Being Wholly Alive

The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

When he encourages us to “try as much as possible to be wholly alive,” Pulitzer Prize winning author and play write William Saroyan offers good advice not only for writers, but for all of us. It seems so simple, so obvious, such a no-brainer to experience what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. Why would we need encouragement, why would we need to be reminded to live?

The obvious answer to this question is that we need reminders because we forget. We need wake up calls because we fall asleep to the wonder at the heart of life’s most basic functions, which in health care are known as ADL’s (activities of daily living). When asked by a disciple about the method of Buddhism, the teacher responded “We stand, we sit, we bathe, we walk.” The student then stated “I do those things, too.” Said the teacher in reply “When we stand, we know we are standing….” This depth of awareness can turn our activities of daily living into spiritual practices, for knowing is not merely a matter of the mind, but of experiencing a sensual sensitivity to the incarnate sacredness of life.

The method of Buddhism is also the heart of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all the world’s great religions. There is often an other – worldly focus to traditional religious teachings, an emphasis on the afterlife and on what we must do to earn a soft landing there. But the mystical dimension of all traditions shifts the focus of the spiritual life to the here and now, and to the importance of being as present as possible to the often mundane activities required to maneuver through the day.

We may not think of them in this way, but breathing, tasting our food, sleeping, laughing like hell, and getting good and angry, are all aspects of life that are as holy as they are human. For while we are alive, it is here, not there, it is now, not later, it is in our bodies, not out of them, that we have the once in a lifetime opportunity to be spiritually/wholly alive.


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