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— may not be what the Zen-saying was aiming at.
Many of the terms are heavily loaded in our culture, so 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 a transition in being.
Failing is when we surrender life to fear. Another popular assumption was that ‘meaninglessness’ can be translated into ‘worthlessness,’ when I would argue the opposite is often true. 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. We watch sports knowing there is very little chance of a championship most years but we love the act of being a fan. Cuddling babies. This is also somewhat meaningless. But it feels amazing.
Hackey Sack is fun, but if we’re in a hack circle there’s no winners or losers. We’re all in it together. But it has no meaning. Flying kites has no meaning. Listening to music has no meaning. But many of us genuinely love to do these things.
My point is; meaninglessness is actually where we find most of our enjoyment in life. We should place more value on it. Adding ‘meaning’ often adds an ‘objective,’ and ‘desire,’ and ‘time,’ and ‘expectations.’
What the quote may be saying is: stop wasting time trying to be important. Stop trying to be respected. Stop trying to impress people. We must relax into ourselves. We must accept our inevitable death and do the smartest thing until then: 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 our lives is time.
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. This makes cherishing our lives a little harder.
We don’t think death’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.
That being the case, it seems more likely that we will want spend as many minutes as possible between then and now, doing things we love.
Eat food you love, see places you love, make love, laugh, sing, read, play, cuddle, kiss. Be alive. It’s a limited engagement we have in this theatre of life. And then the curtain will come down. We should pack a big performance into the space in between. Live large. There’s a lot of world out there for us to experience.
It steals preciousness to continue to try to live forever. The whole point behind the original agony of vampires is that they live forever. It takes away life’s meaning. That’s why writers create that distinction: they exist but are not considered alive.
If we stop to truly consider it, even we don’t want to live forever. We can even stop trying to find an afterlife where we can still exist. Vampires, heaven/nirvana/paradise—these are all ideas that come out of our fears of not-being. But that fear only exists because we don’t see ourselves as a part of a greater whole.
We have to relax into peace. It’s okay. The drop just returns to the ocean, but too many people miss that the ocean has always been within the drop. Just like all aspects of nature, we are all powerful. We can choose a brave and bold life. Like all of us, you’re up to it. Just plan accordingly.
Don’t be bummed out that we start dying the moment we’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 being played. That’s a great metaphor for life.
Now go have fun. It’s the Zen thing to do.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.