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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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Meaning and Health in Life

Personal events in my life recently reminded me of how true it is that all composite things are impermanent. This is a famous phrase from Buddhism, and the unstated extension from science is that everything is composite — you, me, both as bodies and psycho-social-emotional identity constructs, even atoms: all of these are impermanent. I quote this line often as a piece of wisdom in relation to discussions with others, but it’s easy to overlook in one’s own life.

For Christmas, I went home to see my family. For those of you who have read my blog regularly for a long time, you may recall that my father died this year, and this was the first winter holiday season without him. In the time between, my grandmother has struggled with his death, and the loss has driven her into an assisted living home in her local hospital. I went to see her while I was home.

Let me take a brief aside to provide some personal background and a perspective on psychology and philosophy. A few years ago, I completed a masters in clinical psychology. The program I was in had an existential-phenomenological theoretical stance. This meant that we looked at human experience holistically with an emphasis on personal meaning and the flavor of experience, rather than reductive methods and techniques (nothing against those by any means). One of the first books we read in the program was Viktor Frankl’s famous work Man’s Search for Meaning.  This is a book by another Austrian psychotherapist who was a contemporary of Freud and Adler. In the book, he talks about his experience in surviving the concentration camps and what he saw in the psychology of himself and other survivors: he saw that these prisoners perceived a meaning in their lives, a goal to work towards that gave their horrors in the concentration camps a limitation, a transcendent reason of some sort. That may sound religious or profound, a “Meaning of Life”, but it doesn’t need be. For the author, his was that he was convinced that his family was alive, and he needed to live to see them again. Frankl references a line from Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”***

Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 847-848). Kindle Edition.

The prisoners in the camps who lost this future goal, the simple purpose of seeing life holistically as some greater gestalt with projects above and beyond the life in the camps, were the ones who withered away and died or stopped trying to not be picked for activities that would lead to their deaths. In other words, existential despair of perceived meaninglessness in one’s own life can lead to a nihilistic idea that I may as well be dead. In fact, on a greater scale, this is precisely one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns in modern culture as a whole — a loss of the values that have informed Western society till now could lead to a threat of a nihilistic willing of self-destruction. I’ve never seen it read this way, but we could easily read another famous quote by Nietzsche in just this manner:

“Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. ” – Jenseits von Gut und Böse – retrieved at Nietzsche Source

“And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks back also into you.”
– my translation^^^

We could see this as the problem of an emptiness looking into us, becoming intimate with us, emptying us. The line before warns us that fighting monsters leads to becoming a monster, and apparently, we can surmise that staring at the yawning chasm of death that an abyss is leads to us being either more abyss-like or more tempted to jump in to our death: willing one’s own destruction in seeing oneself as an abyss.

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Maybe looking down doesn’t have to lead to anguish and despair

Returning to my story: I was concerned about my grandmother right away after my dad’s death. I called her not long after to make sure that someone was paying attention to her and giving her the room to express her own feelings about what had happened. We usually had fairly long phone calls and talked about books, the world, and the challenges I faced in growing into an adult, but this time, the call was brief, and my grandma said something along the line of not seeing much of a point anymore to things. My therapist senses tingled with concern — she had no meaning. She didn’t see any future to her world anymore.

I told my mom to make sure that my grandmother was OK, and it didn’t take long before she had to be taken to the assisted living facility. I knew all of this when I walked in to see her over the holidays, but I didn’t expect the dramatic change, the marching forward of impermanence in such a brief period. It had only been about 9 months since I had last seen her, but in that span of a baby’s gestation, she had aged seemingly 20 years. She’s lost 30 pounds and a lot of her faculties. I recalled an ex girlfriend telling me that when her dad fell off a horse (his passion) and broke his wrist, he aged years in the few months it took to fully heal. Clearly a trauma, physical or emotional, can really shake the stability of older people’s lives, and as Frankl noted, the loss of meaning can shake one’s life so critically that it begins to fully unwind.

I’m not sure I have a solid point or piece of wisdom to share in this post. I could counsel you to be aware of the meaning that you build in the narratives of your life and to be aware that the structures around which these are built will end, and the meanings you currently have will need to be amended. This is normal — you’ve likely changed course and built up new projects in the face of your own future and death several times, but it’s something else to realize that an intense personal trauma may wipe meaning off the table to the extent that you cannot readily amend your narrative and your meaning. Perhaps, the counsel is simply this: all of us, and all things we know will die. The mountains outside your window, the oceans you visit, the cities you grow up in — all of these are impermanent, having risen and fallen before, and they will do so again. This also applies to the people you know and yourself. Try to find your peace with that and be open to finding your way in the world without those people and places if they come to a sudden, unforeseen end, no matter how difficult it may be. I say this with no judgment for anyone — myself, my family, or anyone ever. This is perhaps the largest challenge one faces in life.

May this bring new meaning to all those who read it.


*** The original line in German is: “Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” I would translate this more as: “One who has their own “Why?” for living bears almost any “How?”.” Humorously enough, Nietzsche ends the phrase with a joke that only the English strive for happiness, which leaves me with many questions about how Nietzsche read Aristotle.

^^^ Interestingly, Sartre also talks about the sensation of what is felt when standing at a ledge over a fall (I believe inspired by writings by Kierkegaard rather than Nietzsche, however). He describes the sense that you have the potential to jump, that you could choose to leap to your death, as anguish.

Some Musings on Change

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about change — personal change, how one changes over time both by choice and by happenstance. Honestly, this has been something I’ve thought about off and on over the years, as I studied psychology in school, but it has come to the forefront of my mind more in recent years due to my interest in Buddhism and the claims I’ve heard others around me make about how certain activities have changed them.

Actually, the issue came to a head a few years ago when pondering some others’ justifications for travelling. They spoke highly of how it changes you, but I didn’t see anything dramatically different about them. I started thinking on my own travels and my own life experiences with change. After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that we don’t understand well how change comes to be in our lives, and perhaps, that has to do with misperceptions of ourselves and our lives.

Change isn’t something that someone just has thrust upon them in a moment. One doesn’t simply see something, and all is done. I’ve been thinking of a good metaphor for this, and ultimately, the passive infliction of change from without seems akin to a wound that heals into a scar — a mark that’s made from an external force that is more or less permanent.

However, no other changes in life happen like that. We’re not simply some sort of soul/identity that is stained from without. We are bodies, processes, unfoldings — a human becoming, a developing person. An example? My dad died this year. The initial shock of it was sudden, external, and permanent. Certainly, but the deeper change that it’s had in my life has been a process. My brain, heart, and daily life are still processes of adaptation. There are stages to grieving, to making sense of the world again after a huge initial alteration like that. The event itself may be epic, but the change, the real impact is something more gradual. Change is like that — it’s a rebuilding of life, brick by brick, day by day.

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This is how our very brains work. If we learn a new skill, it takes 1000s of hours (and apparently, it’s even more complicated than just sheer hours of time) of practice to master it. If one studies neuroplasticity even cursorily, it becomes clear that part of how we adapt as organisms is by building new synaptic connections when we encounter new challenges. These enhance our abilities, our understanding, our skill — but they take time, effort, material resources, and energy. Such is change: it is a new coming to be, a new formation of the universe. Another example? Our cat lost a leg this year due to cancer. We had to amputate it to avoid metastasis. At first, he could barely move and was awkward as hell. We had to bring food to him, but over time, he started meandering around and now is even almost as nimble as he once was. This is due to his brain taking time to rewire many of its sensorimotor connections to adapt to his new situation in life. Like my first example: the brute change is immediate, but the change in the day to day life, the new version of our beloved cat, is a more gradual process, one that he’s still undergoing.

I posit that all change in life, meaningful change that impacts one’s story, one’s existence, is like this. It’s a dynamic new entanglement with different circumstances. It can be one of mastery, where one takes repetitive engagement with something to build a new relationship with it and with life. My own experience with travel is like this: initial experiences impacted me. They expanded my perspectives, but the honing, the real meaning of it, came with living abroad, with spending hours and hours of time with people from other cultures, and with learning another language. Most of the initial experiences have fallen away as hazy memories, just like most others that have not stood the test of time, but the efforts to adapt and master have changed me forever.

Sometimes, the change is more passive. A new job or a new situation carries us along, against maybe our interest or affirmation, but in those cases, we still adapt — living through the banal grind, as it were — and that changes us as well over time. The numerous hours of going through the motions can kill our resolve, make us cynical, one way of thinking about how we change into old age.

“What about trauma?” — you might ask and rightfully so. The event of trauma has an impact, but the ongoing efforts of the mind are where the change of trauma happens: the rehashing of the events over and over in mind, in its particularly intense experience with details that blast beyond any standard memory, or our minds’ ongoing efforts of self-protection through continually pushing the traumatic events out of mind. These adaptive engagements change our relationships with the world, and they change the wiring in our brains. The initial event is only complete in its destruction through the adaptation over time of trying to understand it, to live through it, and to survive beyond it. It presents one of the biggest changes of all — rebuilding meaning and trust in existence after all meaning that we had previously known has been shattered.

My point? Change is always an ongoing dynamic with the lives we’re embedded in. Traveling is just one peak experience among many. We could point to others: music, art, drugs, literature, religious revelation. All of these have their value for opening our eyes to new possibilities, but it’s not the eye-opening that is change, it’s the ongoing investment in (or possibly running away from — ongoing denial) the newly seen alternatives that changes us. It’s the time spent, the long-term relationship with these newfound discoveries, and the growing intimacy with them that is change. Also, what of the open-mindedness we have that leads us to these experiences in the first place? Isn’t that just as important to seeing something as new and exciting as the experience itself? However, ultimately, the way things come to fruition is through that sustained engagement. I can think of many phases I went through in my younger years that didn’t leave much of an impact despite initial enthusiasm. I didn’t engage with them long enough to build that loving or cynical relationship that is change.

Let these words stand, lest we forget that we are organic systems of change. Let us not forget as well how hard change can become due to the strong entanglements in certain ways of being, the ingrained patterns and habits, that we have developed over time. So much of who we “are” are these patterns that have developed: the fruition of change, karma. These are the ties that bind us, not a soul — some inherent personality. The deeper situations we are in, the thoughts we cultivate, we change and solidify into those. Most importantly, let us not forget that we are engines of change — we are not set beings, rather becomings. Confusion on this is our greatest existential balm but also our greatest delusion.


Peak experiences cannot be maintained, and when they pass, the habituated patterns and the underlying sense of separation remain intact.
Peak experiences may open up new possibilities, but they cannot do what a consistent practice or discipline does–instill a deep understanding that expresses itself in life. No quick fix exists. Milarepa, a great Tibetan folk hero who lived in mountain retreats, used to say that to glimpse what is ultimately true is not difficult, but to stabilize that understanding takes years of effort.

— From Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod

Today we understand from scientific research that the human body operates through chemical and molecular processes. By their very nature these processes are in a state of constant, even chaotic change at the cellular level. As mentioned earlier, millions of cells are born and die in each passing second. There’s no solidity at the core. But in our ignorance we live as if the body were solid and unchanging at its core.
The poet W. H. Auden has said, “Our claim to own our bodies and our world / is our catastrophe.” How can we claim ownership of something that’s constantly changing? What does it tell us about the nature of the claim? A deluded mind believes a manifestation to be a thing-in-itself, whereas Buddhist teachings point out that a manifestation is an event. A thing is perceived by the deluded mind to be solid and self-abiding; an event is seen by a mind informed by prajna as a resultant outcome of a certain process. To see oneself truly and authentically, as an event–an ever-changing process–rather than a thing-in-itself is the greatest act of re-imaging.

— From The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra by Mu Soeng

Priest Daokai of Mount Furong said to the assembly, “The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”

Mountains do not lack the characteristics of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk. Examine in detail the characteristic of the mountains’ walking.
Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The buddha ancestor’s words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. Penetrate these words.

— From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye by Eihei Dōgen (trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi)

 

Life, Death, and Change

Last night, I had a dream in which I went to the doctor and asked him to examine a deep groove in my skull – beneath the hair on the top of my head. It had always been there (in the dream) – a weakness in the shape of my head. He felt it and immediately became concerned. He started telling me that this could have some dire effects, but it was very unclear what kind of prognosis to expect. He sent me home, but on the walk home, I had a group phone call with him and my parents. He explained to all of us the potential medical difficulties that could arise from my particular brand of weak-headedness, and they were potentially sudden and fatal. He started explaining some of the most common and most severe difficulties, but as he started explaining, the phone connection dropped, and I didn’t get to hear any further explanation about what I was facing and what could happen. I felt that I was left hanging – uncertain and confused.

I awoke from this dream feeling pensive about mortality. In the dream, I had my demise placed right before me, but it was wrapped in a ball of “ifs” and “maybes” with no certainty about what would happen or when. The initial revelation of this felt quite shocking and scary, but as the dream went along, it felt much more subdued and distant. The question I awoke with was: “How is this different than day to day life?” I could very well go to the doctor today and be told the same thing – you have this weird condition that could be fatal, but we have no way of knowing. Isn’t that really just a metaphor for all the things that could possibly, maybe go wrong on any given day? Traffic accidents? Food poisoning? Random violence? A sunburn that gives rise to melanoma? The huge earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest? This may sound dramatic, but our demise is always already sitting right in front of us as a potentially sudden and unforeseen event at any time. We can’t really plan for it. However, we go through life mostly unaware that this potential  is always there. We live blithely ignorant of it – fallen.

To extend further – we don’t see that we are always “dying” already. I am not the same person I was a year ago (definitely certain of that!). You might tell yourself that you are, but if you really sit with yourself in this moment and then remember how you felt, said, did things a year ago, five years ago, in your childhood, etc., you’ll find that you are not the “you” that you thought continued through all these. You’re a changing set of conditions and experiences. I find this clearest when I think back to my ideas and projects of childhood. I was obsessed with certain toys and pursuits – building up so much and putting so much effort into some interest. Then a year or two later, it was gone from my mind, almost never thought of again except in this activity of retrospective examination. Where did that passionate engagement go? It moved. It died. It changed into something else. We’re always changing into someone new. From a universal perspective, that’s all the larger death that this post discussed is: “I” cease to be, but my body’s energy/matter goes back into the systems and cycles of the universe’s ceaseless unfolding changes – just as it already is throughout my life, just more thoroughly, completely, and intimately.

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How do we face up to all of this with awareness? How do we be present to the change that happens in this very moment and in all moments? How do we let go of our fear of death so that we can face it, face living, with authenticity?


May this give you new perspective on your relationship with death and change in your life.

Gassho!