This Too Shall Pass

Today I walked through a cemetery on my way to work.  I walked through rows of stones with the names of individuals and entire families.  Some stones were grand and ornate.  Others small and simple.  Some hundreds of years old could still be read.  Other stones were worn smooth, the names of the dead no longer legible.

Photo of central cemetery

I wonder about the purpose of such stones.  To immortalize us?  To provide a place for people to grieve, remember and perhaps find comfort?  Yes.

Yet we know that in time we will be forgotten.  Those who gather to grieve our passing in time will also pass.

For some reason I find this comforting.

To know that we are not immortal is to insert into our lives a dose of humility.  The world does not revolve around you and me.  Once we are gone the world will continue to spin and people will live their lives.  Our achievements will be forgotten. Our mistakes too.

Being aware of our own mortality allows us to set aside grandiose thinking and to live more fully in the present.  To be more gentle with ourselves and with others.

Humility can allow us to accept and savor the gift of being alive.  In Buddhist teaching this is ‘living in the now’, being fully immersed in the present.

Some years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska.  We paddled through a series of islands that is home to the Tlingit an indigenous people who have lived in the Tongass for thousands of years.

With permission we paddled to an island that was a burial site with totems.  Each totem told the story of a member of the tribe.  Some were large.  Others small.  Clan affiliation and achievements were carved into each  totem.  The totems still standing were approx. 100 years old.  Others lay on their side.

photo of totem pole

Each totem was rotting away in the wet, relentless weather of the Pacific Northwest.  No effort was made to protect or preserve the totems.  Each was built to last a few generations and then simply rot and return to replenish the earth.

The Tlingit believe that no one is remembered for more than a few generations.  The impermanence of the totem teaches this lesson.  Yet the Tlingit believe that while life on earth is impermanent, in death they  return to their Creator.

As a Christian I believe something similar.

I don’t believe that when I take my last breath that it will be the end.  I believe (as with the Tlingit) that I too will return to the source of all that is good, lasting and true.  My tradition teaches that not even death can separate us from the love of God.

In the meantime, my walk through the cemetery reminds me not to take myself too seriously. To savor this moment of being alive. To do as much good as I can while I can. To know that this too shall pass.



Sound of Silence

Some years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in southeastern Alaska.   The Tongass is a temperate rainforest of several million acres largely untouched by human beings.  The Tlingit’s who lived here for thousands of years left few traces, a burial mound, indentations from  long ago villages and a few totems that eventually return to the earth.   It is a sacred land whose neighbors include wolf, bear, salmon, humpback and the occasional human.

My trip consisted of 10 kayakers led by Kurt Hoelting of Inside Passages  The purpose of our trip in part was to immerse ourselves in the beauty, to slow down and become quiet so as to see and hear what the Tongass had to offer.

Each morning and evening we entered into a Zen practice…where we would seek to quiet our mind and spirit so as to be present to that which was going on within and around us.   One evening we heard a rhythmic “Whoosh”, the sound of a humpback exhaling as the whale broke the ocean surface.   So unmistakable and loud was the sound that we who were seated in the forest several yards off the beach were certain that the whale must be very close.

No longer able to contain ourselves our meditation leader broke our practice and invited us to greet our neighbor the whale.   Walking to the beach we saw that the humpbacks were actually a mile out in the bay.  It was the stillness of that evening and the stillness of our minds that allowed us to hear their call.  The sound of silence.