I had a chance to catch up with a dear student from a few years ago, Maria. As we caught up on life and her own studies in medieval Christian mysticism (mainly Meister Eckhart).
It was one of those delicious conversations about Aristotle, mysticism, children, love, and service. We were reminiscing about studying Sufism, and ended up talking about a powerful saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Die before you die” (mutu qabl an tamutu).
For Muslims, particularly in the mystical dimension, that teaching is an affirmation of how we are to live every day, here and now, towards all those in our circle of care. So I took some time to recall that explanation. Only when I was done did my friend gracefully reveal that not only does she remember the story, but that over the last few years she has shared my telling of the story with a hundred friends.
I asked her why she let me go through it again. She graciously said: “because I wanted to hear it once again from you.”
These are times that remind me how much all of us have to learn from one another, including those who at an earlier point of life started out as students. Alhamdulilah.
For those who have not heard it, or have heard it but want to hear it yet again, here is that mystical teaching of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims remember the Prophet as having taught us: “Die before you die.”
It is a paradoxical statement, with two deaths.
And a luminous life in the middle.
These days there is so much conversation about Muslims and death, either in form of carnage in Syria, or suicide bombing elsewhere. This is a different death, a different conversation, a different living.
In our own age, supposedly life-affirming but in reality so enthralled with death and death-enabling (just look at our rampant militarism and gun-addiction, not to mention poverty), it sounds dour and anti-inspirational to get a religious maxim which has not just one death but two deaths.
And yet as is often the case with religious teachings, it is by sitting with these teachings that make us initially uncomfortable that a greater truth opens up for us, with us, and in us.
If there are two deaths, then there has to be something else between the two deaths.
That something is nothing other life, a life suspended between the two deaths: the death of the ego, and the impending physical death that we will all face.
Eternal Life—–Death [of the ego]—–life—-[physical Death]—–Eternal life
Everyone will die that physical death.
Not everyone is willing to endure the death of the ego, and to live that luminous life even now.
It is the mysticism hinted at in the Braveheart movie:
“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.”
We are in this middle “life.” For many, life is an anxiety about the impending “death” to come, the physical death. Being unsure of what is after this next death, we seek every pleasure, every indulgence here and now.
But what Muhammad was talking about in a life after the death of the ego is not life as merely getting by, not just being alive, but full, complete, aware living. It is the awareness that it not just the longevity of our life but the quality of our living that matters.
So in what way is this quality of living different? Here is a lesson that has stayed with me.
I often ask my students what they would do if they went to a doctor, and the doctor told them that they have but six months to live. Almost all of them say that they would want to check items off of their “bucket list”, often involving travel. I ask them what they want to do, and many mention travel: travel to Paris, travel to New York City, travel to tropical beaches, and for some (not my cup of tea) Las Vegas.
[Just so you know that my students are not all—yet—saints, yes, many of them mention copious amount of chocolate and exhausting every sexual experience as well.]
Then if you ask them what they would do if they had six days to live, what they would do, the answers change. Almost all say that they would travel, but not to a destination, but rather to people: “I’d go see Momma.” “I’d go see my girlfriend.”
Lastly, I ask them what they would do if they were told they had six hours to live. Almost all say: “I’d tell Momma I am so, so, sorry for what I put her through. I tell her I love her, and I am so grateful for having had her in my life.” “I’d want to show my boyfriend/girlfriend how much I love her.”
If people knew they had a few hours to live, almost no one wanted to travel, or doing anything. It was not a bucket list existence, but a living based on love and gratitude.
This is the meaning of “Die before you die.” This is What Would Muhammad Do.
This is what it would mean to “die” to your ego, “die” to your selfishness, “die” to the illusion that we are a perfectly self-sufficient bubble cut off and isolated, cut off from humanity, cut off from love, cut off from nature as God’s masterpiece, cut off from God.
“Die before you die” means this: live the way that you would if you had two hours to live.
Live in love, live in gratitude.
Tell, show, be in love.
Live in gratitude.
Leave nothing unsaid, undone.
This is the message of that haunting song of love unexpressed towards parents, “In the Living Years.”
“Say it loud, say it clear
You can listen as well as you hear
It’s too late when we die
I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say
I think I caught his spirit
Later that same year
I’m sure I heard his echo
In my baby’s new born tears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years”
These are the living years. Now is the time. Now is the time to speak love, live love, show love, breathe love.
Say it now.
Do it now.
Live it now.
Pass it on.
This insight is one that echoes in sources even familiar and next door. It is the wisdom of country music. Really.
Listen to Garth Brooks’ first hit, “If tomorrow never comes” again, of living out this love every day in a romantic context:
If tomorrow never comes
Will she know how much I loved her
Did I try in every way to show her every day
That she’s my only one
Make sure those around you know they are loved inside.
Make sure they know they are loved inside their bones, in the very marrow of their existence.
Know that you are loved, into the very marrow of your own existence.
There is a life, an eternal, luminous, and divine life before the ego.
Once the ego has been knocked down from its fictitious throne and God restored there,
we can live yet again that life luminous and divine.
Live that life now.
It is what Muhammad would Do.