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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.

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The Shadow and Compassion

Recently, my dreams have seemed more erratic and emotionally charged. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  1. I misplaced my dream journal for a while, and even though I don’t write in it that often, it seems to have had an impact on my dream recall. When I found it again, my dreams suddenly were more remembered when I woke again, almost as though my dreaming process appreciated its reappearance.
  2. Last week, I underwent a bout of sickness that renewed my sense of mortality — my awareness of impermanence and gratitude for health are currently sharp.
  3. Recent events have made this summer feel like a charged examination of current cultural and social trends as well as the human condition.
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about The Heart Sutra and, therein, about the prajnaparamita teachings’ deep yet confusing pronouncements regarding emptiness and the view of no view.

Those dreams I mentioned have been all over the place. They’ve ranged from feverish problem-solving of work issues to brutal violence. The most unsettling thing about the violence, to my waking, analytical mind, was that I was perpetrating it, and although purposeful, it was still violence of the most disturbing and vicious sort — carnal murder with a blunt instrument of someone who wasn’t even fighting back.

My analytic, waking mind reacts to memories of this dream by lashing back, saying “I could never do that!” and “How horrible!” However, this judgmental simplicity covers over truths I know from both my academic and self-reflective studies. Furthermore, I recognize this quick reaction to be an attempt to shore up my ego-identity to fit a narrative in which “I” am a permanently righteous being, always wearing the white hat without any aberration.

Here are some truths I know to the contrary of my ego’s simplistic, self-defensive narrative: I know that the greatest finding of social psychology is that people do strange things when in strange situations. Study after study, ranging from Milgram to Zimbardo to Asch challenge our understanding of identity. Beyond that, my studies of Buddhism and existentialism make me question any simplistic appeal to an unchanging thing as the core of who I am. Even the most introductory of Buddhists should know that this is a concept to be cut through with Manjushri’s sword. Another truth: I’ve gone through enough life and have sat with my thoughts for hours in meditation, both leading me to know that I have a great capability for anger. If anything, it may be my greatest personal obstacle to overcoming reactivity for pure, responsive, and compassionate awareness. All of my experience in academics and in personal reflection lead me to know that I have a Shadow (as Jung would call it – but without the intended hard understanding of the term with a Jungian “Unconscious” at play).

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Knowing the truth of this Shadow takes me beyond the ego’s defense, and I have nothing to do but embrace these darker, incomplete, difficult feelings, for which I have a propensity. Those are all possible ways for me to be and feel, but seeing them, however, embracing their possibility even, doesn’t mean that I have to act out upon them. If anything, it allows me to potentially move beyond them to the compassionate awareness I just mentioned. Recognizing and accepting our feelings without repressing them or enacting them is a way to understand the emptiness of who we are and our connection to all other beings. Recognizing my own dark, destructive impulses allows me a point of connection with even the most pained or hateful of beings, giving some small ounce of understanding to see those current perpetrators in our world and hope to better understand how I can communicate with them to help them get beyond their own darkness.

When I think of this, I inevitably think of the closing section of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is shown to share the face of all people in Govinda’s mind — even thieves and murders. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, and if you’d like to know more about The Heart Sutra, I recommend Karl Brunhölzl’s The Heart Attack Sutra. If you’re interested in social psychology’s findings regarding identity, I recommend this episode (The Personality Myth) of the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. If you’re interested in a more Buddhist take thereof, check out the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really AreFinally, to read more on dream yoga itself, Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek is a good all around source.


May this help you see yourself as you really are and help you reach out to the world with compassionate wisdom.

Gassho!

 

Shadow

Shadow
Wispy lack – a “no-thing”
Not solid, no entity
A lack, a hole – privation
It is where the light does not go
Not the opposite of light
Rather light’s non-being
Intimately entwined
A chiasm

The fact that existence
Remains always
A potentia – a becoming
And an unfolding
Not Static – Dynamic!
Likewise, our darkness –
Not a thing
Not a reflection of “Me”
Seen as more solid,
Stranger
And more powerful (?)
Rather, the wispy lack of certainty
That bubbles with our attempts
To solidify “Identity”

Just as Self is a construction
So is Shadow a dynamic engagement
Of Being’s Non-Being

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A Philosophical Knot: Un/conscious Agent

Here’s a rather philosophical set of Morning Pages. I’m capping it off with a quote from Wittgenstein to pull out one subtle allusion.


I hear the hum of vents as I sit here in the office this morning and focus. One astounding thing about meditating for me is the regular realization of how much of my experience passes by unnoticed. There is so much sound, smell, sight, sensation that goes by without my conscious processing of it. Perhaps the word “conscious” here leads us in troublesome philosophical directions. The problem with the term, as I stop now and really think about its usage, is that it is attached to the concept of a unified “I” that is the agent of consciousness.

However, if I drive for a while and suddenly realize that “I” wasn’t present for the last few minutes, does this mean that I “unconsciously” drove? This forces the familiar dichotomy of the unconscious as a secondary or, perhaps better said, primary agent behind the actions of the conscious agent. Philosophy then struggles with identity: trying to untangle the relationship between the two–are they separate? One conjoined and twisted Siamese twin?

Yet, we’ve presupposed a uniform whole in this agent (whether the conscious or unconscious one). We’ve presupposed an answer to the question of what/who “I” am in the analysis of an activity, thereby creating our own philosophical knot.

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If “I” am a flux of several different multiplicities, assemblages, compilations, etc. coming together in this moment, “conscious” and “unconscious” become much more dynamic and engaged in the activity itself rather than unanalyzed concepts of agency and identity.


115. A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.

118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

119. The results of philosophy are the discovery of some plain piece of nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. They — these bumps — make us see the value of that discovery.

123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”

203. Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.

309. What is your aim in philosophy? — To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

–Selections from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte


I’m not trying to tear down “I” or “conscious” as meaningless. I do, however, hope to point toward how these words become laden with confusion and theory. My musings began on how many things are unexperienced in my experience: sounds and sensations simply do not register in the awareness of consciousness (whatever that may be), but some aspect of “me” is aware of them and acts upon them with skill, as per the driving example. The un/conscious “I” does not necessarily need some sort of soul in the driver’s seat, so to speak, a metaphysical subject who lies behind those actions and is aware of them or somehow pseudo-un-aware of them (and the Unconscious rises here as a problem because if it is the awareness in unawareness, the one who drives without being “conscious” as I, so to speak. Is it another soul? Another agent that shares this body?). “I” am some sort of combination of processes happening at once, a part of the world around me, acting and engaged in it. This is described perfectly well with “I drove to work, unaware”. It’s only in delving into those words, looking for some deeper meaning beyond the general meaning expressed in their usage that they become a knot of philosophical conundrums and issues of metaphysics.

 

 

Thoughts without a Thinker

The following is another example of the things I write in my Morning Pages. Sometimes, it’s amazing what streams forth when the space and time is offered.


Another morning, three more pages… What to write today?

It’s interesting how many thoughts and feelings flutter in a quiet moment. I suppose the point is that they’re always fluttering by, but usually, we collude; we run along with them, often at breakneck speed. However, if you just sit for a moment and close your eyes, not “thinking”, thoughts will come rushing in of all types. Perhaps, part of the lesson to draw from this is that many (all?) of our thoughts are thoughts without a thinker. The mind whirs along, churning through content, but that doesn’t require an “I” to be there, actively making it happen. You might point and say that these are the products of the Unconscious. However, there are problems with that. Positing the Unconscious is saying that there is an unknown/unknowable puppetmaster behind much of our psychic life. First, the unknown/unknowable problem is one that is never clearly analyzed in the psychology and philosophy I have read. There’s a big difference. If unknown, it’s possible to be known, and we merely have to find the right way to approach it. If so, the mysterious nature, nigh on supernatural, fades precipitously. If unknowable, the Unconscious stands supreme at the same level as the supernatural. It is something that cannot be approached by any epistemological means. You may as well say that God has put these thoughts in your head in this case. It amounts to the same problem–the ineffable. F’ that.

Here’s an alternative–a way out of the fly jar, perhaps. Both of these are taking thought and thinking as having a thinker. It’s almost a grammatical necessity to have an agent at work with these terms. The Unconscious merely becomes agent when the more familiar conscious agent cannot be said to have “thought”, i.e. actively crafted these thoughts. However, what if thoughts arise without an active creator involved? What if they simply pop up and grow from the soil, water, and air, the ecosystem, of the mind? Then, “the unconscious” and thoughts themselves become radically different. Now, the problem is no longer to find the thinker behind the thoughts and unmask him/her/it. Rather, it is to learn to sit with the myriad thoughts in the mind and no longer water the nettles and weeds with collusion, attachment, and reaction.

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Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed. –Henepola Gunaratana, as quoted in “Wake up to Your Life” by Ken McLeod

May this help you sit calmly with all of your thoughts–without collusion, attachment, and reaction.

Gassho!

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.


Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.

Gassho!

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