The Flow of Life
A story my children loved when they were young was about a mouse, an owl, a grandfather clock, a taxicab, and many, many others, including— and especially— a marzipan pig. The story begins with a confectionary pig made of almond paste, or marzipan, which becomes lost behind a sofa, and it wonders if it will ever be found in time for its sweetness to be savored and enjoyed. A mouse happens upon it, and nibbles a bit at first before devouring it. "Sweetness," the mouse then says and, entranced, dances out into the night— where it is found and eaten in turn by an owl.
The owl then finds itself somehow changed by the sweetness, and falls in love with a taxi cab. A bee drinks the nectar of a pink flower that grows where the mouse had been eaten, and falls in love with a fading hibiscus. Many others become transformed by the sweetness, which grows as it is shared.
Eventually we learn that the story is not really about marzipan pigs, and mice, and owls, but about the sweetness itself that never dies, as it is shared. What seems a story of haphazard and terminally tragic events is in fact the triumphant story of the never-ending stream of life.
Just as a stream is defined by the watershed from which it springs, by its banks as it flows through succeeding landscapes of narrow canyons and broad plains, and by the great sea toward which it inexorably moves— so too life is measured and defined by its origin, its breadth, and its final destination.
Epictetus wrote in his Art of Living that we cannot step into the same river twice, it continually flows about us. And in that continual flow there is the very rhythm of health, ranging from the vitality of the quick rapids to the comfort of the undulating pool.
Flow is the form of nature, which always heals itself— abhorring vacuums, filling empty spaces, and always on the move. All of nature is busily feeding itself and cleaning itself, and stirring itself up and calming itself down— in constant motion, and in constant balance. Even the decay that is generated where there is decline gives birth to new forms of life.
Where there are eddies in the stream of life, where the moving waters swirl about something that they encounter, in order to account for it and to make appropriate adjustments, there is energy put to use. When the waters are dammed up, the vitality is temporarily sapped by effort; they become moribund, and entropy begins to set in. Nature will then seek to erode these obstacles, while human will— our nostalgic attachment to the way things once may have been— is only our inept effort to resist that inevitable cosmic flux.
Feeling something that vaguely resembles sadness (but would be more appropriately known perhaps as awe), about what seems to menace those I've known who seem to struggle with life, I try to get my mind around decline and decay as a significant— though perhaps darker— aspect of health and vitality.
I tell myself we are already, always dying, even as we live. So I want to reconsider and redefine the way we use these words "decay" and "grief", and gain some understanding and acceptance by removing the bias of fear.
I would like to think decay is the companion and not the adversary of growth, and that together they comprise vitality. Darkness and light are in constant rhythmic interplay as we walk forward through life, falling as we do from foot to foot. As Jung once said, where there is no shadow there is no substance— and symptoms of illness are best understood as demonstrations of a greater health.
And grief is the process by which we digest the experiences of life, to get at the meaning of life.
Always living, always dying,
as I breathe in and out,
focusing within, focusing beyond,
this is the rhythm of health:
vitality and decay.
Every cell of our body is constantly being replaced, so that over seven years' time we are completely renewed. And there is more space between the atoms of the elements that form the cells of our bodies than there are particles swimming in that open sea. And as Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, those particles are composed of the very same stuff stars are made of, and come immeasurable distances in time and space to be where we are here, today.
Our cosmic source is in fact our cosmic residence, though it is easy to overlook the fact that we too live in outer space. Our ignorance of this fact is shielded by the illusion of the blue sky that we unknowingly paste against the failure of our senses, as a projection of the seas we know upon a dark cosmos that we cannot know.
This, by the way, is the meaning of that childhood prayer that many of us will remember reciting with some awe, as our vision pierced the blue veil of the sky at dusk to see the first star of the night:
Star light, star bright,
First star I've seen tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.
The death that we think of, and shrink from, is as much an illusion as that blue sky. There is always much more to the mystery of what we do not know, than there is to the information that we do know.
Life itself is always a near death experience, and is really much more than a brush with death; it is the personal discovery that death is always with us, among us, like that familiar dark hooded figure at the edge of our vision, playing chess with the knight throughout Bergman's Seventh Seal.
Death does not wait patiently for the end of life: it is present all along, and only sometimes recognized. Death is not the end of life, it's the meaning of life that contains life, the Cosmic Mind hovering just beyond the human mind that it contains.
When people speak of a "near death experience" they are usually talking about being brought traumatically close to a premature interruption of life.
I had such an experience one afternoon rafting the American River, and was thrown from the raft as it wrapped around a large boulder at the head of a particularly treacherous stretch of whitewater drops and falls. As I felt my body fly across the stretch and plunge into the wet I knew my mortality, and sensed the end of my life opening up for me.
I had known every time I rode the river that very few survive who are swept away this way, to ride the rocks and falls of whitewater; and as often as I had wondered throughout my life— until that day— how I would die, now I believed I knew the answer to that great riddle of my life at last; and I felt a great satisfaction, a contented peacefulness in finally having the answer— I would die after all heroically, in the torrent and cataract of whitewater that was carrying me without fail to the brink and collapse of a great dropping series of cascades and waterfalls. My next conscious (and last coherent) thought was how absolutely sweet the water of that river tasted in that hot afternoon.
Then I fell and I fell, and was lifted into the air to fall again, as the river in its wisdom carried my limp and yielding body past every rock, without damage, and down every flushing chute, without fear. I was falling simply as God would have me fall, towards something below that was drenched, scoured and washed terribly clean. That was what they found in the pool below, me floating serenely on my back, smiling quietly and knowing something new about the inevitable play of human mortality against the immortality of consciousness, and still understanding damned little about it.
All I knew, after I lay on the sandbar there, recovering from shock, was that life must now be lived differently, that the rules were somehow changed. If I had died that day, broken against the rocks and caught underwater, I thought, it would have been a terrible interruption of my life.
When I do eventually die I will not want death to interrupt my life in that way, I will want my life to be complete; and the only way I could think to accomplish that was to live my life completely from that day on, so that whenever, wherever, however it is that I encounter my death, my life will have been complete. I had fallen to this discovery, finally, and there I found an immense and restful peace.
There is a poem that I'd like to read to you here called "Ithaca", written by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy:
(The title refers to the long voyage home taken by Ulysses after the fall of Troy, which is told throughout Homer's Odyssey.)
When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclops and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclops and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.
Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter into ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.
Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.
—Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven
Just as the poet suggests, let us continue living in this flow of life passionately, lustily, to the very end of our days. This is in fact a great life and a wonderful world to live it in, and we want the time and space to continue taking it all in, while giving back all that we have— not as long as possible perhaps, but as deeply as we can. Especially, we want to carry this vitality, this sense of presence and fullness, even to the little ways that we die each day, and then even to the great completion that must inevitably come at the end of life.
And although the completion of life may not be something that we choose, may it be something that we can welcome— with gratitude for what we've had, and with curiosity about what Next may possibly come. Life is a constantly unfolding journey as they say, with a certain rhythm of activity and rest, in which we may savor and recover from the joyful effort of living.
A well lived life is a life fully lived, which we can do until that final sunset, which is to be enjoyed as much as any we have ever seen before, before that good long rest in that dark night that will lie ahead. Life in fact will not be complete until we have died into that Eternal Rest that is in fact simply the rest of life, the part that always lies unknown beyond this part we know, which we may call our temporary home.
Return to Selected Essays