our will can achieve many great or terrible things while alive. Our brief 76 years or so of life—about a minute in Gaian time—is the equivalent of falling as droplets down a waterfall. And our deaths—while frightening to us and painful to those who love us—are simply the return to Gaia. Like the proverbial wave, we fear this return. We fear the pain of the crash, the loss of our differentiated nature, the end of our connections to our loved ones, our friends, the many simple pleasures we have day after day—from listening to greensong to licking an ice cream cone on a hot day. But if we can remember that death is merely a return to Gaia perhaps that can help us get perspective. We differentiate, we do, we die, we decompose, and we are drawn into the next generation of life. That is a process we should not fear.
How are we to live?
Knowing that our lives are brief—and worse—not knowing where the end of the waterfall is (is it a short drop or a long one?) means it is up to us to live every moment of our lives well. Not “live it up” but live meaningfully, purposefully, and conscious that life could end at any moment.
The Japanese Book of the Samurai, Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, captured that sentiment well. Written three hundred years ago for warriors who regularly faced death on the battlefield, it was essential that these warriors be prepared for the strong possibility that they would die suddenly in battle. In the very first pages, Tsunetomo writes, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.”
While we’re not heading into battle (at least intentionally, though increasing public shootings in the US may make many Americans feel that way), we too could die at any moment. We like to believe that we’ll live to old age, that climate change will be ‘solved’ or at least not a life-threatening problem during our lifetimes. But let’s be honest, even without destabilizing ecological systems, we all could still die sooner than we plan for. We could get run over by a car tomorrow or have a heart attack—as my father did, suddenly and unexpectedly, a month before he turned 58—and return to the ocean far sooner than we expect.
So how should we live life knowing that any moment could mark our return to Gaia? And, remembering our duality—that we are part of Gaia, even now as separate droplets—that question gets even more nuanced. We have to ask ourselves: without harming Gaia, what brings me joy? And, as I serve Gaia, what makes me feel good about the life I’m leading? Those two questions may give very different answers. Watching interesting movies brings me joy. As does karate. Spending time reading to, playing with, and teaching my son also brings me joy—and also makes me feel good that I’m preparing him adequately for a future on a changing planet. Writing makes me feel like I’m serving a purpose. Activism does too—though it brings me far less joy than writing. One of the great challenges in life is to balance these—and purge those things that neither bring joy or self-actualization—or that offer one of these at great harm to Gaia (exotic holidays for example). Binging on Netflix shows—this may bring temporary joy but at what costs? Time from family? From honing interesting skills? From doing something that could help heal or at least reduce harm to Gaia? These could include anything from line-drying one’s clothes, to cooking, to gardening—all daily chores that are often sacrificed in the pursuit of more leisure time but reduce our impacts.
Of course, it’s easy to write this—and harder to live it. When we’re tired, working too many hours, or worn out, the siren song of bingeable media, a video game, a stop at a fast-food chain for dinner instead of cooking (which ironically also accelerates your journey toward the shore) becomes louder, making it easier to make poorer choices.
But the end of the waterfall will come quicker than we think.
Recently I read an essay by Dahr Jamail on Resilience.org, in which he noted:
“So each morning, I awake and engage in my morning practice, part of which is pondering what I shall do each day to serve Earth and all her species. When I approach my life from this perspective, no matter how bleak the future appears, I always have work to do and services to perform.”
His point was that we shouldn’t despair but keep doing our part to heal Gaia even if success seems impossible. But the first line makes an equally important point: mindfully thinking through what you want to achieve this day—assuming you’ll make it through, but not taking for granted that you’ll make it through tomorrow—and keeping that conscious throughout your day. That awareness should help inoculate you from the impulses to make bad decisions driven by low-points in your circadian rhythm. Regularly practicing this should in turn help build that endurance (just like with exercise). And help us to live the Gaian values of healing the planet every day, and preparing ourselves and our communities for the changes coming. All while we inevitably rush toward our own eventual return to the Earth, which should frighten us no more than the wave racing toward the shore. After all, we’re not just human beings, we’re part of Gaia.