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!

Meaning and Health in Life

Personal events in my life recently reminded me of how true it is that all composite things are impermanent. This is a famous phrase from Buddhism, and the unstated extension from science is that everything is composite — you, me, both as bodies and psycho-social-emotional identity constructs, even atoms: all of these are impermanent. I quote this line often as a piece of wisdom in relation to discussions with others, but it’s easy to overlook in one’s own life.

For Christmas, I went home to see my family. For those of you who have read my blog regularly for a long time, you may recall that my father died this year, and this was the first winter holiday season without him. In the time between, my grandmother has struggled with his death, and the loss has driven her into an assisted living home in her local hospital. I went to see her while I was home.

Let me take a brief aside to provide some personal background and a perspective on psychology and philosophy. A few years ago, I completed a masters in clinical psychology. The program I was in had an existential-phenomenological theoretical stance. This meant that we looked at human experience holistically with an emphasis on personal meaning and the flavor of experience, rather than reductive methods and techniques (nothing against those by any means). One of the first books we read in the program was Viktor Frankl’s famous work Man’s Search for Meaning.  This is a book by another Austrian psychotherapist who was a contemporary of Freud and Adler. In the book, he talks about his experience in surviving the concentration camps and what he saw in the psychology of himself and other survivors: he saw that these prisoners perceived a meaning in their lives, a goal to work towards that gave their horrors in the concentration camps a limitation, a transcendent reason of some sort. That may sound religious or profound, a “Meaning of Life”, but it doesn’t need be. For the author, his was that he was convinced that his family was alive, and he needed to live to see them again. Frankl references a line from Nietzsche from Twilight of the Idols:

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”***

Viktor E. Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 847-848). Kindle Edition.

The prisoners in the camps who lost this future goal, the simple purpose of seeing life holistically as some greater gestalt with projects above and beyond the life in the camps, were the ones who withered away and died or stopped trying to not be picked for activities that would lead to their deaths. In other words, existential despair of perceived meaninglessness in one’s own life can lead to a nihilistic idea that I may as well be dead. In fact, on a greater scale, this is precisely one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns in modern culture as a whole — a loss of the values that have informed Western society till now could lead to a threat of a nihilistic willing of self-destruction. I’ve never seen it read this way, but we could easily read another famous quote by Nietzsche in just this manner:

“Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. ” – Jenseits von Gut und Böse – retrieved at Nietzsche Source

“And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss looks back also into you.”
– my translation^^^

We could see this as the problem of an emptiness looking into us, becoming intimate with us, emptying us. The line before warns us that fighting monsters leads to becoming a monster, and apparently, we can surmise that staring at the yawning chasm of death that an abyss is leads to us being either more abyss-like or more tempted to jump in to our death: willing one’s own destruction in seeing oneself as an abyss.

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Maybe looking down doesn’t have to lead to anguish and despair

Returning to my story: I was concerned about my grandmother right away after my dad’s death. I called her not long after to make sure that someone was paying attention to her and giving her the room to express her own feelings about what had happened. We usually had fairly long phone calls and talked about books, the world, and the challenges I faced in growing into an adult, but this time, the call was brief, and my grandma said something along the line of not seeing much of a point anymore to things. My therapist senses tingled with concern — she had no meaning. She didn’t see any future to her world anymore.

I told my mom to make sure that my grandmother was OK, and it didn’t take long before she had to be taken to the assisted living facility. I knew all of this when I walked in to see her over the holidays, but I didn’t expect the dramatic change, the marching forward of impermanence in such a brief period. It had only been about 9 months since I had last seen her, but in that span of a baby’s gestation, she had aged seemingly 20 years. She’s lost 30 pounds and a lot of her faculties. I recalled an ex girlfriend telling me that when her dad fell off a horse (his passion) and broke his wrist, he aged years in the few months it took to fully heal. Clearly a trauma, physical or emotional, can really shake the stability of older people’s lives, and as Frankl noted, the loss of meaning can shake one’s life so critically that it begins to fully unwind.

I’m not sure I have a solid point or piece of wisdom to share in this post. I could counsel you to be aware of the meaning that you build in the narratives of your life and to be aware that the structures around which these are built will end, and the meanings you currently have will need to be amended. This is normal — you’ve likely changed course and built up new projects in the face of your own future and death several times, but it’s something else to realize that an intense personal trauma may wipe meaning off the table to the extent that you cannot readily amend your narrative and your meaning. Perhaps, the counsel is simply this: all of us, and all things we know will die. The mountains outside your window, the oceans you visit, the cities you grow up in — all of these are impermanent, having risen and fallen before, and they will do so again. This also applies to the people you know and yourself. Try to find your peace with that and be open to finding your way in the world without those people and places if they come to a sudden, unforeseen end, no matter how difficult it may be. I say this with no judgment for anyone — myself, my family, or anyone ever. This is perhaps the largest challenge one faces in life.

May this bring new meaning to all those who read it.


*** The original line in German is: “Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” I would translate this more as: “One who has their own “Why?” for living bears almost any “How?”.” Humorously enough, Nietzsche ends the phrase with a joke that only the English strive for happiness, which leaves me with many questions about how Nietzsche read Aristotle.

^^^ Interestingly, Sartre also talks about the sensation of what is felt when standing at a ledge over a fall (I believe inspired by writings by Kierkegaard rather than Nietzsche, however). He describes the sense that you have the potential to jump, that you could choose to leap to your death, as anguish.