I’ve recently been reading Dharma Punx, Noah Levine’s edge-of-your-seat memoir chronicling his life’s journey from drug-addicted California street punk to one of the most visible figures in the contemporary Buddhist recovery movement. At one point in his early recovery, he’d committed himself to the life practice outlined in the book A Year to Live, which his father, Stephen, had just finished writing. The practice is to pretend that you have only one year to live, and to approach your daily life accordingly. Noah threw himself wholeheartedly into this experiment, spending several months in Asia, as he’d often dreamed of doing, then travelling across the United States to visit family and friends to express gratitude and to say all of the things that had gone unsaid. I was so intrigued by the notion of living one’s “final” year as a spiritual practice that I went out and picked up a copy of Stephen Levine’s book to get the info straight from the source, from a widely acknowledged “expert” on the apparently elusive subject of death and dying.
Delving into the elder Levine’s book, I thought, “Wow, this seems like a really valuable practice! I should try it someday.” Immediately, I was struck by the irony of this response, as the very essence of the Year to Live practice is the extinction of procrastination, the destruction of the deeply ingrained notion that I have the luxury of postponing living until some hypothetical future point when the conditions are ideal. Am I really so arrogant as to believe that death will wait patiently until a time that is convenient to my schedule? As John Lennon so eloquently put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” He knows better than anyone that most of us don’t hear a warning buzzer or get the courtesy of a terminal prognosis along with the gentle admonition that it would be wise to get our affairs in order. I began the Year to Live practice, however timidly and however vaguely, on February 22.
What would you do if you only had a year to live? It’s a huge question that means different things to different people. It certainly means something different to me now that I’m in recovery than it would have years ago. Before, a one year terminal prognosis would have been a clarion call to recklessness and irresponsibility; today, it’s the polar opposite. Rather than saying, “What the hell, it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead in a year anyway,” I’m saying, “Oh my God, it totally matters because I’ve only got a year left to do the work I’ve started in this body,” namely, to clear away the obstacles that stand between me and direct perception of reality. The practice isn’t a “bucket list” proposition, although it may take on an element of doing stuff I’ve always wanted to do. Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “One day you will lose this body, then what?” I don’t think he was referring to the loss of our ability to go sky diving in the Grand Canyon; I think he was referring to the imminent loss of this precious human incarnation as a tool for awakening. All good teachings point us toward the fact that the time for awakening is Now, not in some imagined future that, by its very definition, never actually arrives.
What’s interesting about this Year to Live practice is that it’s brought me the realization that one day I’m going to wake up and it will be the first day of the last year of my life. What’s even more interesting is that I’m not going to know it when it happens. The most interesting thing of all, of course, is the fact that it may already have happened. It’s a bold assumption that I’m going to live long enough to complete this experiment, and, like most assumptions, it’s completely ungrounded.
Parinirvana Temple and Stupa in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died.