“Oh my goodness, please don’t let her be dead!”
I was in my car, sitting at a 4-way stop sign. It was dark and rainy. I was 2nd in line.
The car in front of me pulled into the intersection at the same time that a female pedestrian was attempting to cross.
The driver of the car in front of me never saw the woman and plowed right into her. The woman’s umbrella flew up in the air while her body ricocheted off the car, crashing down on the road. Her head snapped back, striking the pavement.
I jumped out of my car to miraculously find the woman in perfect condition. Not a scratch on her body, the umbrella worse the wear than she was.
After the police and 9-1-1 activities were sorted out, I drove away from the scene with an extremely heightened sense of safety.
And that’s when it hit me.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
There comes a point in one’s life – whether it’s a single revelatory instant or distributed over the course of many moments – when we understand the answer to the question, “What am I here for?”
For some, it’s a conscious, irreversible awareness that subsequently shapes the rest of their days. For others, it’s a clear recognition of what hasn’t been working. That’s what happened with Ivan.
Ivan Ilyich was a bitter, disgruntled man. While he had a reasonably successful career in the legal field, he was passed over for a prestigious position which left him infuriated. His family wasn’t very supportive – pushing him to find another higher paying job. After suffering a seemingly minor fall, Ivan’s health progressively worsened until he realized that he was going to die.
Ivan tried to shake thoughts of his impending doom, but death ceaselessly haunted him. Compounding his misery, everyone around continued life as usual, pretending his illness was just a passing malady.
And just before his death, in an instant of striking clarity, Ivan uttered his last words, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” In that moment he understood that his entire existence had been superficially lived. And in that same moment he experienced a sense of extreme joy.
The Allure of Authenticity
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of Leo Tolstoy’s most powerful, compelling novellas. The painful juxtaposition of the fleeting satisfaction from worldly pleasures contrasted with the unfathomable depth of true meaning makes for captivating drama.
And real life.
Every one of us can relate to Tolstoy’s protagonist on some level. We strive for worldly achievement – whether that’s with money, relationships, family, bodily health, societal position, and so forth. But on another level, we know there is something deeper. Something much more substantial. Something much more authentic.
And it’s the allure of authenticity that drives us to answer that question of purpose.
Why am I here?
But a strange thing happens on the path toward purposeful living. Life gets in the way.
The Smog of Forgetfulness
It’s nearly impossible to go an hour – let alone a full day – without getting caught up in the drama of “everyday life”. There are important tasks to complete. Relationship issues to address. Bodily needs to fill and urges to satisfy. Crucial conversations to be had. Significant events in the world to comprehend. On and on. Ad infinitum.
The goings-on of everyday activities are like a smog layer covering our purpose-driven focus. And when we spend enough time in the smog, we get acclimated to it. So much so that we don’t even notice it’s there. What smog?
We then become so enmeshed with the daily-life circus to the exclusion of true meaning.
There are many powerful passages in A Course in Miracles that perfectly describe this phenomena, including these two:
Nothing so blinding as perception of form. For sight of form means understanding has been obscured.
The purpose of the world you see is to obscure your function, and provide you with a justification for forgetting it.
In other words, we become so absorbed by the daily drama that we completely forget about authentic living.
That is, until we experience a moment of death.
Death moments are anything that snap us out of the stupor of superficial living. Something so shocking, so jarring, that it totally dissipates the smog of forgetfulness.
I call them death moments not just owing to their occurrence often being tied to someone dying, or nearly so, but also because in those instants we experience a momentary death of our ego.
At least, temporarily.
This was Ivan Ilyich’s epiphany.
For that brief while, we question our purpose and whether our life is aligned with meaning. We take stock of what matters most and think about how we can more intentionally channel our gifts. Until, that is, our ego ushers us back into the outstretched waiting arms of forgetfulness.
But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Journey to Mindfulness
Forgetfulness is a choice.
Getting caught up in the spectacle of life may seem like it “just happens”, but it actually is the direct causal effect of choosing the ego.
In every moment we are choosing either the ego mind of forgetfulness or the right mind of presence. There is no in-between. It is all one or the other.
And when we choose the ego, we get lost in the world. We get smothered by the smog layer of forgetfulness, becoming what the Course refers to as a dancing shadow, leaping up and down according to a senseless plot conceived within the idle dreaming of the world.
The right mind of presence is also a choice. One that literally releases us from all pain, all anxiety, all distress. But we’re so conditioned to choosing the ego that we don’t even realize we can make a different choice, let alone one that leads to such remarkable outcomes.
It just takes a little willingness. And vigilance.
From Vigilance to Peace
Every decision we make is really one for happiness or unhappiness. Although it seems far more complicated, complex, and nuanced than that – nonetheless is the statement true. We are always choosing one at the expense of the other.
This awareness enables us to understand which choice we’ve made, and if we aren’t happy, the remembrance that we can choose again.
From observation comes the insight into where our efforts have been directed.
Consider how much vigilance you have been willing to exert to protect your ego, and how little to protect your right mind. When you are anxious, realize that anxiety comes from the capriciousness of the ego, and know this need not be. You can be as vigilant against the ego’s dictates as for them.
By diligently paying attention to our emotions and choosing against the ego whenever we’re not at peace, a blissful world of joy presents itself.
What hit me when I drove away from the accident scene was the recognition that I didn’t need to experience such a “close call” – or death moment – in order to choose intentional vigilance over foggy forgetfulness.
Thankfully the woman didn’t die, but what did perish was my persistent commitment to mindlessness. And when we make such a choice, we reconnect with our source of purpose and meaning. Our actions flow from a place of loving intention. And our lives are filled with peace.
So as we go about our drama-filled days, let’s practice recognizing which choice we’ve made and being more diligent in not allowing our true function to be obscured. The results are extraordinary.
Join me in our upcoming live, online video class where we’ll explore these topics and how we can master the habits of living a more peaceful life. I look forward to seeing you then.