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!

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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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!

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 1–Moving On?

Disclaimer: This is something I actually started writing quite some time ago (the date in my journal is a month ago to the day). This topic grew and unfolded in many different directions from the original inspiration as I started putting it on the page. Due to this prodigious growth, I’m going to break this up into pieces, trying to focus each post on different aspects of this topic that I want to discuss. The first piece is about rebounds, primarily, having recently gone through a breakup and seeing people’s ideas and reactions about moving on. Sometimes they are geared toward grabbing the next person who comes along. This will be discussed alongside a discussion of our conceptualizations of romantic love and all the hidden issues that lie in those unanalyzed concepts. I aim to present a more mindful approach to yourself and Love in these posts.


A common maxim proclaims that there is no better way to get over the last than by getting under the next. Yet, what is the draw of a rebound? Why is it both a sought remedy and a denigrated followup to a broken heart?

Heartbreak challenges our ideas of ourselves and our world. Suddenly, a shared companion in the adventures of life, in your perspective, and in your memories is gone. There’s a hole. This absence is almost palpable, like an aching scar after a piece of oneself has been removed. Everything–and I mean almost every moment–makes it ache. You yearn for the ache to subside, and the easiest way is to cover up that hole–that lack, that ache–with something else, or in this case, someone else.

Furthermore, this pain is the loss of an entire way of life, a path into a now lost future. Where there once was a “we”, there is now just an “I”. Now, you are left alone with a broken idea of partnership, with that of a feeling incomplete, again as though a part of your identity had been removed, as though part of your story had been cut off. Is this identity crisis and this idea of love/partnership so painful that we must rush to find that completion elsewhere, even if only temporarily, until the edge has worn off?

I think that there is something to be said for being present to the pain of this loss–facing it head on. Covering it over with someone else is a band-aid, a denial of the pain of this moment. Psychological research speaks of the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. Moving on to someone else right away may seem like acceptance, a quickening of the grieving process, but it’s really a refusal to look back and feel. It’s a denial of the old loss through the replacement of a new gain. Perhaps, it’s no surprise that from my experience, rebounders act either as though their previous relationship never existed, or they are still tied up in knots about it and can’t stop talking about it if they start.

Under all of this discussed so far is the problem of identity (as I’ve previously pointed at our personal story in the experience). If you observe the way people talk about romantic love and how they seek it, it’s primarily about ego identity. A narrative of completion of one’s self in the Other lies at the core of so much talk about “Love” (here capitalized to emphasize our concept of it: Love as an idea, a placeholder of sorts while we investigate, and of course, we mean romantic love). We look for salvation, completion, rescue, and an ultimate, intimate connection–a holy communion– with the Other in Love. As such, Aristophanes’ depiction of Love as finding your other half to realize an original but now lost wholeness is so familiar. It’s human, all too human. From this familiar notion, Love is approached often as a communal “I” (We as one) or as another person who completes “me”, who fulfills many aspects of who “I am” and makes me whole. The continuation of the search and the desire for completion in the other is a bolstering of the story of “me”, the drama of ego. There’s a search here for certainty when life shows its uncertain, dynamic, unfolding nature–a sacred chaos of emergence. We seek an “I am” here in the arms of another, and this is completely understandable given the expression of the experience of loss that I have shared here. However, the confusion in this is that these experiences of pain and loss reflect on an underlying truth about my “self”: the dynamics of change are taken as a threat to my “self” as some set entity, when they are in fact, an expression of it–an unfolding, a time-being. The confusion is precisely around this idea of lacking something, no matter how much pain and desire for things to be otherwise may make it feel that way. The search for love as completion of myself with my “other half” is often denigrated, with the response: “I am already a whole person”. However, this duality of whole vs. incomplete merely continues the problem of ego. “I” am neither “whole” nor “incomplete” in their standard senses of needing or not needing more to be something. I already am sacred and luminous, neither “whole” in the sense of “perfect” or “incomplete” in the sense of “lacking something”. I am whole and perfect in the sense that I am precisely what I am in this moment, a particular configuration of conditions with the possibility of awareness and present, active compassion, yet this is always going to be pulled and covered over to some extent by my desire to not feel pain, to not suffer, to cover over that which I don’t want to face. As such, there is great value in standing present for the pain of losing a partner; it could be a moment for us to experience being awake to our lives as they are and acting from that open, tender place: a love which is not about my story, my self-bolstering, or my gratification–an active feeling and giving rather than the receptive filling of a lack. There’s no need for a rebound if you can be present to your own life as it is: not as you think it should be in your idealized concepts of yourself, Love, and what you “want”. Ultimately, this is about your relationship with yourself. Are you ready to look at that and question everything you take for granted? Are you ready to mindfully show up to your feelings and bring that into your next partnership, with whomever that may be? This is an invitation to actively embracing as I-You rather than the separation of I-It. You have the chance to gratefully feel the ebb and flow of your “self” with the beating of an open heart, but this requires the courage of staying present to those feelings and not running from them into an idea of completion and gratification: running into desire for pleasure rather than the love of your life, your fate, your world.

“We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Without the maras, would the Buddha have awakened? Would he have attained enlightenment without them? Weren’t they his best friends ,since they showed him who he was and what was true? All the maras point the way to being completely awake and alive by letting go, by letting ourselves die moment after moment, at the end of each out-breath. When we wake up, we can live fully without seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, without re-creating ourselves when we fall apart. We can let ourselves feel our emotions as hot or cold, vibrating or smooth, instead of using our emotions to keep ourselves ignorant and dumb. We can give up on being perfect and experience each moment to its fullest. Trying to run away is never the answer to being a fully human being. Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life.

Looking at the arrows and swords, and how we react to them, we can always return to basic wisdom mind. Rather than trying to get rid of something or buying into a dualistic sense of being attacked, we take the opportunity to see how we close down when we’re squeezed. This is how we open our hearts. It is how we awaken our intelligence and connect with fundamental buddha nature.” – Pema Chödrön, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”, p. 72.

It doesn’t need to be this way unless you keep playing a game that you are constantly trying to win.