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!

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Relating Outward

This weekend, I had an interesting experience of compassion. After finding out that a co-worker could not care for her cat any longer and was thinking of sending the gato to a shelter, my partner and I decided to adopt the cat . Much strategizing and many unforeseen hurdles followed, but I finally met up with the co-worker this weekend and met the little cat in person. Her owner thanked me so many times for taking the cat. She and her two young boys were going to miss their furry friend, but she was most relieved that the cat was going on to a loving home.

I took the cage from the co-worker, young kitty inside. As I looked at her through the bars, I was struck by her singular face–a dividing line of light and dark tabby right down the center of her nose. She peered back at me gently yet inquisitively. She kept that simple, calm enthusiasm throughout the ride home–not meowing or mewling about the cage, the car, or being alone with a stranger. I spoke to her as I drove, telling her it would be OK and that we would love her and care for her.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I realized that these words were mostly comforting me. I flashed on the sadness of the two boys who had given up this sweet animal, and I felt my heart break a little at the painful changes of loss and death that arrive from time to time in life. It overwhelmed me; I felt as though I were kidnapping their loved one, and I could only imagine the change for this little cat who had known no other home.

Then, I looked at her again and saw her curious eyes with that line down her face right between them. I realized in that moment that relationships of all kinds come and go in our lives. We’re always in flux. The only proper way to be in them is to sit calmly in them and compassionately care for the other person/animal/plant/thing–all sentient beings, all of creation. In other words, you have to relate outward. It’s not about you and what you get from the relationship. It’s about your energy moving outward to compassionately embrace your partner.

I realized then that all I can do is show up and love this kleine Katze. That’s what she needs, and I can sit with that for as long as she’s in my life and I’m in hers. That’s what relationship is, and that what makes the change of loss and death a new beginning with new possibilities.

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Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Final Entry: Letting Go of Letting Go

I’m closing out the year with this final entry in this series of posts that has both informed my spiritual development of this year and the course of this blog as well. I’m closing this narrative with a long set of connected thoughts about letting go–both my own and some quotes that have inspired me. This year is done, and this chapter in my story comes to a close as well. May this inspire those of you out there who have also gone through heartbreak.


What is the perfection of wisdom? Let’s look at some important elements that are the core of our practice as well as our lives. In face-to-face study, a student expresses agony over a relationship that ended two years ago and asks me how to let go. What is letting go?There is a little toy called a Chinese finger-trap. You put two fingers into it, then try to pull them out. But you can’t extricate your fingers from the trap by pulling: it’s only when you push your fingers further in that the trap releases them. Similarly, we think of letting go as doing something: throwing things away, ending a relationship, getting rid of whatever’s bothering us. But that works no better than pulling our fingers in order to extricate them from the trap. We let go by eliminating the separation between us and what we wish to let go of. We become it.

Do we let go of anger by saying good bye or going away? Of course not! That doesn’t work. The way to let go of anger is to enter the anger, become the anger rather than separate from it. If you even hold on to the notion of having to let go of it, you’re still stuck. In a famous koan, a monk went to Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen and asked, “What shall I do now that I’ve let go of everything?” Chao-chou said, “Let go of that!” The monk said, “What do you mean, let go of that? I’ve let go of everything.” Chao-chou answered, “Okay, then continue carrying it with you.” The monk failed to get the point. Holding on to letting go is not letting go.

We don’t get rid of anger by trying to get rid of it: the same applies to forgetting the self. To forget the self means to become what is, become what we are. How do we let go of a painful relationship? Become the person we wish to let go of, become the pain itself. We think we’re not the person, not the pain, but we are. Eliminate the gap between subject and object and there’s no anger, no loss of relationship, no sorrow, no suffering, no observer sitting back and crying, “Poor me!”

The Chinese finger-trap is solved by going further into the trap, and the same is true of letting go: Go into it. If you avoid the situation, it only gets worse. Totally be it; that’s letting go. Similarly, when we sit, it’s not a question of trying to do something. Don’t sit there saying, “I have to accomplish this. I have to attain that.” Just let go and be what you are, be this very moment. If you are breathing, just be breathing, and you will realize that you’re the whole universe, with nothing outside or external to you. The beautiful mountain–that’s you. Anger, lust, joy, frustration–they’re all you: none are outside. And because there’s no outside, there’s also no inside; altogether, this is you. This is the meaning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s “I alone am!”–Bernie Glass, from Infinite Circle

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I intended to write this post a couple months back around the time of my birthday, but I never got to it, and I can only believe that it wasn’t ripe. I was reading the book quoted above around the same time, but this quote means so much more to me reading it again now. This is my last Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entry. After all the steps in the spiritual path of heartbreak, I’ve finally reached the realization that continuing these narratives is not fully letting go. It’s time to let go of letting go. That’s the step forward on the path of the spiritual heart. That’s the tender vulnerability that was described in the first entry. We come full circle: nothing outside.

Let my birthday journal entry, Morning Pages from a couple months back, serve as an intention in this step forward:
“Well, 33! Made it!
I’ve been thinking of this particular one for a while. As a teenager, I loved the Smashing Pumpkins’ “33”. It is now my theme song for a year, I suppose. That’s odd, in a way, as it’s a romantic song about another person making existence beautiful:
– ” You could make it last, forever, you.”
Clearly, after the year I’ve had, I just don’t feel that way about anyone, and I wonder if I ever will again. In many ways, I totally don’t respect those concepts of romance, especially as a guiding light in the life of a person. Well, maybe I can transform that into something less deluded–transmutation.
That reminds me: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just that. I want to handle my story around the heartbreak of the end of my relationship in a very particular way. I don’t want to cast her as a monster or villain. I don’t want to cast myself as hero or victim. It simply was. It was, however, not justified–another story that explains away–no matter what came after. Again, it simply was–the complicated interweaving of sharing life and love with other people. In the end, she simply decided that she wanted something different. That’s all.
In the end, this suffering has been, as is suffering in general, useless. That’s actually one of the best philosophical essays I have read: Levinas’ “Useless Suffering”. Explaining away my pain–to myself or the explanations of others–is ultimately an unwillingness to sit with, see, and genuinely feel the agony of a broken heart. Again, it simply is, and any meaning or story that makes it OK or gives it a telos covers it over and masks it. There is beauty in the rawness, and the only use is to sit with it and be inspired to compassion for others, to aim at liberating oneself and all sentient beings from such anguish.
So, no, I won’t cast stones. However, I will transmute–that earlier thread of connection–the love I reached for her into this compassion for all. I’ll blow the lid off of the Love of an Other that completes my Self and move to a warmth for all that exists. May I step forward on the path for the benefit of all sentient beings.”


Tonight–before writing any of this or reading these quotes again–I sat down and did a mantra meditation with mala in hand, counting–bead by bead.

Om mani padme hum.
Om mani padme hum.
Om mani padme hum.



108 times
.

I focused my attention on Kwan Yin/Avalokitesvara/Chenrezig/Kannon–the listener to the cries of the world, bodhisattva of compassion. As I repeated the words and contemplated Avalokitesvara with his hundred arms–reaching out to touch the lives of all sentient beings, I felt my own loving-kindness swell, and I flashed on those who have done me pain, who have stoked my anger or sadness… I realized, as separation of I/Them dropped away, that They are I and I am They. Her face flashed by amidst others, and I saw tears and felt her fear, her anxiety. I embraced her feelings with loving-kindness. Many others flashed by as well. Among them all, my own face flashed up, my angry, sad face, tormented by delusion, struggling with all the cares of being human. I compassionately embraced this too. As Glass Roshi said in the initial quote above: “Anger, lust joy, frustration–they’re all you: none are outside. And because there’s no outside, there’s also no inside: altogether this is you.” — For a brief moment, I sat in this compassion and wisdom, in this karuna and prajna

Then, like always, my mind flitted back to ordinary shenanigans–always room for more practice.


After meditating, I lay down and finished reading a graphic novel, weathering a slight stomachache. The closing words rang true and inspired me to sit down and write this entry. We shall close with them:

I can’t give you your hope. You have to grow your own and hold it through the seemingly endless darkness. The true task–to find joy in the small things we can count on.

When we stop taking pleasure in the basic experience of being alive, beat-by-beat, we lose everything that makes life worthwhile. We must relish in every sight, every touch…
… Every memory. My daughters playing in the garden. Johl kissing my neck. Marik’s elation at a new invention. These memories are enough to light my darkest hour. To face whatever awaits above. We all of us carry burdens that seem too heavy. … Losses we can’t conceivably move past. The things that once gave purpose to life. It is all too easy to give yourself over to the traumas of the past–allowing pain to define us. There is a medicine for that–hope and perseverance. Light brings light. And no matter what we face there is one thing we can control: our outlook. It’s not about ignoring the pain or mindlessly believing things will simply be better–it’s about finding the joy in participating. And when the weight of the past pulls us low we must find the strength to release it…
…and finally give ourselves permission to start over.
-Rick Remender, Low: Volume 2, closing passage

 

The character, Stel, finds the hope to start fresh, letting go of the past, but she doesn’t do this by running away from it–ignoring it–or by blindly believing that the future will make everything right again. She’s neither lost in the pain of the past nor in a dream of a hazy, euphoric future. She’s faced all of her ghosts by sitting with everything as it was and as it currently is. She’s fully taken on her pain, her burdens. She realizes that in becoming them, the weight of the past drops with the permission to start over. That permission is always at hand, right now. It merely takes the warrior’s courage to let go: to fully be here as we are. That’s what starting over is. This may begin with holding on to the wonders of golden experiences, but this sagely wisdom fully blossoms in participating joyously in every moment of life, even the most painful or burdensome. This is wrongly called “hope” because it’s not about that belief in a future deliverance; it’s actually “faith”–trust in and no separation from all that is. This is recognizing the basic goodness of existence, and it is a clear step forward to liberation: happiness that does not rely on the conditioned.

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May this light the path to letting go of heartbreak for those who need it.

Gassho!

Love, Rebounds, & Relationships: Part 4–“The Love of My Life”

“The Love of my life” is a familiar term–the person who stands as the greatest inspiration of (romantic?) love in a lifetime. It is the superlative relationship, partner, or desired. The Beloved. Perhaps, we cannot help but think in such comparative of superlative terms, yet in this post, I hope to call this label and evaluation into question to some extent.

In one of my last face to face conversations with my ex, I told her that I was afraid that she was the Love of my life and that I would spend the rest of my life looking back at her and our time together. She batted away such concerns and said that I would find someone else who would be amazing–with such certainty as though it were verified as a scientific constant. Writing this now, both stances seem so black and white, and this is precisely why we were both wrong.

I was wrong because it’s silly to worry so intensely about something that is totally uncertain. There’s absolutely no way for me to say whether she’s the love of my life or whether I’ll die tomorrow–what lies in the future is unknown to me. I’ll be able to say for sure who the greatest Love in my life was with my dying breath, but before that, life can and will unfold as it will. It’s not something to feel such fear about.

She was wrong precisely because she also can’t say what will happen with such certainty. There are simply some things that will never happen again in life. For instance, I ran a 4:34 mile in high school. Even if I trained really hard every day for a year, I doubt that I’m physically capable of doing this again. I’m a bit too old now–that time has passed. Likewise, I might search the rest of my life and never find another person who sparks feelings of romantic Love like she did, or maybe, I will have a chain of lackluster relationships despite trying my best in each, or… There’s simply no way to say what will happen, but it’s a definite possibility that some high point in my life is over. Again, who’s really to say until it’s all over? Until then, life can and will unfold as it will.

Worrying about whether someone is the Love of your life or continually thinking that that person is out there somewhere to be found is living in a hypothetical realm, a fantasy world in which you can compare and evaluate your whole life, yet underneath this lie those simple samsaric elements that drive so much of our activity: desire and aversion. In one version, we’re afraid of losing what we have now–aversion–so we cling to it. In another, we’re tired of what we have and want something else. We hope that it’s out there and run toward this hope–desire. Of course, the second can be a bit more of a mixture of desire for something else and aversion regarding the familiar. Pop advice says that “hope” is better, but they both drive the same game and keep us locked in fear of/hope for the life we don’t have.

That is the ultimate silliness of this entire thing. You are always who you are in this moment–not in the past or the future. We may yearn for or fear the changes that come, as nothing (not even atoms, according to science) lasts forever. However, we fear change or run towards new changes in order to have something that we want to hold onto–something that if we try just hard enough will defy this one absolute law of flux. Basically, at the heart of all this is a yearning for or fear of death, yet each moment is born and dies, passing by without our notice much of the time. We would do better to welcome life as it comes and be open to it no matter what arises, rather than getting lost in comparisons of “my ideal life”.

So, is the person you’re with the “Love of your Life”? Don’t worry about it, one way or the other. The one thing that is certain is that your relationship with him/her will end–no matter what; even if it’s just the ending of death due to old age 70 years from now. That end could come at any time, so treat them with love, kindness, intimacy, and appreciation now. Don’t get trapped in comparisons with the future that might be or the past that was. Those are dreams of whimsy or nostalgia. Be here now. Be with your partner. Treat him/her with love and work towards a future of growth, wisdom, compassion, and truth together, and at the end of it all, that person may just be the Love of your Life. You can’t say till then. You never know, one way or the other…

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May this bring you the courage to be present in your romantic relationships and light them up with wisdom and compassion. May this ground you, rather than allowing you to float in the samsara of fantastic or nostalgic comparison.

Gassho!

“Me River”

The mind flows:
A river
Rippling, swirling
Thought to thought
Eddies form
Whirlpools spin
As thoughts stick
And twirl again

Thoughts wash away,
Never to return
Over time,
The river changes:
New courses
New shapes
Even moment to moment
It’s never
The same river twice

Yet, we overlook
This dynamism
Seeing it instead
As the “Me River”
Static, known object
Clearly defined on a map.
Not seeing the “selfing”
In every moment…

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Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 12: “Self”

Disclaimer: This book has 26 chapters, and I highly recommend you get a copy and read them all. I’ve had to pick and choose, and in so doing, much is passed over. I only hope to emphasize what is key for getting to the other side, but even in my choices, it would be too long to write out each whole chapter, so I have to pick selections from them as well.


Learn what is right; then teach others as the wise do. Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself.

Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master hard to find. (Chapter 12, Verses 158-160)

Stephen Ruppenthal introduces this chapter in my translation with an analysis of how the Buddha does not specify his position on what the self is; he cites the Buddhist scholar/philosopher par excellence, Nagarjuna. The Buddha, indeed, does not posit: “The self is X”. However, both here and in the opening lines of the first verse, (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought” see my previous post on the first chapter here), the Buddha makes clear that the self is something that can be trained. As such, it is something that can change; thus, it follows the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence as does all else. The Buddha does not posit here that there is no atman (a soul), but he does say that the self is something that can be trained, mastered, and he indicates that the spiritual path is one in which you master yourself. The Buddha doesn’t posit anything about the self’s nature, as that would go entirely against the point (i.e. positing something that “atman is”.). Rather, he indicates selflessness, or as is often described as the Buddha’s position: no-self. As he says later in chapter 20: “All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.” He displays to us that what we label self is not fixed or permanent, rather a dynamic process: one that can be trained and mastered. A permanent, unchanging thing is not open to such dynamism. A biography I have recently read about the Buddha expressed the subtleties of this stance very well:

This was the last thing Gautama wished to communicate. He believed that in this life we inherit the karmic consequences of our actions in past lifetimes, and that when we die, our future existence will depend on our moral state in this one. Having been brought up to believe implicitly in rebirth, this didn’t raise for Gautama or his listeners the metaphysical problems it brings to many who hear these ideas today. He was trying to get away from metaphysical abstractions and point people towards the kind of experience they could detect and observe. Of course, Gautama was saying, every person, including a Buddha, thinks, feels and experiences; the point is that how we think and feel shapes the kind of people we become in the future. The self, therefore, is a process and the task is to shape it. The wanderers should stop asking of life, ‘What is it?‘ or ‘Where is the true self?‘ They should look, instead, at their actual experience and ask, ‘How does it work?‘ Sue Hamilton succinctly encapsulates Gautama’s approach: ‘That you are is neither the question or in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.’ (Blomfield, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, p. 151)

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The self is a process that changes with time like the flow of a river (read Hesse’s famous “Siddhartha”) or the waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean. Note: the flux of some processes can take a very, very long time–such as the erosion of a mountain. That does not make the mountain a permanent, solid entity…

In the quoted passage from Chapter 12, as elsewhere in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us to guide ourselves to develop our own wisdom (especially if no wise people are around to guide us–he clearly states it is better to go alone than follow the spiritually immature) and master our own minds. No one else can master them for us. This is the most fundamental aspect of the path–the aspect that wholly depends on our own efforts and no one else’s.

The evil done by the selfish crushes them as a diamond breaks a hard gem. As a vine overpowers a tree, evil overpowers those who do evil, trapping them in a situation that only their enemies would wish them to be in. Evil deeds, which harm the doer, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy. (Chapter 12, Verses 161-163)

This injunction to not do evil comes right after the call to master the self. How are they connected and what exactly are we supposed to avoid? The answer could readily be seen in the twin verses of the opening chapter already discussed in my previous post. Self-mastery, the proper way to guide yourself, is to tame your thoughts in such a manner that will bring you away from sorrow and closer to joy beyond death–nirvana. It’s a taming that cultivates selfless thought–thought in accordance with the Eightfold Path, rather than the selfish thoughts that our mind is constantly lost in as untamed monkey mind. Selfless thought shapes the mind in a way that brings joy and nirvana. Selfish thought molds the mind in a way that brings sorrow and samsara.


May this help you see your “self” in a light that allows you to cultivate joy for yourself and others. May you be inspired to read through this great spiritual work and find the path to liberation from suffering. May you have the generosity, energy, discipline, patience, meditative insight, and wisdom to walk it.

Gassho.

The Practice

We go through
Day by day
Expecting…
More of the same
Routines, comfort
–Both good and bad,
“The same” returns

Yet, Life is full
Of happenings
–Unforeseen,
Unwanted
Chaotic
In a word:
Change

In a moment,
All can turn
That is the Truth
Such is All
The Universe:
Impermanent
Flowing–in flux

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All changes. Practice embraces this.

The Practice:
To accept this
As Truth and Path
Without attachment
To the way things were
Or the way things could be
Find comfort in the
Emptiness
And show up
With Compassion
For it All
Impartial:
Bearer of
Awakened Heart
Fearless and open

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