Nirvana in the Midst of Everyday Life
Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg says death is the key to living
BY: Amy P. Gross
Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive
By Larry Rosenberg, with David Guy
Shambhala, 208 pp.
There's a famous Woody Allen line about death, something to the effect of, "It's not that I'm afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens." Larry Rosenberg, one of the country's leading teachers of Buddhism, wants us to know that being there--being aware--isn't the problem; it's the solution.
The Buddha traced all our suffering to delusion, one of the most popular being that we are immune to death. Of course, we "know" we're going to die--ask us, we'll certainly give you the right answer. But that knowledge is only frontal-lobe deep. It hasn't reached us where we live. If we truly understood how brief, how momentary, our little firefly lives are, the way we live and love would be transformed. For one thing, we would be happier, lighter.
Larry Rosenberg's aim here is to loosen the hold of that central delusion. His premise is that the fear of death, snaked around the fear of aging and fear of illness, is burrowed into our unconscious, a chronic undercurrent of anxiety. The Buddhist method is to "flush out these fears," to invite them into consciousness, stare into their faces, and so release ourselves from their grip.
How can we tolerate being with these fears? We sit with them. Through meditation, we develop the strength to sit through impatience, physical pain, difficult emotions and thoughts. We learn to observe it all, and that observation makes it "workable." We see that the thought, the pain, the fear, are impermanent, changing--in a sense we outlast them: We're the sky; they're clouds passing by. The art in this observation is to be intimate; whatever the experience, not rejecting or resisting it but "uniting" with it. Becoming aware of whatever barrier separates it from us, and making contact with that barrier. "Intimacy comes from the clear seeing of separation," Rosenberg writes.
This intimacy, this choice to observe rather than avoid or react, has tremendous transformative power. More and more, we take refuge in our "sky nature," in pure awareness. Fears lose their sting. Rosenberg, founder and guiding teacher of the Cambridge (Mass.) Insight Meditation Center, gives instructions for formal contemplations on the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. We practice relinquishment, non-attachment. We see that we are not our jobs, our relationships, our possessions, our body ("our closest companion," Rosenberg calls it). "We are dying on the installment plan," he says.