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!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 10: Echoes/Grief

Recent days have suddenly been emotionally difficult after relative equanimity for some time. It took some time to pin down precisely what has been bothering me, but eventually, I realized. It’s been a year. In a few weeks, it will have been a year since I got that cold, empty phone call after several days of emotionally distant standoffishness. It’s almost been a year since I was initially prepared for the death of partnership, family, and friendship (I don’t mean to be melodramatic with using the word “death”. That was the phrasing she used at the time–“This must die.”). This anniversary has particular weight not only because of the end of a relationship but also because of the unraveling of my life in general at that time. My job shifted dramatically around the same time, and I got notice that my landlady was also changing the terms of my lease–I got ousted in the process. Difficult changes and challenges have continued to mark the months and days since. It has been the hardest year of my life, even more so than the handful before which were no cakewalks.

It’s interesting looking back, as anxiety-provoking as it might be. It’s interesting because clearly time has passed. Much has happened. However, either due to some sort of experiential time warp or longing, it doesn’t feel that long. The events do not feel that separate from now. In fact, the last 2 or 3 months are the first time that they’ve felt separate at all. I think that’s why I can say it feels like a scar now in one of my recent writings.


Honestly, I started writing these words for this entry a few days ago and then put it aside. Some reading, writing, and meditation have brought me into this experience more–facing it rather than wriggling under the knife of emotional pain. Loving-kindness meditation has been extremely powerful in this brave, tender facing up to change. It involves wishing yourself, a close friend or loved one, a stranger, an enemy, and all sentient beings loving-kindness in gradual succession. This is the mantra to guide this visualization of loving-kindness (first said for yourself, than the friend, etc. while imagining pure positivity sent to each):

May I/you/all be happy
May I/you/all be healthy
May I/you/all be at peace
May I/you/all live with ease

I’ve found that offering such positive love out into the world, into everything, releases my focus from “me” and “my” pain. I can flow along with the world and the suffering of others, helping them find their own connection and loving-kindness as well.

I don’t say this to say that my feelings are unimportant or easily ignored. They’re there, and if I hadn’t been practicing hard for months now, I’m sure that I’d be utterly lost in them as I was for a few days about a week ago.

What are those feelings? I think that they’re my first real experience of grief. I lost an entire life in this transition–home, lover, family, and friends. My story had to be fundamentally altered, a process that I’m still working through.

What stands out to me as a symbol of this grief, nestled into the whole experience is the loss of my ex’s grandmother. She died only a few weeks after my ex dumped me. I saw her in person one last time. She was very ill. We talked for a while. She was clearly in a lot of pain and wasn’t fully in our conversation. As I got up to leave, she told me that I was “right up there” with her grandkids in terms of people in her life. She basically said that she cared about me almost as much as them. She died a few days later. Those were her last words to me.

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Grief

This might seem unimportant, but I have never had anyone I was really close to die before. My great-grandmothers died when I was in my youth, and a classmate died as a teen, but I wasn’t as close to any of them as I was to this woman. This was my first really personal experience of the loss of death other than a few pets dying while growing up. It’s a peculiar kind of loss, knowing that you cannot, will not, ever see this person again, a person who was a family member (as I was honorary grandson to her, I definitely considered her grandma as well). This kind of experience brings home the true depths of loss in the fullness of its meaning.

Alongside this was the loss of one of our cats too. He died in the same time period, and in many ways, he was the heart of our home. I still think of him and speak of him often…

So these echoes of grief, of loss, have a couple solid anchors in death. Not only was there the symbolic death of love, friendship, family, and home in breakup; there was the actual death of a couple key pieces of that structure.

Some might read my posts of the last several months and point at how much I have grown, but suffering, ultimately, cannot be rationalized or justified. We move to find some meaningful explanation of our troubles, to pin them down and make them “OK”. However, that’s the same drive that leads us to blame the victim–“They had it coming because…” All we can do is lay bare the root causes of our suffering or someone else’s and sit with those causes mindfully, accompanying them and that person through the mystery of being, rather than trying to explain it away.

With grief, I’ve had to face my attachment to the way I wish life were in the barest rawness of disappointment, despair, confusion, loneliness, and fear. It’s brought me into a deeper relationship with myself and Truth, but that does not mean it was justified or a “good” thing. Such experiences lie beyond any plan, rationalization, or telos. I would never wish such a thing on anyone or try to explain how it’s good for them. I will open my arms to accompany any I meet with grief and share loving-kindness with them in the abyss.


It seems like every return to this writing has changed it. It’s been an interesting process, and while the pain still resides, it doesn’t torture me as it did when I first was writing these words. It truly has been a hard year, but unlike the beginning of this post when I felt like I couldn’t survive another year like this, I’m now looking at this moment and the path that lies ahead with equanimity. In honor of the mix of feelings I’ve gone through and where this year really started, I’d like to add a song by Adele. For some time, I listened to her songs about heartbreak again and again, and I think that “Rolling in the Deep” will always remind me of this time. However, I’d like to share another one about moving on, burning the past, and heartbreak in all of its pain, confusion, longing, and forced violence to the attachments that were. It came up on the radio while at lunch the other day, and it immediately reminded me of all of this:

Here’s to setting fire to my own rain.


May this help those who endure heartbreak, grief, and the anniversaries of life-altering times feel accompanied and seen. May it help them find their own means to establishing equanimity within when it feels like the world is in turmoil.

Gassho!

Grasping at Sand – The Pursuit of Happiness

We pursue happiness,
grasping onto desires–
Justifying this as wisdom, as nature, as fact–
Fulfillment + gratification = happiness!!!
Yet we don’t see…

The heart grasping onto desires
Is like a hand grasping
Onto grains of the finest sand.
No matter how hard we
Try to hold on,
It slips out,
And what remains
Tickles and scratches,
Holding onto the hand
Even if the hand lets go.
Yet we don’t see…

Sand flits out of the hand’s grasp
Blowing away in the wind
Lost, gone, vanished
Like a dream
As though the grains were never there
Just like this
Desires arise and disappear
Ephemeral phantoms taken as solid
Yet we don’t see…
Is there a better way to be?

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Without desire, without distress
we keep to our empty heart.
The beauty of the Way is that there is no
“way”.

No self
No this, no that

Everything, everything is simply emptiness.
– Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Tao, §10)

Desire that has no desire is the Way
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind

Travelers know that steep cliffs mean a long, hard
climb.
Just so with Tao:
No smooth roads without first a few ups and downs.
-Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Enlightenment, §1)

May this help you balance your wanting and not-wanting mind, finding the desire that has no desire. May this help you slowly open the heart that grasps onto desire, one that seeks happiness in selfish fulfillment. May you instead find your way onto the selfless path that brings true happiness: an open heart of bodhicitta (have a look at my discussion of the first chapter of the Dhammapada for more on the selfish and selfless paths, and have a look at this one for more discussion of bodhicitta).

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 8: Reclaiming Shards of the Past

For the longest time, I’ve been unable to listen to one of my favorite songs. Why? During my time with my ex, it became a song about our relationship, and sometimes, even she called it “our song”. This song is “Your Hand in Mine” by the ever-magnificent Explosions in the Sky. This post-rock anthem has always tugged at my heartstrings, despite having listened to it hundreds of times.

After being dumped, the reminders of everything were just too much to listen to this song. At this point, it still plucked at those heartstrings but in a way that I could not bear. I’d just skip it whenever I heard it. Recently, though, I found myself listening to this song again one morning over my ritual cup of coffee. Not only did I listen to the song once, I repeated it numerous times, taking a simple joy in listening to this beloved song for the first time in a long while.

It’s very difficult to get past the emotion in such things. Most people try their damnedest to forget by covering up their past or running from it. That’s not really moving on though (See an earlier post on this here). That’s just as reactive as clinging to something, and running like that leaves unresolved issues, untended wounds seeping deep inside. It takes time and patience–a resolve and open courage–to face the terrors and tortures that you experience in life and sit through them, yet there is no better way to be authentic and to walk your life’s path with a compassionate and awakened heart.

I’ve also found an ability to listen to this song recently which has always symbolically reminded me of the connection of the love between me and her. Now, the pain of that connection is no longer frightening or anxiety-provoking. It just is. I can hear these songs and experience the joy and beauty of them along with residual feelings of pain and sadness. That no longer scares me. After all I’ve been through in the last few months. I can sit with equanimity through many more of life’s challenges; strong, courageous, and awake–the tender presence that gives birth to deep compassion.


Thoughts and emotions will always arise. The purpose of practice is not to get rid of them. We can no more put a stop to thoughts and emotions than we can put a stop to the worldly circumstances that seemingly turn for or against us. We can, however, choose to welcome and work with them. On one level, they are nothing but sensations. When we don’t solidify or judge them as good or bad, right or wrong, favorable or unfavorable, we can utilize them to progress on the path.
We utilize thoughts and emotions by watching them arise and dissolve. As we do this, we see they are insubstantial. When we are able to see through them, we realize they can’t really bind us, lead us astray, or distort our sense of reality. And we no longer expect them to cease. The very expectation that thoughts and emotions should cease is a misconception. We can free ourselves from this misconception in meditation.
In the sutras it says, “What good is manure, if not to fertilize sugar cane crops?” Similarly, we can say, “What good are thoughts and emotions–in fact all of our experiences–if not to increase our realization?” What prevents us from making good use of them are the fears and reactions that come from our self-importance. Therefore, the Buddha taught us to let things be. Without feeling threatened or trying to control them, just let things arise naturally and let them be.
When ego-mind becomes transparent through meditation, we have no reason to be afraid of it. This greatly reduces our suffering. We may actually develop a passion for seeing all aspects of our minds. This attitude is at the heart of the practice of self-reflection.
-Dzigar Kongtrül, “It’s Up to You”, pp. 8-9

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May this inspire you to find your own ability to let things be and to utilize your own experiences to increase your realization.

Gassho!

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal: Entry 7 – Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be (Part 2)

Letting Go and Generosity: Some Tales of Buddhist Ancestors

I’ve recently finished a wonderful book by Lama Surya Das called Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be. Just before the ending of the book, he shares a couple of tales about Buddhist ancestors, letting go, and generosity. I’d like to share this passage. I’ll also write another post related to the closing chapter of the book as it fits well with some of the difficulties of growth and healing that I have been going through recently.


Patrul Rinpoche’s life exemplified generosity; whenever he was given money or offerings, he quickly handed them over to others, giving generously to the poor and the homeless. It is said that there was little that Patrul Rinpoche loved more than being able to give to others. A favorite story my teachers told concerns a man who approached the learned teacher and begged him for some money.
“Oh my poor friend,” Patrul said. “Just say to me, I don’t need any money, and I will give you some.”
The beggar thought that he had been misunderstood, so he repeated his request for money. Once again Patrul answered, “Just say to me, I don’t need any money, and I will give you some.”
Finally the man uttered the sentence Patrul had been requesting. “I don’t need any money,” he said. Patrul in turn rewarded him with a handful of silver coins.
Then Patrul told the beggar the following story about Lord Buddha.
It seems that one day as the Buddha traveled through India, a poor man came up to him and gave the Buddha the only gift he had, a single piece of milk sugar candy. As the Buddha was looking at the candy and wondering what to do with it, another man, known for his greedy inclinations, saw the candy in Buddha’s hand and asked if he could have it. The man, of course, knew that the generous Buddha never said “no” to such a request.
The man was quite surprised when the Buddha did not immediately hand over the candy. Instead the Buddha spoke to the man, saying:
“Just say to me, I don’t need this milk sweet. And then I shall give it to you.”
The man did as the Buddha requested, and he got the candy which he promptly popped into his mouth.
Later the Buddha’s disciples asked the Buddha why he wanted the man to say these words.
“Because,” the Buddha replied, “through hundreds of lifetimes this man has never even once said the words, I don’t need. By saying these few simple words, he may have momentarily experienced the feeling of needing nothing. These words undermine greed and may help plant the seeds of generosity.”

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I don’t need any candy…

Padma Sambhava, the great Indian master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, told his disciples that when asked, they should say, “I don’t know, I don’t want, I don’t need.” I try to remember that.
This is a lesson in nonattachment and acceptance. It is a lesson in learning to love unconditionally without expecting results, rewards, or payments of any kind. It may feel counterintuitive, but acceptance does have a transformative effect. Nonattachment and acceptance have their own magic and can transform anything. Letting go is the ultimate act of generosity and faith. And every good deed is a gift to both giver and recipient.
– pp. 209-210 Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be, Lama Surya Das


Try it yourself. Say: “I don’t need …” and let the attachment slip away. An even better practice: give away some small thing (you can work up to bigger things later) that you feel attached to. Give it to someone who would be happy to have it. This is a very mindful experience of attachment and its hooks. If you can do this and say to yourself I don’t need this, you’ll find the peace of liberation after the pangs of attachment pass.

May this inspire your own ability to let go and to be generous to others.
Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 3: Wounds

Words have power. We seldom think about it. We throw them around as expendable–of little to no worth. Yet, if there is a magical element of the human being, it’s our ability to express the world through words. Words communicate. Words depict. Words create. Sometimes, words cut–like a weapon. This can leave a wound that festers like no other.

Some things that were said to me in the last conversations of my relationship have remained as wounds. Others recommend to let these things go, but if there is one thing that I have learned in meditation, such things cannot be forced. Whatever comes up, comes up. I can simply sit through it. Pushing thoughts and feelings away is engaging them with energy just as much as grabbing onto them and spinning them around in analysis. No. Letting go is relaxing the hand of the mind and letting the thoughts simply stream out of it. It is tender, and it is brave. It is the way of the awakened warrior.

One cut that has passed as a thought time and again is the moment in which I was blamed for her emotional reactivity. I was depicted as the cause of all negativity. Supposedly, no one else had this impact on her, and hence, I was some sort of emotional cancer–a tumor to be excised from her life in order to be healthy. Otherwise, according to her, she would never know peace. My mind reeled with the bizarre logic, unkindness, and completely victimizing unfairness of such an assessment. My counterexamples were batted away, and it was clear that nothing could be said to her in her dreamy haze of certainty.

Part of why this lingered is that I never fully shared this mind-crumbling bend of a moment in its complete emotional intensity with anyone else. In part, I didn’t because I didn’t want to spew blame and vitriol upon her to others. In part, I didn’t because I didn’t have the words to share such a moment at all, especially from a space of sharing without blame and aggression. I mentioned her words to friends, but the telling didn’t express the emotional nightmare of such a moment (like I said: I lack the ability to fully express)–the person you love the most in the world tells you that you are the cause of all negative feelings in her, and it’s implied that there is nothing good that you offer to your relationship with her.

I think that because of this inexpressibility, something remained held onto on a deep level–aching deep inside. No one could reassure me that that moment was completely whacked. No one could fully agree that those statements and ideas about emotional reactivity were hopelessly lost in the contrivances of a warped narrative. Instead, her words were taken at face value to some extent, and I was left wondering if I really was as horrible as she said I was. There was no one who could hear me and recognize me on the level of my own experience. From my therapy background, there was no one who could share my “felt sense”, and because of this, this sense stayed unfulfilled.

Last night, I was reading about meditation and lucid dreaming. I found unexpected recognition and release from this unlikely source. The book was talking about our perceptions and emotions. The book talks again and again about our “projections” on experiences–that the world we experience is always our interpretation of it, never the world in itself. My experience of the world is always mine, not the one that the world gives to me. I read: “Emotional reactivity does not originate “out there” in objects. It arises, is experienced, and ceases in you.” * I almost cried. Someone understood, and someone said the niggling feeling that I couldn’t quite put into words. Simple as it may be; I couldn’t say it, and the book said it for me. The feeling shifted, and my experience–the kernel of pain in that wound–unfolded.

Sometimes, to relax and let go of the thing that hurts, to allow the swollen inflammation of pain to subside, and to wash away a piece of ego, the thing we need most is to feel heard–to feel that “I” am not crazy. The feeling of an insanity that only affects myself leads to the grasping onto story and analysis of “me” more than anything else. It’s an isolating loneliness that makes a sense of myself distinct in contrast to everyone else. In being recognized, you can let go of those wounds that hurt so deeply, knowing that you are not alone.

May you feel seen, heard, understood, and recognized. May you find peace, love, and happiness. May you not have experiences that create wounds, and if you do, may you find the ability to express them and a person to listen authentically (if needs be, please post below. I’ll listen).

For the benefit of all who read this.
Gassho

*From “The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep” by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Mark Dahlby, Kindle Edition


Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 2: Gentleness Toward Your Experience
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry: Entry 4: Depression’s World

Bad Faith

We are masters of our own deception.

Aware of what lies before us, we can so readily turn our eyes away, refusing to see it, refusing to take agency, while distracting ourselves from the fact that this is just what we are doing. This self-deception, self-distraction, can be done in so many ways. You see it in the dreamy confusion of “denial” – a psychological cocoon, insulating from the tragic situation the person wishes not to acknowledge. You see it in elaborate narratives, newly built, those which recast entire histories with the most radical revision of a revolutionary, changing ourselves into victims of horrible fate or victors over that same horrible fate, which was once perceived as anything but…

Be careful with the stories you tell yourself. Be courageous enough to show up and face your life just as it is.

Self-deception