I saw this quote on Twitter: “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to the sea and sink.” It’s supposed to be a Zen Proverb but how can it be when it’s so depressing? Doesn’t that make life meaningless? Whazzup?
I do believe I can help you understand this. First off, I think you’ll benefit from revisiting your initial reaction. Your judgment about the direction of the quote—and therefore the meaning of each word—was not what the Zen-saying was aiming at. Because so many of the terms are heavily loaded in our culture it makes sense that your initial response would be quick and presumptive. You automatically associated sinking with failing. But death is inevitable, so dying isn’t failing, it merely marks the end of life. Failing is when we surrender life to fear. You also made the popular assumption that meaninglessness can be translated into worthlessness, when I would argue the opposite.
Let’s look at other activities to see where we place value. There seems to be only one reason people play board games: fun. Who wins is meaningless, and yet we love it and we happily choose to do it regularly. Cuddling babies. This is also somewhat meaningless. But it feels amazing. Hackey Sack is fun, but if you’re in a hack circle there’s no winners or losers. You’re all in it together. But it has no meaning. Listening to music has no meaning but we all genuinely love to do it. So my point is; meaninglessness is actually where we find most of our enjoyment in life. We should place more value on it.
What the quote is saying is: stop trying to be important. Stop trying to be respected. Stop trying to impress people. Relax into yourself. Accept your inevitable death and do the smartest thing: enjoy the interval. What else is there? If you know you’re going to die but you don’t know when, then it could be five minutes from now. Or it could be 50 years. Either way, it’s coming so what’s valuable in your life is time. So it’s a matter of how you invest that limited asset. And I can imagine no wiser investment than to put as much of it as possible into enjoyment.
In the West we warehouse death into old folks homes and hospitals. We don’t see the cycle of life on our streets like half the world does. We forget that people are suffering and dying every moment. So we don’t cherish life as much. We don’t think it’s a big deal because we forget it’s there at all. We’re just not used to thinking about our larger context. But if we do we realize that it is absolutely true that we all began to die the moment we were born. So spend as many minutes as possible between then and now doing things you love.
Eat food you love, see places you love, make love, laugh, sing, read, play, cuddle, kiss. Be alive. It’s a limited engagement you have in this theatre of life. And then the curtain will come down. Pack a big performance into the space in between. Live large. There’s a lot of world out there for you to experience.
Stop trying to live forever. The whole point behind the original agony of vampires is that they live forever so life has no meaning. That’s why writers create that distinction: they exist but are not considered alive. So you don’t even want to live forever. And stop trying to find an afterlife where you can still exist. Vampires, heaven/nirvana/paradise—these are all ideas that come out of your fear of not-being. You have to relax about that. It’s okay. The drop just returns to the ocean, but you missed that the ocean has always been within the drop. You’re powerful. You can choose a brave and bold life. You’re up to it. Just plan accordingly.
Don’t be bummed out that you start dying the moment you’re born. It is that very time limit that gives life its value. So spend your life having awesome experiences. Challenge yourself. There’s nothing to lose. Play. It’s like a song. It’s not how long it is that makes it good, it’s how enjoyable it is to experience while it is playing. That’s a great metaphor for life.
Now go have fun. It’s the Zen thing to do.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.