The therapist Carl Rogers describes watching huge Pacific waves breaking on the rocks at the mouth of a cove, and he observes palm-like plants clinging to those rocks, taking the full force of the waves over and over again—and surviving. His observation of those plants symbolized for him “the tenacity of life, the forward thrust of life, the ability to push into an incredibly hostile environment and not only hold its own, but to adapt, develop, become itself.”
Carl Rogers believes as do I that we human beings have the potential to be like those plants: tenacious, fighting that which seeks to destroy us. Indeed, this buffeting by circumstance is part of the natural process of existence, human or otherwise. Is it not? Philosophers have named it “The Life Force.” But note: it is choosing how to adapt the best we can to the challenges that allow us to survive, create, and evolve, sometimes even to a place of benefit, of gain.
In her best-selling book Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst speaks of such things. “Growing up means gaining the wisdom and skills to get what we want within the limitations imposed by reality—a reality which consists of diminished powers, restricted freedoms and, with the people we love, imperfect connections.”
Truly, life is impermanent; nothing lasts; everything is constantly changing. So holding fast to the thought that we will not lose what we attempt to grasp, can only lead us into a kind of deep sorrow, if not madness. We must let go of our fears of losing the people and the things we possess if we are to attain an inner bliss, a deeper awareness, a more profound appreciation of life itself. This thought is echoed by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who tells us that “our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”
Let me tell you a personal story that connects me with those struggling plants clinging to life at the edge of the great Pacific Ocean. It happened 50 years ago this very springtime when I was a student in a seminary in Berkeley, CA. Every so often when I needed a break from all that scholastic work, I hopped into my beloved ’65 baby-blue Mustang, and traveled to the Pacific coast just north of San Francisco, to one special place on the cliffs overlooking Stinson Beach, the so-called “Dog Beach.”
After I parked the car, I climbed out to the very edge of that particular cliff, hundreds of feet above the ocean and I sat in a state of meditation—with my eyes sometimes opened to watch waves crashing far below me. I made this little pilgrimage for a number of months until one day I decided that I wouldn’t just sit on the cliff’s edge, but would climb down the cliff to the very edge of the sea.
Well, it was easy going down because I could slide part of the way. And once I was at the bottom of the cliff where the waves were churning so closely around me, I felt wonderfully exhilarated. I was in a state of awe and gratitude at the majesty of nature. There I was with the very source of life, the sea. Just me alone. Or so I felt.
But this state of deep awareness only lasted so long, what with the sun beginning to go down and the weather beginning to get cold, given the incoming fog. So I decided to climb back to the top of the cliff. But I did not expect it to be such a difficult task. As far as I knew, no one yet had devised a way for a human body without a mechanical device, to slide up a cliff.
I was bemused by this challenge for a few moments. Indeed, it was a puzzle I had to figure out. For one thing, the way I had come down was not a way I could climb back up. Believe me, I tried. There were no palm-like plants or their cousins or rocks to hold on to. So I looked at other possible paths. But each time I tried, I kept slipping back.
After repeated attempts of gaining a foothold, I was no longer bemused or feeling challenged intellectually. And all the while, the fog was creeping in, and hardly on the poet Carl Sandburg’s “little cat feet”! It was more like it was coming at me with a roar and on “big lion paws”! So after many more attempts to climb back to the top of the cliff, I began to panic.
And then I remembered: I had studied Buddhist meditation! And didn’t I know how to center myself and stay calm, despite outwardly stressful situations? Admittedly, I was not the best student in the class. Still, I had tried to do the best with what I had inside me. “Yes,” I thought, “if only I could focus; if only I could remember that awareness and not panic would get me to the top and to freedom. If only I could remember that I was still strong physically and emotionally.
Suffice it to say, I did find the path. And it was far easier, I might add, than finding other ways through this sometimes miasmic reality called “life.” Yes, I got to the place I wanted to get to. I survived by becoming one with the situation, by working with what was before me rather than trying to fight it, by using all aspects of my being in an almost effortless way.
On that day, 50 years ago at the ocean’s edge, I survived despite the odds, like those plants that Cal Rogers described. I survived by letting go of control to receive a more effective state of awareness and power.
I learned that because of potential or real loss, something else has the chance to occur: a deep and profound awareness and appreciation of the miracle of life in the first place; the joy of knowing that each moment is precious and is fleeting and that because all of us will lose everything we are or have, we might as well sing praises for having existed at all, rather than hold forth with dirges.
Yes, life is impermanent, nothing lasts, everything is constantly changing, and to hold fast with the thoughts that we will not lose what we attempt to grasp can only lead us into a kind of deep sorrow or madness.
Yes, we must let go of our fears of losing the people and the things we possess if we are to attain a profound appreciation of life itself, moment by moment. We must be humble in the face of our impermanence and if we choose, think of it as our liberation.
Knowing that life is impermanent and that, indeed, someday in the far distant future even the sun will flicker and go out, we, nevertheless, can realize that our necessary losses have the potential for unexpected gain.
These words from The Diamond Sutra speak of such thoughts: “Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cold, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.”
Yes, scatter my ashes at the edge of that cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Stinson Beach. It just seems to me to be the right place.
Don Beaudreau is a member of the Ajijic Writers group and writes most every day. He has published 10 books.
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