Monthly Archives: June 2015
I heard recently of a five-year-old crying in anguish – “I don’t want to die.” That little one had seen it; realised that he will die. There’s a YouTube of another five-year-old, inconsolable because she realises that her precious, little, baby brother is going to change; to grow up. “I don’t want him to grow up,” she wails, keening before the event. She wants him to remain a baby, “because he is so cute.” She’s seen the fact: No matter how much she loves him – he won’t stay the way he is. None of us will. She cries: “And I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred.”
(Actually, i found the fact of the making of the video disturbingly intrusive, however…) It did get me thinking about the other times when I have heard of children having similar anguish. I think that most of us (if not all) have a child just like that in us, who once said, or thought: “I don’t want to die.” And the adults around us didn’t know what to say, unless is was the usual conventional untruths. After all, they had not come to terms with the inevitable fact of it, either, so how could they have helped? At best, they were simply thrown into a sea of pain, due to their love, at having to witness the anguish of innocence. Or they treated us as cute; or were embarrassed at their lack of capacity to answer us. In any case, in our culture, we don’t teach our children to respect the great matter at the heart of our natural realisation – the realisation that death separates us from what is ever so dear to us. And, so, we got on with growing, and learned instead to tuck the inconsolable lament away for as long as possible.
Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us these lines, from the central section of her poem, Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies. She acknowledges that cats die, and then says:
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don’t die.
How come we aren’t talking to each other about this? How come we aren’t learning to have our feelings about this? How come we aren’t wondering more openly, fully, together, “Who or what dies?” (That, by the way, is a title of another of Stephen Levine’s books: “Who Dies?” How come we aren’t rushing with open arms toward the exploration of consciousness, the incredible unfathomable presence of knowing, which resides in our heart?
Well, one reason is simply the sheer number of years that we adults have put into turning the other way. “Don’t look at it” is a mantra. We humans are amazingly adept at compartmentalising, and this skill, mastered in childhood, helps in our ‘Don’t-think-the-unsayable’ project. So, Stephen’s A Year to Live is a brave counter-cultural service. By talking about it, we can look to experiencing everything more intimately. I don’t think that the little girl in the video had a breakdown (as her father is reported to have said about her). I think it perfectly healthy that she spoke her little heart out clear as day (or night): “I don’t want to die when I’m a hundred!” Maybe, if those feelings could flow through her, and be absorbed by those around her, then, twenty to thirty years later, she could settle down to the koan of ‘Who dies?’
I was sleeping one night, on retreat, nearly thirty years ago, when I had a very helpful experience. I wasn’t half asleep; just having a reverie of some kind. And, after it happened, I left my tent, and went outside, to breath the night air by the lake, and gaze at the sky, the Milky Way pouring across the inky darkness. It happened in the dead still of night.
It was brief, but it changed me: I suddenly found my awareness in an ascent, an ascent of increasing space, with increasing joy and love. I got frightened, though, because accompanying this increase in space and love, there was a corresponding dissolution of my ‘sense of self.’ At the point that fear arose, though, a mantra kicked in. The gentle repetition of the Benza Guru mantra stabilised my consciousness, and I came to normal waking consciousness with a beautiful feeling of peace.
(Over the succeeding years, the experience gave me a new understanding of the later Mahayana, and Zen teaching of ‘Consciousness-only,’ which I prefer to call ‘experiencing-only.’)
By habit, I felt I’d failed – I obviously wasn’t ready to let my consciousness become pure non-egoic awareness, without clinging. On the other hand, when I reported it to a more experienced spiritual friend, his response was very positive. He saw it as a sign of development. He was right, and it’s interesting how quickly I took a more judgemental view of it. We tend to interpret such things through our normal egoic lenses. Afraid to acknowledge our light, and inclined to take refuge in limitations.
Once someone dear to me said, “I want to die in my sleep, so that I won’t have to experience it.” I still chuckle at that idea. My reply a that time was based on this experience. I said, “When you die, you know you are dying, or have died, and sleep won’t protect you from knowing.” Dreams are an instance of this, because a knowing is definitely at play in dreams.
My subsequent experiences have only confirmed that one is alone at death. This is the background, I believe, to the suggestion on the part of the tantric lineages, that family, friends, wealth, social standing… nothing will support you at the time of death, but the results of your practice.
the inner tide—
what moon does it follow?
I wait for a poem
- DIANE DI PRIMA (Quoted in Patricia Donegan, Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart)
Well, if that’s not a sign, what is? I spent more than an hour, tonight, writing up an experiment in consciousness which I had done today. I intended it as a fulfilment of my promise, of yesterday.
In the exercise, I invited whole-body experiences of both the ‘Realm of Birth and Death’ (the kind of experiences evoked by the Five Remembrances), and of the ‘Deathless.’ To do this I used two methods – an ancient one, and a modern one.
The ancient one was mindfulness, particularly in the form that I’ve been working with for thirty-eight years, which is based on being aware of the dynamics of three elements of experience: change, space, and knowledge. The modern one was Voice Dialogue, as I’ve learned it from the teaching media of Hal and Sidra Stone, and Genpo Roshi; and from my Voice Dialogue trainer Ana Barner. The experiment had elements, too, of Richard Moss’ Mandala of Being.
It was really worth doing, and I’ll share it with you – another day. In the evening, I wrote it up, and I wrote non-stop. However, when I finished the first draft, and I went to save it, the word processor crashed.
up from the page,
my freezing toes rush in:
the empty room.
I was so intently absorbed in my writing process that I had forgotten that most elementary of lessons: continually save! I tried to recover it, but the particular program I was using to write (away from home) made it impossible to get it back.
A tiny bit of me is frustrated, but most of me is laughing at the obvious. That is, the uncertainty that a task will be finished doesn’t stack up as having much clout, alongside the uncertainty regarding my time and cause of death.
It’s late at night, and I was travelling today, so I don’t have a lot of writing energy left. Nevertheless, the travel time gave me the opportunity to contemplate these traditional invitations:
– Consider the certainty of death, including the fragility of our situation;
– Consider that we don’t know when, nor how, we will die;
– Consider what won’t help us at the time of death;
– Consider what we can cultivate in ourselves, now, that might help at the time of death.
I jotted down some responses, to my contemplations, and tomorrow, I’ll share the inquiry. I’ll also reflect on:
– inquiry as a form of joy;
– an always-ready pith-practice of mindfulness, the heartwood of mindfulness, such that we can go gently, truly, (madly), deeply into life and and death ; and
– why, if being realistic about death is beneficial, do we – even after making the commitment to live as though this were our last year – why do we forget to bring the practice to mind? What do you see in yourself in response to this question?
Presuming I’ll be here tomorrow, I’ll flesh out (so to speak) my own responses. Now, for some shut-eye.
I was going to write, today, about ‘regret.’ However, after lunch I spent some time immersed in painting. At first I was a little removed from the work, but very soon I found myself absorbed. Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalypt stems. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, lifting the whole canvas. I became engaged in seeing colours that were mysterious – like the different blues which I invited into the blacks.
When I’ve painted, my senses are heightened to colours all around, in all kinds of places. An ordinary brick wall presents subtleties without end; the myriad kinds of green in the forest; and the tender reds, in places you’d never expect to find them, in those same greens. The way the sunlight splashes on the clay at sunset.
As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the Being of the world, a sense came to me, a felt sense without words. When I got inside, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to ‘say hello’ into that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt senses, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was either unpromising, or ‘ineffable.’ However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, it came into view. (That’s why it’s called Focusing; because it goes from murky to clear – like the frosty circle of the lens in the old cameras went from frosty to clear when the lens got the subject into focus.)
What came clear was an understanding that I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, was an introduction to the radiance of Being, through the art of seeing. As I came away from the studio, the radiance was intense, dissolving differences everywhere about me, in the very ordinary miracle of seeing the world. The Pittosporum as I passed it,; the concrete path; the tangled Jasmine in the corner.
Today, I was going to write about ‘regret,’ and about the thing that I regret the most, that which brings me to tears; which is, that I have not loved the truth enough, and how I sided with the false, for too long. But instead, I find myself marvelling at black with phthalo blue over a green-black underlay — how the purples peek out, in the right light. And, the tiny, yellow spots in these eucalypt leaves. The red line around the edge.
Seeing is for developing. I understand, now, that it would be just as great, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life, without having learned to sense the unspeakable in the ordinary. All my philosophy would be just empty name, if I didn’t see the world aright.
The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were talking, as she drove onto and along the freeway, going back home to the mountains. She wanted to check how was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and a feeling of tenderness came for the whole world, because I knew that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my prostate. And my energy body was relatively peaceful.
To come to terms with death, I live in my bodies – the most elementary of which are the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body. Isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body – usually with a gross body (that is, a physical body)? Yet, are we really putting our heart into living as bodies? I realised when I was in my late twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, in the very tiny portion of it above my shoulders.
But what is the body that I am? It is unknowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing,’ isn’t it? Discovering my tendency to like to ramble all over the place, lost in thought night and day, I decided in 1995 to follow my breathing, and that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. If sometime you see me with mala beads, that’s what I’m doing: tracking one bead for each exhalation. If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is present. And, I can learn about all the ways I set up my ego-boundaries, which is where ego-death gets created.
Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops. (And, I’m aware that there are limitations, which I can’t go into here, to the knowing of the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’) Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind body – gross, feeling, or sublte energy body – is a self-organising process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. Any body is of that larger life. I can feel that inherence in the big process.
This grounding myself in the body, sensing into its condition in all conditions, helps me realize what the Japanese Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. The way that I think of it is, that any body is made up of all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its particpation right now in the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle. Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being. The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I get that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how that shifts your sense of your self; how the feeling body responds.
This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. My OED says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.” This, if we are to save ourselves and flourish, together with our fellow species on this little blue planet, this we need to explore, to know, to feel intensely – that is, the presence of, this body as together with all that is.
And, to my mind, the prefix ‘em-‘ (which means the putting of one thing into another) is, however, appropriate when we come from such a culture as ours, where we don’t live in our bodies, but in our mentally-fabricated worlds. To ‘embody’ might mean – rather than bringing something into the body – it might mean re-minding. (Did you know that the Buddhist word for ‘mindfulness’ – sati – means ‘remembering’?) A remembering that the body is already-always a ‘minded’ body; that it is a body-mind, is a bodily being-together-with-all.
What makes death such a big deal? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are always of some level of body? Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in ‘owning’ by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ The body-mind is then split. However, as a dynamic presenting of body-mind states, in reality I am never a static or objectifiable ‘thing.’
Those three bodies, are, then, each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety – a fact which only mindfulness of body-mind states can reveal. The way of mindfulness of the ‘body’ revelas the body at ever more subtle levels; and, as I know myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. From one of these levels or perspectives, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying its patterns. And there are subtler levels, again, beyond this. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?
the piercing cold –
in our bedroom stepping
on my dead wife’s comb
– Buson Yosa (quoted in Patrician Donegan’s Haiku Mind)
Regarding my last post: I’m back to try and do the topic some justice. Quite apart from trying to enter that topic of ‘the meaning of life’ too late at night, I admit to being challenged with this one. Over the last… I don’t know, maybe fifteen years… I’ve come to meet a life-long unconscious attitude which could be summed up as: “What’s the point in creating, when you’re going to die?” The whole journey, which I mentioned some days ago, with art, has helped me see this. I also have another state of mind which says: “What is this?” This is said, not always with that beautiful feeling that I have felt often, the feeling of wonder and curiosity. No, this can be more like bewilderment. It’s hard for me to put that out there, but… (as my paternal grandmother used to say…) “There you go.”
I had a pretty rough upbringing. Relentless abuse. That may have been a contributor to the despair, cynicism and pessimism of my drunken teenage years, and to the counter-cultural rebelliousness of my early twenties. With all the violence of my early childhood, and I grew into someone by the age of ten or twelve, who had little reason to feel good about being alive, and seriously weighed up leaving here by the age of twenty. Life did indeed feel like Macbeth said, “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” The violence also contibuted to the fact that I swung heavily the other way, when I found the Buddhadharma; because I then stuffed my negativity down with false positivity, and obsessively went after the enlightenment thing. (I understand that this portrait is over-simplifying, but it’s fundamentally faithful to my development.)
That’s some of the story. On the other hand, my fearful tendencies might well have come with me, in my head-centred character. That is to say, I might well have been born with a little tendency to fear and skepticism. Whatever the case, I remember, in the early seventies, identifying with the baby in the womb, portrayed in Jimi Hendrix’ song Belly Button Window (Cry of Love album, 1971):
And I’m looking out my belly button window
And I swear I see nothing but a lot of frowns.
And I’m wondering if they want me around.
Then, at the limits of my depression, in 1969, I discovered the teachings. So, since then, blessed with the chance to put some healthy, skilful means to use, I’ve followed my thread, and not sacrificed my passion to know the answer to “What’s this?” The challenge has been, to see the ‘world of dew’ without the pessimism, without the cynicism. To learn to see it, free of fabrication, as it is. The challenge has been, equally, to not turn away from the reality of the dewdrop world in naïvety, merely clinging to concepts of the Buddhist ‘deathless.’ I am grateful to my teachers for their support in this.
So… meaning of life? I am sure there is a meaningful way of living. That’s not too hard to develop. And, with contemplative skills – in the forms of mindfulness, meditation, constructive concepts, and inquiry – combined with Focusing (develpoed by Gendlin), I have found that a primordial kind of non-verbal meaningfulness informs my cells. I feel it in my bones. I don’t think that I started to use the teachings on death very seriously until about twenty-seven years ago, and my learning is still going on. However, I can now say that I’m grateful, to know how to use dying and death to live realizing dewdrops.
on the page
– Cid Corman
I had a dream a couple of years ago, in which two young aboriginal men told the dream-Christopher: “It is an honour to speak with the dead.”
A spontaneous visit with a friend to the local vihara today, led me to reflect on how I’m treating my parents, who have both died. I think I’ve got some learning to do, here. The Sri Lankan family who provided the lunch meal, were commemorating the death of their several parents – and they do this every year.
I got to thinking that, while I do often think of my parents’ deaths – each of which had its own story, its character – on the other hand, I don’t commemorate their death. I think of each of them, from time to time, and I think about the manner of their deaths, but I’m going to explore what more there is in the relationship – something for me to take care of, likely, before I go. I might find I’m avoiding feeling something. If I had a year to live, wouldn’t I follow this thread? Yes.
I’ve noticed that others of my family, and some of my acquaintances, they do this: they go to the cemetery, each year, on the anniversary of the deaths of loved ones.
So, thanks to an unexpected invitation to a meal at the Vihara, I’m starting to explore something new. Maybe my first step is to find out the dates of my parent’s deaths, and make a note in my diary. And, then, between now and the first of those dates, I’ll check in ‘there in the middle of me’ to see what comes. I imagine it can be, at the very least, a day of gratitude, and an opportunity to be feel of the preciousness of a human life – and maybe it’ll be painful, but… okay.
Zen master Dogen: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”
To practise unelaborated meditation, I take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:
‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)
That’s the authentic heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master said, ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, not a thing is worth landing on. This is excellent training for death.
If we take ritual as placing the body in a gesture toward Being, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is living ritual. Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax. Relax body and mind, and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance. And, a note for those who find this hard, at this stage, give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.
Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever arises. By relaxing our usual here-there and self-other posturing, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying.
Blessings to all!
“On their deathbed some people look back on their lives and are overwhelmed by a sense of failure. They have a closet full of regrets. They become disheartened when they reflect on how they have overlooked the preciousness of their relationships, forgotten the importance of finding their “true work,” and delayed what some call “living my own life”” – Stephen Levine, A Year to Live
Somewhere during my forty-fourth year, one evening I was nurturing a question, about my unlived life – in the kind of territory which Stephen points to, in that quote. Although I hadn’t found Focusing, I had, by then, come to learn to ask intimate questions of myself, in just the way that I later refined in Focusing. That is, that night I asked my question with a gentleness, and with a pause for feeling into the ‘more’ which might come in the middle of my body, about the question. (Now that I think of it, I had been doing hospice training for a couple of years, so that probably contributed to this gentleness. My mentor spoke of listening to others in the manner of an ’empty bowl.’)
So, this night I was emptying myself for my own question. I asked: ‘What, if I died now, would I regret not having developed? What have I neglected?” I paused, and listened inwardly, in the soft middle of my body. And, from a long-forgotten place in myself came the knowledge which burst into tears: “The artist.” it said.
I began to bring art-making into my life, and even entered an art competition that year. In the next year, I enrolled in Art School, at the old East Sydney Tech; and held an exhibition with a friend, by the end of that year. I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that in that same year I turned the corner in my spiritual work, and I also discovered that I would never go mad. To honour who you are can come in all kinds of forms; for instance, just speaking your part in the meeting with the regional or departmental who-evers can lead to a subsequent spiritual opening.
I won’t pretend that I had a revolution. I’m still doing my best to let the artist live in me.
The point is that we can always make a start in honouring who we are. I posted something in this vein – about people’s end-of-life regrets – on my positivity blog, a while back. Here is a list, recorded by Australian palliative care nurse Bonnie Ware, in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
I wish I didn’t work so hard;
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Short as it is, it’s a formidable list of transformations possible. However, here I want to emphasise the spirit of the inquiry we can bring to our unlived life, the ‘being-with.’ What is your ‘being-with’ like, your way of being with the questions you ask inside? Do you drop them in, like small pebbles into the still pool of your precious body? Can you ask gently, curious about what might come – not knowing, actualy, what the ripples will be like, those intimations which may appear there? The Earth is groaning for want of our intimacy with bodily wisdom.