Meditation on Death 04
No one ever said that life would be easy. Life sometimes feels like it deliberately finds a path with obstacles to guide us. Like the physical education teacher who made us jump over hurdles in middle school, are we supposed to build our muscles by overcoming obstacles?
While living a nomadic life of shuttling between New York and London, after abandoning all my belongings in storage, most of my writing has become about finding meaning in adversity. Even if I didn’t want to, I kept wondering. Why? Why is life so difficult like this?
Depending on the individual, some people may feel that my trials are just exaggeration or fussiness. However, that fact did not alleviate my subjective hardships at all, and I had no choice but to rely on death again.
When life tortured me with muscle training, I sometimes felt like calling the dark knight who would be waiting for me at the end of life in advance. I felt relieved to think he would divide the sea and destroy all the reefs that life throws at me and take me with him. I also gained the courage to wait for him to come for me instead of calling him first. The more difficult it got, the more grateful I was for the existence of the dark knight who would definitely come to take me.
In Buddhism, our world is called ‘Samsara,’ which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Sabha’, meaning endurance or patience. Ultimately, the world is a place where we must endure and persevere. Is enduring this challenge itself the essence of life? Ven. Beopjeong explained it as follows.
When I lived in London, I went on a trip to a southern city called Eastbourne. The reason I went there, which is a seaside resort town, was solely to see the Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters are seven hills made of white chalk cliffs. When I asked a German couple I met on the subway about their favorite place in the UK, they both said the Seven Sisters, which was the reason I went there. Now, it has become my favorite place in the UK as well.
I didn’t plan to see the end of the Seven Sisters from the beginning. On the first day, the plan was to see about half of it and finish the rest on the next day, but this mission was impossible.
From the start of the hike, we were completely enchanted by a view that we had never seen anywhere on Earth. It stretched infinitely in every direction. To the left was the blue sea, to the right was a green meadow where flocks of sheep and horses grazed, and in front and behind were white cliffs. Excited and exhilarated, we easily made it to the halfway point of the Seven Sisters. Although the hills were quite steep, we were too caught up in the scenery to feel tired.
My husband suggested that we should go back around this point because there was a bus schedule, but I insisted that we should go all the way since we had come this far. I said that there would be a rest area or parking lot at the endpoint, just like the starting point, where we could call an Uber. Although I planned to say we should come again tomorrow, I stubbornly insisted we keep going because life is always unpredictable, and we never know what will happen tomorrow.
In the end, it took us two and a half hours to reach the youngest of the Seven Sisters, but the problem was that the surroundings were barren. When we asked a friendly British woman we met there if we could call an Uber to get back, she laughed at us. Her plan was to swim there for a while and then walk back, which left us in awe. She had such a nonchalant attitude, as if she were shooing a fly off her shoulder, and said, “Come on, it’s not that bad. You can do it.” Her words, though casual, ignited a small spark of courage in us, even though we were exhausted.
However, the Seven Sisters’ distance was a whopping 13 kilometers, which took us six hours to complete. We were thirsty and famished. But we had no other choice but to keep going forward. Looking at the seven sisters stretching out in front of us, just like at the starting point, we let out a sigh and stepped forward again. The difference between uphill and downhill was so stark that we gasped for breath without a word on the uphill and made self-pitying jokes on the downhill.
If it were a normal day, I would have collapsed and given up, but we had no choice but to keep walking with parched mouths. When we saw a huge hill rising vertically in front of us, we couldn’t bring ourselves to climb it. However, as we took one step at a time and climbed up, we suddenly found ourselves at the top. Looking down at the white cliffs, blue sea, and green meadows from the top, we felt invincible, as if we had conquered the world. And as we enjoyed the scenery and walked down the hill, we saw another huge hill in front of us. It was another beginning. There was no end. As we repeated this process seven times, we realized that climbing up and down hills was like life itself.
Even the hills so steep and daunting that it seems impossible to climb end beneath our feet if we take it step by step. From there, we can look down on the world below, feeling proud and accomplished. Going downhill is enjoyable and exhilarating. Life feels good as if it was never hard. I lay down and rolled down the wildflower-covered slope, feeling dizzy but having a great time.
I have lived most of my life like Hemulen, blaming and resenting why life can’t be peaceful, ignoring the fact that everyone’s life is like that.
The origin of the word “disaster” which represents misfortune, is “evil star”. In the past, when astrology had a great influence, misfortune was thought to come from the movement of celestial bodies. On the day when Monet fled to avoid creditors and was kicked out of an inn while being naked, he said to his friend, “I must have been born under an evil star.” Perhaps at that time, blaming stars helped people endure misfortunes like wars or pandemics.
As we live, we encounter trials, challenges, and obstacles that are as inexplicable as evil stars. Every time, we become frightened and discouraged, but in the end, we survive. We eventually cross that hill towering in front of us at an incomprehensible height. It doesn’t matter how we got past the difficult times. What matters is that we are still walking.
Joseph Campbell, the author of the famous book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which is said to have influenced Star Wars, argues that most myths are based on a single archetype myth. From the Greek myth of Achilles to modern fantasy like Lord of the Rings, all hero stories are divided into three main parts: departure, initiation, and return. The departure is when our immature hero leaves a stable life and sets out on a dangerous adventure. The initiation is when the hero undergoes trials and tribulations to become a hero. And the return is the final journey of the hero’s narrative, where they return as a completely different person than when they left.
The reason why humans have unconsciously enjoyed similar stories with the same structure for thousands of years is that they find meaning and comfort in the difficulties encountered in these stories. The more difficult the journey, the stronger the hero becomes. We must remember that even surviving through hardships in our own lives can be heroic.
Freud said that the goal of all life is death. Those who are prepared to face death at any time welcome even misfortune with open arms. Because I know any difficulty will eventually come to an end, and my knight in black armor is urging his horse to gallop towards me through the deep night.