Heartbreak | 2 + 2 = 5?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach this one. I feel compelled to write something, but whenever I think of what this post might be like, even in a vague, general sense, I start to lose it immediately. The basics are that I want to share the difficulties of my recent process. I’ll focus on that. This is going to be a bit raw and deeply uncertain. I hope in sharing this that others who experience deep doubt regarding love and relationships feel seen, understood, and accompanied. In fact, every time I post on such things, someone tells me they’re grateful for my vulnerability and shared experience. I hope this post generates the same feeling of not being alone in the dark – that is likely the only version of suffering that is not useless.

This post is one of two that I am making for my birthday as kind of a creative gift to myself. The other, I recorded last night (actually on my birthday) as a first attempt at a true podcast-style recording, more intentional than my previous recorded clips. This post is the dark, shadowy path of the emotional process. The other one is kind of a counterpoint – a philosophical exploration of love and my personal experiences. It’s sad as well in parts but was also a joyous discussion of ideas and life. May they both find the audiences they benefit.


I met up with her about 10 days ago. She reached out after a solid radio silence. I actually thought I would never hear from her again, as our previous contact felt like she was either annoyed with my existence or at least that it was on the edges of her life and goals, or she didn’t want to feel guilty about the clear pain that I have been going through. We met with the intention of giving me the space to say whatever I needed for closure, but ultimately, to me at least, there were more than a few edges that felt like justification for being cut out.

I came home afterward with an article of clothing I had lent her and had been requesting back for some time. I smelled it, breathing in her scent and all the ideas of spending more time with her. I cried.

The moment that really broke me in this meeting was me trying to explain the ongoing evidence of how powerful our connection is. How unique. How profound, and she simply brushed all of that aside and said that she has a stronger connection with the other guy. I took it in stride, saying something like “Well, that’s that then,”, and clinked glasses with her, but honestly, it felt so crazy, so impossible, that she may as well have asserted that 2 + 2 = 5.

Here’s the thing: I’ve had long-term relationships with a few people. I’ve had dating adventures and sexual exploits. My connection with her is unique. It’s something that has made me question some of my perspectives and experiences, getting me to much more fully believe in magic. We’ve had oodles of moments of synchronicity. I can feel her presence sometimes. It’s an intuition that speaks to me and has led me to shared moments. It’s fully bizarre and something that can’t really fully be put into words. It’s deep. It’s meaningful.

To indicate that some other person has a more meaningful connection, who from all descriptions, seems completely unworthy of that category, is so intensive of a dissonance with my experience that it really makes me question everything I’ve felt for the last several months regarding her. It’s like after all these conversations about said connection being told that those were meaningless or not true. It simply seems impossible or utterly dismissive. Something is magic or it isn’t. You can’t claim something is magic for a long time and then just say it isn’t. It feels like gaslighting – not that that’s what she’s doing; it just feels like it in terms of emotional impact.

Ultimately, if love, relationships, and trust therein felt shaky before, they feel even shakier now. I feel so incredibly empty, so deeply called into question regarding my values and experiences. I feel like nothing means anything, not in any way I can trust.

I’m going to share portions of a couple recent journal writings to show this set of feelings unfolding candidly.

What’s wrong with me? At the same time, my heartmind is shifting to not having her. It’s cold. It’s dead. Life feels completely dull, empty.
Video games are about the only thing that has engaged me in a way that I don’t feel this existential ache. In the ache, love feels a lie. Relationships seem a manipulative game.
What can I do? Just sit. Sit in the pain. Sit in the existential doubts. The depths of the life underneath me opens. It may destroy my understanding of who I am and how that person lives and loves with others, but anything less than finding my way through this experience would be denying it and covering it over. The moon card. With gratitude.

Another from the day before my birthday this week:

One more day till b-day! I don’t really want to celebrate this year, to be honest. I feel generally like a failure and unlovable. Furthermore, I feel like love may not even be out there or trustworthy if I find it.
I sit with the feelings but they are deep and ongoing. I take care of myself and push forward with resolve and renewed focus on sitting and letting go, but it’s hard to grieve, and it’s hard to unravel a deep love and stories about yourself.
Something about this time is sending my mind into loops about how things could have gone differently, and it has plenty of room to whirl with these thoughts often.
I hate when the hard edges of anger come up in the process. It’s seldom — almost completely despair, but anger feels so much worse and ultimately far more pointless other than bolstering self-righteousness and a closed heart rather than empathy. I prefer the vulnerability and empathy. With gratitude.

At this point, that’s kind of where this has to end. This process unfolds. The opening to vulnerable, existential doubt is a sitting that I’m still in. The one really interesting overlap there that I’ll point out: I don’t believe in astrology, but I do hold an open mind about it as another interesting perspective to consider, rather than dismissing out of hand. Sometimes it seems quite insightful, and that can at least push questions, rather than give answers. I have been using an app called “The Pattern”. It provides “patterns” of the influences in your life, supposedly based on astrology, although unlike other astrology apps it doesn’t line out signs or planets, etc. Anyhow, I’m currently in a pattern that lasts almost two years which is supposed to challenge me deeply. They’ve called it “Mission Realignment”. The timing of events and the description are quite accurate and leave me pondering it as things I’m encountering on the path right now, even just as food for thought for breaking down current ego stories for new ones (I struggle with things being called “destiny” – maybe karma?). There’s so much of this that points to practicing harder to overcome the suffering of samsara as well as solid advice about just sitting in the difficult times and difficult emotions of life.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime period, during which you’ll face events designed to take you deeper.
It’s a period of intense activation. Events and experiences beyond your control may challenge your idea of who you are and help you align with your intended path.
You may feel like your deepest fears are surfacing, possibly believing that you’ll never reach your destiny. Or maybe it’s a general feeling that something crucial feels missing from your life and you’re being made aware of it.
You might imagine worst-case scenarios, worrying that you’ll be stuck living an unfulfilled life or never get what you want. You may be experiencing feelings and circumstances you’ve never felt or known before.
In this period of transformation, you’re being taken where you’re intended to go – but you can’t get to your future without going through this underworld initiation.
This energy takes you to a deeper level, forcing you to shed parts of yourself that are no longer necessary. You’re facing any shadow or unconscious behavior and uncovering anything you’ve kept hidden and repressed.
These issues are holding you back from aligning with who you are and they need to be dealt with in order to move on. It can be uncomfortable, painful, and trying, but the intention of this time is to overwhelm ordinary reality and cause you to question everything you hold to be true.
You may feel motivated to take a much deeper look at your life in the world. There could be a sense that things are getting out of control and buried secrets are being exposed or need to be revealed.
You might start to feel that your life is merely being lived on the surface, like there’s something inauthentic about it and you’re disconnected from your true instincts and genuine feelings.
It can seem like an immense gravitational force is making you look inward. On the extreme end, it might appear that everything you know is being destroyed and your entire identity is being dismantled.
In response you might have a desire to overturn ordinary reality or even wreck it as a way to speed up your transformation and growth.
You may have to face a situation that you can’t change or solve. Your will, strength, and logic don’t seem to help, and you can’t detach from it or pretend doesn’t matter.
You try, but you may feel like you can’t escape your fears and the feelings that are emerging. But you’re being taken out of your depth for a reason. What seems random and chaotic is, in fact, a set of instructions for self-development.
You’re overwhelmed because it feels impossible to do anything to make it better – so don’t try; instead, surrender to what you’re feeling.
This isn’t personal – you haven’t done anything wrong; this transformation is intentional. You’re being asked to courageously experience all the feelings and circumstances that arise without being able to control the outcome.
It’s a time to embrace the irrational and allow yourself to really feel, even if it’s fear, anger, or confusion. You’re being forced to sit with deeply buried emotions, and there’s no need to do anything but feel them.
This time may seem irrational and intense, but it’s an important initiation – freeing you in order to reach your destiny. If you consciously choose to participate, you’ll emerge stronger and more empowered.
You’re learning what it’s like to start from scratch and build yourself anew. In a spiritual sense, you may have to die to be reborn. Let go of any expectations and simply give in to your experiences.

The Pattern app – Timing

Another way to think of that – a combination of the Hermit, Moon, and Hanged Man cards, the three main cards that have continually appeared for me over the last few months, with just a pinch of the Strength card as well.


May this post make others feel seen and accompanied in the deep meaninglessness of heartbreak.

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!

Heartbreak | Loneliness

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.


I’ve recently been going through an on-again, off-again, dramatic semi-relationship with someone who has excited me to the possibility of a future together and made me feel more alive than any other romantic partner I’ve had. The only reason that really matters as backstory is that something in the progression of this connection and its long, slow, painful demise has made me really sit with my feelings regarding partnership and compatibility. 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. I plan on writing more on that in a second post, but in this one, I want to focus on the related feeling of loneliness.

I’ve been lonely in relationships for pretty much all of my adult life. I wonder if this is normal. For me, I think it’s primarily because I’m a person with some particular and unique interests. It’s hard to share space and life with a person and feel like you’re not connected on many levels. Perhaps, it’s because of my ideals of partnership which I’ve written about on here before. I really seek a deep engagement with a partner, not just sharing of space and time. With that, I tend to throw in a lot of energy and support that doesn’t get matched, which leads to more feelings of disconnection and even resentment.

Loneliness when losing someone who meant so much to you, loneliness even during the slow fade of such a loss, is much more brutal. It’s like the sun went down and isn’t coming up again. In a way, it reminds me of my recent post on the tarot where I talked about three cards being about choosing love, not being disillusioned and not giving up hope. That was a positive, can-do interpretation. It could be just as much that in choosing this love, I was moving into an experience of disillusionment and despair. Now, I think about future relationships, and I see little to no likelihood that I’ll find someone else with the compatibility and partnership I seek. In a sense, such a spiritual friend is rare. I’ve thought about my experiences and the statistical demographics of who’s out there in the world, and in all likelihood, the frequent pulls of the Hermit card in the last few months are wise counsel for getting deeply in tune with myself, my own wisdom, and my own solitary path.

With feelings like this, most balk, and tell you you overreact, even though they don’t have a single real counterargument to a logical and experiential breakdown. I think we’re given way too many expectations of ending up with a partner with an Aristophanes’ story of another person somehow complimenting us out there, just waiting to be found. There’s simply no guarantee. Just as there’s no guarantee I will live past today. When faced with that, people tend to react really strongly to protect this groundwork, existential desire. A co-worker recently heard me out and said, “I agree with everything you just said, but it makes me sad because you don’t get a happy ending in this perspective.” This shows that, ultimately, the standard paradigm is a wishful thinking fallacy.

Sitting with loneliness is particularly hard because I feel out of place in a very physical sense. I live just a mile down the road from the person, and this neighborhood is new to me. I don’t feel fully at home here. Everything reminds me of her. Everything reminds me of how I’m facing a future of being alone, not having a family, not becoming a father. These are all things I held much more tightly than I thought. I have been trying to patiently sit and look at those feelings and fears arise with as much peace as I can muster, but the Buddha was right: the things we cling to are really what cause samsara. It’s incredibly difficult to not react to such feelings without squirming and running to the next.

However, I think that sitting with all of this offers one of the greatest opportunities for spiritual growth, even though I’m barely up to the task most days or fail on others. I wanted to write about my experience after reading a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s classing “When Things Fall Apart”. In sitting with ourselves in our most vulnerable, our most tender, we cultivate the warrior’s heart that opens us to more compassion for all beings. In many ways, this time has made me more patient and open to others, instead of less so. This kind of healing and growth leads to warmth to life, even in darkness.

Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us–food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay. … Not wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.

Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is not threat and heartache, no punishment.

Cool loneliness doesn’t provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior.

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.

Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart”, p. 65-66

May these words help others sit with their most difficult experiences of feeling lonely and spur them towards compassion and wisdom.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 10: The Rod/Violence

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.


In my commentaries, I’ve tried to focus on the Buddha’s proposed practice, one which might be called a cognitive-behavioral approach of sorts, of reframing one’s mind as well as taking up new patterns of speech and action. I’ve tried to emphasize that the mindful approach to new speech and action help with the cultivation of the new wise frame of mind, and the wiser frame of mind helps with choosing and sticking to better, more wholesome forms of speech/action. For a refresher, see my commentary on the 1st chapter, which truly holds the structure of everything that comes after in terms of the path of Dharma presented by the Buddha.

We see this proposal of change lined out clearly in this chapter about the negative outcomes of violent mind, speech, and action. The opening lines tell us to reframe our mind for empathy. This cognitive reframing is done indirectly by appealing to the reader’s emotional experience rather than making a straightforward logical argument that you need to change the way your mind sees the world. We’re told that as we feel pain and suffering, so do all other things, so do not harm them. This is a key piece of what is later known as the “hinayana”, or what we might more respectfully call the early teachings of Buddhism: do not harm others. From cultivating empathy for them, we will choose not to speak harshly or act with violence. Precisely these, speech and action, are covered in the lines after the call to empathy.

In another call back to the first chapter’s lines about hatred ending through non-hatred, we’re given a key metaphor to our understanding of what the path is ultimately about.

If, like a broken bell,
You do not reverberate,
Then you have attained Nirvana
And no hostility is found in you.
-Trans. Fronsdal (134)

The end of the line previous to this points out that harsh speech generates harsh retaliation. This metaphor of the bell follows. The bell, then, indicates that much of our action is automatic, and the retaliation from the pain and threat imposed by another flows as a reaction as automatically as the bell rocks back and forth when we hit it. It’s almost a law of human psychology presented as similar to the causation seen in physics. Here then, we see that Nirvana truly is a breaking down of the standard, a taking away rather than an achievement of something on top of what we already have/do. In other metaphors, Nirvana is a blowing out of the burning fire that is our experience of the poisons and clinging; here, it’s a breaking of the bell that is our instrument of perceiving and reacting to samsaric stimuli. Notice, the broken bell isn’t numb to the strike. It simply doesn’t react by reverberating and ringing. It doesn’t retaliate.

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In order to break the bell, we must reframe our mind. This comes from recognizing the unwholesomeness of violence, hatred, and retaliation. Again, in the first chapter, we were told that one who blames others for hurting us is stuck in samsaric hatred that cycles onward; whereas, for one who does not blame and judge like this, hatred ends. So, finding empathy for others and not inflicting pain back, even when they do it to us, is the view we need in order to step beyond retaliation and end hatred. The path is about taming ourselves, shaping ourselves to react differently. We do this by utilizing the one true freedom we have: focusing our insight on a new perspective and mindfully attending to our speech and actions, over and over again, in order to cut off the automatic nature of our lives. This is liberation.

I will point out two final things in closing this discussion. First, line 144 has a list of the qualities that the one focusing on taming the mind, speech, and action in this way will have. Second, the final line reiterates the task of the sage from our previous chapter:

Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
The well-practiced tame themselves.
-Trans. Fronsdal (145)


May this help you break the bell.

Gassho!

As a side-note, all of this talk about changing one’s reactions and getting beyond the seething anger of retaliation fits well with Nietzsche’s focus on “Ressentiment”. He also wrote that Buddhism was like a psychological cleansing of these sentiments, and I wonder if it was passages like this that brought that assessment. Deleuze’s book on him is great for this topic, if you’re interested in that as well.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 7: The Arahant

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.


The last 2 chapters provided insight on what wisdom is and which friendships would help one in cultivating it. This chapter explains what someone is like who has found liberation: someone who has made it to the other shore of nirvana and has fully realized that wisdom.

Although, much of what has been said before about good conduct that doesn’t cling to sensual pleasures, cleansing of the toxins, tamed senses, and the elimination of clinging are all familiar and precisely what the other chapters have advised to aim for as the path, this reiteration of the emphasis can get muddled. Some lines in this chapter make the key repeated message of the text fall out of focus, as they sound mystical, almost magical. They speak of the arahant as being hard to trace. However, we must not be confounded by these words. The arahant is someone who has realized nirvana: i.e. “whose field is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness”. They live in a way that recognizes that everything is transitory and without the permanent existence of an identity, in other words, everything is without self: anatta. Mahayana Buddhism will fully grasp upon this idea of sunnyata (emptiness) and lack of inherent identity and develop it to its fullest expression of wisdom later on in the Buddhist tradition, but the seeds of it are here in the resting place of one who has realized nirvana. It’s not that these people have stepped into a new metaphysical place; rather, they’ve recognized and have come to abide in the truth behind the delusion of what we experience all the time, precisely the world we live in. To come to the point, the key in these descriptions of “without trace” is that the arahant has reached nirvana and has thereby been liberated from the attributes of a “self” bound by karma.

To counter the confusion of those lines, let’s focus on lines 95-97 which I find to be absolutely powerful and beautiful:

For a person
Who, like the earth, is untroubled,
Who is well-practiced,
Who is like a pillar of Indra,
Who is like a lake without mud,
There is no more wandering.

Calm in mind, speech, and action,
And released through right understanding,
Such a person
Is fully at peace.

The person who
Has gone beyond faith,
Knows the Unmade,
Has severed the link,
Destroyed the potential [for rebirth],
And eliminated clinging
Is the ultimate person.
-Trans. Fronsdal (95-97)

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Even though someone has lost the attributes of a karma-bound self, they act skillfully. They’ve tamed the mind — have succeeded in the task of taming themselves from the previous chapter. These lines give us a sense of what that well-honed skillful behavior looks like, and it ties all of this to the message of cleansing the mind of toxins, cultivating wholesome mind, speech, and action, and releasing clinging as the path that we’ve revisited time and again in these commentaries.

The qualities of this person are interesting in line 95. Let’s break them out briefly:

  1. stability: “untroubled” — by stability here, I mean something that isn’t constantly moving about, as I take from the simile of the earth
  2. well-practiced: Fronsdal’s notes make it clear that this is a word that literally means something like “good ritual”, so their behavior is a mindful, life-revering action that supports peace and insight
  3. firm: “like a pillar” — Fronsdal makes clear that this is a pillar that is buried deep in the ground, making it unmovable, and furthermore, it remains unconcerned if it receives veneration or not
  4. cleansed: “like a lake without mud” — later Buddhist traditions use metaphors like this to also represent not only something without defilements but something that reflects reality clearly

Let us ponder the peace of having attained the liberation of mind, speech, and action through this description of one who has realized it.


May this give you inspiration to step farther along the path of dhamma.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 5: The Immature/The Fool

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.


The title of this chapter should give us pause, as it offers us an opportunity to confront some problems that come with the overlap and distinction of concepts and where those semantics may differ in a different language, particularly an ancient, Eastern language in comparison to a modern, Western one. As Fronsdal notes: “Bāla originally meant a young child who is not yet able to speak. It is therefore sometimes translated as “the childish” (Fronsdal, notes for chapter translation). Indeed, the first translation I read was by Easwaran, and he translated this as “immature”, a translation that I very much like, as it feels less judgmental and limited in scope than “childish” but also less static than “fool” or “foolish”. What I mean by this is that “fool” as it is used in English is a word that strikes me as a character trait — one that is more or less impossible to overcome. As I hope is clear by now, that kind of understanding of “human nature” (in itself a problematically laden term for us in this philosophical journey) runs contrary to the insights that the Buddha’s teachings are emphasizing for us: one of progressive development and training the mind through effort. I feel that “immature” fits this well, as it is an inherently developmental word. An immature person can mature with effort, and in this case, it’s an effort driven by a spark of insight about nirvana and slow growth into wisdom. I will not change all of the quotes to reflect this distinction below, but keep it in mind as we go through this chapter.

An interesting piece of counsel that appears in this chapter is about walking the path with others. For companions on the spiritual path, we want either mentors who can help teach us in the ways of wisdom or at least friends who share an equal interest and effort in attaining liberation from samsara:

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone,
There is no fellowship with fools.
-Trans. Fronsdal (61)

Interestingly, this focus on inequality in the dynamics of companionship fit very well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship, and while I don’t have the space to discuss that at length here, I’ve gone over it before in relation to romantic relationships in this post. Compare that to the current counsel, and also ponder the dynamics of inequality in a mentor/student relationship (clearly how better and lesser would work here) and how that would work in a relationship of one following the path. This counsel rings as potentially harsh when thought through — a kind of solitude is being advised as the best way for one putting the effort into reaching nirvana because clearly most people will not be equal or better, and hence, most will not warrant fellowship.

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise,
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
-Trans. Fronsdal (63)

This resonates with another famous thinker from ancient Greece: Socrates. In Plato, he regularly is described as knowing that he knows nothing, and this is precisely why the oracle said he was the wisest in the land. If we twist the translation with “immature” and “immaturity” here rather than “fool” and “foolishness”, the meaning transforms into recognizing how much more room one has for growth of wisdom rather than how much one is a fool. By extension, this cuts through a problem in the term “wisdom” that exists in English. For myself, the distinction between “wisdom” and “knowledge” is usually vague at best in English and, depending on who is discussing the two, seems completely opaque at worst. If we think of this in terms of “maturity” though, it’s no longer related in any way to “knowing” a set of facts, like knowledge is. Instead, it’s the result of having grown aware. This makes it a process-oriented term, rather than a measurement of the data of knowing.

Much of the rest of this chapter has to do with pointing out how foolishness abides and thrives in not yet having felt the consequences of one’s actions. Here we see foolishness and wisdom in relation to karma. Karma is the Sanskrit term for action (kamma in the Pali of the Dhammapada). The key with action as it is meant with the term is that action brings consequences — there are entailed results, but unlike the determinism of the physics of reaction and counter-reaction — Newtonian motion in billiard balls — it’s more like the growth of a tree from a seed when the conditions are right for it to grow. It takes time sometimes for something to fully grow, and as such, the results of karma may take time to be felt and cause regret. That immature state (in terms of personal view and unrealized karma) may make the future regret of poor action completely unforeseen. This is the delusion of foolishness, of immaturity. A proper view of action sees how karma unfolds and how our actions will bring joy or regret. This is wisdom.

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The final lines in this chapter make it clear that fools, or the immature, focus on the recognition of ego-fulfillment in action. They look to companions to praise them for their actions or follow their commands. This too is unwise. It’s a clinging to a self-identity, a glorification of it, not being aware of the ephemeral nature of the “self”, and even more so the temporary status of public recognition of the self. With this in mind, let us close again with the final line of the chapter, another poetic line that echoes the recommendation that we choose solitude rather than foolish companions and that we do not cling to recognition or any form of material gain:

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead.
-Trans. Fronsdal (75)


May this bring insight about what wisdom is, how to approach it, and how to consider self and friendship on the spiritual path.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 4: Flowers

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.


The title for this one and its associated metaphor are striking. I tried my best to succinctly unpack the meaning of this metaphor to encapsulate the meaning of this particular chapter. This is what I came up with: “flowers” is related to properly viewing and acting in the world. As a skilled gardener selects a flower, a follower of the Buddha who has caught sight of nirvana will select a well-taught Dharma-teaching. In other words, an insight of the goal of the end of suffering will lead to proper living in this world.

One who does not see things clearly will simply try to gather as many flowers as possible, which is lusting after sensory pleasures and clinging to them. Such people waste their lives, and continue along the samsaric path of further death and rebirth.

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In contrast, one who sees that the body is ephemeral will live wisely and will not be drawn to Mara’s flowers — cutting them away, thereby becoming undetectable to Death. This undectability repeats in the chapter, and yet again, we have a great simile for how transitory the body is: it is like foam.

Instead of clinging obsessively to sensory pleasures, one with such wisdom doesn’t cling — moving from experience to experience, and living life with the skill of simply engaging. Our example: we should move like a bee moves from flower to flower, gently gathering nectar without harming the flowers.

All of this so far more or less reiterates the messages of the first 3 chapters. Where this chapter furthers and expands the teaching thus far is from lines 50 to 59.

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.
Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done.
-Trans. Fronsdal (50)

Here, we’re not only reminded that our efforts alone are the key to walking the path and realizing nirvana, but it’s further stated that in becoming a walker of the path, one should let go of the judgments of others’ shortcomings. This is the positive corollary of letting go of the hatred of victimhood in the first chapter:

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.
-Trans. Fronsdal (3-4)

Furthermore, in focusing on your efforts, the chapter then lines out that not only your mind and your actions should be in alignment, as in other chapters, or that your mind and your speech should be. It posits the next step: your speech and your actions should be in alignment. Early Buddhist teachings focus on purifying mind, speech, and action, and that’s exemplified here.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored and with scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitful when carried out.

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.
-Trans. Fronsdal (51-53)

Well-spoken words should lead to associated well-done actions. Otherwise, the words are empty, lifeless, and life in itself is empty, as it doesn’t amount to anything but another cycle of death and rebirth, lacking the beautiful scent of the garlands of the noble path.

There’s one more passage that is worth highlighting directly with a quote because it is simply beautiful, one of the most artful, poetic, and inspirational in the text so far. It is the closing lines of the chapter. We too shall close this commentary with them, pointing out only that once again we have the emphasis that nirvana can be found in the daily mess of the life we’re already in: even when surrounded by the common clinging and delusion, wisdom can grow and flourish.

As a sweet-smelling lotus
Pleasing to the heart
May grow in a heap of rubbish
Discarded along the highway,
So a disciple of the Fully Awakened One
Shines with wisdom
Amid the rubbish heap
Of blind, common people.
-Trans. Fronsdal (58-59)


May this help you grow wise amidst the challenges of delusion.

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.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 2: Vigilance

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.


Vigilance is the path to the Deathless;
Negligence the path to death.
The vigilant do not die;
The negligent are as if already dead.
– Trans. Fronsdal (21)

Fronsdal’s notes on this cryptic and almost metaphysical sounding opening assisted me here. “The Deathless” are those who have achieved enlightenment. This term applies to them because they have stepped beyond the cycles of samsara’s rebirths, and as such, they no longer die and are no longer reborn. Thus, we have a necessary element of the Buddhist path. We might remember here that the Buddha is described as having only taught the Four Noble Truths regarding the nature of suffering and the path that cures suffering. Here we see that vigilance is the activity that sets the seeker on the path and keeps them on it.

All right, so this is crucial for us, but how does a practitioner actualize vigilance? What is one vigilant toward? What is falling into negligence? Without some clarification around these questions, the opening lines are still cryptic.

When I was writing my notes for this, I summed it up thusly for myself, thinking of the term “awakened” as another description for those who achieve greater wisdom in the path of liberation:
” One cannot remain awake if one allows the eyes to close again.”

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We should think of this call to vigilance in relation to the first chapter in order for us to understand what we are being vigilant towards. With this opening in mind, it becomes clear that we are vigilant about keeping our mind, speech, and actions peaceful, and we guard ourselves against the passion, ill will, and delusion that pull the mind out of this peaceful state; finally, but importantly, we are vigilant about when we are clinging. Vigilance is the watchful mindfulness that keeps our engagement and perspective right, as outlined in the first chapter.

The effort of vigilance is fully fleshed out in three passages, back to back, just a bit below the opening lines of this chapter:

Absorbed in meditation, persevering
Always steadfast,
The wise touch Nirvana,
The ultimate rest from toil.

Glory grows for a person who is
Energetic and mindful,
Pure and considerate in action,
Restrained and vigilant,
And who lives the Dharma.

Through effort, vigilance,
Restraint, and self-control,
The wise person can become an island
No flood will overwhelm.
–Trans. Fronsdal (23-25)

Thus, vigilance is a mindful perseverance that includes or is directly associated with meditation, energy/effort, restraint, self-control, and considerate action. In vigilance, like said above in relation to the first chapter, one tries to be skillful in mind, speech, and action with emphasis on all of these key aspects for a noble walk along the path of Dharma.


May this help you better understand the vigilance needed to follow the Buddha way.

Gassho!

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: Emotional Insight

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

One of the most difficult parts of travelling through dreams, studying them, understanding them, is encountering them with an open mind. We are all raised in cultures with a long history of trying to understand dreams because they’re such an integral aspect of human experience, and furthermore, because they are ostensibly laden with symbolism and emotion – i.e. personal and cultural meaning.

From my own Western cultural background, for instance, Freudian and Jungian interpretation dominate the hermeneutic playing field. Not to shortchange these approaches, but if we are to ever really understand dreams — dance with them and explore the dreamscape — we have to let go of the simple authority of such dogmatic and rigid culturally historied interpretations (without the self-reflective ability to trace out the cultural and historical developments that led to these interpretations). In this line, I’ve found a phenomenological approach to understanding dreams to be very helpful because instead of positing universal, ontological symbols and then muting the dreamer when he or she disagrees, it relies on pushing the dreamer to tease out his or her own understanding of the elements in the dream based on his or her daily waking life. Dreams are taken as meaningful here, but they are personally meaningful rather than asserting tropes that are universally of the same significance, independent of the mind at hand.

Also, I’m compelled by Tibetan dream yoga’s understanding which delineates different types of dreams, indicating more depth and terrain to the dreamscape. There are three types: samsaric, insight, and primordial light. The interesting thing is that the vast majority of dreams in this categorization is of the first type: samsaric. This means that they’re dreams animated by the delusion in which we live our lives — the delusion of not being awakened, of not seeing the true nature of the universe. As such, these dreams, though laden with personal meaning, don’t have any more profound revelation to share — they are our thoughts, feelings, ideas, and half-cognitions writ large and allowed to fully express themselves. This doesn’t make them meaningless, rather a story about ourselves to ourselves without revealing the greater truth of the world. The other two levels of dreams are required for that greater scope of insight and are rarer.

These aspects, different perspectives on dreams, have led me to reevaluate my dreams on a more personal and intimate level — taking them to reveal much about myself but not jumping to greater conclusions just due to the fact that they feel very compelling. Holding them with this dynamic of piqued interest but only light seriousness has left me wondering what to make of the more charged emotional undertones which can pull and color the whole experience of a dream.

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I recently had a dream that had a very strong emotional message which stays with me, even still coloring my daily experience several days later. It reveals feelings that were pushed aside, not actively engaged in my waking life. What does an onerionaut make of such personal, emotional insights? The dreamscape offers the opportunity to recognize them and address them well — integrating them into daily life with reverence and respect (as maybe they were withheld for some good reason and couldn’t readily be skillfully integrated without some effort and care). There’s such opportunity even in samsaric dreams, to better know ourselves in our lives and to better engage in our worlds. The only question is how to do so when these opportunities come up.


May this help you in your own interpretation of dream and investigations of your dreaming life.

Gassho!

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