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!

Story-ing

Here’s another excerpt from Morning Pages that got to the heart of my walk along the Path of late.

Edit (7/27/15): I’m adding the end of a second and a third set of Morning Pages (excerpts) separated by second and third horizontal lines. They are both closely related to this post and add to it, extending the depth of the questions and ideas presented here.


That reminds me of story-ing. I finished, “The World is Made of Stories” last night. This small book is truly a seminal philosophical work presented in a simple style. I’m pulled back into hermeneutic analysis again. It’s refreshing.

I’m realizing that some of the most sound advice I ever provided was when I told my ex to be careful with the stories she told herself. She had some intense storying and revising of history. That led her down the path she’s on now, and I’m not sure whether she realizes all of this.

I don’t say these things in judgment. It’s not that her story is the “wrong” story, rather a story. All of our understanding is an interpretation–a story, and as all stories are, it is one that interprets things in a particular way, thereby drawing particular consequences. There’s nothing wrong about this, but each interpretation casts things in a particular way.

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We all tell and re-write our stories about ourselves. There’s nothing inauthentic to that. It’s a coming to grips with our place in the universe–a making sense. However, we should be aware of how we are creating a “self” through story.

I’m starting to think of the stories I’ve told myself, and I think with time, I’m moving away from standard ones. I’m moving towards those of the bodhisattva instead of the individual trying to get conditions just right for happiness.

Does that make all of my reading and writing a sort of narrative therapy? Perhaps it does. I’ve been gaining particular story-telling skills, stylistic usages, archetypes, and genres to help me re-story my-“self”.

The interesting thing about this as pointed out in the book several times is that this story is about unstorying, not-storying, de-selfing. The Buddhist path is about finding the “no-thing-ness” at the heart of existence that is the formlessness behind form–emptiness. The emptiness is the Truth to our existence and cannot be storied. It defies the personal security of identity built up in stories.

How do we balance that with living a storied existence? I’m not completely sure. That’s where the path of study and discipline continues to lead. I look forward to discussing that with others who walk this challenging Way, who tell this unique and beautiful Story.


I suppose that you could argue that this (the previous part of this entry talks about just writing whatever comes to the pen in jotting down Morning Pages) clears the mind as well. “The Artist’s Way” described it as though that were the case. There’s something to be said for this–letting juices flow and getting them all on paper. However, I think that simple expression doesn’t always make idle thoughts/feelings go away/come out for good. If they’re part of a larger pattern, expressing them as important could reinforce them.

We are storied beings, and the stories we tell ourselves can get stronger and more nuanced with repetition. Individuation is pushed as a boon in this culture–our story. However, this leads to our feelings of separation and loneliness. It’s a never-ending game to assert “my” existence. Samsara spins here, round and round.

So, ultimately, although I’ve tried to write simply and without intention toward pre-thought ends, I have tried to avoid letting this just be a space to spill out all my “me” stories–letting it instead be a place to express the ideas and discoveries that blossom as words run across the pages. The stories we tell are the patterns that bind. I try to let this be a space that is free of those patterns, but of course, at times, I throw these thoughts/difficulties/stories that I’m dealing with on the page. Sometimes, there’s much more difficulty to write around them than to simply write them.

Can this be done from simple awareness? Can it be an identification of the thoughts and stories at play without continuing them? “Thinking”? Can one freshly see that these stories are arising without clinging further to reactions which spin the story onward? Can these simply be mere thoughts passing by without becoming sold as solid, enduring truths? Can we experience this moment without clinging to “my” story?


As I hear the music, I think of “stories” again. We truly write the narrative of our lives for better or worse, yet we can’t control all of the elements–born prince or pauper, in America or Africa, raised in a religious community or by a small family of atheists–we can only control how we write our reaction to these elements–how we weave them together into our story. However, we tend to either overemphasize “My” Story–the aspect of myself in it–or act as though my interpretation is not part of it at all, as though meaning were just cast upon me–pre-written. In other words, we often overlook this act of story-ing and how it works in our lives. We then overlook how our stories are intertwined with myriad others. The world, our lives, are made of them.


May this make you aware of the “story” of “your” life and the deeper aspect that cannot be storied.

Gassho!