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Impermanence and the Spirit of Life Mastery

If it’s not in flow, it’s gotta go!

By Fleet Maull, Ph.D.

In this blog, I’d like to invite you to embark on a journey of exploration into the essence of life mastery from the perspective of the preciousness of human existence and the truth of impermanence. I will be sharing a recent personal experience, which profoundly impacted my perspective on life and my belief in the importance of not settling— not settling for mediocrity or “just okay.” A few months ago, I traveled to Nepal with my wife to participate in a meditation retreat with our teacher. The retreat was taking place in a beautiful monastery in Pharping, a picturesque town located in the southern valley of Kathmandu and facing endless mountain ranges. Kathmandu is a former lake bed and Pharphing, which is slightly higher in altitude, is quite a bit older than Kathmandu. Between the 8th and 11th centuries especially, this small town was a crucial rest stop on the illustrious Silk Road, where great spiritual masters traveled back and forth between India, Tibet, and China.

These masters included the Mahasiddhas of the North Indian Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, as well as Tibetan Buddhist masters who sought profound teachings in India. So Parphing became a sanctuary where these great masters paused, perhaps to rest and wait for the snows to clear before embarking on treacherous journeys across the majestic Himalayas to Tibet and China or to rest up after crossing the Himalayas on their way to India. Among the eminent figures who spent time in Parphing was the extraordinary Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who played a pivotal role in establishing Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th or 9th century. Padmasambhava originated the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, earning him the title of "second Buddha.” Also known to have spent time in Pharping is Marpa, a Tibetan farmer-yogi, who traveled to India in the 11th century and brought back the Vajrayana teachings and transmission that became the basis of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu lineage, the lineage of Milarepa, the great yogi saint of Tibet, and the succession line of the Karmapas that continues to this day.

The town of Pharping is the site of over 50 monasteries from various Tibetan Buddhist lineages, many ancient meditation caves where great masters lived and practiced for some time, as well as ancient Hindu temples and holy sites. It is quite an incredible and magical place, bustling with secular and religious life and activities.

The monastery where we practiced was itself truly breathtaking. Adorned with intricate artwork, the walls and ceilings showcased stunning frescoes depicting Tibetan Buddhist iconography, including various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The centerpiece of the meditation hall was an imposing 50-foot high statue of Buddha, alongside a 30-foot tall statue of Padmasambhava, both surrounded by many other statues of various Bodhisattvas. All of this literally stopped one’s mind upon entering the meditation hall, and as I sat down to meditate, I found it incredibly easy for my mind to settle into a very stable and deep meditation.

During our eight days of intensive practice and teachings in the monastery, we delved into the "Four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma,” an essential Buddhist teaching also known as the Four Reminders, which invites us to recognize 1) the preciousness of human life, 2) impermanence and the reality of death, 3) the truth of cause and effect, and 4) the pervasiveness of suffering.

There is a famous Buddhist analogy emphasizing the rarity of attaining a human birth amidst the infinite possibilities of existence. It describes how a blind turtle rises from the depths of the ocean to catch a breath of air every few weeks while there is one yoke floating on the surface of the world’s oceans. According to Buddhist philosophy, the probability of the turtle poking its head through the hole in that yoke during its rare surfacing is deemed greater than the likelihood of attaining a human birth among all the other possibilities of sentient existence.

A human birth with all faculties intact is considered infinitely precious because it uniquely allows for the pursuit of a spiritual life and awakening irrespective of the tradition.

Reflecting on the fleeting nature of life and embracing the reality of death sharpens our appreciation for beauty and the ephemeral nature of existence. Not only are we all going to die, but death often comes without warning. By contemplating our death on a regular basis, we can awaken to the preciousness of every moment and be inspired to live life to the fullest. We might also decide to prioritize spiritual practice.

The truth of karma reminds us that every one of our actions has consequences, shaping our present and future experiences. Whether we like it or not, we are going to experience the results of our past and present actions and behaviors for better or worse. We cannot escape karma.

While inherent suffering pervades this relative world as experienced through our dualistic mindset, spiritual practice helps us transcend our egoic selves, finding peace, sanity and equilibrium within the complexities of life. Through our transformative journey, we seek to embrace impermanence, recognize the limitations of this world, and connect with a vast, expansive reality that surpasses the confines of material existence.

Throughout this eight-day retreat, we contemplated deeply these profound truths. We were presented with a powerful challenge - to confront our beliefs regarding the attainability of full enlightenment and spiritual liberation. While I firmly believe in the possibility of personal liberation, I’ve been noticing that, within certain Western Buddhist traditions, the idea of enlightenment has been diminished or even dismissed as a mere myth. Influenced by postmodernist thinking, our culture tends to embrace a flat worldview, resisting any notion of hierarchies or levels of spiritual attainment. Consequently, many practitioners have abandoned the pursuit of enlightenment, settling for a diluted version of spiritual growth focused solely on lowering stress, increasing well-being and becoming kinder individuals. While these are noble pursuits, they do not equate to complete liberation and true spiritual freedom.

But our teacher kept asking us: Do you believe enlightenment is actually possible? And if so, do you realize that time is running out? And what are you doing about it? Embracing impermanence and the inevitability of death really helped center our practice and inspired us to engage in our spiritual journey with greater depth, discipline, and sincerity. Moreover, acknowledging the reality of our capacity to attain enlightenment roused our motivation to invest the required effort and commitment in our practice. The enchanting setting of Parphing, Nepal, added a touch of magic to our spiritual experience, enhancing the profound lessons we encountered.

I also had the privilege of practicing in a number of ancient meditation caves, including one closely associated with the revered Padmasambhava. This very cave is believed to be the site where he attained profound realization and manifested in extraordinary ways to overcome various negative forces at play in the world. I was fortunate enough to visit this cave several times to meditate and engage in contemplative practices passed down through the lineages of great masters descending from Padmasambhava. The experience of practicing in this sacred place left an indelible mark on my consciousness.

In the realm of intensive practice and pilgrimages to sacred sites, there is a belief in the concept of karma ripening and accelerating. It is said that the effects of our past actions may manifest more swiftly and intensely in such sacred environments, guiding us on our spiritual journey. The potency of this process can be both auspicious and challenging, but it allows us to make quick progress if we are willing to face the obstacles with openness.

I experienced the ripening of my karma in quite a dramatic way! Following the retreat, we had some time off to visit various sites, and during an outing on the first day, I started feeling unwell, initially attributing my discomfort to travelers' illness. However, my condition worsened rapidly, and I found myself in excruciating pain, eventually collapsing. Fearing the worst, my wife and I rushed to the emergency room. We were fortunate to have a Canadian friend and doctor accompanying us, who was able to advocate for my care.

After undergoing various tests that were inconclusive and having been given several strong pain medications that offered little relief, I underwent emergency surgery. The procedure revealed an obstruction in my small intestine. The surgeons had to remove 5 feet of it. The surgery was successful, but post-surgery I twice experienced distressing episodes when the doctors attempted to remove the breathing tube, leaving me conscious but unable to breathe, move or communicate. Both times, I knew I was on the edge of dying. Thankfully, the medical team swiftly intervened and re-intubated me. Eventually, I found myself awake in the ICU with the breathing tube removed and my doctors assuring me that I was okay and breathing normally.

My near-death experiences left me with vivid memories of being at the precipice of death, offering a profound insight into the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing every moment. Despite the harrowing moments and a later bout of severe anemia requiring a blood transfusion, I eventually recovered enough to be released from the hospital. The support from loved ones and the fortuitous presence of skilled medical professionals were crucial in my recovery, leaving me with a deep sense of gratitude and renewed dedication to my path of personal growth and spiritual liberation.

The 36 hours of air travel on the return trip from Kathmandu to Hartford, CT via New Delhi and Chicago worsened my condition considerably, and upon arriving in Hartford, I really didn’t know whether to continue home or have my wife take me to the emergency room. I was fearful that the condition requiring my emergency abdominal surgery was happening all over again. I decided to risk going home and saw a doctor the next day who just counseled going to the ER immediately if the pain worsened. Thankfully, it didn’t!

However, in order to recover my health and vitality, I knew I needed to employ all the skills, tools, and practices for deepening and sustaining well-being and resilience that we teach through Heart Mind Institute. Despite the considerable pain and weakness I was experiencing, I steadfastly began rebuilding my two-hour morning self-care routine of yoga, breathwork, and meditation. I was eventually able to double down on these practices and witnessed their effectiveness firsthand. I credit these practices for accelerating my healing process dramatically. And it became really clear that embracing the spirit of life mastery is not a destination but a mindset. There are different times in our life when we may be making progress or feel like we're really in a flow; other times, it may feel like things have plateaued, but, basically, we're not settling. We aspire to continually evolve and continually grow as human beings.

These near-death episodes, coupled with the abruptness and unpredictability of the medical condition I endured were very sobering experiences for me. I couldn't help but question the deeper significance of these events. What is the message behind them? What am I being called to examine, change, or shift in my life?

The experience prompted deep introspection, making me question the areas in my life that may need change or release. I resolved to either change or let go of anything that hindered the flow of well-being in my personal and professional life and relationships. Shortly after returning home from Nepal, I committed to the daunting challenge of untangling a business relationship that had not been working for some time, causing considerable ongoing stress, despite the best efforts of everyone involved to make it work. Now, on the other side of that, I’m feeling a renewed sense of flow and purpose. I’ve had this funny little refrain playing in my mind… If it’s not in flow, it’s gotta go!

I wanted to share this very personal experience with all of you because of how deeply it impacted me. Perhaps some of you have had similar encounters that have made you ponder life's essence. This incident underscored the significance of never settling, avoiding the belief that we are bound by unchangeable limitations. Embracing instead a growth mindset of limitless possibility allows us to evolve, learn, and transform endlessly, opening ourselves up to infinite possibilities.

This experience has inspired me to commit even more passionately to my spiritual journey and my intention to awaken fully. It has also renewed my dedication to serve and add value to life. I am profoundly grateful to my teachers, the teachings, and my life's path. Even the scare I encountered holds a sense of gratitude, for I am thankful to have survived and still be here.

Each morning, during my routine of yoga, breath work, and meditation, I cultivate gratitude and a deep sense of healing. I connect with my body's innate capacity to heal itself and tap into the guiding intelligence that leads me toward wholeness. Throughout the day, I make an effort to return to this place of peace and gratitude, finding moments of awe in the simple wonders of life, like appreciating the beauty of nature or spending time with loved ones.

I hope my story motivates you to embrace a growth mindset, recognize your journey toward mastery as a way of being, and never settle for mediocrity. Embracing life's impermanence and learning from your experiences allows them to propel you forward on your unique path of self-discovery and mastery. May we all cherish each moment and continually strive to grow and contribute positively to the world around us.

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