Meditating on gratefulness and optimism, I looked for the opportunity in the moment.

Several years ago I was traveling through Europe on a lecture tour. As my last stop, I was preparing to speak on consciousness transformation to the League of Optimists in Brussels, Belgium when I got the news: all flights from Europe were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

I had spent the two weeks prior connecting with the European transformation community. No question I’d had a delightful time visiting four nations, speaking with diverse audiences, responding to the press, meeting old and new friends, and dining in wonderful cafes. But, as mother of a then 11-year-old son, I was challenged by what was the longest time we’d been apart since his birth. I was counting the nights before I would return. And so after my last stop, I was planning to go home to a very happy camper. Or so I’d thought.

Over the course of the days that followed, I got a chance to walk my talk on optimism and transformation, and to practice grateful living. I grew to appreciate how my inner landscape informs my outer experience. And I got to apply my insights directly, knowing I was stuck in a country where I didn’t speak the language, longing to go home, with a very real threat of volcanic ash clouds hanging over my head – and no way out.

Meditating on gratefulness and optimism, I looked for the opportunity in the moment. I needed to secure a base camp, so I reached out to my network via an Internet café. I was in awe when friends and strangers alike offered me places of refuge.

Eventually I made my way to England, with the help of a friend who drove me through the tunnel. I was offered sanctuary by Claudia Neilson, a member of the Scientific and Medical Network. Much to my delight, she had also taken in two other refugees from the volcanic ash cloud: Brother David Steindl-Rast and his assistant, Anthony Chavez. Over the days that followed, we four created a quiet and playful sangha together, taking delight in our chance meeting and our unplanned moments of conviviality.

As we seek to redefine death, we can transform fear into an inspiration for living, and for serving a vision larger than ourselves.

It was at about this time that I had began my research on death awareness and transformation, leading ultimately to a book and documentary film entitled, Death Makes Life Possible. During one very special afternoon, Claudia took the three of us to visit the historic Highgate Cemetery in London. We all stopped together in front of the burial site of Karl Marx. With my video camera rolling, surrounded by grave markers from many historic figures, I asked my three friends about their respective views on death – and how they believe an awareness of death informs how we live our lives.

For Brother David, the answer was simple; “Contemplating death makes all the difference to how we live. If we think it’s going to go on and on and on, we won’t live in the present moment. Being in the present moment is the most important thing of all.”

Claudia expanded on this insight, noting that: “Being aware of our limited time on earth highlights the relevance of every moment. Recognizing that life is a journey reveals the importance of our own morality, ethics and how we conduct our lives.”

This point about living a purposeful life was further developed by Anthony. Standing at the site of Marx’s tomb seemed particularly meaningful with the 20-something grandson of the great social activist, Cesar Chavez. Responding to my question, Anthony reflected. “We all face the inevitable. This makes you think of the kind of legacy you want to leave behind. It raises the question everyone asks: ‘Who am I?’ It makes you think about how you want to spend your days on this earth. Creating peace? Creating Unity? Or feeding the destruction and division that we’re so used to?”

In the midst of this cathartic conversation, I was struck by the quote on Marx’s tombstone: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

For me, the needed change is both deeply personal and social, and begins within. We have a powerful opportunity: As we seek to redefine death, we can transform fear into an inspiration for living, and for serving a vision larger than ourselves.

Ultimately, being stranded in the midst of a volcanic ash cloud with such insightful friends was a great gift which will long be remembered as a great and wondrous blessing. I returned home to my son all the richer, filled with the amazing gifts that can arise in the most unexpected places.


Stories of Grateful Living
Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D.

Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D.

About the author

Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D. is an anthropologist, award-winning writer and inspirational speaker. Her books include Death Makes Life Possible (and companion film), Livng Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life, and Consciousness and Healing: Integral Approaches to Mind Body Medicine.