First, a true story from Cynthia Bourgeault:
“Long ago, back in Maine, I worked for a small marine publishing company, where I had the pleasure of editing A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast by a man named Hank Taft. When I met him, Hank was one of those exuberant, restless souls, sixty-one going on thirty, filled with life and passion. A member of the distinguished Taft clan that has contributed to American history a president and a pioneering educator, he bounced around in a variety of careers, from business executive to president of Outward Bound. He’d rowed the entire Maine coast in a twelve-foot Peapod and was now making a fine debut as an author and a cruising sailor.
‘Stunned’ was the response of virtually everyone who knew him when we learned that Hank had contracted pancreatic cancer. And Hank himself was no less stunned, but he quickly regrouped. Characteristically, his first response was to give it the ‘old Yale try,’ taking command of his treatment program with the same panache as if planning a transatlantic cruise. The pieces involved an eclectic blend of physical workouts, diet, light chemotherapy, and – new to a staunch rationalist like Hank – visualization meditation for an hour each morning.
I remember the day very clearly: February 4, 1991. The sun was just rising over the islands of Penobscot Bay, and Hank’s wife, Jan, had cooked us a hearty lumberjack’s breakfast. As we sat overlooking the cold, brilliant ocean partly obscured in winter sea smoke, conversation came around to the topic of Hank’s plans for the upcoming sailing season. Somehow we got from there onto the subject of fog, and we all shared our uneasiness about making passages in zero-visibility conditions.
‘But there’s a lot of ways to keep busy so you don’t feel your fear,’ Hank observed cheerfully. ‘You can keep precise time checks and enter them in the log. You can stand out on the bow and every minute do a 360-degree scan of the waters. You can watch for changes in ripple patterns and identify passing lobster buoys …’
‘Yes, I said – and then, volunteering some of my own work-in-progress on the subject of fog passages, ‘or else you can just let the fear come up and fall through it to the other side….’
He looked at me as if I’d just pierced him with a sword. How I wished those words had never been spoken!
Over the next few weeks Hank became decidedly more inward. He quickly gave up the visualization and the lumberjack breakfasts, then the workouts and chemotherapy. He gathered his family, made his final reconciliations, settled his affairs, and waited. It did not prove to be a long wait. Within three weeks the rapidly spreading cancer had obstructed his lower intestine, and he faced the choice of eking out a few more weeks of life in a hospital or dying at home. Wholeheartedly he chose the latter.
Hank had never been a religious man (in fact, he held religion primarily responsible for the bigotry and violence in the world), but in those final weeks a change so extraordinary came over him that none of us could fail to notice it. As his physical body withered, his soul grew large and luminous. Friends gathered by his bedside could feel the energy of love radiating from him almost as a force field. He faced his death with open heart, utterly trusting and utterly serene.
Three days before the end, I went for what was to be my last visit. Hank was curled in bed, his body totally broken yet somehow radiantly powerful. We hugged each other and said farewell. And then his last words to me – so muffled and unexpected that I did not at first catch them: ‘Are you fearless yet?’
‘Not yet, Hank,’ I said. ‘I’m trying.’
‘Fall … fearless … into … love.’
In those final mumbled words, Hank conveyed more to me of the essence of who he was and what life was than could have been done in a lifetime of spiritual teaching. … From a force greater than our own lives, we are made for this, and when we finally yield ourselves into it, we are born into a meaning that is never known as we struggle on the surface with our acorn reality.”
Even if we sort of like Hank's final advice to Cynthia, without the 'help' of impending death, most of us cannot deeply understand it, because we live in "acorn reality" - our society's shallow, hyper-rational mental prison.
Cynthia's story about "acorn reality":
“Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called ‘Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.’ There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped ‘out of the blue’ by a passing bird. He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he said, ‘We … are … that!’
Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: ‘So tell us, how would we become that tree?’ ‘Well,’ said he, pointing downward, ‘it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.’ ‘Insane,’ they responded. ‘Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.’ ”
"There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in ..." Leonard Cohen
“Most important of all, do everything you can to nurture your spiritual intelligence. It is your only genuine source of hope, direction, meaning, and comfort.” Thomas Moore
Cynthia Bourgeault. “The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart.” Jossey-Bass, 2003. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
One of Tara Brach's fine guided meditations: https://www.tarabrach.com/meditation-opening-hearts-life/
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