Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way–Love | When Vocals and Lyrics are Used in Post-Rock

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I share many of the posts from that blog when I write them, as they fit in well here too. This one is about Nietzsche’s philosophy as an inspiration for an energetic/emotional stance towards life, for instance. At the beginning of the year, I 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.


During the last couple nights, I’ve posted some philosophical discussion recordings (which I call “philosophy riffing”). In my last, I spoke about many things, but one topic was struggles with reconsidering my concepts and experiences of love, including the extra layer of emotional/existential difficulty of wondering if it was all in my head for reasons which I’ll keep to myself.

During the time of dealing with these kinds of thoughts and feelings, I’ve returned to the two songs here a few times. It’s interesting that they both resonate with these issues but also stand as great examples of how vocals can be used in post-rock to great effect. I’ll include the lyrics at the end of this post but will also post links in the discussion so you don’t have to scroll up and down.

As a general overview, lets contrast some aspects to begin to preemptively load the discussion upfront. The first of these songs is more of a standard rock vocal style, where the inimitable A. A. Williams agreed to a collaboration with Mono. As such, it’s a fusion of their styles – the fullest, emotive chamber music flavor of Mono backing and strengthening the soulful voice and lyrics of Williams. The second was a request from Russian Circles to collaborate with the also inimitable Chelsea Wolfe after touring together. This song hangs as a coda to the album, taking up the refrain from the first and previous songs and transforming it into something both confused and poignant; yet unlike Mono/Williams, the vocals are also dreamy and confused. You’ll feel the emotion of it as another instrument of the mix, but you’ll almost certainly have to look up the lyrics to make out the precise words. So, in one, we see a harmonizing strengthening of the vocals and words to their most shining, lifted up by the instruments behind. In the other, it feels almost more like a post-rock song utilizing a sample, to where the vocals are infused into the instruments, making the haunting, emotive quality not reliant at all on understanding each word: getting the feel of the grief, loss, and doubt without being able to hear the concepts at play.

Now, let’s look at each of these two songs on their own. First, “Exit in Darkness” by Mono and A. A. Williams is precisely that. There’s a deep set of emotions that speak of loneliness, finding a matching presence in someone else, and the struggle of loss and moving on. Honestly, from the lyrics, I’m never completely sure with this song who has left who in the separation (although it seems likely to be the singer), and there’s also the sense that there’s not a clear break in the separation – that the singer keeps the other either merely in mind or is still contacting the other person, as she says: “I can’t let you be alone” over and over. For me, this song has resonated deeply with a being apart because of the issues of the two in the connection while also speaking to how difficult this is because of how strong the connection is. I point out my own reactions because I was a bit surprised in hearing another friend’s reaction to the song. She described it as a song to her about shadow work: going through healing and processing of unwanted and difficult emotions that have been repressed from the relationship or negative patterns that need to be addressed to grow and heal. I can see this take, as the loneliness and tension of some sort of disorganized attachment style of wanting someone but pushing them away but wanting them, over and over, feels like a red flag of something to be reworked, processed, and addressed. There is some sort of growth that needs to happen within singer and/or the other party in order for this connection to grow back together or for them both to exit from this darkness.

I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

Mono/Williams – “Exit in Darkness”

Whatever the meaning, it’s hard to deny how touching this song is. It ranks highly as one of the most emotional rock songs I’ve ever heard.

Russian Circles’ Memorial is a beautiful song of grief, doubt, and the edges of madness. It caps off the album, repeating the riff of the first song, with just the slightest shift, that had also been reintegrated in a much more massive, heavy way in the immediately previous song. This refrain – the theme of the album as a whole – is now fleshed out from it’s ghostly emotional exploration with the voice of the living, a grieving vocalist considering loss and doubting her relationship to that which she has lost. Her words feel like an existential grief as well – she grieves some part of herself that has died in this connection, and furthermore, she thinks not only on her own death in this transition but ghosts of the past that make her question what she did, who she was with, and who she is now.:

What sang in me sings no more.
Where stood a wild heart stirred no more.
There stood wild heart.
And I have been slain.
Head full of ghosts tonight.
Have I gone insane?

Russian Circles/Wolfe – “Memorial”

There’s been few times that a song about sadness has really fully captured all the layers of doubt, pain, and rumination I’ve felt. This one captures much of what I have felt in a few lines, and it does it in a voice that feels weirdly stable and logical, yet dreamy. It intensifies the feeling that these reactions are a haunting certainty that stands before us in life’s moments such as this that cannot be escaped. There is no “Exit in Darkness”, only an “Exit through Darkness”, one which challenges your very conceptions of who you are and what it might be to be with other people in the future. In some ways, this is reminiscent of the stage of a spiritual path that is depicted by the Moon card from tarot.

I can go through the lyrics and ideas, as I’ve done, but I can’t emphasize enough how much these songs are examples of post-rock’s style. The vocals are treated as instruments of their own in the mix in both of these songs and handled differently to work with this, and although I started with a brief description of this, I’m going to link the songs now and suggest you listen to them to hear the full effect I’ve described. The lyrics will also be block quoted below the song links.

How long have I been underneath?
The weight of all I’m carrying
For all my life, I’ve been the one

Who abandoned everyone

But I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

How long have you been hiding there
In all the shade and all the empty air
I could have sworn in you I saw myself
And all the questions that I ever asked
But I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

But I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

I need you to know
I need you to know
I need you to know

But I need you to know
You make me whole
And I can’t let you be alone

Mono/Williams – “Exit in Darkness”

I cannot say what years have come and gone
I only know the silence – it breathed on and in
What sang in me sings no more
Where stood a wild heart stirred no more
There stood wild heart
And I have been slain
Head full of ghosts tonight
Have I gone insane?
Was it wrong to go down
To want you to stay?
Head full of ghosts tonight
Have I gone insane?

Russian Circles/Wolfe – “Memorial”

Philosophy Riffing | Emptiness/Form, Fixation/Liberation, Language/Life, Love/Loss, and Trauma/Understanding

This post went through a myriad of ideas and sources, from Buddhist nuns in the 1100s to Camus’ in the 1950s. I love where this one went and am grateful for anyone who walks along in these ideas and cares to comment or reach out for further conversation.

May this inspire many thoughts and your own healing.

Poetry | Nostalgic Stirrings

I wrote this a few weeks ago for a friend. I can’t recall the prompt or challenge, but it succinctly captures some experiences and ideas I’ve explored on this blog in the last year – love, loss, remembrance – while riffing on a lot of references including posts I’ve written over years without any sense of name-dropping. In a way, it’s a short, poetic expression of my first intentionally recorded philosophy riffing post on my birthday last year (my most joyous birthday present to myself). I had a sense that my friend would never listen to that much longer description, and I think this poem did a decent enough job of capturing the same experience from a slightly different perspective now.

I honestly wasn’t going to share this poem, but I’m currently getting better from COVID, and I saw it on my computer randomly a couple days back. The words took me aback. Something about the feeling of growing onward into health and flourishing makes me feel like it’s an affirmation to share it, even if I doubt my own stepping out of the Moon card into the Sun card will be anything like the experience described.


Synchronicity, resonance in time
An abstract word
Until our heartbeats entwined
As though from plan designed
Ideas absurd
But doubting the experience – a crime

Together was a new understanding
Of life, of love
An explosion of heart
And the sense of flying high
Wings spread on the warm wind,
Gliding along,
Companionship of brightest warmth
Of greatest power

I held her once
Lying in the dark, listening to a chorus
Frenetic frolick of froggy frenzy
Spring’s promise

My heart-mind fell away
My body ceased to be
Universal presence
Hyperabundance – no longer her and me
No us, no separation
Just everything: love loving itself
The lightning bolt of flashing into being

The night was the most chaste
No kissing, fondling, or exploring erotic arts
And yet
An intimacy more profound
Than many ever experience

From time to time
Sounds – frogs, the wind, laughter, birds’ chirping
Resonate
And synchronicity momentarily returns
The beautiful sound of hyperabundant love
Playing the heartstrings for a few fleeting seconds

Philosophy Riffing | Ethics cont. – evil is mistaken choice, a challenge to that, virtue ethics and friendship/relationships, and choosing a partner

This was another meandering exploration of this topic with a payoff in the particular of our connections to others and how they should enhance our excellence. I take a lot of time in the first half of exploring the Socratic position on evil and my problems with it. There are also examples of the Buddha prior to giving the sermon on the Four Noble Truths and some further commentary on the bodhisattva ideals and goodness as well.

An aside: I wanted to include this brief poem by Yung Pueblo somewhere along the line, but I didn’t remember to place it anywhere in the discussion. Adding it here for it’s brief, beautiful resonance with the second half:

it is not love
if all they want
from you
is to fulfill
their expectations

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 12

I just found this other great poem when looking through as well.

when passion
and attachment
come together,
they are often
confused for love

Yung Pueblo, Inward, p. 24

And as promised, here is the link to the previous post I reference in the second half: Love in Romantic Relationships: Cultivating Self and Other through Friendship.

Heartbreak | New Resolutions

As I said in my last post, there’s going to be a struggle to feel empowered and on top of my path forward. At times, like in the last post, that will be the driving energy. At others, my long tail of pain and existential despair from this year will have the upper hand, and I’ll have to use that strength and courage to sit as calmly as I can in the darkness. The last week since that last post has felt much more the latter than the former.

I looked back through pictures today from this last year and realized that I spent pretty much the entire year sad, depressed, and heartbroken. The worst months have been not only that but riddled with thoughts of suicide, and the worst days in that have been battling against negative self-talk about how the world wouldn’t miss me in the slightest other than my mom and some close friends. I got a response to my last post that I am strong and brave and am beginning to tap into that, but that’s the thing – I’m not beginning. I’ve weathered so much pain and feelings that I’m meaningless and pointless because I’m so incredibly strong that even when I feel like I’m worth absolutely nothing, I still show up and try to do my best and be the kindest person I can be to those I encounter – most of whom have no idea how difficult of a time I’ve been going through.

I’ve talked about the why before – this all feels like a loss not only of a relationship but of love and partnership as meaningful pursuits in my life. I’ve spent the last few months seeing who’s out there, and ultimately, that doesn’t leave me feeling any better about the future. So, I’ve been letting go of the attachment to the idea of sharing my life with someone in the future. I don’t trust love anymore. I don’t trust that there’s a good match out there for me, and furthermore, I don’t trust myself. I seem to be attracted to those who don’t seem to see me or value me, so even if I did find someone who felt like a great match, I’d thoroughly doubt my evaluation.

So, here we are, at the cusp of a New Year, and I’ve decided that I’ll stop bringing up these bad feelings by looking through who’s out there on dating apps. I’ve only really been looking for friends or casual dating, but as I’ve scrolled through 100s of profiles, I can’t help but notice that none have sparked a deeper interest. I’ll leave my profile open so that others can perhaps find me, but I’ll stop with the effort on my end as the regular reminder seems to stir those feelings of apprehension about being alone.

I’ve struggled with this set of feelings for months now. At times, I’ve even thought of it in terms of Nietzsche saying that mankind would rather will nothingness than not will – his project’s concern regarding nihilism. I’ve worried that perhaps I have a nihilistic stance towards all of this at this point. In a way, I couldn’t blame myself. I feel like some big part of me is dead, and I need to amputate that to walk on with new invigoration. I do have some deep nihilism in my heart – I feel like something I had attached a lot of meaning to is gone, and as Frankl warns us, that sense of meaninglessness in one’s life is connected to a despair and surrender to death.

I can only hope for a Nietzschean great convalescence. At times, like in the last post, I feel on the cusp of it, and I think that willing something different is key, rather than willing the negation of all that hurts. As such, I will being a philosopher bachelor. I will that facing the absurd of meaninglessness pushes me towards greater wisdom about the interconnection of all and compassion for all other sentient beings. I will letting go of love, partnership, family, and fatherhood. If they find me in the future, great, but I will no longer worry about finding or building them myself.

I recently have been reading about Zen energetic practices which led me down a rabbit hole of the embodied energetics of chanting and the bodhisattva vow. Let’s take this vow up as the resolution for the new year:

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

from Soto School Scriptures for Daily Service and Practice, as quoted in Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts by Shohaku Okumura

May the impossible nature of the above aspiration inspire patience and compassion with myself as I continue to struggle with self-mastery and as I fall short of any intentions of doing right by those I encounter in my life.


May this post act as an inspiration or companionship to those out there who need it.

Gassho!

Heartbreak | Nothing in the world

I was recently spending time with a friend and flashed on a German song from years ago, half-remembered. I was driving us back to his place, and so I pulled it up on YouTube to play on the drive and amazingly, sang along, remembering almost all of the lyrics. It just felt so perfect for my vibe around heartbreak. I felt that I should translate it and share here. I love the opportunities to translate and share German on the blog, as seldom as they might be, and sometimes the sad, sad songs are precisely what makes us feel understood in difficult feelings. As such, I thought that others might enjoy it in that regard as well. The song is “Nichts in der Welt” (Nothing in the World) by die Ärzte, a band that had a huge place in my heart when studying German in my 20s.

This song is dark yet sweet and familiar. I showed my translation to a friend before posting, and she laughed and said this song was exactly the same as many things I have recently been saying about my process. I hope that others will find a shared experience in offering it here. The one thing I would say though… I loved her not because she was cruel, rather because I saw everything she was, including her darkest elements, and I accepted all of it. I don’t think there’s any deeper version of love than to see a person completely, accept them and yet still challenge them in their elements of not being the full light of who they could be, but maybe that’s just my perspective.

My translation:
It is over, and the sky is black because the sun no longer shines here.
It is over; however, I hope that that which separated us reunites us again.
It is over, and nothing in the world will ever make it good again.
It is over – if I could, then I would run away from my life.
Would close my eyes and would try,
To simply ignore my feelings.
I want to be so cold that everyone freezes.
Don’t want to ever fall in love again, in order to never lose again.
It will be a while more before I comprehend what that means:
It is over. I don’t know why – tell me what I’ve done wrong.
It is over. You have ripped my heart to shreds and thought nothing of it.
You are so cruel – that’s why I love you.
Although I know of course that you aren’t good for me.
My feelings are in and of themselves,
Laughably simple and simply laughable.
Because every thought only circles around the one:
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over; however, idiotically, I still want to be with you.
It is over – and I don’t want to comprehend: every person is forever alone.
Love is only a dream, an idea and nothing more.
Deep in the inside, everyone remains lonely and empty.
It means that every ending would also be a beginning.
However, why does it hurt so much, and why is it so difficult?
I let you go, even if it tears me apart.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, over, over.
It is over, and nothing in the world will ever make it good again.

Original lyrics:

Es ist vorbei und der Himmel ist schwarz, weil die Sonne hier nie wieder scheint.
Es ist vorbei, doch ich hoffe, dass das, was uns trennte, uns wieder vereint.
Es ist vorbei und nichts in der Welt wird es je wieder gutmachen können.
Es ist vorbei – wenn ich könnte, dann würde ich vor meinem Leben wegrennen.
Würd’ die Augen verschließen und ich würde probieren,
meine Gefühle einfach zu ignorieren.
Ich will so kalt sein, dass alle erfrieren.
Will mich nie mehr verlieben, um nie mehr zu verlieren.
Es dauert noch, bis ich begreife, was das heißt:
Es ist vorbei, ich weiß nicht, warum – sag mir, was hab ich falsch gemacht.
Es ist vorbei, Du hast mein Herz zerfetzt und Dir gar nichts dabei gedacht.
Du bist so grausam – darum liebe ich Dich.
Obwohl ich doch weiß, dass Du nicht gut bist für mich.
Meine Gefühle sind an und für sich,
lächerlich einfach – und einfach lächerlich.
Weil jeder Gedanke nur um das Eine kreist:
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, doch idiotischerweise will ich immer noch bei Dir sein.
Es ist vorbei – und ich will nicht begreifen: Jeder Mensch ist für immer allein.
Liebe ist nur ein Traum, eine Idee und nicht mehr.
Tief im Inneren bleibt jeder einsam und leer.
Es heißt, dass jedes Ende auch ein Anfang wär’.
Doch warum tut es so weh und warum ist es so schwer?
Ich lasse Dich gehen, auch wenn es mich zerreißt.
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei, vorbei, vorbei!
Es ist vorbei und nichts in der Welt wird es je wieder gutmachen können

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!

Heartbreak | Change and “Healing”

I return to the heartbreak topic one more time to just speak through some personal experiences regarding change and “healing” (I put healing in quotes to point to some difficulties in the concept which I will talk about below). I bring these topics up out of some frustration and insight in my own process and discussing with others. I can only hope that sharing these words here will make some others feel seen, understood, and accompanied on their own path.

Even before I was fully cut off from the person behind my heartbreak, I spoke to her and others about how dating others held little interest for me and how I knew it would be really difficult to find someone else who is what I want for a long-term committed partnership. She and most everyone else have challenged me, but when I really present my perspective, there’s not really any counterarguments to be made.

Here’s the thing. I have a couple decades of long-term relationships and dating women as experience. Furthermore, I have a background in psychology and data analysis, meaning I’m used to thinking of problems like “who is in the dating pool?” in terms of metrics and demographics. Over the last couple years, I’ve thought about what I would like in a future long-term partner, and for me, that means a high degree of compatibility. I have a solid list of what kinds of interests and personality traits I see working well with me in a way that I would feel excited to commit to, especially in ways that I see as being easier to work with than the problems I’ve had with previous partners. That being said, many of them are more like “open to my way of doing x”, not so much – “you have to do x too”, so they aren’t fully rigid, and I’m big on being a compromising and supportive partner as well.

It’s quite clear to me that a few of my marks for compatibility dramatically reduce the number of good matches to something like less than 10% of heterosexual/bisexual women in general out of the gate, and that’s not even factoring in aspects like age, location, availability, etc., and yet, people just tell me to do things like “cast my nets”, as though randomly trying with others will make them compatible or in complete ignorance/dismissal of what I know from my heart and a couple decades of experience is what I want for myself moving forward.

The funny thing in that is that in challenging a particular friend with a very logical, data-driven breakdown, she couldn’t argue, as she’s quite data-minded as well, but she replied that although she agreed, she found it incredibly sad because it’s a perspective where I likely don’t get a happy end.

However, that’s the thing. We’re told time and again that we will. That there’s “our person” out there, etc. That’s a very long-standing desire. It’s almost fundamental as an existential counterpoint to feeling your identity as a person in the world with the needs for connection, sex, understanding, and companionship. There are colorful versions of that deep in mythology across cultures, not to mention Aristophanes’ poetic depiction of it in Plato’s Symposium.

Here’s the other thing. That’s an existential security blanket. There’s no guarantee that there is such a person out there. There’s not even a guarantee there’s a great match out there. Furthermore, even if there is, there’s no guarantee they’re nearby, a good match in terms of age, or that they’re currently looking for a partner too. It’s tough to hear, but there’s no guarantee of a happy end for any of us. Truly, if you speak to many about their lives, it becomes clear that life is complicated with a variety of ups and downs and unforeseen circumstances in relationships. If anything, the guaranteed happy ending is a fairytale, just like we know that term really implies.

This mental shift for me – focusing on what I want, pushing myself to avoid stepping into a relationship where I just begin compromising so greatly out of the gate where I immediately end up sacrificing my wants to someone else’s, and enforcing boundaries to uphold this idea that “single > settling” is a big move for me, and it’s one I’m committed to. I’ve even tried to challenge my hypothesis by looking through hundreds and hundreds of dating profiles for my area online. Absolutely none of them have changed my perspective regarding how much of a needle in a haystack such a match would be – my sense of demographics and what I want is even probably more accurate than I initially realized.

Here’s my point, ultimately, with this post. This is a big change for me, and it’s one I intend to further, even if for the rest of my life. I’m trying hard to think of myself in a new light, a new role for my future. I’m trying to reimagine what I might end up having and how I can sit with it in the years ahead. I keep my heart and mind open to being surprised along the way, but I’m not going to run towards anything just out of the desire to not be alone. Even though that’s really hard for me and this is the most depressingly lonely time of my life (and seems to look out on a wide horizon of more of the same), I would much rather that than being in a relationship where I feel alone and unvalued with a person sitting right next to me.

Now, in relation to “healing”, I’ve received some critiques that my position will soften over time or that I will find the right person when I heal and go back to the old me. Honestly, I hope not – for one, because then all this insight and one of the only two big, meaningful experiences I’ve pulled from this time (perhaps I’ll write about the other sometime soon) feel empty, dramatic, and histrionic. That’s not my jam. Personal and spiritual processing for me has impact, it builds, and I ingrain such changes into my life. They’re not passing seasons. Maybe aspects of them lessen or wax and wane, but something remains to grow or be challenged moving forward. Ditching these insights for my old paradigm seems both against my more general approach to life and a step backwards into really unhealthy patterns. If anything, others should be hoping along with me that I don’t move back into that.

The problem with “healing” as a concept is that it’s often used in just that sense: some recovery of function that returns to the old. Sayings like “time heals all wounds” illustrate that idea. However, wounds can heal improperly. Function can return, but not the same as before. For instance, I sprained my ankle at 19, and it still bothers me from time to time. That ankle works well enough for the day to day, but it is not and will never be the same as before. Other physical injuries I’ve had are the same. If anything, healing over time isn’t a return to form, it’s an adapting to changes of the system to keep going on well enough. Granted, some wounds do heal by fully disappearing, like a scab on the skin, and an indication that there’s still an issue there shows a problem that hasn’t healed. The wound is still there, festering. This applies to not getting over animosity and hate or an inability to build trust again with someone who makes every effort to build it in clear good faith. I say such things with no judgment. Some psychological wounds are the absolute hardest to truly “heal”, and the best that can be hoped for is a moving on that works around the pain somehow.

In any case, a change into a different worldview about love and relationships and what I want from them doesn’t indicate that I have some sort of temporary bleeding wound that will scab over and disappear. There’s something to be said, valued, and appreciated about this kind of change and how it’s actually a healthy move forward, not the opposite.


May these words make others feel accompanied and understood in their own developing heartways.

Gassho!

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!

Tarot – Hopeful Guidance in Difficulty

Over the last few months, I’ve struggled a lot in keeping my spirits and resolve high while going through a lot of change and reconsidering my place in life and path forward, especially regarding romantic relationships. Tarot has been a way for me to pause and see myself and my circumstances differently.

I recently found one particular set of cards interesting in a way that I thought worth sharing, and their message was really succinct in a way that’s even more shareable. I was pulling in a spur of the moment, self-created spread — noodling, if you will. With this particular deck, it has worked well sometimes. Beyond that, I was drawing for insight on circumstances and movements above and beyond myself, yet in the midst of it, three cards came out together that were clearly meant as advice for me and how to sit within this greater set of events.

For framing, as said above, I’ve struggled reconsidering my place in life, particularly regarding romantic relationships, so much so that I’ve considered that I may need to give them up altogether and aim at being alone and strong in myself for good. Here is what the cards told me:

Choose love.

Don’t become disillusioned.

Don’t give up hope.

Given the context of the drawing, this advice is vague – not telling me to choose anything in particular or fight for anything. However, it felt like a balm for doubt and greater existential advice in general. It’s so easy to give up heart in the most unclear of personal times, but that’s precisely when it’s most important to recognize that the setbacks and pain of loss, regret, rejection, and failure are temporary and localized. I take it all as meaning the greater spiritual message of not giving up on putting your heart out there and trusting that compassion and kindness towards yourself and others germinates seeds of positive growth in the world, regardless of personal feelings about being jilted. In other words, this may be the greatest opportunity to work on seeing the value of being warm, positive support to others, the work of a bodhisattva, not worrying about the more personal, samsaric doubts and worries of my own personal narrative.

Then again, perhaps it is a more personal thing that will make more sense in months to come. I’m not sure — either way, setbacks shouldn’t stop one from having positive intention (hope not meant as pushing a particular outcome, rather as general positive belief rather than despair about meaninglessness). There is value in just acting warmly, choosing to love life, one’s fate, and those in our lives.

In any case, no matter what I make of it, I think this small, 3 part message is a great motto to keep in mind for anyone reading this.


May this bring you hope that engenders fearlessness.

Gassho!

Previous Older Entries