Growth and decay are natural cycles in our world. Unfortunately, most of us in this country don't live in a "natural world". We live in human-made worlds. Especially those of us who live in cities. It is fairly hard to see natural cycles if you live in a world of concrete, brick and glass. Some of us live in the suburbs, surrounded by trees; perhaps grass and flowers. Perhaps we have easy access to the countryside. So you would think that natural cycles would be apparent to us. But for some reason they are not.
As I write this I am 74 years old. It appears that old people like myself spend a bit of time looking back on their lives, which perspective certainly offers a different vista than looking forward. Looking into the future it seems like there will be a lot of winding down. In fact, the recent past looks the same. Why is this troubling? It seems like the natural order is to grow and then decay. So why do I feel distressed that I am in this phase of life? It is not that all my life is winding down. Certainly my body and finances are winding down and there does not seem to be any way to resist that. For that matter, my mind seems to be headed in the same direction. Yet another part of me seems to become clarified in this process, seems to be flourishing -- though growing might not be quite the right term for what I experience.
It seems that many things are being pruned away by time. I do not much mind having worn out cloths that sometimes are sewn together by my not-too-competent darning. At one time I would have simply replaced the worn out sweater. It might have made a bad impression at work. But when I work I do so from home now. What would my friends or neighbors think about my looking shabby? I no longer care too much, though I do try to keep up some appearances. I shave when I am going out.
I've never been successful with money. Never could grow it or invest wisely. I spent it on foolishness, or perhaps more wisely on meditation retreats. I invested in my inner life rather than my outer. So has my inner investment grown while my finances decayed? This is a critical question at this point in my life.
I expect that it is a critical question for many in my generation. Many folks my age of course invested in family, real estate, stocks and so forth. My early life was composed of wandering through bohemia and I didn't own a house until I was 50. Children were not on my agenda. Meditating with my lama Tara Tulku in Bodhgaya was more my style, and somehow I experienced a conflict between being bourgeois and bohemian, and though I tried to reconcile that conflict in the life I now look back on, I never succeeded.
Yet I never entirely failed either. I own the house I am sitting in (jointly with the mortgage company). And when I sit to meditate, broad mental vistas open before me. Lifelong assurances as well as uncertainties are part of that vista; some trivial and some important. I've written about these things.
If I am going to ponder death, then it seems that I will be pondering what that really is. Not just physically, because I have a sense of that. What about the non-material parts of me? That is where the questions arise. I don't have the cultural assurance about rebirth that a Tibetan might have. Nor even the assurances of a Christian who expects heaven (or worse). I grew up with a mother who never discussed such matters as life after death and a father who bluntly considered death "the big sleep." I am psychologist enough to know that their minds are merged with mine in some aspect of me because they raised me and I imprinted on them. But my life of inner journeys also inclines me to a broader vista. And what is in that vista? Ambiguity seems to best describe it.
It is clear that my rational mind can only understand so much, though it never ceases to define and box in everything. Like a hand that cannot grasp itself, my mind cannot know its source in any conventional way of understanding. This is almost axiomatic both from the perspective of modern psychology and Buddhism. But what cannot be comprehended seems to be something I can experience at times.
Like a lotus flower, the waking world seems to emerge from something fundamental to me. I touch it when I settle deeply into meditation. At night when I surrender to sleep and the lotus flower world is enfolded within, I rest there. Maybe that is why my father called death "the big sleep." Maybe he, like all of us, intuited what we can only vaguely comprehend, that the part of us that exists when we sleep deeply is the root and stalk of that lotus world.
So this brings me back to the mystery of sleep. And its partners, dream and wakefulness. I've written about this before, and will do so again because the winding down of my life has forced this upon me.