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!

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A Philosophical Knot: Un/conscious Agent

Here’s a rather philosophical set of Morning Pages. I’m capping it off with a quote from Wittgenstein to pull out one subtle allusion.


I hear the hum of vents as I sit here in the office this morning and focus. One astounding thing about meditating for me is the regular realization of how much of my experience passes by unnoticed. There is so much sound, smell, sight, sensation that goes by without my conscious processing of it. Perhaps the word “conscious” here leads us in troublesome philosophical directions. The problem with the term, as I stop now and really think about its usage, is that it is attached to the concept of a unified “I” that is the agent of consciousness.

However, if I drive for a while and suddenly realize that “I” wasn’t present for the last few minutes, does this mean that I “unconsciously” drove? This forces the familiar dichotomy of the unconscious as a secondary or, perhaps better said, primary agent behind the actions of the conscious agent. Philosophy then struggles with identity: trying to untangle the relationship between the two–are they separate? One conjoined and twisted Siamese twin?

Yet, we’ve presupposed a uniform whole in this agent (whether the conscious or unconscious one). We’ve presupposed an answer to the question of what/who “I” am in the analysis of an activity, thereby creating our own philosophical knot.

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If “I” am a flux of several different multiplicities, assemblages, compilations, etc. coming together in this moment, “conscious” and “unconscious” become much more dynamic and engaged in the activity itself rather than unanalyzed concepts of agency and identity.


115. A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.

118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

119. The results of philosophy are the discovery of some plain piece of nonsense and the bumps that the understanding has got by running up against the limits of language. They — these bumps — make us see the value of that discovery.

123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”

203. Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.

309. What is your aim in philosophy? — To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

–Selections from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte


I’m not trying to tear down “I” or “conscious” as meaningless. I do, however, hope to point toward how these words become laden with confusion and theory. My musings began on how many things are unexperienced in my experience: sounds and sensations simply do not register in the awareness of consciousness (whatever that may be), but some aspect of “me” is aware of them and acts upon them with skill, as per the driving example. The un/conscious “I” does not necessarily need some sort of soul in the driver’s seat, so to speak, a metaphysical subject who lies behind those actions and is aware of them or somehow pseudo-un-aware of them (and the Unconscious rises here as a problem because if it is the awareness in unawareness, the one who drives without being “conscious” as I, so to speak. Is it another soul? Another agent that shares this body?). “I” am some sort of combination of processes happening at once, a part of the world around me, acting and engaged in it. This is described perfectly well with “I drove to work, unaware”. It’s only in delving into those words, looking for some deeper meaning beyond the general meaning expressed in their usage that they become a knot of philosophical conundrums and issues of metaphysics.

 

 

Facing the Blank Page–The Unfolding of Tao

Here’s another interesting set of thoughts from my Morning Pages. It speaks to creativity, wu wei, and insight around our interdependent arising with everything.


Eating brunch–well, soon to be. It’s been a couple days, journal. I hope that this day is beautiful for all sentient beings out there and that those going through the wakes of storms and disasters suffer not at the misfortunes of the world’s changes.

Anyway, I don’t know what to write about again. That’s the first time I’ve said that in a while. Isn’t that wonderful: the thrill and anxiety of the blank page? What will come out? Who knows! As long as one resides in this appreciative, open view, it’s truly a joy to face the blank page. Then it becomes an act of faith in the process, a creative lightning bolt of positivity, and an easy flow along with the unfolding of what is in this moment. That’s right (write? 🙂 )–it’s an action of wu wei. Mastery is only important insofar as to have the skill to flow along without resistance.

So the question is not: what do “I” create (i.e. what do “I” as masterful agent do?)? Rather, it is a letting be of the creative process.

My thoughts and easy smile seem at odds with the liveliness of the little cafe right now, but that just invites me to smile wider. How many creative moments will unfold today as I go through the ebb and flow of deeds and feelings? How many people’s lives will I come into contact with, even just in passing as two apparent egos passing in the night? Such moments of pause are truly a wonder–if thoughts about consumption, desires, aversions, etc. don’t pull you away from the thought experiment.

Stop. Contemplate: how many myriad lives are in this room with me right now? Don’t stop at the obvious–you and other people. There are bacteria, insects, dust mites! Billions of little specks of life pop in and out of existence around and inside of you all the time. They come and go–emptiness manifested and reformed to another manifestation. This is Tao–the 10,000 things and the mother of the 10,000 things. On a larger level, there are 100s, 1,000s, 1,000,000s of people in your city, state, country, and 1,000,000,000s around the world. Then, there are countless planets, stars, galaxies. Don’t worry about your little passing desires. Stop and see your unfolding in this miracle, and hold this insight in your engagement with all of the unfolding. One mind–no separation.

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“It is not possible that this unity of knowledge, feeling and choice which you call your own should have sprung forth into being from nothingness at a given moment not so long ago; rather this knowledge, feeling and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense–that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it, as in Spinoza’s pantheism. For we should have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? What, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but inconceivable as it seems to ordinary reason, you–and all other conscious beings as such–are all in all. Hence this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but it is in a certain sense the whole; only this whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in a single glance. ”

The universe implies the organism, and each single organism implies the universe–only the “single glance” of our spotlight, narrowed attention, which has been taught to confuse its glimpses with separate “things” must somehow be opened to the full vision, which Schrödinger goes on to suggest:

“Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground stretched out upon Mother Earth, with the certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you. You are as firmly established, as invulnerable as she, indeed a thousand times firmer and more invulnerable. As surely as she will engulf you tomorrow, so surely will she bring you forth anew to new striving and suffering. And not merely ‘some day’: now, today, every day she is bringing you forth, not once but thousands upon thousands of times, just as every day she engulfs you thousands of times over. For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

–From Alan Watts’ The Book pp. 98-99; Quoted sections herein originally from: Erwin Schrödinger’s My View of the World pp. 21-22.

May this help you see beyond you as an island, an ego amidst all–controlling creativity as a forceful act of “I”, “me”, and “mine”.

Gassho!

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics

When I first started writing these posts on love, I was confounded in part by a friend’s post. There was some shared comment about Love being everywhere with some sort of sentiment that everything is all beautiful, shiny, good. While I don’t want to vouch for negativity and be a naysayer, there was something disconnected and starry-eyed about the whole thing. It felt just as unrealistic as someone being very jaded and nihilistic. Such odd emotional feedback on my end as a reader gave me pause, and I thought about why it felt so … off. This post will examine the thoughts I came to.

In the two previous posts on Love, I’ve challenged some of the ways that the word is used and understood. Specifically, I’ve questioned the idea of Love as some sort of completion of self through the Other, and I’ve also questioned the seeming simplicity of the concept, trying to show that it’s a mysteriously deep experience for us to investigate.

To move forward with this post, I have to back-pedal just a bit. There is clearly a core to the experience of love despite the complexity that I have previously outlined. That core is a positivity. To love is to feel some sort of positive connection, a positive regard toward the loved. I think that that captures the core idea of love. From such a simple definition, hate–a negative refusal of something–is the opposite. This simple distinction is utterly familiar: Love–ultimate Good; Hate–ultimate Bad. This is one of the most basic dualities.

This is why vapidly saying that everything is Love without clarification sounds so checked out. Furthermore, I suppose that part of that feeling for me was knowing about and having received a lot of vitriol and negativity from this person regarding her life. “Everything is Love” is not the case just because you’ve turned your eyes away from the parts of existence you don’t like. Those things continue to exist.

No matter how you spin it there are numerous things in life that most would consider bad. There’s loss in its myriad guises, including death. There’s rape and murder. There are myriad diseases that eat your insides in misery like ebola or grow and slowly turn your body into a defiled ball of pain like cancer. The world is full of traffic jams, inconsiderate people, obnoxious sounds, putrid smells, headaches, natural disasters, injured pets, screaming children, petty revenge, and the dog shit you stepped in on your way to work. This list could go on much, much longer. There’s a reason that theologians have struggled with questions regarding why this is the world we have with all its pain and suffering, with all of these “bad” things if God is all powerful and all Good. This is a conundrum that shouldn’t readily be tossed aside by a simplistic usage of words.

I will do my best to address the problem. Love is indeed everywhere, but not like the relative understanding we have. Love is not everywhere in the sense of everything being positive, good things for us to like, or that are beneficial for us. It may come as a surprise, but it’s a truth you should come to terms with, and the sooner, the better: the Universe with its billions of years of existence and trillions of stars is not about you and what you like. It’s not here to make you happy, and it has no concept of good and bad that it uses to order existence. Again, to return to the point, Love is everywhere, but that’s because everything that exists does exist. If there is any animating metaphysical principle, it has brought this universe into existence out of some sort of intention, some sort of desire for it to be so. This is Love. It is an unfolding of that which wants to be, that which loves to become. This is Love without any duality of good and bad. It includes your highest moment of ecstasy and the most excruciating physical pain you’ve endured, your favorite dessert and that dog shit you stepped in. It is both far more profound and more mundane than any of the dualistic ways we think of love. From a metaphysical standpoint, we can take Aristotle’s famous culmination of his Metaphysics as the principles of the Universe being “Thought thinking itself” and change it into “Love loving itself”.

One thing that a meditation practice aims to get past is the dualistic way we see the world. With the prajna of our awakened and engaged perspective, we can get a sight of this absolute Love that is unfolding around us all the time beyond our more self-interested and relative concepts of Love–the Love of the wanting self.

May all who read this see and find Love.
Gassho


Kahir, the fifteenth-century Sufi poet, writes, “The universe is shot through in all parts by a single sort of love.” This love is what we long for. When we bring Radical Acceptance to the enormity of desire, allowing it to be as it is, neither resisting it nor grasping after it, the light of our awareness dissolves the wanting self into its source. We find that we are naturally and entirely in love. Nothing is apart or excluded from this living awareness.

Over the next few days, each time I opened deeply to the force of longing, I was filled with a refreshed and unconditional appreciation for all of life. In the afternoons I would go outside after sitting and walk in the snowy woods. I found a sense of belonging with the great Douglas firs, with the chickadees that landed and ate seeds from my hands, with the layered sounds of the stream as it flowed around ice and rocks. … When we don’t fixate on a single, limited object of love, we discover that the wanting self dissolves into the awareness that is love loving itself. — Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha pp. 154-155.

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