Upon hearing of my father’s recent death, one of my yoga students shared with me a video of Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled “A Cloud Never Dies.” The talk urges us to notice how everything around us continually changes form, and holds that the extent to which we avoid the black and white mindset that death is finite is the extent to which we can also avoid great suffering.
Like so many of the most powerful teachings, this concept is not new to me, and yet I benefited from another drink from this well—another layer of depth amidst the endless layers. Thich Nhat Hanh, or “Thay” as you may know him, asks us to imagine that we had a favorite cloud that has slowly dissipated over time, and now we are sad. We believe that the cloud has died. “What you have to remember is that seventy percent of our body is made of cloud,” he tells us. “The cloud is continued in other forms like rain or snow or ice. You can recognize your cloud in her new forms. Your beloved cloud might have become the rain, calling on you, ‘darling, darling, don’t you see me in my new form?’ Your beloved one continues always.”
When we work to shift away from the concept of dying as final and towards the notion that all is changing form, we are not denying that death exists. Of course, words like “die,” “dying” or “death” are helpful at times; I use them when I run into someone who asks “How’s your dad?” or even “How’ve you been?” But any concept of death that focuses on ending and not also on beginning is likely to be quite unhelpful, as it over-focuses on half of the picture. It is simply not reality.
I diverge with Thay in that I would never say that we “shouldn’t be sad” about the losses in our lives. My view is that our emotions are here to be experienced as fully as possible as they pass through us. Because everything is always changing form, we can do so with the knowledge that each one of our emotional experiences are temporary. While we don’t want to go to the other extreme of clinging to or wallowing in our feelings, it will serve us well to wring out all we can learn from them, which comes from full surrender to them as they are, rather than any attempt at resisting or changing them. We will then later be able to take pride that we survived emotional intensity, and to update our appreciation of our resilience. We will also undoubtedly have a greater understanding and a deeper empathy for the pain of others, connecting us to our brothers and sisters around this planet.
Where I couldn’t agree more with Thay is that life and death are not only inextricably reliant on one another (“like right and left”), but that they’re also happening all the time. Our view that our own birth occurred decades ago and that our death will occur far into the future is utterly simplistic. Thay points out that many thousands of cells are dying in this very moment, while others are being born. As neuroscientist David Eagleman argues in his book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brains, our physical brains and corresponding capacities of all kinds (from emotional intelligence to physical dexterity to intellectual recall) are constantly evolving depending on what we spend our time doing. We are literally and figuratively different beings all the time, changing form from one day to the next.
I also with agree with Thay on the how. If this shift in worldview sounds wonderful but you’re wondering how we begin, the answer is a meditation practice—whether in stillness or moving, as with yoga. “Meditation helps you recognize continued presence in new forms. A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail, or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being. And that is true with your beloved one. She has not died. She is continued in many new forms. And you can look deeply and recognize herself in you and around you.”
Perhaps the most important words of all from this beautiful talk are these: “It’s not philosophy. It’s practice.”
So then. I’ll see you on the mat.