The following article appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Inquiring Mind.

Practicing with Birth and Death
By Will Kabat-Zinn

It is a chilly November night in West Oakland, 11:30 p.m. The streets are empty. The pale glow of intermittent streetlamps illuminates shuttered storefronts and open lots between buildings. Light and dark alternate as you walk, hands deep in coat pockets. You don’t have far to go, just a mile or so home from the BART station. The air is crisp. You walk with ease, enjoying the open space, the silence.

You see a ragged shadow coming off the side of a boarded-up house, a looming, incongruent shape. Something doesn’t feel right. Your chest tightens, your eyes narrow, searching. The hair on your body stands on end. Your spine is tingling. Everything condenses inside of you at once.

You keep walking, braced, ready, with quickening steps, and then, nothing. It was nothing. You pass the shadow without incident. You exhale your relief into the night air. Your pace slackens. But you are not the same as before. Gone is the easy gait, the open space, the silence. You are aware of having a new body, hunched, edgy and tight. You furtively scan the street ahead. You listen for what is behind. There are more people on the street, ordinary people, who now, somehow, seem vaguely threatening. Although some part of you knows this can’t be true, everyone seems to be watching you, thinking about you, noticing you. The fear in your chest, a planet-like center of gravity, calls everything into its orbit. For now, it consumes you, defines you, directs you. It is you, your new center, your defining feature, and for a time, projected in all directions, the creator of a fearful universe.

You have been reborn as the one who is afraid.

Soon, unfamiliar surroundings give way to the warm lights of your neighborhood. You are not conscious of the moment you cross from the alien into the familiar. As you stride past the red and green lights of your favorite taqueria there is a mixture of relief and excitement in your chest. You are almost home. Your hands tingle. You walk faster, not rushing but adding power to your stride as you think about a warm meal, the comfort of a couch, and soft, full lips waiting to meet yours.

The streets now glow invitingly. The few passers-by who are out this late seem to silently acknowledge you, smiling imperceptibly as they brush past. Couples exiting the local bars appear happy. You feel warmed and encouraged by their joy. A rowdy group of teenagers in the Walgreens parking lot enjoy the unique camaraderie of youth, smoking cigarettes and loudly making fun of each other. They give rise in you to a pleasant nostalgia, for a life you could have led but didn’t.

As you round the corner and step onto your street, you notice the feeling in your body, light, warm and pleasant. You notice, too, your posture, upright with a slight, eager angling forward towards home. This is not the body of a few blocks back. You reflect on how different you feel, and notice, as you look around, how welcoming the world seems. Your mind feels open now; your thoughts range freely in easy reverie. You are in a new body, possess a new mind, and inhabit a new world.

You did not notice the death of your fear incarnation, or the exact moment of your next birth.

It is 7:00 p.m., another day. You are seated on a yoga ball in your bedroom, holding your three-month-old son to your chest, bouncing, and trying to get him to sleep. It has been weeks since your last decent night of sleep. He is swaddled; you are sweating. The windows are closed, the heater in the corner of the room is cranking. You feel as if the air is slowly being siphoned out of the room. It is getting hotter, and harder to breathe. Your son is nearly asleep for the fourth time in two hours. Your face is itching. You want to cross the room and turn off the heater, open the window, the door, anything, but this will mean starting over. You muster all your practice. You breathe into the heat and the itching, you relax around the panicky feeling that is in the back of your throat and lurks beneath everything. You focus all your attention deep inside your breath, letting go of past and future.

You feel a stillness spread, slowly, imperceptibly, like a tide just beginning to come in. It wraps itself around the heat, slips into your belly, behind your throat, and then, almost impossibly, sinks and rises at the same time. A clenched fist deep in your belly opens. It’s okay. Everything is okay.

Then, from the tiny bundle in your arms, a soft staccato cry blossoms into a scream that pierces the thick air. You bounce more vigorously, trying to ignore a sinking disappointment. Returning to your breath, you feel a hot stream of spit-up hit your neck; wet and sticky, it pours down your chest, inside your shirt. From somewhere far down inside you a wave of anger ascends, passes up through your belly, shoots through your chest, and expands in all directions.

Without conscious thought, you relax around this feeling. It is a total relaxation, everything in you letting go at once. As you relax, a feeling of space emerges. It envelops the anger, holding it tenderly, just as you gently cradle your child in your arms. Somehow, there is more room in the bedroom. Inside your own body there is boundless space.

Now there is nothing for anger to push up against, no container in which pressure can build, no rigid form to animate like a puppet. Released into space, anger-energy twists and coils, throbs and pulsates, a lone demon dancing in infinity. Then, in sudden implosion, it collapses in on itself, transforming, in a luminous burst, into an unspeakable joy.

You laugh out loud, a deep belly laugh that lets go into the expanse of the room. You feel the soft pressure of your child against your chest, his protests, quieter now, a sweet music. Your eyes fill with tears.

Anger is born, but you are not reborn as the angry one.

You need only one thought to enter a new incarnation, one feeling taken as defining, one emotion that is experienced but not known, one perception believed to be ultimate truth.

Watch yourself take birth again and again; watch yourself die each time. Become intimate with this endless cascade of birth and death. See how conditional each incarnation is, fleeting, and incomplete. Notice too when there is no birth, when a thought is seen as a thought, a feeling as a feeling, an emotion as an emotion. Rest in the freedom of not anchoring your identity in any thing.

We live in delusion caused by a lack of awareness. Millions of momentary identities, each experienced as true and defining, are projected onto the past and the future, lending them all a sense of continuity, of permanence. When we see with wisdom the actual nature of our own births and deaths, we stop taking ourselves to be what we are not, and come to rest more and more in that which remains unborn and undying.

Will Kabat-Zinn is a dharma teacher and Marriage and Family Therapy intern in private practice in San Francisco and Oakland. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and two children.

© 2013 Inquiring Mind