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Living in the Light of Death

In a few days, it will be a year since my dad died. It’s been a very interesting and ponderous year. I’m reminded of the first book I read about existentialism, which explained the idea of an existential crisis in relation to Heidegger’s Being and Time as an event bringing a heightened awareness to our mortality in such a way that the experience of life is fundamentally altered for a period. That’s what this has been.

Of course, I have meditated on change at length prior to this. It’s evident in a large number of the posts here over the last few years, but being confronted with the situation of having to personally sort out one’s own story and relationship with mortality is different than cerebrally breaking down the sweeping, subtle, and slow changes of matter, mind, and heart.

Ironically enough, recently, I’ve been reading chapters in a meditation manual about meditating on change and death, and the writer/teacher emphasizes two phases to the sessions — one for thinking on ideas or images about change/death and the other to let the emotional depth of meaning really sink in and be understood, not just conceptually. This experience has been something like the second part of that process. For the last few years, I could have quoted on a whim a passage that struck me in the first translation of The Dhammapada that I read: “All states are without self*”, but what does that mean when a life ends? I’ve been slowly piecing that together over time.

I dream of him often. In the last few weeks, I can think of a time when he appeared in our lives again — a Doppelgänger, and I was the only one in my dream who remembered he had died and didn’t trust this imposter, and yet, I didn’t want to inflict loss on my family again by convincing them of the truth. In another, he wandered around a former city I lived in with me, but he had some sort of handicap and lacked the wit and mental acuity he had in life. I think I was imagining what his survival might have meant as a tradeoff, and it was tragic in other ways — “he” was still gone, but then again, all states are without self. Finally, I had a dream where he was a cold, heartless man, driven by greed. He was an ambitious entrepreneur, somewhat like the small business owner from my childhood but fully consumed by it as his only pursuit. He seemed dead to me in his cold grimace and methodical drive. This made me realize that there are other ways we describe people as dead — when their emotions seem to lack the humaneness of connection, of the passion and compassion of a beating heart, thumping out a song with the lives of others, always already around us. Just as change is a constant and identity is an abstraction, rather than an essence (“All states are without self”), we are always already born into a universe, billions of years old, on a small rock populated with other humans — as well as all their culture, history, language, minds, and hearts…

My dad in life was a warm man, very much unlike the cold, driven, hyper-capitalist in my last dream, but at this point, I don’t know how much more there is left of him other than the stories of those who remain. I hope to still learn from him like this in dreams and musings, and I hope that these thoughts of him continue to bring insights into what it means to live and how death is related to that living presence in this world. I can’t claim to understand what the process of life is about, as I’m convinced there isn’t some permanent essence, a soul, behind it, but going through all this has sharpened the sense of mystery to existence. In many ways everything has felt just as hazy and ethereal as a dream, and sometimes, I feel that I’m not sure if I’m dreaming of a butterfly or if I’m the butterfly dreaming of Z, so to speak, but I do as that meditation teacher suggests: rest in the looking — look in the resting. What else is there to do? I’m already in the thick of the mystery and there’s no way out. There’s only the ongoing path of being on the way.


A much more succinct passage from The Dhammapada’s opening chapter could get at the heart of all this much more quickly:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.**
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
– Chapter 1, (5-6), trans. Fronsdal

Maybe we’re better served by a statement about the nature of that mystery from The Heart Sutra:

‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’

– Gone, gone, beyond gone, completely beyond gone, great awakening.***


May this provide comfort and camaraderie to others who experience the mystery of being.

Gassho!

*The point of this quote is that everything lacks essence. Another way I say this, riffing on Buddhism, is: “All composite things are impermanent, and all things are composites.” Our greatest spiritual battle is overcoming an unreflective, ego-protective sense in which we posit some permanent essence behind us, an unchanging self. I take this quote to mean that everything lacks essence and that “the self” is an emergent process, not a set entity. Here are a couple other translations of this passage to compare:

“All things in the world are insubstantial.” – trans. Ananda Maitreya

“All things are not-self.” – trans. Gil Fronsdal

The second translation is particularly exciting because one could possibly see the way that the Prajna Paramita tradition of emptiness (shunyata) is already indicated in these pithy remarks, and this particular quote also points to interdependence — if all things are not encompassed as a static entity in and of themselves, they’re in relationship with everything.

**Most translations say “love” or “loving-kindness” here instead of “non-hate”, and while those are more poetic, I prefer this more literal translation. The word has a negative prefix on hate, meaning the negation of hate, not another word that means the opposite. Negation in language can mean a returning to zero, so to speak, and I think that fits the meditation practice and ideas in the early texts better rather than telling people to react in the opposite. One must let go of the clinging and reactivity that gives rise to hatred. Only then can loving-kindness be cultivated as a new relationship with the world.

*** I pieced this together from reading several commentaries and translations.

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Considering Connection and Lost Time

I woke from dreams yesterday, a bit confused, and lay in bed for a while to process the ideas and feelings mindfully, rather than hopping out of bed and forgetting them.

In an earlier dream, my family were all together, travelling, talking, and I spent time with my dad, catching up. A subsequent dream made the first a dream within a dream — waking up from the first, I remembered that my dad was gone, and my mom and sister were both completely lost, shattered, going through the motions of daily life, trying to make it through each one. My sister warned me not to talk to my mom about … something… and when I went to go talk with her, sure enough, she went rigid, cold, and mechanically started doing chores, almost knocking me over as she pushed forward in completing them.

This contrast and some of the associated emotional ambiance of the dream highlighted the emotional difficulties of grieving and letting go, how the process throws us out of our element enough to put us on rails of pain and heartbreak, and in my own case, it accentuated the abstract, almost surreal quality of disconnection. I mean — in my own processing of this event, recently, there have been times where something makes me think: “I can’t wait to talk to Dad about this.” Only a second or two later do I realize that that’s impossible. The few times this has happened have each been equally a moment of bitter realization; it seems the event is just too big, too much of a change of the structures of life for it to readily sink in at the new-normal operating level, even after a few months.

I think that this ultimately speaks to the one piece that I struggle to accept in losing him, the one thing that doesn’t fully digest: I regret not seeing him more since I left to college over a decade ago. There were years when I saw him not at all or only once for a few days. We were both too busy a lot of the time to readily keep up on the phone. Etc.

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That’s ultimately the problem with death, as the existentialists and Buddhists constantly warn us, it’s not operating on our time table. It can come out of nowhere, and it waits for us as soon as we are born. That’s why Heidegger sets the ultimate challenge as being resolute in the face of it, creating your life through your projects, seeing it coming, and knowing that it could pop up at any time. The mahayana path of Buddhism tells us to do similarly: start practicing now, in this moment, and be grateful for the opportunity of being alive and experiencing the truth of the Dharma. You have this one chance to lead a wise, compassionate human life. Don’t waste it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as mindful of this in my relationship with my dad as I could have and should have been. I feel like our relationship in the last few years is captured with “Cats in the Cradle” by Cat Stevens (I listened to a rock cover of it a lot in high school by Ugly Kid Joe). I’m sure my dad probably experienced me growing up and zooming off out of our small hometown at a more or less breakneck pace, and he was always just a bit too busy to be there as much as he would have liked, and when I grew up, it was the same for me — too busy doing other things and in places far away (so I experienced the inverse and see that now).

My point with all this is be aware and grateful of the connections you have in your life — both large and small. Try to make the time to be present for them. Reach out. You never know when your time or your friend’s/partner’s/colleague’s/acquaintance’s/family member’s time will be up, and if that time passes, there’s nothing that can bring it back.