In Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, she writes:
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land. To experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
That last sentence — To live is to be willing to die over and over again — that’s not how we usually live. She is inviting us to come up with the courage to be fully human, to really live in a wakeful way.
The first thing she mentions in this quote is the nest. What is the nest that we need to be allowing ourselves to be continually thrown out of? She’s referring to the world as we see it and the niche, the little space, the little safe haven we have created for ourselves and believe to be ours. This is our little safe place that we have worked hard to build, and we intend to live there forever.
That’s our plan. We worked hard to build this because we want to have a nest.
The fact that she used the word nest is quite interesting. If you ever watch birds build nests, it’s not like, I really need to glue these sticks together because I’m planning for it to last a millennium. They just kind of pick up whatever they can find, pile the thing together, and it’s good enough. I just need to lay my eggs this time and then they hatch and the babies fly away and I don’t need the nest anymore. Still, they work really hard, fly back and forth, back and forth to build the nest. But they know, even as they’re building, that the nest won’t last forever. It’s just for this round of eggs and then they move on.
Do we know that what we have built, what we call our life, is also like this nest? It’s temporary; just for the purpose of this moment, this phase, this time, this situation we are in. Or do we not know? Do we blindly believe I am trying to build something with concrete walls around it so that I can keep something in this constantly changing world unchanged. In other words, we might have heard the teaching of impermanence many times and say, Oh yes, everything is impermanent, I know that. Everything out there is impermanent. But secretly, we wish that this little thing we built, if we work hard enough at it, we can build something that’s exempt from impermanence. It’s like thinking, I can be lucky. If I buy just one more lottery ticket, I will hit the jackpot—that kind of thinking. We believe the nest is something we can rely on to be there forever.
Do we know that what we have built, what we call our life, is also like this nest? It’s temporary; just for the purpose of this moment, this phase, this time, this situation we are in.
What makes up our world, the life that we think is ours? Of course, the first thing has to do with our physical condition. We often have this belief that if we exercise and eat healthy, we’ll always be just the way we are now and can keep doing whatever we’re doing. Of course, we cannot keep doing what we are doing. Ask anyone who’s past their forties, or maybe even past their thirties, and they will tell you that. That’s when talking to your elderly parent or an older friend or relative will really help you. They tell you, Oh, I can’t do this and you laugh at them, but you should keep in mind, that’s your future. Learn from them. They’re telling you that’s your future.
But our current physical condition is what makes our current life possible. Our being able to move around, do things, cook for ourselves, bathe ourselves, drive to places, go to the airport to get on a flight—all that makes our life possible as it is now.
Of course, there’s mental capacity, too—whether we can remember things, whether we can think clearly, whether we are able to maintain stability. We may know people who are no longer able to function properly. I have a friend who had a very good job as a professor, and she lost it because she had a breakdown. So the life she knew is now completely gone. There are all kinds of changes in our mental capacity that happen with age or with disease such as Alzheimer’s. So our mental capacity right now is the result of causes and conditions.
Of course, related to that is our material condition. I’m referring to our financial situation, our ability to earn a living, the value of our possessions. The money we have, those pieces of paper, they seem to be worth something. We can use them to go and get things. But even that is not for sure. Ask anyone who has ever lived in hyperinflation. Ask anyone who lost their job overnight, who fell into poverty overnight, who got evicted from their home because they couldn’t make the next payment. Their life as they knew it, completely turned upside down.
When we reflect on this, what we notice is that all these capacities—physical, mental, material, financial—are things we simply take for granted. That’s my life, that’s my body, my mind, my material possessions, my lifestyle, my family, my friends, that’s my world. That’s this little niche of the world I have carved out for myself and all I need to do is work hard to keep it together. That’s my nest.
Sometimes we think of our life as our relationships—our family, our friends. You might think, Whatever happens, they will still be my family. But the relationships we maintain with the people in our life also depend on many causes and conditions.
For many people, especially those with children or grandchildren, not having the physical capacity to travel to see them completely changed their life. Or not being able to see each other frequently changed a friendship. Some people can’t afford to do the things they used to do with family and friends. You might not notice it, or you might choose not to think about it, but there are always people in our life who decline to do things with us because they can’t afford it. They’re too embarrassed to admit it. We might find ourselves in that situation if our material circumstances change.
So the relationships we have now may change. I’m not saying for better or worse, but they become different. Perhaps you’re thinking, I make sure to stay close to the people I love. But you are not the only person in a relationship. The other people involved in the relationship also have constantly changing causes and conditions. Their physical or mental or financial conditions may change, meaning that they can’t or don’t want to do what they used to do with you anymore. Maybe your family used to travel for the holidays and they can’t join you anymore, and they slowly become more and more distant. And you feel that as a loss.
Our relationships also depend on our world view and the views of the people around us. How do we see the world? How do they see it? Many of you may have experienced that. I have heard many, many practitioners over the past few years expressing a lot of suffering from the loss of relationships because of a difference in political views. Over time, they realize they can no longer have the same kinds of conversations that are the ingredients of their relationship. This happened for many people after the 2016 election. As much as we want to say, I am working hard on my relationship, we are not the only condition in these relationships.
And of course, our worldviews change. We were not born with them. Many people don’t feel the way they felt several years ago. We’d like to believe our views are right and others’ views are wrong. But really, where did these worldviews come from? The people we hang out with, our circumstances, where we are in our society, in our economy. Just think about the people around you. People who work in finance, people who work in social services, people who work in knowledge production, they all have different worldviews simply because of where they are in the social structure. When people change where they are in the social structure, their view changes too. We tend to believe people get more conservative when they grow older, but it’s not that simple.
Often, people’s views change because of the drastic changes around us. This week, the relationship between the United States and China has taken an extremely sharp turn for the worse. We don’t know what will unfold, but we are living in a different world. Of course, we are always living in a different world, but many people’s lives and what they think and how they feel will be shaken up by what is unfolding right now.
People can change in all kinds of ways, and your relationship with them changes along the way. We thought we had built a world made up of relationships that are fixed, but then all kinds of feelings and views get shaken up, and people whom we may have felt close to now seem quite distant from us.
Everything is constantly changing. Like the incessant rain and wind shaking up the fragile nest made of those little sticks and pieces of leaves. I don’t know if you have ever seen a bird’s nest being blown out of a tree. It happens. Sometimes part of the nest gets blown away, sometimes all of it; it happens all the time.
Yet, the birds don’t stop building their nests, thinking: Oh, the wind is going to blow it away anyway, I might as well just not bother. And we don’t stop building our lives. We go to school, we find someone, maybe we get married, we have a family, we keep our connections, we maintain our relationships, we cultivate our capacity to live harmoniously in our relationships. We take care of each other, help each other. We work hard in our domain to take care of our finances so that we have some capacity to look after ourselves, our family, maybe help other people. We live our life. But knowing full well that this nest, this life we have built, could be blown away at any time, despite our best efforts. The birds were not goofing off. They worked hard to build that nest.
And we work hard to build our lives. But we don’t know what will happen.
Pema Chödrön wrote, “To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land…” What is no-man’s-land? Every moment is completely new. Wherever we are now, no one ever has been here before. No one. This moment has never taken place before. No-man’s-land.
Now, that’s not how we think at all. We have this entrenched tendency to try to compare what’s happening now to some similar situation in the past. We compare the COVID-19 pandemic with the 1918 flu pandemic. And then we think, Okay, we have some idea of what’s happening now. We know what’s going to happen next. I was just talking to my father in Hong Kong; the United States has revoked the special status that makes people’s way of life there possible, but he assumes it’s just going to blow over like what happened after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. So we draw on the past to make assumptions about the present.
We do that to try to convince ourselves that we already know what’s going to happen, because we can’t deal with the uncertainty, instead of being willing to see that this is no-man’s-land—no one has ever been here before. Let’s pay close attention. But instead we take comfort from some idea of what has happened in the past and tell ourselves, This is just another version of the same thing. And the moment we do this, we stop paying attention to what’s actually happening right here, right now, moment to moment.
Instead of being in no-man’s-land, experiencing each moment as completely new, we are missing a lot of what is going on. And this holding on to the idea of some other thing, some old knowledge, becomes a substitute for fully experiencing the present that is brand new. It actually blocks our ability to be fully here and generates anxiety and tension, because we’re holding on to something that doesn’t quite fit what’s going on. We try very hard to fit our reality into our idea of reality. It’s a lot of effort. But we do that all the time.
That last sentence that I read a couple of times: “To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” That sounds so contradictory. I want to live, not to die. We have created this dichotomy in our mind. What does she mean by dying over and over again? She’s talking about our ideas of who we are supposed to be and how our life is supposed to be. Our unwillingness to let go of these fixed ideas of ourselves and our life keeps us from being fully alive.
Examine all the ideas you’ve got about who you are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what situation you are in. You might have a few ideas, and you might have a fairly long list. Some examples:
I’m the person who knows best.
I’m the parent, you’re my child. I know more than you.
I’m not going to let you tell me what’s going on.
I’m the most capable person.
I’m young and strong and smart.
I’m the caregiver. I’m the person who helps.
I never take help. I’m the one who gives.
These are ideas of who we’re supposed to be and how our life is supposed to be that we have worked hard to build. Maybe our idea is that we are supposed to live independently. I pay for everything myself, no one helps me. Or being someone who’s the well-to-do one among my family and pays for everyone else.
This moment that’s brand new is all yours. No one is taking anything from you. There’s nothing missing; it’s brand new.
Whatever idea we have about how our life is supposed to be, when the world suddenly changes around us, our life changes. All the flying around to see our family who live all over the time zones doesn’t seem to be possible anymore. Many people see their industry disappearing and have to abandon their old profession and learn new skills. Some people find themselves having to leave behind their hometown, their friends, their family to move to a new land because of political changes or other kinds of changes. Now they live in a different culture, speak a different language, and they have to start all over from scratch. Maybe they’re in their forties, fifties, sixties and they need to find a new job, build a new social network.
So here Pema Chödrön is referring to letting go of the idea of our old life, our old self, how our life, our self is supposed to be. To die over and over. Every moment there are changes; we are a new person. Our life is new.
For many people, their greatest fear is to be displaced from their hometown, or from their old job, or from their way of life that they cherish very much. But it’s inevitable. Even if we are never displaced from our hometown, our physical deterioration will displace us from our old life. It’s inevitable. In fact, it’s actually happening all the time. We’re just pretending that it’s not happening. We kind of sit tight in the middle of the nest and hope for the best, when in reality, all the sticks are already coming loose and it’s ready to collapse.
This is not the problem. This is the reality. And if we can let go of the idea of, My life was like that and I want to go back to that moment, I want to go back to that way, then we can live this present moment that’s brand new, and live it fully. This moment that’s brand new is all yours. No one is taking anything from you. There’s nothing missing; it’s brand new.
If we can unlearn the habit of judging this moment by comparing it with the should, our idea of how ourself, our life is supposed to be, and finding what is happening unsatisfactory—if we unlearn that and realize we are in no-man’s-land moment after moment, every moment, willing to die over and over and over again, then whatever happens, it’s not a problem. The world today is blessing us with many opportunities to practice. So, we have much to be grateful for indeed.
Excerpt adapted from Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Li. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.