by Brandon Nappi
Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Take heed. This night your days are diminished by one:
Do Not Squander Your Life.
These sober words are chanted at the end of each day in Zen monasteries, reminding monks that life is in a constant state of transience. The first time I heard these words while on my first silent meditation retreat, I felt my heart long to live with authenticity and to give my life to the work of living on purpose.
To live with honesty about the constancy of change is to find contentment; to resist this truth is to struggle. The impermanence of human experience is so obvious that it may seem unnecessary to declare on a daily basis. Yet, we need only look to the obsession with youth in American culture and the marginalization of elders to glimpse our pervasive fear of aging. Countless billions are spent each year defying the most basic rule of the universe: everything changes. For an increasing number of people, the outright denial of our aging by some and active resistance to it by others fuels the conspicuous consumption of supplements, herbs, cosmetics, and aesthetic surgeries that only superficially abate the ticking of the clock.
To be sure, getting older is not for the faint of heart. Life is painful. This is true no matter what socioeconomic class one belongs to or what level of privilege or poverty one inherits. In life, we get things we don’t want — stubbed toes, friends who disappoint, imperfect childhoods, overpriced groceries, cancer. We also inevitably want things we don’t get — more money, the perfect body, an immediate response to a text, the dream job, or chocolate on demand.
Recognizing the raw impermanence of life is one of the first insights realized in mindfulness practice. Everything we hold onto will slip from our hands. Someday, we will need to say goodbye to everything we love and cherish. All that we count as permanent and unchanging will fade and crumble. We will die and eventually be forgotten. This is the nature of life.
While denial and resistance represent one understandable approach to the inevitability of change, the tradition of mindfulness offers another path: a courageous willingness to wake up to the way things are and to cultivate non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance about the full range of human experience — from elation and joy to disappointment and heartbreak.
Someone asked me if I could condense everything I've learned about mindfulness and resilience in my studies in monasteries, seminary, graduate school, and at UMASS Medical School's Center for Mindfulness into a single course. “Of course not!” I thought, and then I tried to do it anyway. Making peace with change is why I created Living Presence, an immersive eight-week training in living peacefully amid the ups and downs of life. Rather than living in defiance of the fundamental law of change, Living Presence provides a way to live in relaxed harmony with conditions that are constantly changing.
Using the acronym ARIA, the Italian word for the air we breathe, the curriculum explores four learning domains: Awareness, Resilience, Integration of self and other, and Action guided by love. Each domain will focus on three contemplative skills which we’ll study to deepen our equanimity, to work with strong emotions, and to bring joy and compassion to ourselves and others. Our learning will be experiential with contemplative practices such as sitting and walking meditation, gratitude exercises, journal writing, and deep listening. There will be ample laughter, group sharing, individual reflection, home practice, and storytelling.
Because life passes so swiftly, we are invited to show up with our whole heart, mind, and body. Just to be alive is a sacred gift. Life is drenched with opportunities to awaken to this reality. It is not too late to wake up. We have a sacred responsibility to ourselves and one another to bring the light of joyful awareness to each moment. This awakening demands our deepest attention, our best energy, and attending to our heart’s deepest desire for purpose, fulfillment, and connection. I hope you’ll join me this spring as we explore what it means to live with presence.