-At the Desert Retreat House-
I recently had an opportunity to have lunch with a very gracious man who had once been an abbot of a Benedictine monastery and now, in his later years of life, lives alone as a hermit. Somehow in our conversation we got around to talking about how he spends his time up in his hermitage, alone, in silence most every day. "I spend my days learning how to die," he told me.
I took his response quite literally. The man is well into his 80's - maybe he was ill (although he looked pretty healthy to me). In fact, it wasn't until just yesterday when I came across something Eckhart Tolle once said that I finally understood what this wise old monk was telling me about how he spends his days in his hermitage:
Death is the stripping away of all that is not you.
The secret of life is to 'die before you die,'
and find there is no death
When he told me that he was "leaning how to die," my hermit friend was saying that he was spending his days "stripping away" all that was not his true and authentic self - peeling off a self important ego and scraping off all the many answers to life that had accumulated over time.
Thomas Merton, another monk who also spent his last years of life living as a hermit, also talked about his process of learning how to die:
When I first became a monk, yes, I was more sure of 'answers.' But as I grow old in the monastic life and advance further into solitude, I become aware that I have only begun to seek the questions. I have been summoned to explore a desert area of the human heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and in which one learns that only experience counts."
In his later years Merton found that he was spending most of his time, day by day, sitting in the mountains outside his hermitage, no ideas, no words, just paying attention to the moment. In doing so he experienced a deep sense of transcendence - a sense if belonging to everyone and everything that "is." He referred to his experience of belonging and connection as his "true self." He was indeed "dying before he died," and in doing so discovering there is no death- only larger life.
As I think about it, the path of any spiritual journey is always a road that helps us learn how to die. As I sit in my meditation garden and again watch the sun rise on yet another incredibly beautiful day in the desert, I realize that this is exactly what is happening with me in these later years of my own life. I am learning how to die.
Buddhists talk about acquiring the wisdom of a "Beginner's Mind." True wisdom comes only when the seeker is able to understand that nothing can be understood - when all the tried and true explanations about life turn to dust and all the answers turn into questions, a person has acquired a "Beginners Mind," and now true wisdom is possible.
In these later years of my own life, living here in the desert, I am on a journey toward a "Beginner's Mind." I am learning how to die.
I am not a hermit nor am I a monk, but I am a wisdom seeker - we all are. When any of us strips away our false ideas of self importance, when we peel off our ambitions, when we enter into the "desert of the human heart," emptied of our explanations and dogmatic teachings that falsely convince us we can control and understand the Great Mystery of our being - we are "dying before we die, " and in doing so:
We find there is no death,
only life-larger life-abundant life.