Regulars and Shorts

To Be a “Life-ist”

By Staff

What gives life is always unique to the moment.
by Carl Rabke

Many years ago, my first meditation teacher was giving a talk at a bookstore and he said, “Truly, I consider myself less of a Buddhist and more of a life-ist.”

That line really stuck with me as central to what it means to be on a path of awakening. We are waking up to life. Like a plant turns toward the sun, we can turn toward life…or not.

rabkeI have always loved the term “life-giving.” What gives life? What supports life? What nourishes life? And on the other side, what sucks life? What blocks life? What diminishes life? To me, this is where our possibility for freedom lies, in our ability to respond to our situations in more or less life-giving ways.

I find it a much more helpful distinction to use as a compass than, say, right or wrong, better or worse, should or shouldn’t or even the often used skillful or unskillful. What gives life is always unique to a moment. What is the life-giving response for me, in this moment, in this situation? It can never be pre-scripted.

We’ve all heard stories of people who have endured incredible hardship, yet emerge with radiance. Nelson Mandela is in a jail cell for years, and turns in the direction of life. Maya Angelou is silent for years after being raped as a child, and grows into one of the most inspirational voices of our culture. His Holiness The Dalai Lama (happy 80th birthday!) sees death and destruction of his country, his friends and family, and carries a radiance so full of life that it can infuse most anyone in his presense.

In our everyday life situations we have this choice. I am in traffic, late dropping my son Mesa off for camp. Do I go the direction a hardened jaw, gripped steering wheel, a feeling of being squeezed by lack of time? Or is there something more in the direction of life? Like choosing to relax and sing a song with Mesa and make the best of it?

I’ve always loved poet Mary Oliver’s line, You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. The soft animals of our bodies know what gives life. Even our cells know how to open and soften toward nourishment, and also to contract and shrink away from what is toxic, or threatening.

For me, it is a powerful way to reflect on aspects of my life. If I look at, for example, the rapid increase of technology in my life over the last 15 years, it is not good or bad, yet there are ways that I can relate to my phone or email that can lead toward connection, appreciation and vitality, and there are ways that can lead to compulsion, numbness and disconnection. Sometimes, if I notice it moving in a life-depleting direction, I will shift—perhaps leave the phone at home when I go out, or stay off Face­book for a week or two, or take a step way from the computer to get some oxygen and movement if I have been working for a while.

So many things can be explored through this lens:

How do I have the most life-giving relationship with food?

What is a life-giving response to hearing of shootings in a church? Or the response to hearing of a Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality?

What is the most life-giving way to work with a challenge in a relationship or a diagnosis?

How do I relate to physical pain in the most life-giving ways?

I appreciate this verse from Mary Oliver, who is a most advanced life-ist.

The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac (Part 3), by Mary Oliver

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
— from Blue Horses
(2014: Penguin)

Carl Rabke is an Embodied Life teacher, Feldenkrais practitioner, lover of learning and totally astonished by life.

This article was originally published on August 1, 2015.