The Purpose and Meaning of Life – Chapter 1

Ashes

Life ends–even as we live assuming it will go on forever.
Everything flows and changes–all the time!

The boat slowed in the moonlit ocean. Soon the engine ceased to roar and there was a lull in the air. All that could be heard was the splashing of the waves against the sides of the boat. The passengers felt the rocking sensation and the accompanying rhythmic sounds of the seas. The sounds were in total harmony with the night.

Pete felt as though he was back in his mother’s lap. She is barely moving as she holds him, swaying gently in the rocker. Her soft and soothing voice is singing ‘all the pretty little ponies.’

“Pete,” he heard her say gently. “Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mom,” he replied, hesitating as he removed the lid from the ceramic jar he was clutching against his body. He realized his words did not reflect the truth, for he was not ready to part with the contents. He would never be ready.

With slow and deliberate movements, as if not wanting to do what he was about to do, he leaned over the side and gently emptied the jar into the rocking waves. The motions were effortless, yet his heart was pounding heavily, as though he had run up a hill.

“Goodbye, Grandpa,” he sobbed, in a barely audible whisper.

A sudden gust lifted some ashes into the salty air and a few specks, which weighed like mountains, lodged in his eyelashes, demanding entry into the tearless eyes they were shielding. He lifted his hand to remove the intruders as he fought the tears surging from within.

Through clouded eyes, he observed the ashes rocking gently on the moonlit caps of the wave tops As the boat moved away, he wondered if the white specks floating on the waters in the distance were the ashes. Or, had the ashes been transformed to the silver rays of moonlight reflecting off the restless waves? A new voice deep inside him asked:

Is this what becomes of life?He wondered if his tears were caused by the ashes or by the loss they represented. His mother drew near, and putting her arm around his waist, leaned her head on his shoulder. He felt a surge of warmth and comfort from this gentle embrace. It seemed natural to cry. They remained thus for a few moments. Gradually, his heart calmed and his mind traveled to the events of the evening.
. . . . . .
There were so many people at the funeral, some whom Pete did not recognize. His mind kept returning to the eulogy by one of his grandfather’s friends.

That was Joe Sages,he recalled.It has been more than ten years since I saw him.Joe was tall, with a medium build and gray, mostly white, hair that was brushed back from his broad forehead and tied with a rubber band, forming a short ponytail. He had large, well-defined, features that would fit well with the description a strong face.Pete could not recall whether he had a beard. Surely, it would have been gray and it would have blended nicely with that face, although that did not matter. He must have left shortly after the cremation.

He had felt an urge to go toward the speaker after the eulogy. However, the distress at having to press the little red button on the massive oven that would incinerate his beloved Grandpa had paralyzed his mind, freezing his ability to act.

So tiny an object, yet so great an impact! I felt as if the button would draw me into the furnace that was about to consume in seconds the body that held Grandpa’s breath for decades.Now, swaying with the movement of the boat, he reflected on those moments. The sound of the engine blended with the slapping of the waves, as they headed back towards the shore, creating a soothing, if droning, rhythm inside his grieving mind.

He went over the words of the eulogy.

Paul, or Grandpa, as he was known affectionately to many of us, had detached his self from life, as most of us know it. He had learned to live as a liberated being.

He was a navigator of the brook, a spirit that merged with the ocean, before his boat completed its human journey to the endless seas.

“What beautiful images,thought Pete.

“Life as a brook.

“A spirit on a human journey!
. . . . . .
Grandpa often used flowing water to explain life. “Water assumes many forms. It becomes solid, liquid, or vapor, changing from one to the other, without altering its substance. It can be solid as an iceberg, flow like a river, or fly as a cloud–all without changing its essential nature. Sometimes it springs forth from the mountain or pours down from the sky. Sometimes it flows serenely through hills and valleys–meandering through meadows and marshes into the embrace of the waiting ocean. At other times, it carves deep canyons between towering peaks and then spreads out across the plains, forming lakes and islands.

“Whatever water does, it does only once. For, after it flows past, it does not return to the same condition.”

Pete asked, “What if I pour water from a glass into a cup and then pour it back into the same glass?”

Grandpa replied, “Even if you can do that, without displacing a single molecule, time has changed, and your hand has changed.”

Pete realized that actions are sometimes repeatable, but not reversible. “People mistake repeatability for reversibility,” he thought. “It’s like Humpty Dumpty. All the king’s horses and men could have replaced the smashed egg, but they could not put it back together again. That is how life is!”

Grandpa said. “Everything flows. Everything changes. All the time!”

Pete did not then fully grasp what this means in life.
. . . . . .
There were many lessons, with clear messages–learned through stories and experiences. Some were acted out, just to get the point across; like the time he quarreled with his sister Lisa over a bag of fruit roll-ups. Grandpa related the story about the monkey and the cats. The monkey was playing on a branch of a tree overhanging a brook. Two cats on a raft were quarreling over a piece of bread. As the raft floated by, the monkey jumped aboard and the game began.

“We did not understand it,” Pete recalled, “so Grandpa acted out the lesson:

He offered to divide the fruit roll-ups fairly. Eager to have the matter resolved, we agreed. He had barely divided them into two unequal portions, before we both burst out, That one is bigger! Grandpa replied softly, I guess you’re right, so I’ll just eat a piece or two from this one. Okay! we yelled in agitation–anything to keep the other from getting more!

He then ate from the larger serving and smiled upon noticing the frustration building in us. He knew wed taken the hook. Eyeing the now larger serving, I said quickly, I’ll take that one.No you won’t, Lisa retorted, glancing at Grandpa for support. He offered to equalize the portions by eating a wee bit of the larger one. We reluctantly acquiesced.

Then, helplessly we observed events spiraling downward. It felt as if we were caught in a whirlpool that would not stop unless I put out of my mind the idea that Lisa could not have more than me. Consequently, any solutions short of Grandpa’s eating all the roll-ups remained out of reach. So, the game continued until most of the roll-ups disappeared from right under our noses. What frustrated me most was that I promoted the process at the surface, while deep inside I suffered acutely by my inability to stop what my greed had put into motion.

Torn by this conflict, and dismayed by the loss, we ran screaming in anger, complaining bitterly to Mom and Grandma.

The following day, Grandpa made up with two identical packages of roll-ups. That day, we learned about sharing. We learned that conflicts create opportunities for other navigators, the takers, to upset our boats. Of course, there are other aspects to this simple tale, including, greed, anger, fear, attachment, selfishness and possessiveness. I realized that there was no makeup bread for the cats.

There is no makeup in life.

Once the water flows past, it does not return.

“All actions in life are irreversible.
. . . . . .
Over the years, many questions about life accumulated deep inside Pete’s mind, forming mountains of curiosity. He felt he already knew some of the things he experienced for the first time. He wondered whether he remembered them from an earlier time, during a prior existence.

Grandpa used to say,

We have ears only for that which our experience allows us to understand.

Pete could relate this to his life. Many experiences supported this simple statement that Grandpa called “ears.” He enjoyed watching football because he played it in high school. He seldom missed an opportunity to watch tennis because his brother, Tim, was a budding star of the game. Golf did not interest him because he was hopelessly discouraged the first time he played. He enjoyed gardening because he and Lisa had helped Dad in the garden and they had grown many flowers and vegetables together. His great love was nature and hiking, which blended naturally with his love for photography. He enjoyed hiking in the woods with his wife, Beth. The frequent walks with Dad had nourished his love for nature. He recalled the enjoyment of playing chess with Dad and the lessons learned about life through the chessboard. Pete understood these things–and remembered.

Grandpa learned about “ears” from Doc Sahib, a friend and a fellow physician in the British army in India. There was an amusing corollary to this,

How can a monkey know the taste of ginger?

“One must not expend energy where it is unlikely to serve the intended purpose,” Grandpa explained. “The key lies in knowing when the seeds will be wasted upon barren soil. This is the knowledge to discriminate.”

Pete recalled the words of Christ.

Thou shall not cast pearls before swine!

He wondered, “Do all these words come from the same source–the same ocean of wisdom? The words could just as well have been,

Thou shall not cast ginger before monkeys!

They too reflect the same truth. They too state the obvious. Yet, we do not listen.”

“No matter how big your ears, some things are beyond understanding,” Grandpa explained. “If you persist in such futile pursuits, the results may be disastrous, as the lump of salt discovered.” Then, he smiled and added this simple couplet:

One day, a lump of salt dived into the ocean to measure its depth.

“Yet,” Pete recalled, “Grandpa’s friend Rabbi Louis said that to consider the infinite is to understand oneself. There is so much I do not understand–so much that must be learned!”

He shut his eyes as a large wave splashed against the side of the boat, as if it sought to restore the minds of the passengers to their senses. The cool seawater felt fresh against the taut skin of his face. In the distance, the larger vessel that created the currents sounded its horn, tauntingly.

“This is life in the Brook!”
. . . . . .
The eulogy had reached something in the deeper recesses of Pete’s mind.

Those who knew him realized that Grandpa’s self had merged with the ocean earlier in his voyage. So, this day marks not his merger. This day marks the inevitable sublimation of his boat, his destination having been reached long before the end of this life’s journey.

“Son, I have completed my duty,” Grandpa said one day. “It is time to depart.” Then, he added, “This tired old body has served its purpose. I have completed my journey.”

These statements disturbed Pete, for he thought they reflected a state of depression in a tired old man. Now he realized what Grandpa had meant.
Observing Pete’s anxiety, Grandpa added with a twinkle in his eyes, “Of course I want to live to see you married and have a child whom I can hold in my arms.”

This had comforted Pete. He imagined it would be long before he married, and even longer before he had a child. He realized, “How ignorant I have been! How time has flown.”
Once more, his mind traveled to the eulogy.

Grandpa showed us how to read the whitewaters of the brook and how to navigate it. Most importantly, he showed us how to find our purpose, and thus, to focus upon our destiny while experiencing the entire brookscape.

He enriched us with his life. His spirit will continue to enrich us even more as we grasp its song, devoid of his material presence. Therefore, we can continue to be with him and he with us. He would want us to remember that the Brook flows on. In this we may rejoice!

“It was far too brief,” thought Pete. “Yet, the man said so much–and left such deep impressions. I wondered about the tiny sparks of light flashing and reflecting from his eyes. Towards the end, I could not tell whether the sparkling eyes were smiling or were releasing the sorrow their owner no longer could contain. Reason would say the sparks reflected tears of sorrow, yet the eyes had sparked from the start. Surely, the man was sad in his own way. Perhaps he just has sparkling eyes, like Dad and Grandpa.”

. . . . . .
“How can Grandpa continue to be with us?” Pete wondered. “Does the brook flows on mean that life goes on? Grandpa no longer is alive. He no longer is with us. He never again will be with us. That, I know. What is there to rejoice in this?”

Such questions agitated and disrupted the flow of his thoughts, creating feelings unlike any others before. They appeared as a malady that persisted, as opposed to the minor ailments produced by frequent irritations that were easily cured.

These new disturbances were unlike his irritation at the driver who cut in front of him, or at the woman who flung a cigarette butt on the grass, or the waiter who took forever to bring the menu. Those arose immediately and spontaneously. He did not pause to contemplate them. He disposed of them as they surfaced, like bubbles emerging from the waves. They appeared, reappeared and disappeared in rapid succession, until finally they receded to depths where they would remain unattended and unnoticed. Some left small residues of pain, sorrow, or regret inside his conscious mind. In time, the residues too were repressed deeply inside and gradually forgotten, like the fossils of the sea creatures buried in the mountains that once were ocean beds. He did not have to deal with those repressed memories–at least, not for the time being. “Maybe never,” he thought, “unless I launch an archeological expedition into my mind.”

However, these new disturbances were different. They knocked loudly and persistently, far below the surface, deep within the chambers of his mind, demanding attention. They refused to be swept away, or to be buried. He recalled Grandpa’s words about finding tranquility.

You must take your mind to the depths of the waters in order to find peace, tranquility and serenity.

Here and now, as he reached far into the depths of his mind, he found these deeply disturbing currents, not the peace, tranquility and serenity he expected. This added to his dismay. The waves of anxiety, beating wildly against his mind, were not receding. They continued to swell and surge.

He made an effort to cast these thoughts aside, but they refused to leave his grieving mind. Wishing to escape from them, he walked to the bow of the boat and embraced his Grandma Rosie. She was tall, frail and bony. As they hugged, he wanted to say how much he loved her. Words were not needed to express this. He sensed the frailty of her soft bones even through the layers of clothing–afraid he might be hurting her. She hugged him back tightly, as the tears rolled freely down her cheeks.

Rosie was a beautiful woman. Pete thought she glowed with the moonlight reflecting off her almost translucent face. Without realizing it, he squeezed her so tightly that she appeared to be out of breath. He released her immediately, almost in panic. Yet, he found she continued to cling to him. He responded with a softer, gentler embrace. They both missed Grandpa and needed each other more, now that he no longer was with them.

“This must be love,” he thought. “Somehow, it has to be central to, if not the purpose of, life.”

As he resumed his descent in search of the tranquil waters, wherein he hoped to find the answers to his questions, an ever so gentle nudge from Grandma directed his attention to his mother’s outstretched hand.
. . . . . .
Pete decided to list the lessons learned as he pursued his quest for the purpose and meaning of life, hoping this eventually would lead him to the wisdom that Grandpa had tried to impart.

Lessons from Ashes
· Life ends–even as we live assuming it will go on forever.
· Everything flows and changes–all the time.
· Once water flows, it never returns–all actions in life are irreversible; some may be repeatable. There is no “making-up” in life.
· We have ears only for that which our experience allows us to understand–the key is to grow ears from the tales of others.
· It is futile to pursue some things in life–wisdom teaches what is meaningful and what is illusionary. This truth lies at the root of the journey to knowledge.
· Knowing that one knows is an illusion. Knowing that one knows not is meaningful.
· Currents created by others influence our lives–the key is to circumvent the currents that hinder the journey and ride those that carry us towards our purpose. Wisdom teaches how to discriminate between the two.
· We fulfill the purpose of life by fulfilling our duty.
· We recognize a spark in some travelers of the Brook.
· Thoughts in the mind are like bubbles in the stream. Yet, repressed thoughts may rise again–creating new disturbances.
· Peace and serenity lie within–as tranquility lies in deep waters.
· Love is central to the purpose of life.

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