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Living in the Light of Death

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gassho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.

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A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).


May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.

Gassho!

Kitty Meditation

Yesterday morning, I got out of bed as my alarm went off. I grabbed my phone from the dresser and turned off the relaxed reminder to awaken. I propped up some pillows in bed near the wall and prepared to sit for meditation. As soon as I settled myself in the sattva posture with my back straight, having just clicked another timer on my phone to count off 15 minutes, I heard a meow from behind me, around the corner.

Rei Ray, the gregarious, love-needy cat was excited to see me awake and wanted my attention. I almost sighed, as I knew what would happen next (she’s done this before): she would jump up on the bed, try to snuggle me, and if I didn’t respond, she’d meow at me or try to wake my partner still sleeping on the other side of the bed. For half a second, I pondered gently setting her down on the floor, hoping she’d get the message, but then I realized that my whole meditation practice is about wise and compassionate insight. Where’s the compassion in ignoring and pushing away such a being in need of connection with its family? How is that embodying the paramitas? Rei cannot understand any explanations that I’ll pay attention to her in a few minutes. She needs attention now. Beyond that, it’s not like when she interrupts my sleep or somehow otherwise reaches out in a way that impacts activities when I cannot pay attention to her.

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She may not look it, but this Katze can be quite the handful.

I decided that I should sit there in my meditation stance and pet Rei as much as she needed and at the same time keep her from waking my partner. So, I pulled her into my lap, and noticed my breathing as well as the feeling of her fur against my hand. I tried some lojong — breathing in the feelings of anxiety, lack, or whatever the kitty sensation may be that make her so driven for attention at times, breathing out peace, love, connection, and security. I looked into her eyes as she gazed up at me and tried to mentally extend a sense of calm to those inquisitive eyes.

The “kitty meditation” took up the whole 15 minutes, and although I didn’t get as solidly settled into the groove of a shamatha meditation, there was a certain just-sitting with the arising nature of a sentient being in need, and I feel there was more wisdom to be gained from responding to that patiently and open-heartedly than ever could be gained through strongly administering boundaries and standard practices.


May this provide you the insight on how to be flexible enough to be wise and compassionate when the moment calls for it.

Gassho!

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!

Respir(it)ation

Note: To fully appreciate the title and the topic of this poem, read about the etymology of “spirit” here.


Air brushes in
Rasping gently through
Tight passages
Winding its way
Deep inside
Lungs fill
Oxygen crosses membranes
Blood absorbs
*Thump, tha-thump*
Heart beats
And the entire body
Is provided life
Breath, air, oxygen
Spirit

What was moments ago
Outside, separate, part of the World
Other, inanimate, simple gas
Has, in a breath,
Intimately entwined itself
Into the depths of the body —
Life, animation, blood and energy
Respir(it)ation
Me

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Blood flow returns
The waste, the exhaust
Exchange CO2 for O2
— Lungs never empty —
Inside for outside
Outside for inside
— The answer to life’s mystery:
A chiasm between inner and outer?
Between Self and World? —
Air pressed back out
As diaphragm asserts
Body becomes World
As remnants of
Respir(it)ation
Are secreted
This is the great secret
No separation
Where does one end
And the other begin?

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: The Difficulty of Waking Up

Intention:
Tonight, I will remember my dreams.
Tonight, I will have many dreams.
Tonight, I will have good dreams.
Tonight, I will wake up within my dreams.
— Modified from Holecek, Dream Yoga

My dreams often go into strange places. A recent one rambled in many ways — across my last breakup, my hometown, home invaders, servants who looked like older versions of me, a daughter of mine (I don’t have any) in her 20s (impossible chronologically), vampire bikers, and an army of zombies and werewolves. Clearly, the familiar is mixed with the impossible, yet the mind skips along with the story, not pausing, not missing a beat. The question: Do we live our waking lives like this as well?

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As I work more on lucid dreaming, dream yoga, being an oneironaut, the more I realize how little of life is really lived, fully awake. Even in our daily lives, we float through our stories from one hazily projected attachment to the next, from one reactive entanglement to the next.

When this mode of existence comes so readily to us and is practiced again and again in our daily lives, is it any wonder how difficult it is to wake up, either in our dreams or in our “waking” life? Mindfully attending to this: just now. Pausing and really sensing. Letting the stories and reactions drop. There’s nothing simpler, but it’s anything but easy.


May this inspire you to explore waking up in your own life.

Gassho!

The Design

*Click*…
Right into place
The position of rest
Purpose relaxed
Yet poised
One click away
From action

The pen’s form
Serves its purpose
A design
Essence preceding
Existence
We seek the same
Purpose, aim, meaning
In our lives
Yet they remain
Always already
A design in progress
An essence unfolding
Both hidden and familiar
Emptiness coming into…
Emergence
Don’t grasp
*Click*…

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