Heartbreak | Sitting in Turbulence

I feel oddly inspired today to thread together a few different experiences and ideas with a couple quotes. May this share my inspiration precisely as the etymology of that word implies: others breathing in the animating spirit of the ideas here for their own benefit.


I’ll start with some morning pages from today. I’ll cut a bit for brevity, but I was surprised at the vulnerability and feelings of mistrust that spilled out. I know that I have these feelings, but generally, they aren’t this intense. The sudden burst surprised me, but it’s an interesting change in the death I’ve described in recent posts and leave me wondering about my future and whether focusing on compassion is the better direction for a fuller life, rather than the egoic hurt of identity and love. I’ll expand on that in the second section after morning pages.

Second, but it came up first emotionally and in order of events, I just saw one of my poems to [the person] briefly as I flipped this open. So many things like that come back to mind now and make me feel like a complete idiot.

I mean, it just emphasizes the feeling of unfairness, of not being seen, of not being valued. She told me that the poem was “the sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me”. Yet, now, it’s buried in some corner, forgotten, just like I am. Does intense effort even matter in the end? I honestly don’t even know, and I ultimately don’t know that I can ever really trust anyone to value me back. I keep thinking: “I need a spiritual friend,” and my mind replies with – “My friends! There are no friends!” I’ll keep meditating and building gratitude, like in this moment.

Myself – Morning Pages Journal

I know this feeling is there. I told a friend a while ago: “What do you do when you tell a person your heart beats for them, and they basically react with: “That’s nice. Whatevs.”? How do you trust love at all after that?” That’s part of where I’m at, beyond the feelings that it’s unlikely that I will find someone who is highly compatible with me. How do you trust? The vulnerability of putting your heart out there to care, to give, to love is intense. I think I’ve felt unseen one too many times, and this time, it just feels too fundamental for me to really trust the process of others. I’ve always operated from a hermeneutics of trust when it comes to love. I don’t know if I can do that anymore.

As a counterpoint, I want to return to a beautiful moment from last night and cap it off with a couple quotes. This experience is the reference in the final line above of “keep meditating and building gratitude”.

Last night, I went down to the sea and pumped up my inflatable paddleboard to enjoy perhaps the last really warm evening before the rains of fall. It was right before sunset. I put in my headphones, went down to the water, and paddled out into the cool breeze. I paddled north – my destination about a mile down the shore, a set of pillars where I had spent some of my favorite moments from this year with the person. She introduced me to paddleboarding and to my destination. The water rippled with every stroke, gliding along with my arms’ strength. The movement felt peaceful and empowering as post-rock accompanied the changing colors, graceful flows of birds in the sky and waves beneath me alongside the misty mountains in the distance like something out of Tolkien.

When I reached my spot, I stopped and stretched my legs. I’m still no good at standing up, so I tend to kneel and paddle. It makes my legs stiff after a bit. I looked at the mountains, and my board slowly turned with the waves and faced the beach. I saw many people there, catching the final gasps of summer just like me. I switched to sit cross-legged and sat the paddle across my lap. I realized that this could be a great way to meditate, as my heart struggled with the mix of the beautiful scenery with my myriad associations of love and loss. I put my hands in a zen meditation mudra, with the paddle on my lap, after changing the music to a fittingly deep song for the moment (will cross-post to a post on that song soon!). I breathed in, feeling the rocking of the waves, letting my eyes gently unfocus, seeing the beach and people there with me. My mind shifted to a version of the equanimity meditation I had been doing a few months ago – thinking of all their own lives, stories, motivations, and struggles. I repeated the mantra: “All beings are heirs to their karma,” and felt my heart gently open to the sensation of life rocking up and down, being moved by things beyond our full control, the life-waves pushing us about, just as the waves bobbed my board up and down. My resolve grew to sit in this and open my heart with equanimity.

I had to stop a couple times to avoid the waves of boats or reposition to not bob too far out or in, but I spent several minutes like this, and my heart felt much more open to the world around me and the pains of others, including my own. The thought occurred to me and did again this morning: “What’s my own karma right now, and how can I be more accepting of it and myself in it?” I don’t have an answer yet, but my heartmind is trying to sit with that.

Here are two quotes from two recently discovered books that I read after writing morning pages this morning. I feel they expand on these ideas in even grander and more inspirational directions and depths than anything I have written (or could write here):

It’s clear, in this peaceful desert, that peace is not the opposite of violence. Peace is in violence. It can only be seen by the open eyes of awareness. Peace is itself. The experience of peace I’m discovering in the desert had always been with me in the city. I hadn’t let it in.

The peace being expressed in these writings doesn’t come from the mind, the lips, or from gentle actions. It doesn’t come from legislation made by governments or peacemaking movements. It’s a peace that appears without effort. Like the desert filling up my eyes. It appears like snow, wind, or rain. Peace arrives on its own if I don’t resist it.

During years of chanting and meditation, the habit of fighting against what was in front of me rose and dissolved like waves in an ocean. There were times when I asked questions, critiqued, and took action. And there were times when confusion took over, the mind doubled down on itself. The only thing to do during those times was to breathe and be still. The body knows when to do this. Stillness is inherent. After suffering and resistance, the only thing left is contemplation of life and after contemplation, stillness, and after stillness, peace.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel – The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness, pp. 12-13.

More than any other aspect of embodied spirituality, I have found that living more fully from our hearts is the single most powerful step for many of us. The shift from thinking of the heart abstractly to actually feeling physical heartbeats can transform us in the moment. Try it when you are already in a fairly present state and let it deepen. Then try it when you are emotionally stuck and see what happens.

Susan Aposhyan – Heart Open, Body Awake: Four Steps to Embodied Spirituality, p. 15.

May this inspire others to sit and open their hearts, even in the pain of loss, in the trauma that breaks trust, and in the stillness underneath the ever moving turbulence of movement and violence.

Gassho!

Heartbreak | Poetry | Undeath

Loss, death, grief
The heart stills
And feels empty
Yearning for a spark
Life — no longer present

And yet, not dead either
Like a hungry ghost,
Starving for the desired
While still shambling around in this body
A facsimile of the person before

Unheimlich” — unhomey, uncanny
The space between alive and dead
The heart between overflowing and pulverized
How do you sit here in undeath? In unlife?
The presence of sitting contains multitudes…

The depths of feeling light the way
Truth lies not in a covered heart, in a comfortable story that explains away
Courage to face everything authentically
Such is real love
Such is the intensity of life and death to wake the heart


May this help others find their own ability to sit in the feelings of loss, confusion, and despair.

Gassho!

Heartbreak | Change and “Healing”

I return to the heartbreak topic one more time to just speak through some personal experiences regarding change and “healing” (I put healing in quotes to point to some difficulties in the concept which I will talk about below). I bring these topics up out of some frustration and insight in my own process and discussing with others. I can only hope that sharing these words here will make some others feel seen, understood, and accompanied on their own path.

Even before I was fully cut off from the person behind my heartbreak, I spoke to her and others about how dating others held little interest for me and how I knew it would be really difficult to find someone else who is what I want for a long-term committed partnership. She and most everyone else have challenged me, but when I really present my perspective, there’s not really any counterarguments to be made.

Here’s the thing. I have a couple decades of long-term relationships and dating women as experience. Furthermore, I have a background in psychology and data analysis, meaning I’m used to thinking of problems like “who is in the dating pool?” in terms of metrics and demographics. Over the last couple years, I’ve thought about what I would like in a future long-term partner, and for me, that means a high degree of compatibility. I have a solid list of what kinds of interests and personality traits I see working well with me in a way that I would feel excited to commit to, especially in ways that I see as being easier to work with than the problems I’ve had with previous partners. That being said, many of them are more like “open to my way of doing x”, not so much – “you have to do x too”, so they aren’t fully rigid, and I’m big on being a compromising and supportive partner as well.

It’s quite clear to me that a few of my marks for compatibility dramatically reduce the number of good matches to something like less than 10% of heterosexual/bisexual women in general out of the gate, and that’s not even factoring in aspects like age, location, availability, etc., and yet, people just tell me to do things like “cast my nets”, as though randomly trying with others will make them compatible or in complete ignorance/dismissal of what I know from my heart and a couple decades of experience is what I want for myself moving forward.

The funny thing in that is that in challenging a particular friend with a very logical, data-driven breakdown, she couldn’t argue, as she’s quite data-minded as well, but she replied that although she agreed, she found it incredibly sad because it’s a perspective where I likely don’t get a happy end.

However, that’s the thing. We’re told time and again that we will. That there’s “our person” out there, etc. That’s a very long-standing desire. It’s almost fundamental as an existential counterpoint to feeling your identity as a person in the world with the needs for connection, sex, understanding, and companionship. There are colorful versions of that deep in mythology across cultures, not to mention Aristophanes’ poetic depiction of it in Plato’s Symposium.

Here’s the other thing. That’s an existential security blanket. There’s no guarantee that there is such a person out there. There’s not even a guarantee there’s a great match out there. Furthermore, even if there is, there’s no guarantee they’re nearby, a good match in terms of age, or that they’re currently looking for a partner too. It’s tough to hear, but there’s no guarantee of a happy end for any of us. Truly, if you speak to many about their lives, it becomes clear that life is complicated with a variety of ups and downs and unforeseen circumstances in relationships. If anything, the guaranteed happy ending is a fairytale, just like we know that term really implies.

This mental shift for me – focusing on what I want, pushing myself to avoid stepping into a relationship where I just begin compromising so greatly out of the gate where I immediately end up sacrificing my wants to someone else’s, and enforcing boundaries to uphold this idea that “single > settling” is a big move for me, and it’s one I’m committed to. I’ve even tried to challenge my hypothesis by looking through hundreds and hundreds of dating profiles for my area online. Absolutely none of them have changed my perspective regarding how much of a needle in a haystack such a match would be – my sense of demographics and what I want is even probably more accurate than I initially realized.

Here’s my point, ultimately, with this post. This is a big change for me, and it’s one I intend to further, even if for the rest of my life. I’m trying hard to think of myself in a new light, a new role for my future. I’m trying to reimagine what I might end up having and how I can sit with it in the years ahead. I keep my heart and mind open to being surprised along the way, but I’m not going to run towards anything just out of the desire to not be alone. Even though that’s really hard for me and this is the most depressingly lonely time of my life (and seems to look out on a wide horizon of more of the same), I would much rather that than being in a relationship where I feel alone and unvalued with a person sitting right next to me.

Now, in relation to “healing”, I’ve received some critiques that my position will soften over time or that I will find the right person when I heal and go back to the old me. Honestly, I hope not – for one, because then all this insight and one of the only two big, meaningful experiences I’ve pulled from this time (perhaps I’ll write about the other sometime soon) feel empty, dramatic, and histrionic. That’s not my jam. Personal and spiritual processing for me has impact, it builds, and I ingrain such changes into my life. They’re not passing seasons. Maybe aspects of them lessen or wax and wane, but something remains to grow or be challenged moving forward. Ditching these insights for my old paradigm seems both against my more general approach to life and a step backwards into really unhealthy patterns. If anything, others should be hoping along with me that I don’t move back into that.

The problem with “healing” as a concept is that it’s often used in just that sense: some recovery of function that returns to the old. Sayings like “time heals all wounds” illustrate that idea. However, wounds can heal improperly. Function can return, but not the same as before. For instance, I sprained my ankle at 19, and it still bothers me from time to time. That ankle works well enough for the day to day, but it is not and will never be the same as before. Other physical injuries I’ve had are the same. If anything, healing over time isn’t a return to form, it’s an adapting to changes of the system to keep going on well enough. Granted, some wounds do heal by fully disappearing, like a scab on the skin, and an indication that there’s still an issue there shows a problem that hasn’t healed. The wound is still there, festering. This applies to not getting over animosity and hate or an inability to build trust again with someone who makes every effort to build it in clear good faith. I say such things with no judgment. Some psychological wounds are the absolute hardest to truly “heal”, and the best that can be hoped for is a moving on that works around the pain somehow.

In any case, a change into a different worldview about love and relationships and what I want from them doesn’t indicate that I have some sort of temporary bleeding wound that will scab over and disappear. There’s something to be said, valued, and appreciated about this kind of change and how it’s actually a healthy move forward, not the opposite.


May these words make others feel accompanied and understood in their own developing heartways.

Gassho!

Heartbreak | Facing Death

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, and although the intensity of the thoughts and feelings have ebbed and flowed, I feel like it’s important to return to, even if it’s mostly to focus my own mind and practice in the writing. Beyond that, however, I hope these words help others. The words are dedicated to them, with that intention.


In my last post, I said: “I’m left feeling like, to steal a poetic line from said person, in experiencing life right now, I’m watching the death of my concept and experience of love as I watch the death of a relationship.”

Honestly, death is on my mind a lot these days. I find myself muttering to myself, “I hate my life. I wish I could die.” It’s so by rote that it almost feels like a script, but there is still weight behind the self-talk. Deepest samsara – when clinging and desires aren’t met – hurts greatly. That’s why so many coping mechanisms revolve around escape and altered states. It feels nearly impossible to just sit with the full intensity of these painful feelings.

I find it haunting and thought-provoking even after years, that Camus opens his classic work of philosophy, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, with “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Ultimately, it’s true – each and every one of us stamps the meaning on our own lives and has the ultimate say on whether it is worth living or not. Our approach to our lives is ultimately one that leans into mortality and affirms life as worth living… Or doesn’t. The same problem resonates, albeit somewhat differently, with Viktor Frankl’s famous “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He emphasizes that the root idea of his approach of logotherapy is that “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (supposedly a quote from Nietzsche, although it seems more like a rewording). The need for meaning is crucial in these existential approaches to the human condition. They are the key agency we have in making sense of our mortal lives and making them shine in the dark horizon of death (riffing on Heidegger and Foucault’s ideas of finitude in “The Order of Things”).

To return to the pain of deepest samsara, the meanings and identities we cling to the most, for me a future of partnership and family, are those that make life feel meaningless when they’re shredded to pieces (I actually wrote a masters paper on precisely this topic – the problem of the loss of meaning and the world becoming senseless after trauma). How do we face such scenarios? With Frankl, the loss of such meaning was a key indicator that others would succumb to the concentration camps. To Camus, it would mean falling into an overwhelmed despair in the face of the absurd, and if he truly is a follower of Nietzsche, would lead to nihilism – willing nothingness: choosing suicide.

In my darkest moments, that’s precisely how I feel – a pointlessness to my life, a wish for it to end, an overwhelming feeling like both myself and everything else doesn’t matter. The person at the core of my heartbreak recently reached out and told me she hoped I was finding peace in the end of our time together. That hurt so deeply. I wanted to scream. The only peace I feel is the peace of death: the death of meaning, and as I’ve described here, that is not any kind of peace that the living thrive in, quite the opposite.

Overall, however, I have long-developed self-care routines and the desire to do well for all sentient beings. These keep my strength focused beyond my own story, and they lead me to lean into compassion. For instance, I am kind to others I encounter, trying to be present and warm to them as genuine encounter. A contact at my local grocery store befriended me online recently, and I found that she has been in prison for a car accident and is just making her way back out into the world. Moments like that make my heart break and bring perspective to how much kindness and warmth needs to be cultivated and shared in this world. She thanked me for always being kind to her and spoke to others in her other job being rude. We all go through so much poor treatment and bad circumstances, even some bad karma from our own poorly made and poorly informed choices. We all deserve compassion. For the most part, that’s my North Star, when I’m not overly wrapped in my own story to see it.

I’m inspired by the path and the direction of the bodhisattva, aiming at a deeper engagement with reality. The new desire: working for the enlightenment of all sentient beings – a heroic and impossible task, that of wisdom and compassion. May that be my concern rather than samsaric worries about my own future.

I’m closing this off with three quotes that I hope will develop and connect these existentialist and Mahayana Buddhist themes.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus – “The Myth of Sisyphus”, p. 123

When a Zen priest who has taken a sufferer under his care has reason to fear that he is not equal to his suffering, he will visit him repeatedly. Not with the intention of relieving him of distracting worries, but of reaching his inner self. He will try to make him face his suffering by bringing its full extent and magnitude to consciousness. He will help the sufferer to see that great suffering is not overcome by refusing to face it or by surrendering to it in despair. He will warn him of the danger of allowing himself to be solaced, and of waiting for time to heal. Salvation lies in giving full assent to his fate, serenely accepting what is laid upon him without asking why he should be singled out for so much suffering. Whoever is able to bear suffering in this way grows to the stature of his suffering, and he detaches himself from it by learning more and more to disregard the fact that it is his suffering.

This detachment paves the way to healing, and healing follows of itself the more sensitive one becomes to the suffering of others, and the more selflessly one shares their sufferings. This fellow suffering is quite different from the sentimental sympathy most of us indulge in, which, easily aroused and quickly dissipated, remains ineffective because it is not selfless enough. True compassion not bound to words forges the most intimate bond between human beings and all living creatures. The real meaning of suffering discloses itself only to him who has learned the art of compassion.

If the sufferer’s ears and eyes are opened by this clarification of his state of mind, he will mark that neither flight from reality nor denial of suffering can bring him detachment. And if, thrown back on himself, he shows that he is trying to become one with his fate, to assent to it so that it can fulfill its own law, then the priest will go on helping him. He will answer his questions, without offering anything more than suggestions and, of course, without preaching.

For there is something that seems to him very much more important than words. Gradually he will fall silent, and in the end will sit there wordless, for a long time, sunk deep in himself. And the strange thing is that this silence is not felt by the other person as indifference, as a desolate emptiness which disturbs rather than calms. It is as if this silence had more meaning than countless words could ever have. It is as if he were being drawn into a field of force from which fresh strength flows into him. He feels suffused with a strange confidence, even when his visitor has long since departed. And it may be that in these joyful hours, the resolve will be born to set out on the path that turns a wretched existence into a life of happiness.

Eugen Herrigel – “The Method of Zen”, pp. 124-125

We are reminded again of Dogen’s description of his own awakening: “I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun, and the moon and the stars.” According to one Mahayana account, the Buddha was enlightened when he looked up from his meditations and saw the morning star (Venus), whereupon he declared: “I am awakened together with the whole of the great earth and all of its beings.” It’s not that every living being became enlightened in the same way that he did at that moment, but that his own personal awakening was an achievement of the whole. Awakening, then, involves realizing that “I” am not inside my body, looking out through my eyes at a world that is separate from me. Rather, “I” am what the whole universe is doing, right here and now.

David R. Loy – “A New Buddhist Path”, pp. 86-87

May this provide solace to those feeling the abyss looking back into them after staring into it. May you find that you take a leap and a net appears.

Gassho!

Heartbreak | Loneliness

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, and although the intensity of the thoughts and feelings have ebbed and flowed, I feel like it’s important to return to, even if it’s mostly to focus my own mind and practice in the writing. Beyond that, however, I hope these words help others. The words are dedicated to them, with that intention.


I’ve recently been going through an on-again, off-again, dramatic semi-relationship with someone who has excited me to the possibility of a future together and made me feel more alive than any other romantic partner I’ve had. The only reason that really matters as backstory is that something in the progression of this connection and its long, slow, painful demise has made me really sit with my feelings regarding partnership and compatibility. I’m left feeling like, to steal a poetic line from said person, in experiencing life right now, I’m watching the death of my concept and experience of love as I watch the death of a relationship. I plan on writing more on that in a second post, but in this one, I want to focus on the related feeling of loneliness.

I’ve been lonely in relationships for pretty much all of my adult life. I wonder if this is normal. For me, I think it’s primarily because I’m a person with some particular and unique interests. It’s hard to share space and life with a person and feel like you’re not connected on many levels. Perhaps, it’s because of my ideals of partnership which I’ve written about on here before. I really seek a deep engagement with a partner, not just sharing of space and time. With that, I tend to throw in a lot of energy and support that doesn’t get matched, which leads to more feelings of disconnection and even resentment.

Loneliness when losing someone who meant so much to you, loneliness even during the slow fade of such a loss, is much more brutal. It’s like the sun went down and isn’t coming up again. In a way, it reminds me of my recent post on the tarot where I talked about three cards being about choosing love, not being disillusioned and not giving up hope. That was a positive, can-do interpretation. It could be just as much that in choosing this love, I was moving into an experience of disillusionment and despair. Now, I think about future relationships, and I see little to no likelihood that I’ll find someone else with the compatibility and partnership I seek. In a sense, such a spiritual friend is rare. I’ve thought about my experiences and the statistical demographics of who’s out there in the world, and in all likelihood, the frequent pulls of the Hermit card in the last few months are wise counsel for getting deeply in tune with myself, my own wisdom, and my own solitary path.

With feelings like this, most balk, and tell you you overreact, even though they don’t have a single real counterargument to a logical and experiential breakdown. I think we’re given way too many expectations of ending up with a partner with an Aristophanes’ story of another person somehow complimenting us out there, just waiting to be found. There’s simply no guarantee. Just as there’s no guarantee I will live past today. When faced with that, people tend to react really strongly to protect this groundwork, existential desire. A co-worker recently heard me out and said, “I agree with everything you just said, but it makes me sad because you don’t get a happy ending in this perspective.” This shows that, ultimately, the standard paradigm is a wishful thinking fallacy.

Sitting with loneliness is particularly hard because I feel out of place in a very physical sense. I live just a mile down the road from the person, and this neighborhood is new to me. I don’t feel fully at home here. Everything reminds me of her. Everything reminds me of how I’m facing a future of being alone, not having a family, not becoming a father. These are all things I held much more tightly than I thought. I have been trying to patiently sit and look at those feelings and fears arise with as much peace as I can muster, but the Buddha was right: the things we cling to are really what cause samsara. It’s incredibly difficult to not react to such feelings without squirming and running to the next.

However, I think that sitting with all of this offers one of the greatest opportunities for spiritual growth, even though I’m barely up to the task most days or fail on others. I wanted to write about my experience after reading a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s classing “When Things Fall Apart”. In sitting with ourselves in our most vulnerable, our most tender, we cultivate the warrior’s heart that opens us to more compassion for all beings. In many ways, this time has made me more patient and open to others, instead of less so. This kind of healing and growth leads to warmth to life, even in darkness.

Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us–food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay. … Not wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is not threat and heartache, no punishment.

Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior.

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.

Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart”, p. 65-66

May these words help others sit with their most difficult experiences of feeling lonely and spur them towards compassion and wisdom.

Gassho!

Philosophy Riffing | Valuing Yourself and Sitting with Being Alone

I recently was trying to explain my thoughts to a friend in audio clips regarding preparing for a future of potentially ending up alone rather than with a partner and how one should spiritually approach sitting with oneself. I thought the audio clip was me at my best in terms of pulling together a variety of ideas from different sources and tying them together into something meaningful, so I wanted to share. It’s about 9 minutes long, so only jump in if you’re interested.

Consistency Through Change

Over the last year, I’ve had a few discussions about the phrase “It is what it is”. My friend took offense at this phrase because she felt that it’s a shirking of one’s agency to produce change, to drive, to control.

However, we don’t control nearly as much as we think, and ultimately, saying “It is what it is” isn’t passive. That’s because active vs. passive is a false dichotomy. Our actions in life and the situations we are involved in are far more complicated than wrestling things to one’s will or being wrestled into submission.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Taoism and Eastern philosophy more generally. In fact, the strategy of The Art of War fits with this in a lot of ways. The successful general on the battlefield isn’t he who forces his will onto a situation at all costs. That’s simply stubborn and out of touch with reality. That’s a way to get oneself and one’s forces slaughtered. No. It’s about reading the landscape, the opposing forces, the weather, the resources, etc. for what they are and adapting to make the most of the situation. It is what it is. The situation you are in is the one you have to work with. Honestly, this applies very well to my experience in project management as well: to get things done requires adaptation, flexibility, and a kind of poise that works with new problems.

I was recently thrilled to come across a book about Bruce Lee’s philosophy by his daughter, as I was immediately taken with the title: Be Water, My Friend. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages in the Tao Te Ching:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing
choosing what others avoid
they thus approach the Tao
dwelling with earth
thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with honesty
governing with peace
working with skill
and moving with time
and because they don’t compete
they aren’t maligned

Lao Tzu’s Taoteching, Verse 8, Trans. Red Pine

There are several aspects here I could point to in regards to what I’ve said about the poise of adaptation. Water flows; it finds the empty space, follows the path of least resistance, and it can even wash things away through erosion or the great weight of a wave. It nurtures, but it doesn’t press an agenda of it’s own over and against others (“without competing”). Water lacks a particular form but it always reaches its destination. We can see clear affinities here even with some of my favorite parts of Mahayana Buddhism in the “governing with peace, working with skill, and moving with time”. Skillful means and flowing with impermanence are precisely what we should aim for in moving with the ebb and flow of life.

Let’s compare this to the Bruce Lee quote that inspired the title of the book:

Empty your mind.
Be formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup; it becomes the cup.
You put water into a teapot; it becomes the teapot.
You put it into a bottle; it becomes the bottle.
Now water can flow, or it can crash!
Be water, my friend.

Bruce Lee, in preface to Be Water, My Friend

The emptiness within a form is reminiscent of the importance of emptiness in rooms, bowls, etc. in the Tao Te Ching as well. The emptiness makes the form what it is. The empty space is what informs the use, shape, and function of these objects/spaces. Being able to flow around through emptiness, through the openings in situations, is where formlessness adapts to the surroundings and governs with peace, works with skill, and moves with time, without competing. However, yes, maybe sometimes a situation calls for a crashing wave. Even the stories of the past lives of the Buddha has an adventure where he killed a band of pirates to save the lives and suffering of others. The problem is that so much of what we are taught is to always be the crashing wave – crashing against rocks without much forward motion, rather than flowing around them, even if that flow is a slow trickle. It is what it is.

I was truly inspired to write about this topic tonight as I read some of the Bruce Lee book, but I also did a reading of the I Ching for myself last night to help find guidance with heartbreak. One of the two hexagrams I drew was #32 Enduring. The book I have spoke to ancient Chinese perspectives on how one endures. It wasn’t the remaining steadfast and refusing to give ground that we might immediately call to mind. Instead, they held another facet of the skillful means and responsiveness in being like water that I’ve been trying to elucidate here:

In the Western tradition things endure because they are unchanging. The Book of Changes [i.e the I Ching] takes a different view. Things endure not because they do not change but because they do change: They grow, they evolve, they respond, and in this way they continue. The symbol of the eternal is not in the unchanging but the cycle, which a process of constant movement and alteration governed by principles of order. In a cycle every beginning results from a previous ending, and every end point is followed by a new beginning. What endures are not the momentary manifestations of physical reality but the basic principles that shape change and give it order and continuity. Analogous principles apply to the world of humanity. Change is inevitable: The secret to endurance is to make the changes in one’s life intelligible through principles that endure; it is to learn to grow continuously with integrity.

To endure means to keep going despite obstacles. Endurance is neither stagnation nor a state of rest. It progresses forward, unlike stagnation, and it keeps moving and growing, unlike rest. What endures renews itself and its effects through continuous activity. What endures does so through change, not in spite of change. Its effects are understood against the experience of change. We see this in the cycle of the seasons that continually renew themselves as the earth moves around the sun. The cycle of the seasons repeats perpetually because its underlying causes continue. Plants and animals grow and change as they endure over time. When they cease to grow, they die, and then they cease to endure.

The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life, Jack Balkin, p. 351-552.

While this doesn’t speak to the metaphor of water, it follows the same ideas of emptiness and flow that is the adaptation and change to situations. We flow around obstacles; we don’t stop and give up or flail against them to try to break through in the dichotomy of active/passive that we started with at the beginning of this post. No, the skillful way is to flow past them like water, maybe sometimes to crush them through force… Sometimes.

To return to Bruce Lee – his practice was one of being pliable yet ready to respond to the scenario. That’s precisely how one is pliable: responsive to the world, rather than reacting out of one’s egoic position. That’s the key point in all of this. There’s a balance of being soft and pliable yet having the right tension to move forward with the moment. Such is the way of working with skill, moving with time. Such is the way of endurance that progresses forward, moving and growing through change. Bruce Lee is another great example because he endured as a great warrior by training intensely all the time. This is how one harnesses change to continue forward: our bodies break down, so we must maintain them through the change of effort and nurturing. This is both the emptiness of form (Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”) and the response needed to live concretely in a world of that principle of emptiness. Ultimately, this pliable tension in a responsive dance with emptiness is wu wei, and such doing without doing is being water, my friend.

If you’re interested in these ideas and want to further consider skillful responsiveness rather than the egoic dichotomy of active/passive, I recommend starting with my post on Verse 63 from the Tao Te Ching and the posts that are linked within.


May this make you think about change, enduring, and skillful responsiveness to the challenges of life.

Gassho!

Morning Pages | Clinging in Emptiness

I wrote this passage in Morning Pages a few days ago – a practice I’ve been trying to work on again as a means of self-care and continued spiritual development. Personally, this passage really felt like a deep expression of the heartbreak I’m currently going through, but at the same time, it riffs hard on Marcus Aurelius and Buddhism. As such, especially after reading it again and finding it much more cerebral and poetic than the emotional mess I thought it was when I was writing it, I share it here.


Here “I” am. I’m not sure why I write that in this moment, but it feels weighty. Perhaps more accurately, it feels light. I have the slogan in mind to regard all dharmas as dreams (#2) [note: this is a reference to the Tibetan slogan practices of Atisha – a path and practice I’ve been meaning to dig into again. #1 and #2 both helped me through my dad’s passing a few years back]. That includes me. I’m not the same as yesterday, a week before, or 5 years ago as I just saw in pictures. What can I take from this in this moment? Well, it clearly indicates, at the least, that the worries I have now will change. They may grow. They may wither. They may be fully replaced. Also, my body will change – perhaps for the better with more exercise (and a better diet), but mostly, I will continue to fall apart.

What is there to cling on to when all is emptiness? Why am I clinging so hard to a particular outcome? And yet… It’s still worth hoping for. I’m grateful for this moment.


May this give you pause to see the flux of change that is emptiness – the lack of inherent essence to all that is. All dharmas are dreams. However, may it also give you pause to consider what you hold dear and why. I plan on writing more on adapting through change in the next post.

Gassho!

Tarot – Understanding Yourself Through the Major Arcana: Moon

I’ve been meaning to write about the meaning of particular tarot cards and what they can say about the spiritual and existential journey of life since a deep dive into the classic Japanese RPG Persona 4 Golden last year. Since then, I’ve been reading the tarot off and on, more frequently recently, for guidance through some tough times in life.

I think it would be useful to write about my experience with Major Arcana cards that have shown up strongly and repeatedly in my readings – explaining what they mean/have meant to me as I try to traverse the challenges of my life.

This time, I’ll write about the Moon card which has been a repeat pull in many spreads in the last few months.

The simplest way to summarize the Moon card is that it is a stage of the path that is a journey through darkness. It often is represented as a traversal of water between two pillars which represent some gate to beyond on the other side. The moon hangs above it all as the light through the darkness.

Often when people speak of this card, they focus on dealing with illusions. Picture this: you travel through the darkness with poor lighting. What you experience is skewed from the darkness of the night air. This is where perception is distorted into illusion, where imagination can fill in the gaps of what’s really there.

However, this card represents more than that. It also represents intuition. When you are forced to follow your own path through the darkness without your standard senses as being trustworthy, you have to trust your inner light, your intuition, to guide you. In some senses, this matches up well with the Hermit card.

Finally, the aspect I see discussed least: there is a danger to this journey. Going through the dark is no small task. If there are challenges in walking a trail in daylight (which there are), these are compounded in the darkness, and there are varieties of night creatures who can see and prey on you in the dark.

Ultimately, we could summarize all of these aspects by describing this as a journey that engages with the unconscious terrains of your life (water and moon as symbols) that you generally have covered over or are unaware of: a journey into your internal shadow lands or “Shadow work” as some might call it. In a very real sense, it’s a long dark night of the soul (although I don’t believe in souls). There is a danger of failure, loss, confusion, or a certain kind of self-destruction in traversing the darkness, but there’s also great transformation and wisdom to be gained in the journey and getting to the other side (a gate and threshold to traverse).

I feel that this card has come up for me time and again personally as I’ve had a lot of feelings and experiences thrown into doubt in recent months, and I’m even left questioning my concepts of romantic love and partnership. It’s a deeply existential struggle to truly look at such things and question precisely what they are and how you’ve valued them, possibly reevaluating who you are and who you will be in the world in the process. If defining relationships become a place of doubt and possible illusion, then you’re left with deep questions of what is real and who you are within that reality.

Thinking about this for this post reminded me of a hypothetical scenario in Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty” in which he discusses doubt through a thought experiment where he talks about a simple statement of “I’m living in England” but then imagines a slew of people coming in, telling him he is wrong, and offering proofs that that is not the case (§419-421). If this were thorough enough, your ground conviction in believing something to be the case would fall apart. This is the kind of illusion and doubt that one faces in the trials of the Moon, in my experience: the feelings and perspectives you’ve taken for granted without much analysis suddenly come deeply into question, and you are pushed to explore shadowy, unexplored realms within yourself.

To put it the most dramatically in terms of relationships, I felt resonance with a chunk of dialogue in a favorite show earlier today:

Liv: Why are you doing this?

Major: Doing what?

Liv: Making me doubt the only thing in my life that I was sure was real.

iZombie, S2: E4

This is a stage of journey that takes more resolve and courage than most any other. One of the only other ones that pops to mind is the resolve of patience for the Hanged Man, but this card differs, in that it’s a resolve to keep stepping forward with conviction, courage, and the willingness to face self-destruction for deep truth, unlike the call to resolutely accept and surrender to process with the Hanged Man. Regarding this, I would like to link a post on resolve from my other blog about post-rock. It fits well with the consideration of walking resolutely through the darkness.

Even though everything I’ve said here might have a dour ambience, I find few cards as empowering as the Moon card. There’s the real opportunity here for the fundamental investigation and hero’s journey to come through to great insight and growth. Being called to connect with intuition, face doubts, and throw your self-concept into danger are not things to shy away from. They are some of the greatest opportunities on the spiritual path and represent the greatest courage there is. This is the true vulnerability of the Warrior.


May this help others find their way through their own personal dark times.

Gassho!

Walking Along the Dhammapada — Chapter 17: Anger

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The key lesson to take away from this chapter that speaks to the greater spiritual path of Buddhism and The Dhammapada is that of self-control vs. reactivity. A wise, awakened one is liberated from the pain of as the Buddha puts it in the Fire Sermon the burning of the senses, passion, aversion, and ignorance. In other words, liberation is the extinguishing of clinging. This allows one to control one’s actions and act skillfully rather than being pulled along by our desirous and aversive reactions. This is the difference that’s listed in early lines:

Give up anger, give up conceit,
Pass beyond every fetter.
There is no suffering for one who possesses nothing,
Who doesn’t cling to body-and-mind.

The one who keeps anger in check as it arises,
As one would a careening chariot,
I call a charioteer.
Others are merely rein-holders.

The Dhammapada, 221-222, trans. Fronsdal

In other words, you can become liberated by observing yourself through mindfulness, letting go of reactions, acting well, and thereby becoming one who drives the chariot, rather than just being pulled along by the horses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This can be summarized in a term that came up in my other translation many times: “well-controlled”. That’s the aim. Ultimately, that control is liberation. It comes from wisdom, insight, and mindful engagement. Otherwise, we are just pulled along reactively by our impressions and reactions.

The only way beyond a reactive, conditioned, samsaric pull is to be ever wakeful, holding anger in check in body, speech, and mind. Liberation is and comes through holding the reactivity of conditioning in mind and then letting it go. It’s a seeing, releasing, and doing differently. Thus does one choose and thereby drive the chariot.


May this inspire effort to gain control of skillful action rather than mindless reaction.

Gassho!

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