I’m in my mid-thirties—old enough to have some experience under my belt, but still pretty young in the grand scheme. And yet, when I look around at many of my fellow late Gen Xers, I can already see it—the choosing to die syndrome. This is not the living and dying in each moment that we all experience, nor is it about a physical death. No, this is about something else entirely.

The Choosing to Die Syndrome

What is it? It’s the slow accumulation of decisions towards a fixed identity and away from the fresh aliveness of your life. It’s giving in to the prevailing views of what life is about, and the building up of habits and defenses that maintain those views. It’s the murder of curiosity, and the killing off of exploration. It’s the embracing of certain certainties in order to soothe to pain of living in an ever changing world.

Even Buddhists do it – Gasp!

The longer I practice Zen, the more I have developed a faith in its ability—somehow—to be totally transformational. It’s not about becoming a different person, but is about the fact that when you’re completely you, it’s a very different experience from living out of habits, fixed views, and emotional states.

I’ve gotten the sense, though, that a lot of us convert types—and maybe a lot of Buddhists of all stripes—don’t really have much faith in such a transformation. In fact, many maybe aren’t even thinking about it. Buddhism is mostly a way to be calmer, or a little more present, or accepting, or whatever positive quality you want to fill in the blank with. There’s nothing wrong with any of those qualities mind you, but when I chant the Bodhisattva Vows, for example, it doesn’t make any sense to hope for being “a little better”—whatever that is. No, those vows aren’t about improvement at all—they are about transformation.

Are You Transforming or Killing Yourself Slowly?

The word “transform” means to alter or be altered radically in form, function, etc. If you are like me, you often attach the word to major changes in a form, like in a building project or melting down metals and then reshaping them. It’s easy to get fixed on form, just ask any longtime meditation student who can’t sit in full or half lotus anymore. However, in the context of Buddhist practice, transforming doesn’t really look like anything at all. It’s not something you can explain well. You can point to appearances, but what exactly is going on, it’s kind of hard to say.

I have a retired friend who has, in certain ways, transformed over the past few years. After years of defensive efforts to maintain her “self,” she’s dropping that off, and risking being out in the world as she is. While many women her age have decided that their lives are basically over, and are content to sit in a chair and watch TV, my friend joined an online dating service, found a new partner, and spent much of the last six months traveling, trying out new things, and loving life. She has renegotiated relationships with her family by being more open and honest with them. And she left a church community where she liked the people, but didn’t feel connected to in a deeply spiritual way. If you ask her how this all happened, she’d probably point to her meditation and yoga practices immediately. But I think it’s something more than doing the forms. It’s an again and again and again process of choosing not to kill yourself off, which happens within forms, but also fully bleeds into one life.

Killing Yourself Off is Society Approved

My friend’s life is an anomaly amongst her age group. Major changes often do happen for elder folks, but it’s usually not coming from conscious decisions and openness to not knowing. It’s usually about illness, loss of a spouse, or money issues that press the person into a different life.

It’s more likely to find the kind of conscious decisions and openness to not knowing amongst younger people, who haven’t yet killed off most of who they truly are. But you know, I think the pressure and desire to fit in makes a lot of us “decide” to accept certain stories about how to live as the only way, even when human history and current reality suggests otherwise. Take employment. How long have people been working for hourly wages at companies and other organizations? Two, three hundred years maybe. And yet, if you asked a hundred Americans what it meant to work, ninety of them would probably describe some variation of a salaried job. Even people who are entrepreneurial gravitate towards time segments and money payments based on time. Which goes to show you how fixated most of us are on a certain view of time, and how we believe it functions in our lives.

The point here isn’t to denigrate salaries jobs, or the conventional view of time, but to suggest that when a person has attached to these things as “common sense truths,” they have killed off part of life.

Form Can Be Deceptive

I have met people who, on the surface, seem to be living very conventional lives—jobs, houses, children, etc.—but who have a very fluid sense of what life is all about. At the same time, I have met people who are very radical looking on the outside—piercings, tattoos, open sexual relationships with multiple partners, unusual work—but who have very fixed views about their lives and the world around them. I have also met people who sit tons and tons of zazen, and are almost impeccable with Zen rituals, and yet are really miserable when it comes to maintaining the relationship in their lives. So, forms are tricky. It’s easy to think, for example, that doing meditation practice is going to radically change you. But that’s just another story.

If you are a Buddhist practitioner, or interested in Buddhism and reading this article, what’s your deepest intention? Is it really just to feel better, or be a little kinder, or more helpful, or is that just a story you’ve chosen to protect yourself with? Are you inspired by Buddhist practice to transform your life completely, or is it just a better tasting, more holistic add on than going out and buying a new TV?

I have no idea if the kind of transformation you see in the stories of the enlightened masters will occur in my life, but I figure why the hell not aspire to awaken fully anyway. The times I have been most depressed and miserable in my life have been the times I have chosen to either kill my largest dreams, or cling to them fiercely and defiantly.

You can have the most expansive vision possible about everything without making it into something you must defend and force into existence. You can make choices that might lead you to transform, or you can do things that are pretty certain to kill off your life. It’s your call.

“What are you going to do with your one precious life?”


Nathan Thompson

Nathan Thompson is the author of the blog Dangerous Harvests, and is a regular contributor to Life as a Human webzine. He's been a member of Clouds in Water Zen Center since 2002.

Website: Dangerous Harvests