A Birthday Contemplation

Jay Michaelson
May 14, 2019

My 48th birthday was last week, and I feel great about it.

This might be a feature of middle age. I’m no longer astonished (or embarrassed) at how old I am, like I was a decade ago, when turning 40 seemed like the end of the world. (Hint: it’s not.) Yet I’m still youngish and healthy, surrounded by blessings of family, work, the spiritual life, and love.

For years, I’d been wrong about what getting older is actually all about. Twenty years ago, I worried that it meant an unfortunate decline in attractiveness, coolness, and having awesome experiences like spending all night dancing in crowded nightclubs. (God, I’m glad that kind of awesomeness is mostly in the rear-view mirror.)

That was a delusion. I’m glad that I don’t really care how cool I am anymore. I feel more confident, stable, balanced, and clear about what matters and what doesn’t. And in a nice irony, that actually has made me more cool, since there’s nothing cooler than not caring whether you’re cool or not.

What those illusions were blocking, though, was a much more brutal truth: that getting older means getting closer to death.

Not just my own death, of course, which could come tonight or could come in forty years but in any case is probably a lot closer than my birth. But death in general. Friends die. Parents die. Celebrities die. Even people I barely know on Facebook die, and I am reminded that death happens all the time, without rhyme or reason, and with about as much forewarning as a demise on Game of Thrones.

So, at some point a few years ago, birthdays shifted from “OMG I can’t believe I’m this old” to “wow, I guess I’m still here – that’s pretty fortunate.”

That kind of gratitude, in my experience, can’t be faked. There are few things that make me sadder than being told to look on the bright side. There are few sounds more annoying than relentlessly happy music. And there are few things less gratitude-inspiring than reviewing objective facts that are supposed to make me feel grateful.

In fact, the effect is usually the opposite. Suppose I’m cataloguing all the wonderful things that have happened in the last year. If making a list is all I’m doing, it doesn’t work. On the contrary, I might well respond, “Wow, all these good things, and I still feel lousy. I must really suck.”

For that kind of practice to work, it has to be more than just inventory. I have to pause, reflect, absorb, remember. I have to make that past moment, person, or achievement new in the present – and then my mind naturally shifts into a natural appreciation.

Tell me I’m supposed to feel grateful for something, and my mind rebels. But if I can feel that something, fully and mindfully, the gratitude becomes intuitive. It’s not something I ought to do – it’s something that naturally arises.

This kind of contemplation is actually a venerable form of meditation. Mostly, at Ten Percent Happier, we teach other practices: mindfulness primarily, but also the cultivation of beneficial qualities like lovingkindness and compassion. For thousands of years, though, mystics and philosophers have placed contemplation at the center of their spiritual lives.

Most of us do it unintentionally all the time. During periods set aside for meditation, we contemplate what we might like for dinner, what we said in a Facebook post, or which character just died on Game of Thrones. (You can tell what’s on my mind this month.)

Contemplation, though, can also be a deliberate kind of meditation. Reflecting on the year just passed, I might ask: What are some of my most precious memories? Then, choosing one or two, and in a quieted, focused mind, I might try to inhabit those memories anew. What did the moment look like? What did I feel like? Where was I?

When distracting thoughts come along, I gently let go of them and deepen into the contemplation.

Now, when feelings about the memory arise, they’re coming from the present-moment experience of remembering, or even reinhabiting, the memory. So I might turn my attention from reconstructing the past scene to the feelings I’m having about it in the present moment. I see my baby daughter’s first steps, hear her babbling, and I feel an upwelling of love. It’s a beautiful moment – and while the memory is of something in the past, the experience is in the present.

This kind of contemplation, I’ve found, flows naturally from the awareness of death I mentioned earlier. The awareness of the proximity of death – if it’s not dulled or pushed away – leads naturally to reflecting on the blessings of life. And reflecting leads to gratitude.

Life is brief and uncertain – and yet, its joys are profound. As Warren Zevon said shortly before he died, when death is imminent, you enjoy every sandwich.

We eat a lot of sandwiches, some more mindfully than others. We have the power to lessen (or increase) the suffering that other people experience. We have capacities to expand our minds and inhabit our bodies in ways that many people never consider. There are so many experiences, emotions, and relationships that we humans can have in our exceedingly brief moments on the planet.

The gratitude that emerges from this contemplation often moves me to tears.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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