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The small horrors of his illness were growing, and when I finally sat down with Morrie, he was coughing more than usual, a dry, dusty cough that shook his chest and made his head jerk forward. After one violent surge, he stopped, closed his eyes, and took a breath. I sat quietly because I thought he was recovering from his sudden exertion.
"Is the tape on?" he said suddenly, his eyes still closed.
Yes, yes, I quickly said pressing down the play and record buttons.
"What I'm doing now," he continued, his eyes still closed, "is detaching myself from the experience."
"Yes. Detaching myself. And this is important - not just for someone like me, who is dying, but for someone like you, who is perfectly healthy. Learn to detach."
He opened his eyes. He exhaled. "You know what the Buddhists say? Don't cling to things, because everything is impermanent."
But wait, I said. Aren't you always talking about experiencing life? All the good emotions, all the bad ones?
Well how can you do that if you're detached?
"Ah. You're thinking, Mitch. But detachment doesn't mean you don't let the experience penetrate you. On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully. That's how you are able to leave it."
"Take any emotion - love for a woman, grief for a loved one, or what I'm going through, fear and pain from a deadly illness. If you hold back on the emotion - if you dont allow yourself to go all the way through them - you can never get to being detached, you're too busy being afraid. You're afraid of the pain, you're afraid of the grief. You're afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.
"But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, 'All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment'"
Morrie stopped and looked me over, perhaps to make sure I was getting this right.
I know you think this is just about dying," he said, "but it's like I keep telling you. When you learn how to die, you learn how to live."