He who is not busy being born is busy dying
– Bob Dylan.
The Christmas period may often seem to be a celebration of shopping, spending and material indulgence, but behind all of the TV, booze and Quality Street lie traditional themes of change, rebirth and transformation. Many of us enter into this spirit of change at the start of the New Year by making resolutions to let go of old habits, move forward and become better, different people.
Or at least that’s the idea. The truth is that even with the best intentions it is often very difficult to release ourselves from deep-rooted habits and make new ones stick.
Often our New Year’s resolutions turn out to be fads as we try in vain to stop drinking, stop swearing, start jogging, change our diet or our lifestyle. The fact is that real long-lasting change comes not from leaping from one new activity to another, but by changing our attitude to life itself.
How do we change our attitude to life? Deep change often requires something more persuasive than our own will power; it usually comes as the result of an unwanted shock to our system.
Most of us are alive without really noticing that we’re alive. We’re too busy doing, thinking, chasing our desires and running away from fears. We live in a perpetual daydream, constantly missing the only thing we can call real this fleeting moment. Just as we may need somebody to shake us awake if we are lost in a nightmare, sometimes we need an outside force to shake us out of our own imaginary world.
As the spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff frequently said, Man is asleep. And of course we are, if only for the simple reason that it is easier to be asleep. Our daydreams are often warm and cozy places to be, it’s only when they turn into nightmares that we decide something needs to change.
What kind of shock is required to transform our lives? What if we were to encounter such a shock right now? Something that would forever keep us alert and attentive, prompting us to tune into this moment and treasure it?
Ikkyu Sojun was an iconoclastic Zen Master known as ‘Crazy Cloud’ who lived in 15th century Japan. On New Year’s Day as revellers celebrated in the town, Ikkyu danced through the streets holding aloft a bamboo pole with a human skull attached to it. Whenever a shocked onlooker asked him what he was doing and why he was ruining the celebrations he simply replied:
“This is the truth”.
Without touching the truth of death our lives lose touch with reality and we stumble with eyes closed, unaware of the very real possibility that each moment could be our last. This is why Ikkyu paraded the skull in front of everyone. He wanted to encourage people to wake up to their lives rather than daydream them away. Once we see clearly that nothing lasts and that absolutely nothing is guaranteed, our lives change automatically.
In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol it is only when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave that he realises how precious his life really is and not only his, but everyone around him. By staring death in the face he sees that everyone is struggling, everyone is suffering and everyone dies. Scrooge then promises to live an altered life and becomes born again, bursting with the traits he previously lacked; compassion, charity and kindness.
However recognising that we all must die tears the heart and wrenches the guts and so it should. It’s something that we try to keep hidden as best as we can. Yet it’s only from this deep insight into impermanence that we can fully appreciate the other side of death, which is life, now suddenly framed in its proper context.
We then cease to waste our lives, our time, our attention and energy, on the things that simply don’t serve us. Each moment then becomes a rare jewel, full of value and potential, a great treasure that we were somehow blind to.
Maybe, for those of us who are fed-up with the thin glitz of another consumer Christmas and tired of making New Year’s resolutions we know we will break, Ikkyu’s shock tactics all those centuries ago, may be the greatest gift we will receive this festive holiday.
Yes, we will die, but by allowing ourselves to gaze clearly at Ikkyu’s dancing skull we won’t dare fall asleep to life again.
This is the truth.