I received a teaching today from the woodland herself, about beauty and death.
These unusual arrivals washed up on the shoreline of my day, borne on waves of listening. The privilege of finding a pearl, a podcast from poet-philosopher John O’ Donahue, a pearl of absolute truth and wisdom.
His 2008 interview with Krista Tippett is entitled “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.”
I listened to it three times, and each time I wept at its sheer beauty.
“…if you take time not as calendar product, but as actually the parent or mother of presence, then you see that in the world of spirit, time behaves differently, actually.”
“When I used to be a priest, it was an amazing thing — you’d see somebody who would be dying over a week, maybe, and had lived, maybe, a hard life where they were knuckled into themselves, where they were hard and tight and unyielding, and everything had to err in its way to their centre. And suddenly, then, you’d see that within three or four days you’d see them loosen. And you’d see a kind of buried beauty that they’d never allowed themselves to enjoy about themselves surface and bring a radiance to their face and spirit.”
“…suddenly, like, there was a recognition that the time was over and that their way of being could no longer help them with this and that another way of being was being invited from them, and when they yielded to it, it will become transformative. And it just means that actually, when you change time levels, that something can transform incredibly quickly.”John O’Donahue, “The Inner Landscape Of Beauty”
Do you ever have a sense of that, yourself? That time is the “mother of presence”? That you’ve stepped over the threshold from slavery to calendar time, to another world of time, much more spacious and mysterious, yet wakeful?
Whenever I’m gifted the slow savouring of that way of being, the time itself seems to bestow healing.
John O’Donahue died very unexpectedly a short while after recording this.
Krista Tippett describes him as having a ‘very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner human landscape and what he called “the invisible world,” constantly intertwining with what we can know and see.’
He died aged 52.
As I heard his homage to the strangeness and majesty of the human experience, I cried, firstly because he was singing a song that my heart had been mumbling under its breath but now could sing along.
Secondly, I cried that this poet, with so much light and love for the world, was no longer available to comment, as an elder of the earth.
As I walked through the sunlit, shaded banks of Lake Manchester in South East Queensland, I carried the burning candles of this sorrow alongside the love his words had enflamed in my heart.
On the pathway ahead was death.
A dead butterfly, dead but perfectly preserved, a turquoise gem and so pretty in its passing.
The sadness of a life lived too short came to me again. I took her little, fragile body and laid in it the long grass, for it seemed wrong to leave her on the pathway to be torn and trampled.
Life is so short. So fragile.
We think ourselves the masters of our fate. The more power we wield, the more we foolishly believe ourselves a permanent fixture in this world. With hard hearts, like a set concrete, the more our slab of ego decrees, “Here I stay,” the more we refuse to believe that one day, we too will crumble and the tiny weeds themselves will usurp our greying throne.
We’re not in control of this life.
We’re all dying.
Yet, there may still be some meaning and some beauty in the momentary flashes of our life. We, like the butterfly, can transform from a creeping, crawling thing into a beauty with wings and fly. Better to live a week, and reel a joy of dance in colours, to lift the hearts of many, than not at all.
The world would be a darker, more repressive place without each of us. There is a unique array of colours in every human life.
I recalled the stories from the Buddhist teachings about great saints who died unexpectedly. It is sometimes said they passed on to other heavenly realms, to teach the spirits there, because their need was so great. Their words and love were simply needed elsewhere.
It is even said that certain sacred female spirits, called dakinis, allure the saints from the human living world to theirs, to the heavenly realms, where they too can have the privilege of receiving their words of wisdom.
When I hear the heart and work of a poet like John O’ Donahue, I can believe it.
I can believe that although the unfortunate, untimely death of a person leaves an indelible grief in the human hearts of their beloved in this realm, that perhaps there are other beings, in realms quite beyond the human eye, who benefit daily from the presence and blessing of our dearly departed. That our loved one is received and welcomed and even very much needed on the other shore.
This approach to an untimely demise felt warm in my heart and seemed to sit well with the vast part of me that knows we are unstoppable, that there is some knowing in us that never dies, and only transforms at death, from one very tangible and fleshy life-force to another more mysterious and insubstantial.
I’m always amazed at the encounters of near-death experiences, that seem to suggest the same: that knowing continues, that we are welcomed in death, and that there is even great light and hope in it.
The rest of my walk was a beautiful tour of life; tea breaks at bubbling creeks, and a grateful glimpse of bell birds feeding, singing and indeed shouting at me for wandering into their lunch.
The delights of this place and its amazing views, I’ll save for another time.
I was late leaving the mountain-top, and so descended into darkness.
The last ninety minutes saw me in pitch black woods, with a circle of torchlight about three metres in diameter.
At first, fear gripped me.
What if there were something, someone in the woods, out to get me?
I remembered my own advice given recently on night-walks… first, weather the emotion. Find a point of stability in yourself.
At that moment, it was feeling my feet meet the ground. The soles of my feet are a sure bet for a sense of stability and strength, in me. Likewise, the feeling of my fingers on the Nordic trekking poles. Cool, firm, solid.
My heart settled.
Then second in handling emotions is to look more deeply, to seek to understand and, if we can, to weed out the root. What’s really going on?
“Hello Fear,” I said, “What are you?”
Fear was, for me in that moment, a shady veil of horror-movie thoughts, a clenching tightness in the belly and a heart pounding so hard I could hear it.
Seeing all of this, I could hold it gently. Witness it, and wait. In doing so, the fear started to fade.
By accepting I was identified with this, and by bringing a healing attention, no more was I enslaved to its fait-accompli.
I could see the perverse personal projections of murder-in-the-dark taking form, and how much the stories begged for believing. I could feel the sensations as simply physical sensations, no more meaningful than the normal, healthy activation of the nervous system.
I started to see the fiction; the division in my mind between “I” the victim and “they”, the make-believe killers, and to feel into the tight grip that this “I-ness” has on my heart.
Something started to soften. With the realisation that there was a wanting not to be afraid, a pushing-away of this experience.
Witnessing this resistance, it faded. Leaving me with a wild fear that I could love, I could say yes to, and surrender into, with belief and suppression cast to the wind, and in that, find my liberty.
Aside from dodging frogs, I strode into the dark. Confidently cruising into uncertainty, the blackness always just a few metres away.
And I found another refuge; in the knowing of the darkness, and the very knowing of that knowing.
This was profound.
Taking me beyond any fear of death.
When we know our own knowing, and settle there, there is such a safety. Even though there is no “there”, for what is this knowing? A livingness, a very real presence… but not something to be photographed or even defined.
Yet something so simple, so calming and natural.
As I knew the darkness, and I knew the knowing, I realised this knowing never leaves.
It is there for me in every second of my living, if I can turn my mind towards looking at it. It will be there for me in my death, as this carcass ceases but its knowing reassigns its form, for the next realm.
Like the stories of those near-death experiences.
Like the uncanny tales of the beloved left behind, who receive the occasional sacred sign from their lover, long gone.
Knowing the blackness, knowing the knowing, an unquenchable confidence arose in me.
Yes, there would be fear. Yes, there would be darkness.
But there would also be the knowing of that fear, that darkness, and in turning, the knowing of knowing that pervades every experience arising in the human heart.
A knowing we carry with us everywhere, like secret keys left sitting in a secret lock, just waiting to be turned.
This knowing is always available.
When this is our home, our ocean, death and life intermingle in the clear waters of knowing.
We know one shore so well, and if we can anchor ourselves in the beauty of trusting the knowing, we will surely sail across that sea, though her distant shores are hidden in the mist.
Grateful to John O’Donahue, Krista Tippett, and the beings alive or otherwise around Lake Manchester and Mermaid Mountain, on traditional Jinibara land.
Lyndi runs live, online meditation classes weekly. They are open to all. To join, check the schedule here.