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What an ancient mythical bird can teach us about death, change, and letting go

These are challenging times to say the least. Climate change is looming, disparity is growing around the world, there is a lot of fear and anger… it’s not like any of these challenges are new but there seems to be a growing anxiety in the air. One thing is clear- we can not generate solutions from the same place that causes the problems. We can’t “get busy” solving every problem separately or create products or technology to save us. There is something deeper and more essential we must do first. I believe that we must face the truth of our grief. We must let go and surrender. We must learn to die-metaphorically and literally.

As it happens, there is an ancient mythical bird from the Tibetan tradition that can help guide the way. The Garuda is a bird that hatches fully formed, takes flight and never lands because there is no ground. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, says “life is like jumping out of a airplane with no parachute. The good news is, there's no ground.” The Garuda teaches us how to jump, how to soar, how to trust.

The Garuda is associated with the traditional reminder (one of the Four Reminders in the Buddhist teachings) of death and impermanence. As a practice, we wake up everyday and say, “Today I will die”. Rather than thinking about death as something morbid or depressing, we use death as a reminder to fully live. If you've ever had anyone or a pet close to you die, you know that death helps remind us how precious, fleeting and illusory life is. So in this way, death is a great teacher because it can help us live more fully. So if we wake up every day and say, ‘today I will die’, it's a reminder to actually live and that death could come suddenly and without warning. It’s also a reminder that every day is full of thousands of tiny deaths. Each breath is its own kind of death-we're letting go with the exhale. Each moment is its own kind of death. We're letting go of what we were just paying attention to or a conversation or what we were doing. If you think about it, life is constant transition and constant movement- there's actually nothing solid to hang on to. We are in a constant state of change.

A lot of suffering comes when we try to hang on to solid ground and make things predictable, and so learning how to surrender to that movement, to those ‘tiny deaths’ and to the ever-changing pulse of life is the practice of the Garuda.

I recently experienced this through through having to move from a home that I loved that wasn't my own. I had lived there for 11 years and had come to feel incredibly connected to the land and people in this sweet little valley. This was the place where I raised my son from birth to eight years old, we called it home, and the trees were my friends. I would walk every day and look at the same mountains, they taught me how to live and get through very challenging times. And yet at the same time I knew it wasn't my home and I always felt this sense of impending change. As more and more millionaires from California moved into the valley, I knew our time was near.

When the landlord gave us notice, I called on the Garuda. To let go and grieve. Before we move on, we need to grieve. I don't think letting go means we discard or shut something out, rather it's actually about valuing that which we let go of. We value something when we know it’s worth, when we appreciate what it has given us. When we give thanks and honor the fact that we can’t really own anything anyway. When death comes, we can't take anything with us but our karma.

The questions became, ‘How will I integrate this land into my cellular memory, so that no matter where I go, this home, this time in my life will be part of me, part of who I am, will inform how I move forward into the world?’ . I had spent 11 years in a quiet, sacred beautiful place that allowed me to raise my son in a resourced way; it allowed my son to experience what nature and silence, and having a river in your backyard is like.

Now, I live on an extremely busy street in a town/city. I have to fall asleep to white noise because the sound of the cars is too loud for me. The Garuda doesn't tell us that change will be easy. The Garuda says that if we face change, if we move through change with courage, and with open hearts- that the next offering will come. The next truth of our lives will be revealed in such a way that we can make new value. I have discovered an amazing Bosque trail by my new house [not quite a home yet], where I can once again find my home in nature, in silence, in the river, in the new the newness of this place. I can accept this newness because I allowed myself to grieve and let go and value that which I was letting go of.

Sometimes it's big changes, and sometimes [most of the time] it's small, even minute changes that we experience. The more we can practice the small every day letting go and the nature of life as ever-changing, then when those big changes come along-such as the death of a loved one, or losing our job, or moving, or sickness….. we will have made a relationship with the Garuda and they can guide us across the unknown and liminal territory of death and change. As the world becomes increasingly unpredictable and scary we have a choice. We can fuel the anxiety and fear or we can listen to the call of the Garuda and face the truth of change, impermanence, unpredictability and death. We can learn to let go everyday in a way that reminds us how precious life is.

That doesn't mean that we won't revert to our protective mechanisms, because those run really deep in us. When we're faced with change we often cocoon and can go into protective mode, but that's OK. The Garuda also teaches us that we can forgive ourselves easily. That's part of accepting change. Whatever change you face in your life, draw upon the Garuda's wisdom. Bring the image of this beautiful soaring bird to mind. Imagine that it never lands, And ask for it's help. It will come. The Garuda, who doesn't land, the Garuda who fearlessly shrieks the truth of death and impermanence through the empty sky.

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