A parable from the Buddha: A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Proximity to death has a way of instilling wisdom and providing a clarity of perspective that the rest of life often does not provide. There is also an intensification of life that comes with the awareness of one’s approaching end. We may know people who have reported or appeared being the happiest during the interval between being told that they would have only a limited time to live and their death. They use the time to take a look at their bucket list.
What is the process that makes this possible in such a critical time as the spectre of one’s impending death? Perhaps the more appropriate question is: Why do we not live the entire lifetime that precedes the nearness of death with awareness and intensity? The answer could be summed up briefly – the mind. The mind that is so powerful and so necessary in daily life becomes an obstacle when it moves from its function of helping us live efficiently and intelligently into the past and future and takes up residence there. Without the present moment experience, and without the power of our senses available to us, life is dull, boring and wearisome. Imagine the vast difference between tasting a fruit and thinking or talking about it. Think of the difference between enjoying today’s beautiful sunset without thinking of the magnificent one of yesterday.
Closely related to this is also the psychological fact of desires, longings and fears that prevent us from experiencing the present moment. Our senses work only in the moment, our minds take flight in time. For us to experience aliveness, our senses have to be awake and present. There is great relevance to the call to lose your mind and come to your senses! For once we get caught in mental games, we do not enjoy what is present. It is no wonder having much comes with no assurance of great happiness. It is not necessarily those who have all they want who enjoy all they experience. Mark Nepo offers this brilliant line: The greedy one gathered all the cherries, while the simple one tasted all the cherries in one.