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The practice of finitude Barry Magid January 21st 2023

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Jessica and I each celebrated birthdays in the past month. I turned 73, and she just turned 77. And naturally, with birthdays in your seventies, these are occasions to be reminded of mortality, and you can't help but wonder how many more of these will I have. How many will we have together? But in addition to mortality, I think they are also reminders of finitude, which is an aspect of impermanence that I don't think we talk enough about. And it has its own distinct nature and issues. We might say that in general impermanence is all about things changing and ending and passing away. But finitude refers instead to a limit on possibilities, things that will never happen. And I suppose they're connected in the sense that if I thought I was going to live for a million years instead of at most a hundred, I could say, well, there's always time to do everything that I can think of wanting to do in a lifetime.

But part of the finite nature of our life is that we will always have a chance to do some things, but not others. And that, that I think, is a separate issue in a way, a separate problem from the fact that whatever we're doing is going to change or end. I think I can safely say that I will live out my life without ever traveling to the Middle East or Africa or India, or China or Australia. Those are simply experiences I won't have. Sometimes limitations are a relief. I could remember after yet another attempt at reading Proust, just deciding, "this man is insufferable, I am never going to read this (laughter). I don't have to read this, don't have to put myself through that."

But for most of us, most of the time, finitude is a matter of regret. We think about what's missing in our lives and what we will never be able to do. And sometimes instead of something like, well, I'll never visit India. Or, for some people, it's I'll never be married, or I'll never have children or grandchildren, or, I'll never get a chance to study this language or pursue that career. And we're called upon to come to terms with the fact that for better or for worse, I'm living this life instead of some other life. And we have to make our peace with that in some sense, regardless of the content of our life. Because whatever the content of our life, it will always contain this, but lack that.

Now one of the dimensions of monastic training was always a kind of embrace of that finitude, a deliberate choice to restrict possibility. And, you know, most often, the most obvious version of that was vows of chastity. I will renounce the possibility of having intimate or sexual relationships. But there's also very typically a vow of stability. I will enter into these walls, stay within this enclosure. Sometimes it's a commitment of years, sometimes it's a commitment for life. I will live my life within this circle, within this community. I will not seek for anything more.

It's interesting that, in the old days, my experience of sesshin was typically of an ordeal. It was physically so difficult and demanding that the effort focused all your attention. I think what has changed over the years, or how I've tried to modify sesshin, is to emphasize unstructured time. Time in which you even have the possibility of getting bored. You're not doing something painful or difficult. You're just sitting there. And sometimes you're sitting there during a break on a, on a bench. Nothing particular happening. And for a lot of us, what we confront in those times is a kinds of withdrawal from our habitual seeking of stimulation.

You know, I sometimes joke that all you have to do to make a sesshin difficult for people these days is to take away their phone for a little while. Just give a person this experience of just staying still with what is happening in the moment. Maybe nothing in particular is happening, but you're out of touch. You're not checking in, you're not hearing the latest from anybody or from the world. We realize how addicted we are to that level of experience. And part of what the lesson of sesshin or monasticism can be is an awareness of how much our ordinary lives are organized in this kind of quantitative way of trying to accumulate experience to go here, do that, see this, meet these people. We want more and more and more, better and better and better, experiences. So a lot of people, when you ask them, "what do you wanna do when you retire?" They say, "travel." I want to go here. I want to go there. I want to have all these new experiences. I only have so much time. I want to check one more thing off my bucket list.

Well, in a way that's all fine, perfectly legitimate to want to travel and have experience. But there's also this other dimension in which we settle into the fact that it's the quality of the ordinary experience that we're having now that in a way is much more important to our sense of the meaning of our life than whether we accumulate more and more new and exciting experiences. Someplace we can settle into, well, just, this is happening. Not going anywhere in particular, not doing anything new or different. This day will be much like a lot of other days. And I just settle into that. And I think that is, for us in our lay practice, how we bring some of that experience of sesshin or monasticism into everyday life. We try to make our peace, or, come to terms with repetition the ordinary. Precisely the lack of novel experience. We settled into sameness.

Now, this is not to say that we're not going to have real regrets. It may forever feel like, say not having grandchildren is missing out on a kind of experience you wish you had. That's real. But it's part of "I'm having this life, not another life." And that's part of what a monk does voluntarily saying "I will give up the opportunity to have a partner in certain kinds of relationships and children and a place in the world."

Well, monks choose those things to renounce, but, as laypeople, life often just chooses it for us. Instead of what seems like a voluntary renunciation, life imposes limits on us. Imposes lack, imposes disability or illness or poverty or loneliness. And the challenge for us is to practice with that and to figure out what practicing with that that means. This, I think, is the practice of finitude. And I think it happens at every stage of our life, not just when you get to my age and start thinking about how many years you have left. I think it's a factor in what often gets called a midlife crisis, a certain point where all of the sudden it hits you. Is this all there is? Is this going to be my career for the rest of my life? Am I always going live here with this person?

And people sometimes get frantic and feel trapped in the life that they have. Even if it's a good life. There's a kind of sudden realization and terror around, "well, this is all there is." “What if I never get to ___?”, and you fill in the blank - go here, have sex with somebody else, get to drive a red sports car, whatever it is you think is this extra thing you need in your life to feel like you're not missing out. I think that there are all different stages in our life where that fear of missing out suddenly sort of just stares us right in the face. And that's coming to terms with finitude.

Well, I think I'll leave you with that. It's a dimension of impermanence that I think confronts us all, all the time. Not just in the way we face the prospect of someday dying, but how we face living here and now in this life and not some other.

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