It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.
This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.
The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.
I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.
For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.
The only time you can live is the present!