Staying Steady in Life and Death

D E C E M B E R

Thirty years ago my life turned upside down. It was very dramatic — my marriage collapsed, a new one tentatively began, I gave away my business, left my home, land, and family. I had no idea what was happening to me, or what was supposed to happen next. In a state of turmoil I called my cranespiritual teacher on the phone. He could hear I was about to break down. I remember two words he said during that call: “Stay steady.”

Stay steady. Perhaps because those two words were spoken by him and not someone else, I could let them in. They had an immediate effect on me, although I didn’t actually do anything to stay steady. It was just the sense he gave me that there was the possibility of steadiness in my chaotic situation that gave me the faith to carry on. Three decades have passed since that time, and I can say I understand now a little better the gift of those two words.

Our experience of life is constant change, moment to moment, little changes and big ones. It can feel sometimes as if we are a pebble tumbling along in a stream, or a leaf blown by the wind. Everything that comes, goes. When we try to hold on to stability by grasping on to things or life situations, it doesn’t work, because nothing is permanent. It also doesn’t work if we try to hold on to our points of view, or our ideas about our identity. Those ideas may be based on feelings of our importance, or of not being as good as other people, or on our work in the world, but whatever ideas and feelings our identity rests on, in the end they don’t help us to stay steady through whatever comes.

The steadiness I’m talking about is not based on anything, yet it’s always available to us. It’s something completely intimate, right here in this moment. But it can’t be found like we might find a big rock to climb on in the middle of a river. It doesn’t take up space like a rock does, although it is spacious. At the same time its clarity is familiar to each of us because it’s the one thing that doesn’t change, even though everything we experience keeps changing. We might call it “the continuity of presence” that is neither different from, nor the same as, what we are experiencing.

If you try to envision the moments at the end of your life when you’re about to die, you might imagine that those moments could be filled with disturbing feelings: fear, sadness, pain, confusion, anger. How will you stay steady then? Where will you find steadiness? Perhaps when you hear that question and really take it seriously, you can sense the answer. Your steadiness at the time of your death will depend upon how well you can accept what’s happening in the moment and let it come in, holding on to nothing, not even to the idea of staying steady. Openness like this becomes pure faith, as in Jesus’ last words: “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

In the same way, we can open to steadiness in the midst of our life. Of course, it is not always easy to do — the discovery of our “steadiness” must be continuously refreshed. These are old patterns of mind — we’ve invested a lot of energy in keeping things the way they have been, including our familiar suffering and the ideas and feelings that cobble together our identity.

Learning how to stay steady in the midst of the troubles — and joys — of our life is no different from staying steady as we die. It requires us to accept what’s happening and grasp nothing. In the clarity of that openness we can be completely present, in touch, unshakeable, and alive.