Living in the Light of Death

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gassho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Musings on Change

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about change — personal change, how one changes over time both by choice and by happenstance. Honestly, this has been something I’ve thought about off and on over the years, as I studied psychology in school, but it has come to the forefront of my mind more in recent years due to my interest in Buddhism and the claims I’ve heard others around me make about how certain activities have changed them.

Actually, the issue came to a head a few years ago when pondering some others’ justifications for travelling. They spoke highly of how it changes you, but I didn’t see anything dramatically different about them. I started thinking on my own travels and my own life experiences with change. After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that we don’t understand well how change comes to be in our lives, and perhaps, that has to do with misperceptions of ourselves and our lives.

Change isn’t something that someone just has thrust upon them in a moment. One doesn’t simply see something, and all is done. I’ve been thinking of a good metaphor for this, and ultimately, the passive infliction of change from without seems akin to a wound that heals into a scar — a mark that’s made from an external force that is more or less permanent.

However, no other changes in life happen like that. We’re not simply some sort of soul/identity that is stained from without. We are bodies, processes, unfoldings — a human becoming, a developing person. An example? My dad died this year. The initial shock of it was sudden, external, and permanent. Certainly, but the deeper change that it’s had in my life has been a process. My brain, heart, and daily life are still processes of adaptation. There are stages to grieving, to making sense of the world again after a huge initial alteration like that. The event itself may be epic, but the change, the real impact is something more gradual. Change is like that — it’s a rebuilding of life, brick by brick, day by day.

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This is how our very brains work. If we learn a new skill, it takes 1000s of hours (and apparently, it’s even more complicated than just sheer hours of time) of practice to master it. If one studies neuroplasticity even cursorily, it becomes clear that part of how we adapt as organisms is by building new synaptic connections when we encounter new challenges. These enhance our abilities, our understanding, our skill — but they take time, effort, material resources, and energy. Such is change: it is a new coming to be, a new formation of the universe. Another example? Our cat lost a leg this year due to cancer. We had to amputate it to avoid metastasis. At first, he could barely move and was awkward as hell. We had to bring food to him, but over time, he started meandering around and now is even almost as nimble as he once was. This is due to his brain taking time to rewire many of its sensorimotor connections to adapt to his new situation in life. Like my first example: the brute change is immediate, but the change in the day to day life, the new version of our beloved cat, is a more gradual process, one that he’s still undergoing.

I posit that all change in life, meaningful change that impacts one’s story, one’s existence, is like this. It’s a dynamic new entanglement with different circumstances. It can be one of mastery, where one takes repetitive engagement with something to build a new relationship with it and with life. My own experience with travel is like this: initial experiences impacted me. They expanded my perspectives, but the honing, the real meaning of it, came with living abroad, with spending hours and hours of time with people from other cultures, and with learning another language. Most of the initial experiences have fallen away as hazy memories, just like most others that have not stood the test of time, but the efforts to adapt and master have changed me forever.

Sometimes, the change is more passive. A new job or a new situation carries us along, against maybe our interest or affirmation, but in those cases, we still adapt — living through the banal grind, as it were — and that changes us as well over time. The numerous hours of going through the motions can kill our resolve, make us cynical, one way of thinking about how we change into old age.

“What about trauma?” — you might ask and rightfully so. The event of trauma has an impact, but the ongoing efforts of the mind are where the change of trauma happens: the rehashing of the events over and over in mind, in its particularly intense experience with details that blast beyond any standard memory, or our minds’ ongoing efforts of self-protection through continually pushing the traumatic events out of mind. These adaptive engagements change our relationships with the world, and they change the wiring in our brains. The initial event is only complete in its destruction through the adaptation over time of trying to understand it, to live through it, and to survive beyond it. It presents one of the biggest changes of all — rebuilding meaning and trust in existence after all meaning that we had previously known has been shattered.

My point? Change is always an ongoing dynamic with the lives we’re embedded in. Traveling is just one peak experience among many. We could point to others: music, art, drugs, literature, religious revelation. All of these have their value for opening our eyes to new possibilities, but it’s not the eye-opening that is change, it’s the ongoing investment in (or possibly running away from — ongoing denial) the newly seen alternatives that changes us. It’s the time spent, the long-term relationship with these newfound discoveries, and the growing intimacy with them that is change. Also, what of the open-mindedness we have that leads us to these experiences in the first place? Isn’t that just as important to seeing something as new and exciting as the experience itself? However, ultimately, the way things come to fruition is through that sustained engagement. I can think of many phases I went through in my younger years that didn’t leave much of an impact despite initial enthusiasm. I didn’t engage with them long enough to build that loving or cynical relationship that is change.

Let these words stand, lest we forget that we are organic systems of change. Let us not forget as well how hard change can become due to the strong entanglements in certain ways of being, the ingrained patterns and habits, that we have developed over time. So much of who we “are” are these patterns that have developed: the fruition of change, karma. These are the ties that bind us, not a soul — some inherent personality. The deeper situations we are in, the thoughts we cultivate, we change and solidify into those. Most importantly, let us not forget that we are engines of change — we are not set beings, rather becomings. Confusion on this is our greatest existential balm but also our greatest delusion.


Peak experiences cannot be maintained, and when they pass, the habituated patterns and the underlying sense of separation remain intact.
Peak experiences may open up new possibilities, but they cannot do what a consistent practice or discipline does–instill a deep understanding that expresses itself in life. No quick fix exists. Milarepa, a great Tibetan folk hero who lived in mountain retreats, used to say that to glimpse what is ultimately true is not difficult, but to stabilize that understanding takes years of effort.

— From Wake Up to Your Life by Ken McLeod

Today we understand from scientific research that the human body operates through chemical and molecular processes. By their very nature these processes are in a state of constant, even chaotic change at the cellular level. As mentioned earlier, millions of cells are born and die in each passing second. There’s no solidity at the core. But in our ignorance we live as if the body were solid and unchanging at its core.
The poet W. H. Auden has said, “Our claim to own our bodies and our world / is our catastrophe.” How can we claim ownership of something that’s constantly changing? What does it tell us about the nature of the claim? A deluded mind believes a manifestation to be a thing-in-itself, whereas Buddhist teachings point out that a manifestation is an event. A thing is perceived by the deluded mind to be solid and self-abiding; an event is seen by a mind informed by prajna as a resultant outcome of a certain process. To see oneself truly and authentically, as an event–an ever-changing process–rather than a thing-in-itself is the greatest act of re-imaging.

— From The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra by Mu Soeng

Priest Daokai of Mount Furong said to the assembly, “The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night.”

Mountains do not lack the characteristics of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk. Examine in detail the characteristic of the mountains’ walking.
Mountains’ walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The buddha ancestor’s words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. Penetrate these words.

— From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye by Eihei Dōgen (trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi)

 

The Shadow and Compassion

Recently, my dreams have seemed more erratic and emotionally charged. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  1. I misplaced my dream journal for a while, and even though I don’t write in it that often, it seems to have had an impact on my dream recall. When I found it again, my dreams suddenly were more remembered when I woke again, almost as though my dreaming process appreciated its reappearance.
  2. Last week, I underwent a bout of sickness that renewed my sense of mortality — my awareness of impermanence and gratitude for health are currently sharp.
  3. Recent events have made this summer feel like a charged examination of current cultural and social trends as well as the human condition.
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about The Heart Sutra and, therein, about the prajnaparamita teachings’ deep yet confusing pronouncements regarding emptiness and the view of no view.

Those dreams I mentioned have been all over the place. They’ve ranged from feverish problem-solving of work issues to brutal violence. The most unsettling thing about the violence, to my waking, analytical mind, was that I was perpetrating it, and although purposeful, it was still violence of the most disturbing and vicious sort — carnal murder with a blunt instrument of someone who wasn’t even fighting back.

My analytic, waking mind reacts to memories of this dream by lashing back, saying “I could never do that!” and “How horrible!” However, this judgmental simplicity covers over truths I know from both my academic and self-reflective studies. Furthermore, I recognize this quick reaction to be an attempt to shore up my ego-identity to fit a narrative in which “I” am a permanently righteous being, always wearing the white hat without any aberration.

Here are some truths I know to the contrary of my ego’s simplistic, self-defensive narrative: I know that the greatest finding of social psychology is that people do strange things when in strange situations. Study after study, ranging from Milgram to Zimbardo to Asch challenge our understanding of identity. Beyond that, my studies of Buddhism and existentialism make me question any simplistic appeal to an unchanging thing as the core of who I am. Even the most introductory of Buddhists should know that this is a concept to be cut through with Manjushri’s sword. Another truth: I’ve gone through enough life and have sat with my thoughts for hours in meditation, both leading me to know that I have a great capability for anger. If anything, it may be my greatest personal obstacle to overcoming reactivity for pure, responsive, and compassionate awareness. All of my experience in academics and in personal reflection lead me to know that I have a Shadow (as Jung would call it – but without the intended hard understanding of the term with a Jungian “Unconscious” at play).

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Knowing the truth of this Shadow takes me beyond the ego’s defense, and I have nothing to do but embrace these darker, incomplete, difficult feelings, for which I have a propensity. Those are all possible ways for me to be and feel, but seeing them, however, embracing their possibility even, doesn’t mean that I have to act out upon them. If anything, it allows me to potentially move beyond them to the compassionate awareness I just mentioned. Recognizing and accepting our feelings without repressing them or enacting them is a way to understand the emptiness of who we are and our connection to all other beings. Recognizing my own dark, destructive impulses allows me a point of connection with even the most pained or hateful of beings, giving some small ounce of understanding to see those current perpetrators in our world and hope to better understand how I can communicate with them to help them get beyond their own darkness.

When I think of this, I inevitably think of the closing section of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is shown to share the face of all people in Govinda’s mind — even thieves and murders. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, and if you’d like to know more about The Heart Sutra, I recommend Karl Brunhölzl’s The Heart Attack Sutra. If you’re interested in social psychology’s findings regarding identity, I recommend this episode (The Personality Myth) of the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. If you’re interested in a more Buddhist take thereof, check out the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really AreFinally, to read more on dream yoga itself, Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek is a good all around source.


May this help you see yourself as you really are and help you reach out to the world with compassionate wisdom.

Gassho!