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)

 

Savoring the Moment

Rushing
Exhausts
But gives meaning
Excitement about the next:
Thing
Event
Experience
Time ticks by
So quickly
Hardly experienced at all
Each moment passed over
For the next
A succession
No calm
No focus
Just consumption
With an ongoing
Indigestion
Not savoring any moment
In its fullness

Stop
Just breathe
Just be

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May this help you pause and attend to your ephemeral existence in its fullness.

Gassho!

A View on Life and Death

A while back, I saw that it was a friend’s birthday on Facebook. I had not talked with this friend in years, having lost touch after moving to a different city. I warmly jumped at the occasion to say “Hello,” and reconnect. Flipping to the birthday notification, I typed out a heartfelt message, wishing him well.

A few hours later, I got a message notification from a person I didn’t know. He kindly and regretfully informed me that my friend had been dead for almost a year now. I was shocked. I had no idea. All I could do was thank this informative stranger and think back on my time with my friend, hoping that my message hadn’t caused any undue stress for anyone.

Honestly, I’ve encountered little death in my time. I’ve had pets die and a couple great grandparents, but I’ve had few instances of losing another person. This sudden awareness of the death of a friend I’d fallen out of contact with gave me pause.

Part of me wishes I could picture him in some serene afterlife, but honestly, this thought confuses me. I struggle greatly with the concept of a soul because it seems to be an attempt to assert an unchanging thing behind the ebb and flow of this impermanent universe. Every experience I’ve had, every thing I’ve studied, every fact and figure — all of it, everything points to transience. Suggesting a metaphysical permanence behind it all seems like an existential coping mechanism. Perhaps, there really is some great metaphysical Origin — Mind, Tao, Source, Idea (Eidos). If there is though, I maintain that it is a vastly different thing than is standardly posited with the term “soul” and its rather pastoral associations.

I’m left, instead, with some succor in knowing that whatever happens to us when we die, at least my friend is no longer the body he was here. He had longstanding chronic illness which made his life difficult and painful, leading (I presume) to a young death.

Ironically, isn’t this precisely our fear with death — not knowing who or what we will be when this body dies? As Heidegger puts it, it’s the possibility of one’s impossibility (or rather, of Dasein’s impossibility). Why must we posit an eternal ego to give this life and its experiences worth? As in the case of my friend — meeting with him for a few months in an intense period of my life makes his presence in my life all the more valuable for its rarity. Perhaps, I appreciate him all the more because relationships and the people who participate in them are impermanent — flashes of brilliance, fireworks on a summer’s evening.

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Rather than reach for life affirmation in the hereafter or for a Nietzschean, definingly transcendent moment for Eternal Return (a sublime life experience that grants you the fervor to say yes to this life, even if it were to be repeated infinitely), I think instead of life as something passing and therefore undefinably beautiful, rare, and unique. Much like seeing falling stars in the Perseid meteor shower – they all are similar in a way, but each burns differently, and each is beautiful and is to be savored in its passing, not a tragedy when it ends, rather one flashing, beautiful emergence, which is followed by others. I see no tragedy in living your life as something that will end and in so doing, making it shine while you flicker in the history of the Universe.


I plan to expand further on ideas about how to make one’s lifetime shine in my next post.

May this bring you peace and inspiration in being a timely being.

Gassho!

Return to the Tao – Verse 16: Returning

I’ve recently returned to reading the Tao Te Ching. There truly are few works as simple and profound as this terse yet tremendous tome. I thought the best way to write about it again would be to return to the section I wrote about first last time.

The translation I used last time, Jonathan Star’s, felt almost like a Mahayana Buddhist’s presentation of emptiness and meditation. I found it surprising and compelling. Let’s see how it comes across with some other translations.

Keeping emptiness as their limit
and stillness as their center
ten thousand things rise
we watch them return
creatures without number
return to their roots
returning to their roots they are still
being still they revive
reviving they endure
knowing how to endure is wisdom
not knowing is to suffer in vain
knowing how to endure is to yield
to yield is to be impartial
to be impartial is to be the ruler
the ruler is Heaven
Heaven is the Way
and the Way is long life
a life without trouble
– Trans. Red Pine

Red Pine’s version of this passage feels much closer to what you’d expect of Taoist meditation — cultivating stillness. The stillness itself is what causes the energy and vitality of Heaven to stir (let the seeming contradiction of that hit you – stillness is the cause of great motion). It’s “turning the light around” as put in The Secret of the Golden Flower. This gives an example of a cosmology in action. Returning to Tao is returning to the creator of all. We might question the interpretation of “long life” as the immortal alchemy of the later Celestial Masters because it seems like this could have a much simpler spiritual significance — this approach to life in accordance with the Way may simply be fuller: more at ease and healthy. This is not necessarily due to some esoteric magic but could be seen as being from living in resonance with the Way of existence. The distinction is subtle, I admit, but the point is that we don’t need elaborate systems with hierarchies and three-part progressions of essences (which is where internal alchemy takes the ideas of passages like this), rather a simple return to stillness and emptiness. This is an elegant philosophical expression of our place in the universe – it needs no further esotericism.

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Let’s compare this with the translation of Addiss and Lombardo:

Attain complete emptiness,
Hold fast to stillness.

The ten thousand things stir about;
I only watch for their going back.

Things grow and grow,
But each goes back to its root.
Going back to the root is stillness.
This means returning to what is.
Returning to what is
Means going back to the ordinary.

Understanding the ordinary:
Enlightenment.

Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to Tao.

Tao endures
Your body dies.

There is no danger.
-Trans. Adidas & Lombardo

This translation feels both less cryptic and somehow less deep. In reading it, I feel like some aspect of Lao Tzu’s thought is a bit farther away, although the whole is more beautifully expressed. At the same time, I find the progression at the end to be more compelling. With Red Pine’s translation, I feel that the bigger picture of cosmology/relationship to Tao is clearer. The nuances of returning to the roots are better expressed there without the vagueness of “going back to the ordinary,” but the Te of what this relationship means for the practitioner is clearer here. A proper relationship with Tao – living in accordance with the Way – is enlightenment. Living otherwise is a blindness that creates evil. If we compare this idea of “evil” with Buddhism, we could say that insight into the Truth of things – Dharma – allows us to live properly and no longer create our own suffering. I find these two surprisingly close. Keep this in mind as we go further.

This proper relationship with Tao opens the mind (the wisdom of seeing as things are – we may take this mind opening as a receptivity to continue the path of enlightenment, to uphold wisdom, focusing on a priming of the ongoing process). The open mind leads to compassion – a heartfelt action of support for others. That leads to nobility – the elegant stature of the ruler (as is made clear in comparison with Red Pine’s translation). This is a greater way of being a human being: a virtuous (Te) being. That leads to transcending the human as heavenliness, and that leads to Tao. Thus, stillness and emptiness begin a transformation that flows from wisdom to loving action to transcendence to the Source.

Notice again that the closing lines haunt us with one last beautiful statement. The transcendence hinted at here in the progression and in the final lines about death is not necessarily a transcendence of the eternal life of the soul (i.e. something more in line with Internal Alchemy’s aims). It could rather be (and I feel more compellingly so) read as the recognition that the Tao is the ten thousand things. With Red Pine’s translation – the ten thousand things come out of stillness and then return to it: they are born and then they die. However, this hints at the conclusion: they were never actually separate from it at any point. Cultivating stillness allows us the wisdom to see that our body is Tao and is not Tao (in the sense that our death is not the death of the whole); not only does it allow us to see it – it allows us to sense it, to live it. The death of the body is the death of the body, but it is not the death of Tao. Tao lives through the body as one of the ten thousand things and then returns to Tao to become something else. Great life cultivates the energy of Tao in life; death is merely the Tao taking a form back into its roots — a form that it was all along. There is no danger – no you to die at all in a much greater sense; rather, the Tao that you are part of continues to go on and “you” shall return to its roots.


May this bring greater depth of meaning to this passage for you. May it help you find your own stillness and emptiness so that you may return to the roots of Tao.

Gassho!

Life, Death, and Change

Last night, I had a dream in which I went to the doctor and asked him to examine a deep groove in my skull – beneath the hair on the top of my head. It had always been there (in the dream) – a weakness in the shape of my head. He felt it and immediately became concerned. He started telling me that this could have some dire effects, but it was very unclear what kind of prognosis to expect. He sent me home, but on the walk home, I had a group phone call with him and my parents. He explained to all of us the potential medical difficulties that could arise from my particular brand of weak-headedness, and they were potentially sudden and fatal. He started explaining some of the most common and most severe difficulties, but as he started explaining, the phone connection dropped, and I didn’t get to hear any further explanation about what I was facing and what could happen. I felt that I was left hanging – uncertain and confused.

I awoke from this dream feeling pensive about mortality. In the dream, I had my demise placed right before me, but it was wrapped in a ball of “ifs” and “maybes” with no certainty about what would happen or when. The initial revelation of this felt quite shocking and scary, but as the dream went along, it felt much more subdued and distant. The question I awoke with was: “How is this different than day to day life?” I could very well go to the doctor today and be told the same thing – you have this weird condition that could be fatal, but we have no way of knowing. Isn’t that really just a metaphor for all the things that could possibly, maybe go wrong on any given day? Traffic accidents? Food poisoning? Random violence? A sunburn that gives rise to melanoma? The huge earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest? This may sound dramatic, but our demise is always already sitting right in front of us as a potentially sudden and unforeseen event at any time. We can’t really plan for it. However, we go through life mostly unaware that this potential  is always there. We live blithely ignorant of it – fallen.

To extend further – we don’t see that we are always “dying” already. I am not the same person I was a year ago (definitely certain of that!). You might tell yourself that you are, but if you really sit with yourself in this moment and then remember how you felt, said, did things a year ago, five years ago, in your childhood, etc., you’ll find that you are not the “you” that you thought continued through all these. You’re a changing set of conditions and experiences. I find this clearest when I think back to my ideas and projects of childhood. I was obsessed with certain toys and pursuits – building up so much and putting so much effort into some interest. Then a year or two later, it was gone from my mind, almost never thought of again except in this activity of retrospective examination. Where did that passionate engagement go? It moved. It died. It changed into something else. We’re always changing into someone new. From a universal perspective, that’s all the larger death that this post discussed is: “I” cease to be, but my body’s energy/matter goes back into the systems and cycles of the universe’s ceaseless unfolding changes – just as it already is throughout my life, just more thoroughly, completely, and intimately.

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How do we face up to all of this with awareness? How do we be present to the change that happens in this very moment and in all moments? How do we let go of our fear of death so that we can face it, face living, with authenticity?


May this give you new perspective on your relationship with death and change in your life.

Gassho!

Rebirth

From dead earth
Life springs anew
Green stalks grow
Bright flowers bloom

Nature’s cycles
Birth, growth, death
Unfolding
In every breath

Before & after
We conceptualize
But Now is
Presence of our lives

Be with this
Each moment – rebirth
This emptiness –
Celestial mirth…

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May this inspire you to presence in the rebirth of every moment. May spring’s blooms help with this inspiration.

Gassho!

Dreams and Waking Life

Fantastic places
Strange situations
Wonder & Terror
Exquisiteness & Hideousness
Uncanny: familiar yet foreign

Yet, all of it,
Ephemeral
Wisps of nothing
Real?–Yes
Rife with meaning & emotion
But also,
Empty

The secret?
Waking life is the same
Transient, in flux
Not concrete,
An unfolding of myriad magnificence

The dream yogi begins,
Repeating a reminder:
“This is just a dream”
Both while awake
And while asleep

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