Editor’s note: This is the second of a multi-part series on Conscious Living and Conscious Dying.
By Louis Bourgeois
Conscious Dying is an extension of Conscious Living. It is a way of living fully in the present, and involves levels of freedom and happiness not normally seen in this world. We will talk about a concept I call “the five faces of freedom.” The first of these is freedom from the past.
I mentioned in the first part of this series that what deeply affected my life was a study I did in my university years, a study focused on the quality of life as evidenced in a group of residents in a nearby nursing home. What I found was a near universal fixation on the past. The conversations were filled with regrets and blame for the way things had gone in the lifetime. The present for these respondents was fully shadowed by the past.
I have learned deeply about forgiveness in my life, being committed to my spiritual growth. In my early 20’s I became involved with the study of Transpersonal Psychology, attending a graduate school in San Francisco, inspired by the life and work of Alan Watts. It was clear to me from my studies that there was a radically different way to understand and live life than was been taught by my culture. Happiness had little to do with the conditions of one’s life: career, family, material success, etc. True happiness came from within, a product of our relationship with our divine source. I would come to learn that some of my greatest teachers were, in fact, some of the relationships that “hurt” me the most. My father was the very best of examples.
The transformation that would one day take place in my life in my relationship with my father took a full 50 years. For the longest time I held onto my hatred of him as something very precious, even sacred. I took pride in the fact that I had finally “won” the war, as I saw his life break down into a lonely dead end. His bad behavior had left a string of broken marriages. He had no true friends. His final years were spent alone, drinking all day, smoking his cigars, regaling to anyone who would listen about his glory days, mostly fiction. In my life with my father my emotions had run the gamut from adoring him, being deathly afraid of him, trying to copy him, hating him, and feeling sorry for him. But I was never able to feel a true love for him until very near the end of his life. My stepdaughter told me at the time of my father’s 79th birthday that I should go back East and visit him, as he was going to die very soon. I had been living then for about 20 years in Minnesota. I took her advice and flew back alone to Connecticut. My plan was to stay with my eldest sister, but spend most of my time with my dad.
Friday night I paid a brief visit and I was at a total loss how to make this visit different. I sat on the couch; my father sat on his throne. I noticed the headrest was filthy. The whole place stank from his cigars, dark and dank with all the curtains closed. The TV was on with a basketball game and my father was cursing some of the black players, seemingly intent on testing my tolerance. I sank into a certain despair, making a quick departure with the promise to spend the day together with him on Saturday.
Saturday morning it was raining, making the start to my visit particularly dreary. Where once I could occupy some time with my father playing cribbage, he was too far gone for this diversion. Already at mid-morning my father was well into his vodka and his first cigar. I sat on the couch for a minute or two praying for a miracle.
Suddenly I was struck with a very clear ambition. I was going to clean my father’s tiny kitchen. I told him of my intention and he simply grunted, not caring one way or the other. I found a large sponge and some cleaning solution and went to work on the walls and ceiling. Everything was covered with a brown sticky goo, the result of years of cigar smoke in a closed space. Each time I squeezed out the sponge in the sink I felt a wave of sorrow wash over me.
Soon I was crying deeply. I was crying for my pain, and I was crying for his pain. I was crying for my whole family, my little sister who had taken her life at 35, never able to let go of the pain from our childhood. I could feel the deep sorrow coming up from generations of this family, struggling against the odds for any semblance of happiness. I was crying soon for all of humanity; my tears seemed endless. But every time I squeezed the filth out of the sponge and down the sink I felt some hope. I was sensing a light, a spark of happiness deep within me. My hatred was being washed away, transformed.
I suddenly saw the whole, as if from far above the earth, and there was beauty. I saw what was my father’s role in this beauty, that he would make a certain sacrifice on my behalf, even if he would remain fully unconscious of his contribution. He was my greatest teacher, the one who could help me more than all others, to rise above the brokenness of our shared human condition. My sorrow was transforming into gratitude and my gratitude was building inside of me into a huge ball of joy. It was as if this sparkling clean kitchen was now filled with light and I was laughing out loud, tears of joy rolling down my face. And then, like the end of a great symphony, it was done. After this crescendo of joy washed over me a deeper peace entered me and I saw the simple perfection in everything.
What I have learned from this simple lesson is that hatred always is a defensive shield trying to cover an ocean of sorrow. If we can enter this ocean of sorrow, go deeply through it, we come to know true joy. There is something beautiful hidden within each devastation of our lives. If we are brave enough to journey through the dark night always we will know the brilliant light of a new dawn. True forgiveness comes when we see the gift in what appears to be loss. We see that the universe has always been conspiring for our highest good …. always. This is spiritual principle, and we can take great comfort from our experience with this “hush of heaven.”
The final part of my lesson with my father came when I returned on Sunday morning to say good bye. I had come to realize something very profound, something that arose within me in the stillness of the night. It wasn’t true that my father had not given me the love I so deeply needed; in fact he showed me the path to find this love through his “failure” as a father.
I had received my blessing, and what I realized in the still of the night was that my father deeply needed my blessing before he died. In times past this never could have been possible, but on this lovely Sunday morning anything was possible. I almost skipped up the front steps to my father’s simple home. When I entered the scene could have been just like the day before, but in my heart it was transformed. I sat for just a few moments and then walked over to my father. I stood before him and looked down, filled with a deep calm. He looked up and his chin started to tremble.
I told him that I knew I would never see him again. He nodded in acknowledgement, a single tear tracing down his cheek. I told him how much I loved him and I leaned down to hold him as he sobbed. In that pristine moment the whole story flashed through my mind like a lightning bolt … my father the war hero … gone to the Korean War when I was born … me trying to emulate him by going to the Air Force Academy … me breaking his heart when I was expelled … suddenly it occurred to me what I had to do … I released myself from his grasp, turned to walk to the door and in an instant spun around and saluted my father. He saluted me back and I left, filled with the glory of this perfect miracle.
The reversal of our mind comes when we realize that our mistake is thinking that the world is a place for getting from instead of a place for giving to. This is the deepest meaning of forgiving. Our unhappiness comes simply from forgetting our spiritual function. Conscious Living has everything to do with remembering our function, to serve as the conduit through which the energetic principle of the universe (what some call God) can manifest. We can participate in this function every day, bringing our creativity, love and enthusiasm to our world. If we can do this we will live with gratitude for each day.
Louis Bourgeois lives in Cuenca with his wife and baby. He teaches courses in Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org