The problem with most books (and articles and podcasts) about “being here now” or “embracing the present moment” is that they really aren’t. As often telegraphed by their cover images (sunsets, flowers, mountain peaks) they’re about embracing the nice bits of the present. And they generally imply that if you follow their advice, you could float contentedly through life, relishing simple pleasures and finding wonder in the everyday. In other words, they’re about the ideal person you might become if you weren’t so prone to irritability, boredom and gloom. So they’re not actually about embracing the present at all. They’re focused on escaping it, in pursuit of a better future.
None of which could be said about Death: The End Of Self-Improvement, the latest book by the spiritual teacher Joan Tollifson. That title alone is a bracing bucket of iced water to the head. Mortality is the ultimate reminder that our fantasies of someday finally becoming perfect are inherently absurd, because that’s not how the journey will end. All we have, in place of that imagined ascent toward perfection, is a succession of present moments – until, one day, we won’t have any more. And “when the future disappears,” Tollifson writes, “we are brought home to the immediacy that we may have avoided all our lives.” If you really want to be here now, forget flowers and sunsets. Contemplate death instead.
Tollifson does so, without flinching. Among other things, the book is a memoir of her own encounters with mortality: her mother’s death, and those of close friends, then an unsparing account of her own experience of ageing – the “sagging, drooping, bulging, wrinkling, and drying up”, then colonoscopies, cancer and chemo, rectal bleeding and stoma bags. Sometimes, the reader wants to flinch. But in a way that’s no bad thing: all of this is part of experience, too. It’s not nice. But any approach to life that brackets it off as some kind of mistake, something that mustn’t be acknowledged, isn’t engaging with how things really are.
And Tollifson’s point, as I grasp it, is that resisting the truth of how things really are is what makes life feel so difficult. She doesn’t claim that embracing unpleasant experiences will stop them being unpleasant. (Indeed, embracing their intractable unpleasantness is arguably the whole challenge.) Rather – and in a way that’s hard to express in words – it stops them being a problem. It becomes possible to be “at peace with exactly how it is, even [including] the not-being-at-peace that sometimes arises”. She quotes the Zen teacher Mel Weitsman: “Our suffering is believing there’s a way out.” There’s freedom, even if there’s no possibility of freedom from the experiences themselves.
We tend to assume, Tollifson writes, that a life of dignity “means being in control, not being overwhelmed by emotion, not screaming or crying in pain, not losing control of our bowels, not losing our minds, and so on”. But perhaps there’s more dignity in deciding not to run from what can’t be outrun. “Old age,” she goes on, “is an adventure in uselessness, loss of control, being nobody and giving up everything.” The challenge is to see which new experiences of decay and decline you’re able to welcome – since they will, in any case, be showing up at your door.
Joan Tollifson explores the freedom in being ‘awake right now to whatever shows up’ in a number of talks on YouTube