Meditation Talk: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I decided to title today’s talk “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which some of you may already be familiar with as it is a book by Milan Kundera. Given that I am titling a talk after it, I feel it a necessity to confess that I’ve never read it :) ...well I haven’t made it past the first chapter, but even without actually finishing the book, it has made its way into my vernacular and the simple title itself has had quite the profound impact on my life: an impact that I would like to share with you today.
So what is it that we might mean by the unbearable lightness of being? How could lightness be in any way unbearable when I imagine that this idea of freedom is what so many of us either are seeking or at least were seeking at some point in our journeys? Today, I’ll offer my, not Milan Kundera’s, perspective and hopefully inspire some ideas in you for all of us to toy around with together. It’s interesting to me that many people whom I have had the pleasure of meeting along this path, whether just discovering meditation or many many moons into their mindful curiosities, seem to have come from their own versions of the unbearable lightness of being. In offering some of their words of wisdom, reasons for finding themselves planted in a new seat of curiosity about mindfulness and meditation, I have heard:
“I spent my whole life living for other people, I want to know life lived for me.”
“I want to FEEL my life, not just wander through it.”
“I know how to love everyone else, but I’m lost when it comes to loving myself.”
“I don’t want to be on my deathbed when I finally realize what it means to be alive.”
And to speak for myself, it was exactly this feeling that brought me to my first meditation seat...the unbearable emptiness of walking the Earth without knowing why, without feeling enough, with no moment being THE moment or any moment for that matter seeming to be a real definer of being alive. And to me, this seems to be the real essence of the title of this book. In my own experience and imagination, I think Kundera MUST have been alluding to this idea that because, as human beings, we have what appears to be SO many moments, that each moment goes unnoticed for its inherent preciousness. And maybe the word “inherent” speaks exactly to the difficulty we have, that though, yes, each moment is inherently precious, it somehow continues to go unacknowledged in our bodies, minds, and spirits. How many moments pass us by without any recognition at all?
In his book “Untangling Self,” Andrew Olendzki, has a section called 10 billion mind moments, which begins with the idea that “The world of human experience is made of mind-moments. Whatever else is really out there, our lived world consists of transient moments of knowing.” And according to some neuroscientific research which suggests that there are 4 - 8 distinct mental events per second of the brain’s alpha rhythm, this would mean that in a 70 year lifespan, we would have about 10 billion mind moments that make up the collection of stories that become the movie reel of our lives. Personally, I feel a little weird about imagining that we have any sense of autonomy over 4-8 moments per second as even being present and aware each and every second of the day seems unfathomable, so without offense to Olendzki or the scientist who discerned our number of mind moments per second, I like to think we have more like 1 billion of these in our lifetime. I bring this up here because though 1 billion is a vast number, it is also finite. Though we talk about life spans in years, a year itself can seem so vast, that I don’t think it puts a fire under our butts to care about each year to hear we only have 70-80 of them on Earth, but to hear we only have 1 billion discrete moments...makes each and every one feel so precious, at least for me.
I often say that the experience of being human is one of constant remembering and forgetting. Through our lives we learn so much about ourselves, about love, of what it means to be alive and the things that make life worth living, how to handle moments of difficulty, and the ups and downs of our utter humanness, but I have also learned that in any given moment I could be filled with all my knowings from my 32 years of life or I could be totally forgetful of all the wisdom of my heart. I bring this up because I have this sense that if I could just remember every moment of every day the wisdom of 1 billion mind-moments, if I could taste the tangibility of death’s imminence, then maybe life wouldn’t be so unbearably light: maybe each moment would instead be garnered with its unbearable heaviness.
In what I have read of the book that titles this talk, Kundera says:
“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, a woman longs to be weighed down by her lover's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
Should it become a burden then the power of each moment? The irony that I have found in my own life is that it is the weight of this burden, the power that each moment has the capacity to contain, that has been so wildly freeing because it means even the absolute most mundane moments in the world have the capacity to be the most beautiful, to be wrought with love and joy.
I recently explored a meditation practice that had me reflect on 3 powerful moments in my life. I believe the guide of the practice even suggested to choose 3 moments for which we felt immense gratitude. I bring this up because a curious thing happened. One of the moments that presented itself to me was one in which I was hurting, feeling a deep longing and sadness. As I sat, I wondered at first whether I should pick a different moment! “This can’t be right,” I thought. Then I realized that this moment was not unbearably light - it carried the beautiful burden of living, of being fully human, of deeply feeling. When I reflected on this moment, I could feel its heaviness in my chest as if the longing and sadness were right there with me, and in this, I could feel the love of feeling, the gratitude of opening to life of being willing to deeply feel, to LONG painfully for another human being. I imagine all of us have at some point read poetry or watched a movie, heard a story, of a love that seems to last the ages, of the depths of human longing. Perhaps each of us has felt how deeply painful that can be, and yet in some way I believe that we idolize this experience. What I intend to offer with this story is that I think we’re all right to idolize it. I think what we have found in this idea is that in order for life to be beautiful it doesn’t also have to be without pain but rather simply has to bear the heavy, exquisite burden of each moment of aliveness being so worthy of our presence, attention, and open-heartedness.
I have found that there are few experiences in living that remind us of how precious our lives are but none do it quite like loss. Whether our loss comes through death or the end of relationship, loss tends to remind us not to take the moments we have for granted: not with those with whom we share our time or even in our moments of “aloneness.” In losing a loved one to death, I always seem to be reminded of all the things they will never experience again: the simple feeling of my body breathing, of the breeze as it sweeps gently over my skin, of the sound of leaves rustling in the trees, or the way sunshine seems to penetrates my depths...or deeply of what it feels like to love another. I am reminded in loss of relationship, that the moments we share together are even less than the 1 billion I get to myself and that we never really know when that togetherness will cease. In that knowing, there is the taste of preciousness of each moment we have.
I hope it was Kundera’s desire through his powerful title to remind us of this overwhelming preciousness, but even beyond that, I hope that even though we will all, myself very much included, invariably forget and fall back, habitually, into unbearable lightness over and over again, that every day our lives become more and more filled with moments of remembering: moments where we remember our 1 billion mind-moments and that this moment, whatever it contains good, bad, light, heavy, hard, or utterly mundane, that they all matter, that they are all precious, and in their inherent preciousness that they are wrought with love if we would just open ourselves to them.