“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon in 1968. “You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.
Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”
These words toll like deep bells for us today because we hear them as prophesy, resonating with what was about to unfold for this great man, a man who was plucked out of ordinary life, given a great opportunity, given to history. But what if we brought them down to the scale of a moment? Might it be possible to open to a greater opportunity—to a greater truth—in a single moment? What if we considered moments of sitting I stillness, moments of mediation or prayer, to be practice for standing up for the Truth.
Years ago, while interviewing Thich Nhat Hahn, I met the diplomat, and pastor Andrew Young, who was a friend and supporter of King. Young sat next to the great Vietnamese Zen Master (whom King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) as I asked question after question about fear. We sat together in a small room in the Riverside Church in Manhattan, just weeks after the attacks of 9/11. Like everyone else I knew in New York, I was afraid. Young told Thich Nhat Hahn he had something to say.
He told me that his friend Martin knew he was going to die. Yet as fearful a prospect as that was, he reached a point where he laughed at dying. He made jokes about it. He would say things like, ‘Andrew, I think they’re going to kill you today. But don’t worry. I’ll preach a most wonderful eulogy at your funeral.’”
How did this great man reach this state? How did he find inner freedom so to see that opportunity that called out to him?
“He knew what was important, and he made sure he did it every day,” Young told me. Young sat forward as he told me this, the better convey the force that was in King, the force of Truth. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the Truth. After this encounter, I read his sermons. He described being full of fear—then God came to him and told him he was with him.
“Martin knew that death could never destroy who he really was,” Young said to me that day in the Riverside Church. “Death can never destroy who you really are. Suffering can never destroy who you really are.” The Truth was with him.
There are those who will say that this is not possible for most of us to speak or live or do even the smallest thing in alignment with the Truth. They seem to delight in discouraging us, cultivating an ever more refined awareness of all the inner and outer obstacles that stand in our way. But they are wrong.
We can begin with a conscious breath. Begin by being aware of your body as you breath, slowly allowing yourself to be aware of your ordinary “I.” There is no hurry, allow the breathing and the sensation to be just as they are. Over time, you may discover that there is a net of habit and reactivity and attitudes besides the sensory experience of the body and the breathing.
“In working, I discover that all my manifestations and mental attitudes block the flow of the breath,” writes Madame de Salzmann. “It is like a resistance to the fundamental rhythm of life, a fear of losing myself, a lack of trust in life.” By recognizing and accepting this habitual “I,” this intricate net of tensions and limiting beliefs, we may begin to be conscious of another life and another Being in use, “conscious of a rhythmic order in which we are included. This is not to observe from outside, holding ourselves apart, but to be one with the experience and be transformed by it.”
Losing the “I,” we may discover a deeper life—a life that even death cannot destroy.