Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way — A New Cycle | Spotlight: Coastlands

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I felt it must be shared, as the song I highlight and the experience I had in the described concert really resonate with the last post I just wrote. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


This last weekend, I had the pleasure of a short road trip to attend the Post-Rock and Friends Fest in Portland, OR. I had a chance to see a few bands live whom I’d been wanting to see for years. I’m going to write two posts about this regarding the two bands that really grabbed my heart.


One of my favorite post-rock albums of 2020 was Death by Coastlands. Here’s what I wrote on my 2020 best albums review:

Prepare to face the destruction of death in this album. Coastlands goes full post-metal and crushes you without falling into the standard doomy dynamics that post-metal can get stuck in. It’s epic, empowered, and gorgeous. This came out near my birthday, and it ended up being a perfect birthday present.

Retrospective | Best Post-Rock Albums of 2020

Returning to this album a couple years later for an intensive listen brought so many new layers of interpretation and experience. The last year has been a long slog through a cycle of death for me (in the sense of facing the end of the old). My sense of who I was has died. My sense of purpose has died. My ability to stand up again, walk forward, and move on has been challenged, time and again. In that time, tarot cards have been a meaningful self-care tool for solace, insight, and a sense of meaning when things have felt meaningless.

One of the key cards in the high arcana is the Death card. If you are unfamiliar with the tarot, you’ll possibly pause with some trepidation at that, but Death is more than a card that says someone around you will die. It’s a card about the end of an old cycle and a transition into a new one. Life is a vibrant unfolding of change, and a key component of the new coming forward in change is the old ending and disappearing. That’s what death is. As I put it in one of my favorite poems in the early days of my other blog:

Birth, birth, birth

           &

Death, death, death

—  In every moment

    With each heartbeat & breath

A Human Becoming

Coastlands’ album overflows with this energy of change, empowerment, flow, and growth through the death of the old. Every song has heavy, crushing power, but there are major key aspects as well where the lotus blossom grows in the detritus at the side of the road (image from the early passages of the Dhammapada – a chapter with overtones of living well in the face of the transitoriness of life, interestingly enough). The dirge has just as much of a joyous affirmation. It’s a recognition that one’s going over is a going under (Nietzschean riff – early Zarathustra).

I know that this post is dropping a lot of references, so let’s return to the band and the album concretely – seeing Coastlands live emphasized all of this I’m saying. I overflowed with energy and intensity, and I was even more impressed after the concert when speaking with the bassist and realizing that the band’s sound has changed and developed in the last couple albums as the lineup has changed, and new experimentation and growth is already shining through in the little that’s been revealed about their upcoming album. They are harnessing the strength of a new cycle – transitioning with change, the blockages that the last couple years have thrown at all of us in so many ways, and other various challenges of individual and group lives. They take these and shine. That’s the opportunity of the Death card.

Two versions of the Death card – Crowley’s from the Thoth Deck, which shows the cutting off of the old, and a more current reimagining of the Thoth deck, the Wayward Dark, by an artist in Portland (hence the choice here)

I want to showcase the final song of Death as a share here. The song “Marrow” starts with a sorrowful chorus of voices and doomy guitar riffs with discordant static from the amps. It grows into a heavy crescendo of guitar and drums. The old has been cut off, and we’re to the marrow deep in the bones of the broken. Then the song shifts to a more pensive, flowing guitar on top of the heaviness it pulls us along beyond that first stage into something more, something that survives. That’s the true power in that marrow*. It’s the potential to stand up again and make something new.


*One last spiritual geek aside on Marrow – I can’t help but be reminded of the story of Bodhidharma’s successor, Huike, who cut off his arm to gain Bodhidharma’s tutelage. Later on, Bodhidharma passed on his “marrow” in recognizing the transmission of his teaching to Huike.

Lojong Slogan Practice: #1 – Train in the Preliminaries

I’m taking up the challenge of going through Atisha’s 7 point training of the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and will attempt to write a breakdown for every one of the associated 59 slogans. I hope this will add depth and a movement towards effortlessness, sudden meditative non-meditation, and well, healing for myself and offer a breakdown of each slogan in the hope that it will help others as well.


I actually wrote on this slogan a while back when writing about struggling with suicidal thoughts. That post had some good insights, but I thought it worth returning to this slogan with the purpose of intentionally grouping and setting off the slogans and to pay this slogan the respect it deserves.

Honestly, that in itself is easily overlooked. I have five commentaries on the slogans, and many skip past this in a very brief description. Pema Chödrön doesn’t even address the four parts of the preliminaries, and Trungpa doesn’t speak much further to them than that and tying it to guru practice, but in that regard he is right in line with the scriptural master, Jamgön Kongtrül. Dzigar Kongtrül, on the other hand, as well as Norman Fischer, speak at length about the four preliminaries and the full reason why they are crucial for us to understand in moving forward in Lojong practice. They are the mindset needed to cultivate bodhicitta and walk the path of the bodhisattva.

This slogan is the first and only slogan associated with the first of the seven points of mind training.

The descriptions I’ve read for this slogan break down “the preliminaries” into four parts. I summarized them in my own words years ago and still have the post-it note I used at the time to do it. It’s on my fridge (and is pictured in the other post). I’m going to take this as a chance to revise and express them again in the hope of capturing more nuance and empowering them better in my own words for my own understanding.

  1. Human life is an especially rare and precious gift; a human life able to encounter and practice the dharma even more so
  2. We here must die, and we know not when
  3. All action, speech, and thought are entwined with results: all action, speech, and thought are karmic
  4. Samsaric existence is one of dukkha

I had intended to really tie aspects of the Dhammapada into the last of these, but I just did it with 2, 3, and 4. In reading through these and thinking about how to present them here, I decided I think it’s better to reorder them for a structure of mindset, and I hope this will become clear below.

I propose we approach these in the order of 4,3,1,2. The reason to start with 4 is that it represents the entry point to the entire Buddhist path. It’s a marker that points to the first of the Four Noble Truths, and thereby all of the Four Noble Truths. Some summaries of Buddhism emphasize the importance of this teaching, as it’s the first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and it’s his diagnosis of the spiritual/existential problem of human life and the cure for said ailment – the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s his greatest moment of being a medicine Buddha, and it is accurate to claim that it is the summary of all of his teaching.

Furthermore, in recognizing and accepting the Four Noble Truths as a starting point, a practitioner should also be compelled to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which is key in moving forward with the mindset of the other preliminaries and the later slogans’ focus on bodhicitta. This preliminary is the starting point: one must recognize there is a spiritual problem to address in order to undertake the spiritual journey like the Buddha and become a bodhisattva oneself. Without this first step, the other preliminaries and, honestly, Buddhist practice in general don’t have much purpose behind them.

We should look at 3 next because it is another foundational basic of the Buddha’s teachings. The opening lines of the Dhammapada, not to mention most chapters throughout, emphasize that mind precede action (whether speech or bodily action) and that the results following the mind’s intentions match those intentions – either pure or impure. In other words, action, speech, and thought is karmic: it is a chain of cause and effect, and intention and view inform the cause and thereby influence the effect. In a sense, as karma is often expressed in metaphors like seeds and giving said seeds sustenance to grow through subsequent repeated action, we could summarize with “You reap what you sow”, but this also applies to thought patterns and worldviews – you strengthen them through repeated intention, thinking, doing, and speaking. This addition is what makes the Buddha’s teaching a bit more nuanced and profound. Hence, the concept of taming the mind through meditation and focus on ethics (i.e. pure intention and action) – meditation brings mental concentration, which strengthens the intentions and mindfulness to continually choose to enact pure thoughts and speech. Recognizing the laws of karma (cause and effect as described above) at play in our lives is another core realization needed to begin the Buddhist path. These first 2 reordered preliminaries are basic premises without which, one cannot even begin.

Now, let us look at the first of the preliminaries. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most in recent times. When struggling with dukkha in the most painful physical, mental, or emotional anguish, it’s hard to see life as a precious gift. However, the commentaries make it clear just how many animals are out there who are not human. This science article and graph makes it clear that humans are only a small part of the animal biomass on Earth. If one were to be any animal, it’s statistically unlikely to end up as a human (clearly, this plays along with ideas of reincarnation, but let’s just go with it for now). Furthermore, as we’ve already said, dukkha is the spiritual problem of existing as a sentient being. Human beings are the only sentient beings with the awareness and attributes to both realize this and work towards nibbana. Beyond that, one must be sound of mind as well for those attributes to truly apply. On top of this, it’s even more fortuitous to be born in a time where a buddha has realized and spread teachings on the dharma. Even more fortunate: to have access to said teachings – for instance, the Buddha lived roughly 2500 years ago, but his teachings only have become widespread and understood in the West in the last few decades. Even now, just being born in certain areas or cultural milieus might forever cut one off from the opportunity to encounter these teachings. As such, having the opportunity to take up the eightfold path and quench the suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) really is a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. Being aware of this capability and opportunity as rare and precious should spark inspiration and gratitude.

Finally, let’s look at the second preliminary. It’s easy to lose sight of how another set of Buddhist teachings apply to our lives: the marks/seals of impermanence and anatta. I chose “we here must die” out of a favorite translation of some of the early lines of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal’s translation). I’ll quote them briefly again:

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.

The Dhammapada, trans. Fronsdal, (5-6)

There is no permanent, ongoing “I”. Our time is limited. Standard Buddhist thought grew in a culture with a deep metaphysical background of reincarnation, but even if we buy that, this particular life could end at any time. I could die before even finishing this post from some unforeseen accident.

If we really take this to heart, we can understand the importance of authenticity to our existential projects in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I use this as a contrast to emphasize the motivation. In Being and Time, Heidegger posits that Dasein (human beings) live in a state of distraction from our own mortality. We live with the reality of our finitude out of sight and out of mind. As such, we are always already fallen away from our true potential for authentic revelation of a fully human life, except when existential crises wake us up to the truth of our mortality and we work towards it with resolution. This stance ultimately riffs on other aspects of ancient Western philosophy, even just summarizing it now, I can hear echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics in Heidegger’s position. The point in this summary: there is something to this. We don’t generally see that our life is always already a possibility that could shift to impossibility at any moment. We don’t live this way. To some extent, a full-hearted focus on mortality like that would make the mundane efforts of life inconvenient, but on a greater level, there is an anxiety of facing the big unknown of death in our self-distraction. This preliminary is telling us to remind ourselves again and again as groundwork for our spiritual efforts. Why? Like Dasein’s existential authenticity that comes through resolution towards death, embracing our impermanence, even the flux that there is no permanent self day to day, makes us see that all we have is this moment, so we must practice now. We must work on generating compassion and wisdom now. There is no other time, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have another chance to take up the precious opportunity we summarized above. Time is of the essence – the present moment is the only essence, and it’s empty.

If one focuses on these four preliminaries, the impact can be profound. It truly sets the mind in a different view. They act both as some key facts to set one’s perspective and some points of inspiration to put in effort. I had just started studying them when my dad died, and the fact that I had been focusing on these preliminaries for a few weeks beforehand helped me shift through that transition more gracefully than I would have otherwise. In writing this to better explain them all and inspire others, I find myself settling into the mental framework again for moving along to the next point of mind training. I hope you will come along with me.


May this summary explain why the four preliminaries are a crucial first step in training the mind and generating bodhicitta. May it inspire others to research this practice as well (I’ve linked books by different authors on this text above in the initial paragraphs).

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!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 11: Old Age

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.


This chapter feels very dark. The language ruminates on decay and death. It’s a visceral reminder of our mortality, a theme familiar from the other chapters, but here, it’s displayed in full gory detail. We can’t escape the topic with this imagery. It reveals the truth, no matter how we may try to cover it up.*

A question echoes in a couple early passages in why we take joy in this life, when we’re lost in the delusion of it all. In the visceral displays of mortality, I take the delight to be precisely that we don’t clearly see what it is to be a human being — an unfolding process that is impermanent, without underlying permanence, slowly decaying toward death. When we look at the bleached bones, we see ourselves and recognize that we should seek wisdom. To do otherwise is to grow old like an ox, as line 152 tells us: our body bloats but our insight into life remains small.

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Like the previous chapter, line 151 shows us that our actions upon others evoke reactions:

Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out.
So too does the body decay.
But the Dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay
[For it is upheld when] the virtuous teach [it] to good people.
-Trans Fronsdal (151)

I take this to show that like the violence of striking the bell reverberates, our words can plant seeds in the minds of others that can come into fruition. In such a way, the Dharma is propagated by each one of us, and as a planted tree can grow beyond our meager lifetimes, our insights can grow and blossom long after we are gone.

Lines 153-154 make clear that the path to ending the cycle of birth, old age, and death is to end craving. In these lines, craving is revealed to be the self-builder. It’s our karmic nexus that continues the process of “self-ing”, of being born and dying in the cycles of samsara. Ending craving ends the cycle.

To close out the commentary on this chapter, I wanted to return to the opening line about delight amidst the fire:

Why the laughter, why the joy,
When flames are ever burning?
Surrounded by darkness,
Shouldn’t you search for light?
-Trans. Fronsdal (146)

I find this line doubly evocative. First it reminds me that an early sermon by the Buddha is called “The Fire Sermon” and was delivered to a group of new converts who had performed fire rituals. It speaks of  perception as being a blazing fire and finding liberation by seeking non-attachment. While this passage is not from the Fire Sermon (I checked at this wonderful resource I recently discovered), it reminds me of that message. Furthermore, I’m reminded of a much later part of the Buddhist tradition in which a parable is presented in The Lotus Sutra wherein a rich man coaxes his sons out of his burning house, the burning house that they are in, blithely ignorant of, as they focus on their toys at hand. He does this by lying to them about gifts he has outside (see more details here). There’s much more that could be said about this parable, but I’m caught by the point that we fail to see the ongoing flames of suffering we’re already in and how our behavior keeps us sitting in them, in the darkness.


May this point you towards insight to age wisely.

Gassho!

*Once again, this focus on vivid imagery of death, our sometimes disgusting corporeality, and how all is impermanent resonates with similar passages in the Stoic tradition.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 9: Evil

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.


This chapter focuses on the negative consequences of unwholesome deeds: deeds driven by craving, desire, aversion, and ignorance. These are deeds that don’t aim towards peace and that don’t see the greater scope of the universe and our place in it. This chapter counsels us to act quickly in doing good deeds instead, as if one is lazy to take good action, it’s easier to fall into evil deeds.

We must remember that this all has to do with an understanding of the world and our lives as being driven by the negative cause and effect of karma. Remember the chapter on the fool: the negative results associated with an action may not seem like a big deal until they mature into full form. This is probably why it is easy to fall in the habit of doing evil: it truly seems harmless, as regret only comes much later in many instances.

However, the refrain of this chapter is that karma cannot be escaped. Evil deeds will bring unwholesome results, as will meritorious deeds bring wholesome ones. Furthermore, the bad karma of evil deeds will not only shackle one further to the cycles of birth and death, but furthermore, they’ll lead to worse rebirths: hell. Modern, Western Buddhism takes this as a psychological metaphor that one is reborn into ongoing negative experiences, painful ones, moment by moment as bad patterns strengthen through negative choices. This does fit with the shaping of mind as discussed in many chapters, especially the first, but I do think Buddhism in our Western, modernized interpretation does tend to wipe away the ancient beliefs that were part of the Buddha’s world. Perhaps the Buddha didn’t believe in such things, but I honestly doubt that, given the other literature of the early Buddhist canon. Shortened summary: I believe that these passages really do intend to say that you are reborn in a land of hell, rather than just speaking of psychological states.

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In contrast, positive deeds result in good results. This will lead slowly to better rebirths, and eventually, if we tame the mind fully and release the poisons and craving, we’ll reach Nirvana.

One of the most cryptic passages in the text so far comes in this chapter:

A hand that has no wounds
Can carry poison;
Poison does not enter without a wound.
There are no evil consequences
For one who does no evil.
-Trans. Fronsdal (124)

After reading this several times, I came to this interpretation: evil deeds wound the mind (remember the first chapter which introduces the path of training the mind and the subsequent lines that claim this is the task of the sage), and this wounded state allows the toxins to take hold. Evil deeds then cultivate a mind that continues to wound itself and at the same time open itself to the poisons which just wound it further: a vicious cycle. If a hand without wounds can carry the poisons, then a mind trained to a state of being fully healed, one well-steeped in meritorious action, will encounter the poisons (the metaphor seems to indicate they’re just there; they’re something we carry) but will not be harmed by them. They cannot take hold.

Let’s close this commentary with what I consider the best line of the chapter:

As a merchant
Carrying great wealth in a small caravan
Avoids a dangerous road;
As someone who loves life
Avoids poison
So should you avoid evil deeds.
-Trans. Fronsdal (123)


May this help you have hands that can carry the most toxic of poisons without it doing you any harm.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 3: The Mind

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.


This chapter is both very straightforward and yet also not quite as easy to fully pull emphasis and focus out of as the two previous chapters. This became clear to me as I wrote down notes to create this post. You might reply: “It’s about training the mind, silly!” Sure — but how this is done and how it fits with what has already been said isn’t quite as directly expressed.

I jotted down some notes to get the flow of the chapters so far:

  • 1st Chapter: General overview of the path and the task of walking it
  • 2nd Chapter: Importance of vigilance/effort on path
  • 3rd Chapter: Returning to discussion of training the mind — the key to wisdom

The first few lines in this chapter speak about the difficulty of training the mind and how the untrained mind is pulled along in the cycles of samsara by the temptations of Mara. The untrained mind is the mind afflicted by clinging and the poisons of desire, aversion, and ignorance — the very things we lined out as what we would train our peaceful mind away from in the first chapter. There’s an iconic image of what the untrained mind feels like in these first few lines: a fish out of water, thrashing about on dry land. Those seeking awakening make the effort to watch and discipline this “subtle” and “flighty” thing, which without training flits about to wherever it wishes to go. The sage straightens these impulses out, like an arrowmaker straightening a shaft.

These ideas come to their fullest in lines 38 and 39:

For those who are unsteady of mind,
Who do not know true Dharma,
And whose serenity wavers,
Wisdom does not mature.

For one who is awake,
Whose mind isn’t overflowing,
Whose heart isn’t afflicted
And who has abandoned both merit and demerit,
Fear does not exist.
-Trans. Fronsdal (38-39)

In the commentary on the first chapter, I spoke about how we were provided with a model that could be approached from two directions, and ultimately, both ends of this have to be realized to become awakened: wisdom and skillful action. The idea is that even if not yet personally experienced with the insight of wisdom, practicing skillful actions will cultivate the mindset that will allow you to realize it. On the other side, I discussed particular mental and emotional views that had to be taken up in order to realize wisdom. Now, we are given three key necessities for wisdom to grow within a seeker: 1) a steady mind, 2) knowledge of the Dharma — we won’t break down this term too in-depth here, but let’s take it as “the way that things are” meant in a deep, existential and cosmological sense (the etymology of this word has to do with supporting — i.e. that which supports existence), 3) established serenity. In the paired line, contrasting ideas are given for each which emphasize the wise worldview in action: 1) awakeness — a steady mind that is vigilant, 2) “whose mind isn’t overflowing; whose heart isn’t afflicted” — Fronsdal’s notes clarify that this means not overflowing with lust and not afflicted with hate; we should also mention here that if my understanding of these languages is correct, heart and mind are not distinguished in them like in modern Western languages, rather the term for “mind” as the title of this chapter, citta, is more like “heart-mind” which indicates an understanding of consciousness as a holistic experience, not divided into rationality and emotion as separate things, 3) abandonment of the worldly concerns of recognition of merit — ironic because “merit” is regularly lauded in Buddhist traditions, but clearly, one who attains wisdom sees the emptiness in such concerns. Finally, for such a person, wisdom has not only matured, but fear has dropped away, presumably this reaction drops when wisdom’s clear perception of the way things are takes hold. So here again, we see the mindset of wisdom, the peaceful mind that we need to cultivate, and at the same time, we see the actions of a wise person, the actions we can use as an example — letting go of the poisons, not concerning ourselves about merit, and keeping vigilance to these efforts — in order to realize it. Once again, the path is something to be approached from both ends of generating wisdom and acting skillfully. They are an intertwined process of training the mind with the act of vigilance keeping us attentive and engaged in the right manner.

The transition of “Fear does not exist” to the tone of the next two lines should also give us pause:

Knowing this body to be like a clay pot,
Establishing this mind like a fortress,
One should battle Mara with the sword of insight,
Protecting what has been won,
Clinging to nothing.

All too soon this body
Will lie on the ground,
Cast aside, deprived of consciousness
Like a useless scrap of wood.
-Trans. Fronsdal (40-41)

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We’re reminded that the body is mortal — the root of the greatest fear that lies at the heart of our lives: death. Presumably, for those who no longer have fear, acceptance of mortality and proper relationship with it lead to this fear’s dispersal. Furthermore, there’s a thread that runs from lines 37 through to this culmination in 41. Fronsdal’s notes clarifiy that a word he translates as “hidden” in line 37 literally means “lying in a cave”: “The DhpA explains that the cave refers to the heart as the seat of consciousness and to the body made up of the four physical elements (earth, water, heat, and wind)” (Fronsdal, footnotes). The first few lines of the chapter described the hidden secretiveness and energetic subtlety of this heart-mind, 38-39 provided a full description of one who has found it and trained it, thereby indicating how we might find and train it, and now we’re reminded of the stakes of training the mind. The cave in which the heart-mind rests is actually more like a clay pot; in other words, it’s easily broken and not long-lasting. In recognizing the treasure at the heart of the cave — the heart-mind — and its role in our path out of samsara, we must build up defenses of it like a fortress, vigilantly protecting it from being lost to the poisons of Mara and by clinging to nothing in this life. After all, we’ve just been reminded that this life is fragile and ephemeral. How would it be wise to cling to anything? In the blink of an eye, our bodies will be empty husks*, with heart-mind no longer in the cave as the experience of consciousness. Again, how would it be wise to cling to anything? As you ponder this, remember the lines from the first chapter:

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
-Trans. Fronsdal (6)

To summarize this chapter, if we are ever to escape the thrashing of the untrained mind, the flopping fish on dry land, we must cultivate a serene mind through vigilance and effort. However, like our talk on non-hatred in the first chapter, this is a path of letting go of the reactive poisons, of clinging, and of concerning oneself with things like merit — those are how Mara gets the fish to thrash. Serenity isn’t achieved so much by a doing, as much as a non-doing, a letting go of the reactive patterns that drive us so that new insights may grow.


May this bring you to see the treasure that is your heart-mind and help you cultivate its serenity and steadiness!

*Once again, all of the language here about the body being “a useless scrap of wood” as well as guarding one’s mind like a fortress resonate well with Stoicism. I could readily see any of those lines coming up in an entry of Aurelius’ Meditations. I chose to put this as a footnote, so as not to pull us away from the conversation at hand, but I feel Stoicism is a Western tradition that finds many of the same points of departure as Buddhism and deserves its own interest and study.

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.

Poetry and Life: “Stufen”

I’ve recently been looking for new bands which catch my ear and speak to my heart. I love post-rock, and it’s a genre that’s difficult to wade through, in the sense that there are a lot of bands that sound similar within separate subsets of the genre, and if you like one style, you may only have a few other bands that really speak to you, but finding them may take listening through a lot of other stuff. What can I say? I’m a bit picky.

In any case, I found a German band, Frames, yesterday, and was impressed with their album, “In Via”. The second song blew me away with a sampling of a poem by Hermann Hesse, in which he’s reading his “Stufen”, which I had not run across previously. Furthermore, this poem is amazingly apropos for me, as it speaks of how every stage of life is transitory and how we must go through them with an open heart of joy. Even in death, there are further possibilities for ourselves and for the rest of the world.

Here is a link to a site with both the poem and the full recording of Hesse’s reading. I’m providing the poem here with my own attempt at an English translation, which I love to do but have not had the chance to in some time. If you’re interested in just the English, scroll down to it.


Original German:

Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend
Dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,
Blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend
Zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.
Es muß das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe
Bereit zum Abschied sein und Neubeginne,
Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern
In andre, neue Bindungen zu geben.
Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.

Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,
An keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen,
Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen,
Er will uns Stuf´ um Stufe heben, weiten.
Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise
Und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen;
Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,
Mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.

Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde
Uns neuen Räumen jung entgegen senden,
Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden,
Wohlan denn Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!


My attempt at an English translation:

As every blossom withers and every youth
Subsides with age, blossoms every lifestage,
Blossoms every wisdom and also every virtue
In its time and cannot last forever.
The heart, with life’s every call,
Must be ready for the farewell and a fresh start,
In order to give itself to other, new connections
With mettle and without mourning.
And magic resides within every outset,
Which protects us and helps us live.

We should buoyantly stride through one space to another,
Hanging onto none as a homeland,
The World-Spirit* does not want to shackle and narrow us,
It wants to lift us from stage to stage, to broaden us.
Barely have we gotten accustomed in a circle of life,
And cozily settled, before enervation threatens;
Only those ready for departure and journey,
May escape paralyzing habituation.

Even the final hour will perhaps
Send us freshly towards new spaces,
Life’s call to us will never end,
Now then, Heart, take leave with health!

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Note: “Stufen” is more literally translated as “Steps”. In the poem, it makes more sense as “stages”.

* – Note: The “World-Spirit” is a concept from Hegel’s philosophy about the development of the universe’s consciousness (to put it as simply, and perhaps, overly ham-handedly as possible).


May this poem inspire others in making sense of the changes in life.

Gassho!

On Communication: Affirmation and Clarity

Two very different conversations recently have made me ponder the importance of being clear with your expression about your intentions, beliefs, feelings, or values. There are many reasons for this, so let’s build up some clarity around this issue.

First of all, from the aspect of discussing complicated political issues, I’ve seen some convoluted rhetorical stances that ultimately can only be called disingenuous. If you rely on questioning other people’s positions as being too partisan while hiding the fact that you have no problem with a highly controversial position, do not be surprised that your subterfuge will only result in complete disavowal. Any good points you may have had were used merely as a rhetorical ploy, so the discussion is moot. If you’re going to be provocative, be forthright about it — affirm it. Then, you can create real dialogue. That dialogue must be based on the truth of admission of what your beliefs are and what your intentions are: i.e. it must be based on a hermeneutics of trust to be productive, otherwise it always risks doubt and dispersal. In fact, that’s the problem with a large swath of our news narratives today regarding politics; they’re based on a hermeneutics of suspicion, looking for hidden agendas, secret agents, and conspiracies. There may be truth to such critical analyses, but the problem happens when this style of meaning-finding reaches successively meta-levels of suspicion: the people behind the people behind the people are the real instigators of some ultimate evil plot! Unfortunately, this is necessary to a certain extent (political scientists and myself do find plenty of evidence for seeing oligarchy at play behind many machinations in current events), but it can get to conspiracy theory levels sometimes — thinking of some of the crazy stories of the “deep state” I’ve heard in the last year or so.

TLDR: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with others about a political issue, make clear your values, beliefs, and intentions. If you try to hide them while you merely attack and mock, you will be ridiculed all the more when your ulterior motives shine through, and even if you had some critically amazing points, they will mean nothing. Affirmation and clarity are needed in a conversation among equals.


Secondly, I heard a podcast recently that told the story of an odd relationship between a distant, disciplinarian mother and a stranger to the family in a traditional culture (seen as odd by her sons). The story ended with sadness amongst surviving family members of two generations regarding the reticence of expression — the mother never told her son she loved him, and the son only told his daughter once or twice. Having recently undergone the loss of my father, it made me stop and ponder the things I wish I asked him or told him. There are simply things I will never know but meant to ask for a long time, now mysteries washed away by the tides of time.

This has made me realize that mindful, clear expression needs to affirm the fact that we all die and could at any time. This authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, if you want to be Heideggerean, should animate our language and interaction with those for whom we care. You never know if you will have another chance to say, “I love you!”, to tell someone to take care of themselves, to ask questions you may have held for years, or to resolve any nagging doubts from childhood. The chance to express, to question, to profess, to pacify, to let out, to let go in all the verbal ways possible, could disappear in a breath now, in the next moment. You never know. So please, make sure to reach out with your thoughts and feelings. Timing may be important, but life shouldn’t be lived as “Some day,” or “Maybe next time,” if you can say it now. Affirmation of ourselves, our values, and our purpose as well as expressive clarity are key to fulfilling intimacy in our connections with others.

With that, I’m adding three songs which have been pulling at many of the various feelings I have about my dad in the gamut of emotions that play through. Post-rock will always be the most expressive music to me for feelings, especially with no words to conceptually narrow the rawness. May it touch others’ hearts out there as some sort of clear expression of the depth of human experience.


Gratitude and Connection in Loss

I don’t usually make this blog about myself. It’s more about ideas, insights, moving forward on an ongoing path of wisdom and compassion. However, sometimes, what’s going on in my own life is key to that sharing – to potentially helping others find further progress and acceptance on their own. Furthermore, it’s healthy for my own processing of the confusion I’m going through.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had very few brushes with physical death (versus the death of an idea, a relationship, a period of time, etc. with which I have much experience). I’ve had pets die and some great grandparents who were not particularly involved in my life regularly. A classmate died in high school. A family friend or two died over the decades. Otherwise, I’ve been more or less spared. However, now, at 35, I’ve experienced significant loss. My dad died a couple days ago.

I’m not sure if I’m in shock or have handled this great life transition with a modest amount of grace. I cried and was upset for the first few hours after having heard but moved on to feeling grateful for having had him as a father and feeling grateful that his suffering was short and that he died, rather than surviving his ordeal as a debilitated shell of himself — I feel that may have been harder for he and my mom to bear than saying goodbye on a high note, albeit sudden and tragic.


Sighs, creaks, heavy heart
Yellow blossoms spring to life
Greetings at the window

The morning after, I saw exactly that – the yellow blossoms of spring that grow alongside the Japanese cherry trees. This was my first time seeing them this year, and I immediately thought of the cycles of life and death, of how everything comes to an end — and how it might be painful, cold, and dark — but in the end, something new comes to be. Everything that we see and experience is in flux. As Dogen, the famous Zen philosopher, described it — it’s all being-time. The ashes of the burnt wood are no longer the wood, but they are the subsequent state of change linked to but inherently divided from the past — a paradoxical threshold that shows the process, the lack of inherent essence to things: that point where the wood is not-wood and not-not-wood. In other words As Ovid said in The Metamorphoses (a title that in itself captures the dramatic changes of existence):

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (Everything changes, nothing perishes.)

Yellow tree

The same tree in my front yard around this time last year.


I’m extremely lucky to have had my dad as a father. I can’t claim that he was always great, kind, or insightful; we had our difficulties — as do all relationships. That being said, few people have had the quality of excellence that he had. I’m taking this opportunity to take some inspiration from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in evaluating that my dad had a happy life and that he was a man with excellent qualities which are rare to find, an evaluation that can’t really be done until a life is complete.

I’m actually lucky to have both my parents as my parents. They’re equally amazing but in different ways. In an odd way, they’re like yin and yang – my dad had a keen mind which tempered an overwhelming greatness of heart and emotion. My mom has a warm heart that tempers an extremely powerful mind. Through the cocktail of their genetics and growing up with them as my models and teachers, I learned both of their strengths. My dad gave me the emotional warmth and calm that draws many to me, generating feelings of support and understanding, and he also taught me that these depths of feeling are not weaknesses unlike our current understanding of masculinity in American culture. In looking back on my time with him and his life outside of me, I have so much more to learn from him still, whether he is physically here or not. As above, he’s still “here” just as a different aspect of the process, a different being-time.


Our lives are not written. We write them. However, as we write, our story takes shape, and certain words, plot twists, and styles of expression become more and more likely to follow. We create words, a story, a voice in the universe which shines and reverberates forth as an unfolding path of neverending light — ever-changing, dynamic, but with direction. Rather than the gloomy story already decided, the tangled yarn of fate as usually understood, fate is both defined and indefinite, deciding and decided, bound and boundless, free choices made within discreet limits and an open future limited by the karmic consequences of choice. It is the paradox of luminous emptiness and karmic interdependence.

– From a previous post: “Fate???”

The term “karma” is very misunderstood in common parlance. It’s not about “what goes around, comes around” or mystical mojo. It’s a succinct and insightful understanding that our actions, even our thoughts, have effects. The word karma in Sanskrit means “action”. That’s all. However, karmic theory emphasizes that actions bring about associated events. It’s not quite the billiard balls of cause and effect that we modern Westerners might hold onto from the scientific advances from the Enlightenment. Think of it more like planting seeds. Planting a seed doesn’t mean it will grow into anything, but if you plant it, water it, and place it in favorable conditions, that likelihood goes up.

I can hear you crying, “Get to the point, good sir!” Well, my point is: I don’t believe in anything like a soul. The entire universe is a constant flux. All composite things are impermanent. I think that the concept of a soul is an attempt to make us feel better about our egos no longer existing. In a sense, it’s a natural reaction to facing death with self-consciousness. Yet, my dad will live on forever. How so? His actions, his karma, will resonate through the universe in countless, myriad ways both subtle and immense. This will happen through the people he influenced and the people they will subsequently influence, through the choices he made, and through anything else he shared in his time here — both “good” or “bad”. This applies to all of us, we are all resonating instantiations of being-time, not objects, things, or souls, as much as a human becoming — an unfolding event of a human life that is intertwined with the entire history of the cosmos.


Raucous ribbits ring
Croaking Casanovas’ cries
Dark hides spring’s embrace

When I was running last night, inspired by memories of my dad to go running — an interest we shared, I ran through a sea of frogs’ voices, almost as loud as the similarly raunchy goings-on of a college house-party. It was thrilling to hear them crying out so loudly, so lustfully displaying nature’s vibrance — not even bothered by my feet clunking nearby.

These natural signs of change are quite meaningful to me in understanding the changes of life that are brought about by my dad’s death because nature was certainly his greatest passion. I can imagine him being just as awed as I was by the crazy cacophony of croaks that we lacked the wetlands and temperatures to hear in my home region. If he were a disembodied spirit, trying to console me (because he certainly wouldn’t want me to be sad or miserable), he would point to moments like the frogs to show me the wonder of the universe that is all around me, that change is an ongoing thing that brings both joy and sadness — it’s merely our interpretations of them that bring those feelings, not the cycles themselves.

Whatever he is now, whether merely an echo reverberating throughout the universe’s unfolding wonder or in some sort of afterlife I have yet to know, I’m grateful that this excellent person was so directly connected with my life and that he imparted his own kindness, heart, and wonder to me. I still have much to learn from my memories of him.


May anyone who has lost a close family member find their own peace and wisdom in these words, insufficient and cerebral though they may be.

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